Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The joys of an outdoor shower

We haven't had hot water in the house since September 2, when our hot water heater died.

After a failed attempt to repair it, we ordered a replacement. Naturally it's been delayed, and currently the estimated ship date is September 26.

For good measure, Don also ordered a tankless portable propane water heater, figuring it might be a good backup in the future..

We're making do without much problem. I usually wash laundry in cold water anyway, and for doing dishes it's simply a matter of heating a kettle of water and adding it to the dishpan along with enough cold water to make it bearable.

However showers were a different matter. We've been using solar shower bags which work fine ... mostly. The weather has been cooling down, so our strategy has been to fill the bags with cold water from the tap, then add a couple kettles of hot water, then hurriedly get ourselves clean.

The trouble is, both Older Daughter and I have long hair, which we discovered is difficult to wash using the low-pressure solar shower bags. Don doesn't have long hair, but he also missed the luxury of a "real" shower.

So he made one.

You see, the portable tankless water heater happened to arrive early.

At first Don was hoping he could rig it to work in our regular indoor shower, but that was turning into a ridiculously complicated procedure. It was easier for my woodworking husband to make an outdoor shower instead.

It just so happens we have a small cul-de-sac on our deck which Don built last fall, when he completely re-did the deck work around the house (this photo was taken last November).

Normally we keep a small barbecue grill on this cul-de-sac, but for the time being Don pressed it into service as an outdoor shower, powered by the portable tankless water heater.

He started by building a square base, screwed into the deck railings for support.


He brought over the rest of the lumber pieces he needed to construct a frame.

Essentially he constructed a wooden rectangular cube.

Everything was securely screwed to the deck rails for extra support.

Here's what the final frame looks like.

He put extra 2x4s outside the shower unit to support the tankless heater.

This heater is hooked up to a garden hose and a propane tank.

At this point he tested the unit. It took a bit of fussy fiddling to understand how the unit worked, adjust the dials correctly, and otherwise not produce either freezing or scalding water.

But once he ironed out the quirks and understood how the unit operated, ooh la ha – hot water!

Next step: Wall in the shower with waterproof tarps.

Don cut these to the appropriate sizes, including a bit of extra around the edges to fold over when stapling, for strength.

The next thing he did was make thin slats, which he screwed in as horizontal girts around the box edges. These slats serve two purposes: one, it prevents us from falling off the unfenced side of the shower stall if we loose our balance from soap in our eyes or whatever; and two, it's something extra the tarps can be stapled to, to keep things from billowing in the wind.

Then he stapled up the sides.

(This is the side that especially needed the horizontal slats for safety reasons, since it doesn't have a rail on this side.)

With camo tarps, no one can see us, right?

He put crossing flaps in the front, for privacy.

It was at this point Don realized the tarp was too close for comfort to the heating unit.

So he snipped away a square of tarp, just to be safe.

And then the shower was complete!

The last thing he did was pile three plastic crates in a corner, where we can put shampoo and soap.

The shower box is surprisingly roomy. At first we put a chair outside the unit to pile our clothes and towel, but after one or two uses we realized we could just drape clothing and towels over the top, and they wouldn't get wet (and which makes it much more convenient to dry off and get dressed/undressed).

We had a thunderstorm pass through a day or two after constructing the shower. Just to be safe, we covered the heating unit with a plastic bag and used bungee cords to hold the bag in place.

I tell ya, it makes all the (psychological) difference in the world to wash off at the end of the day. What a blessing this shower stall has been.

To answer the obvious question, right now we're having nice weather with high temps in the 70s. However that's slated to change later in the week, with a couple days where we can expect rain and much cooler temperatures (highs in the 50s) before warming up again. We'll revert to the shower bags during the inclement weather.

So there you go: the joys of an outdoor shower. It'll do fine until we get our hot water heater in.

And after that? Well, Don made the stall so it can be unfastened from the deck and moved as a unit to the barn, where we can store it until it's needed again.

An outdoor shower. Who'da thunk?

Sunday, September 18, 2022

How many drill bits do you need?

Don is, by his own admission, famously absent-minded. He came stomping into the house a week ago, fuming. He was in the middle of a project, you see, and once again he had misplaced a critical drill bit he needed.

This isn't unusual. He is forever misplacing things; and if it's something small – like a drill bit – he can generally expect never to see it again.

So, riding that wave of frustration, he got online and ordered eight new sets of drill bits.

They arrived yesterday, and he's delighted.

We laugh about it, but in fact having eight sets of drill bits may not be such a bad idea. Not just because it's helpful for absent-minded people; but because drill bits, like fasteners (screws/nails/bolts) are something everyone should have in abundance to tackle whatever project might become necessary. These days, with supply chains the way they are, having extras is wise.

Still, Don wonders how long it will take him to lose all the critical drill bits he uses on a regular basis. (As he jokes, "If I could remember where I put that death ray, I could rule the world.")

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

My new canning Bible

A month ago, we had a discussion about the merits of my faithful and much-tattered canning bible, "Putting Food By."

The problem is, the book is out of date and hasn't been revised since 2010. A reader asked if I had a better recommendation for an authoritative canning guide, and I didn't.

Until now.

I looked over various canning books on the market, but I was a little put off by the fact that most of them were written by passionate canners (like me). The trouble with passionate canners (like me) is we tend to get a little over-enthusiastic about what can safely go in jars.

But safety must come first when it comes to canning, even if it means bypassing so many canning myths (i.e. water-bath canning meats or other low-acid foods; or oven canning; or wax sealing; or other dangerous practices).

So when I stumbled across the "USDA's Complete Guide to Home Canning," I was interested. This is the government organization, after all, which publishes canning guidelines based on strict laboratory testing.

Why listen to a government organization?

I wrote an article eight years ago for Backwoods Home Magazine entitled "What NOT to Can" (the article can be found in their 25th Year Anthology). Researching this article was fascinating and educational. Among much else, I did an extensive interview with Dr. Elizabeth Andress, who was then the Project Director for the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) as well as Extension Food Safety Specialist at the University of Georgia. The NCHFP is a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U of Georgia. Dr. Andress helped write or update the USDA guidelines for canning safety upon which all national guidelines are based, including such canning classics as "The Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving."

Not only did I speak with Dr. Andress on the phone at length, but she was kind enough to review the article before I submitted it for publication. During this research, I realized how vital it is to follow official guidelines when it comes to canning.

This is a long-winded explanation of why, when searching for an authoritative canning guide, I didn't want to use one written by a passionate canner (like me), but instead an authoritative source; in this case, the USDA.

The USDA's "Complete Guide to Home Canning" is 196 pages in length and available as a free download from the National Center for Home Food Preservation website. The publication is also available in a spiral-bound book format from Purdue University’s Education Store. The website says the cost is $18 per copy, but the actual print cost is now $25.50, and with shipping, it comes to $33.85. (There are also volume discounts available.)

I received my copy a couple weeks ago, and frankly I'm thrilled. (The fact that it's spiral-bound and thus lies flat when in use is, in my opinion, another benefit.)

Each chapter has a comprehensive table of contents. The chapters cover:

• Principles of Home Canning

• Selecting, Preparing, and Canning Fruit and Fruit Products

• Selecting, Preparing, and Canning  Tomatoes and Tomato Products

• Selecting, Preparing, and Canning Vegetables and Vegetable Products

• Preparing and Canning Poultry, Red Meats, and Seafoods

• Preparing and Canning Fermented Foods and Pickled Vegetables

• Preparing and Canning Jams and Jellies

Each chapter is color-coded.

The guidelines for each food item are detailed and easy to follow.

In short, if anything could be called a canning "bible," this is it. Highly recommended for both novice and experienced canners.

UPDATE: Well nuts. Apparently the printed spiral-bound copies are sold out (it is canning season, after all). If you're interested in buying one, I urge you to contact them and let them know. Hopefully they'll make more available soon.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A reader reports the books are back in stock. Give it a go.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Population density

I'm fascinated by population density maps. Here are a few interesting ones I've come across:

Population density of Africa:

Population density of Australia:

This is something called the Yuxi Circle, the world’s most populated area:

Here's a photo taken by NASA of the Iberian Peninsula at night.

Here's what the population of New York City would look like if it were spread out according to current population density in the red areas.

Here's a similar depiction of Los Angeles County's population:

And Chicago's:

Here's Australia's population, split in half.

Here's another view of Australia's population.

How about states with a smaller population than Los Angeles County:

Apparently 50% of Canada's population lives south of the red line:

Look at all the empty places in New Zealand:

How about this? (The red nation is Bangladesh.)

Or this:

This link gives world population densities.

And this fascinating website allows you to drag-and-drop to compare the true size of one country against another.

So there you go. Just some food for thought for the week ahead.