DIY Cowboy Shower or …. Hot Magic
Stephen Louie “Hosspuller”
Harry Potter has fired the imaginations of so many people. Magic is everywhere. There is magic on TV and theater screens. There is magic in the words of books. Magic’s transformational powers are wondrous but mostly fictions of the mind and screen. Yet, there is true magic available to everyone.
The magic is LP gas and battery power. By combining these two energies and a few bits of plumbing a transformation is accomplished. A dirty, grumpy cowboy or glistening, stinking horsewoman is transformed after a hot shower to pleasant camp companions.
Yet, miles and hours of trails separate the hot shower from those in need. Some fortunate folks have a full LQ horse trailer. A quick hot shower is available in a cramped compartment sometimes masquerading as a potty. The operative word is quick. Most RV style water heaters are limited to 5 gallons. But for those not so blessed, a cold bucket or miserly shower bag of tepid water must suffice.
There is an alternative. A “cowboy” shower usually means a shower set up in the horse area of a trailer. Cowboy showers may be warm or cold water. I much prefer a warm shower. So I embarked on a journey of discovery. You too, can share this discovery of magic.
There are several ways of heating water for a camp shower. The simplest is a pot and a fire. While the economy is attractive, convenience and time are not. A plastic solar shower bag is simple but not very satisfying for long hair or lots of soap. There are several complete propane fired camp water heater systems available. This is not an endorsement or disparaging of any particular one. Each is a compromise of cost or performance. The components pictured and mentioned in this article worked for me. Pricing is as of July 2011. Your application and needs may vary.
First, a water supply is needed. The reservoir or tank stores the water for use. We need a reservoir for transport and use. Having a tank in the back of the truck provides an important advantage. When empty, the tank can be refilled without moving the whole camp trailer. A 55 gallon poly drum was chosen for cost and foot print in the truck bed. A tall tank rather than wide leaves valuable space for hay and other essentials. Instead of drilling a hole in the bottom of the drum, a dip tube was fabricated from ordinary PVC pipe. The PVC is easy to work with and light weight. Using garden hose allows a strainer washer. It’s a small detail, but it protects the pump and heater from leaves and debris inherent to camp conditions. Remove the dip tube and cap the fill hole when transporting the water. Otherwise the water sloshes out like a geyser when moving. Used drum & PVC pipe $ 10.
Next is a pressure source. A 12 volt battery operated pump does the job. I chose a Northern Tool 2.2 gpm 70 PSI pump, Item Number 2682270 $ 70 The delivery volume and pressure is adequate for a most satisfying squirt. And it meets the 1.0 GPM flow requirements of the heater. A deep discharge battery is used to provide 12 volt power for the pump. This type of battery is designed to withstand the abuse of deep discharge. Ordinary starting batteries will be damaged by deep discharge. The truck battery may be used but there is the risk of stranding yourself by running the battery down. The separate battery may serve as a backup to the vehicle starting battery too. Cost depending on size is $ 20 to $80. The inlet and outlet of the chosen pump is 3/8 pipe thread. Tractor Supply Company has plastic adapters that are 3/8 thread on one side and 5/8 hose barb on the other. Using 5/8 garden hose makes for easy connections. A short length of hose from the pump ends in a “Y” connector. This lets one have a shower and a water source for horse keeping at the same time. Another hose serves to fill horse water buckets. Fitting this second hose with a nozzle allows hosing sweaty horses with a minimum amount of water. The pump’s high pressure makes this possible. The connector at the pump makes it easy to disconnect from the camp for a run to the water source for a refill.
The water heater is an Eccotemp Model L5. $130 This unit delivers 1.5 liters of heated water per minute. It is an on-demand or tank less type heater. It heats water by passing water through coils of tubing. An open flame under the coils heats the water as it passes through the coils. There is no holding tank, so for as long as water is flowing, it’s heating water. It has a water flow switch to control the gas. If the water flow stops or falls under 1 gpm for any reason, the gas is shut off. This is for safety and economy. When water flows, the unit opens the propane valve and ignites the gas. To minimize water and gas consumption, one can get wet, stop the water, soap up and then restart the water to rinse. The heater will automatically restart and heat water. Five gallons of water provides a quick shower. A more leisurely shower may consume 15 gallons of water.
Everything is connected together with standard 5/8 garden hose and fittings. These are readily available and inexpensive. The 50 feet of garden hose between the trailer and truck also serves as a pressure buffer. A serendipitous find was using the water system to hose muddy horses. The pump provides enough pressure that a fine water saving stream does a good job of rinsing away mud and horse sweat. It is also easy to fill water buckets from the truck’s tank. Lugging water buckets was never a favorite task. The Eccotemp heater is hung on the trailer wall. The combustion gases are vented from the top of the unit. You must allow these gases to exit the trailer. Open windows (with privacy curtain) and top vents accomplish this on my trailer.
Depending on your sensibilities and trailer, a shower stall is either a necessity or a frill. In our case, we use the horse area for storage and extra working space at camp. Having a wet floor and wall isn’t acceptable. So we built a shower stall. The base is simply a plastic pan. A $5 kiddy pool will work too. It was more difficult to come up with a shower stall that didn’t take up a lot of space. Our solution was a PVC pipe frame that folds up flat. We store it against a wall when traveling.
Here it is laid out: Three sides and a door. The dimension of each side section is 35 inches x 73 inches tall. A plastic tarp that is 12 foot long was an ideal curtain to start with. The tarp had grommets usable to fasten it to the frame along the top and sides. The bottom edge was trimmed to fit.
The frame is made of ½ inch schedule 40 PVC pipe. The fittings are ordinary tees and elbows glued together. The only special fittings are the (5) five tees that were drilled open to 7/8 inch diameter to allow the pipe to loosely pass through and pivot. This is essential for folding the shower stall flat for storage. The entry way is a tee fitting that is not glued. Friction alone holds it in place.
To recap… This home brew shower system has a few advantages over the commercial all-in-one water heaters. The length of shower time is only limited by the water supply. I haven’t yet run the battery down or 20 pound propane tank empty before the 55 gallon water tank is exhausted. Water temperature is adjustable from Hot to Cool. The Ecco-temp can produce water hot enough to satisfy the most demanding hot shower aficionado. Washing camp dinner ware is much easier with ample hot water. Finally, Horse keeping requires water. This system can provide it. It is the best alternative to lugging water buckets and sponging sweaty horses from a bucket.
If only Hermione’s magic “Undetectable Extension Charm” could be applied to a horse trailer. Oh, the stuff we could have!
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