How to Build a Solar Hot Water Heater & Solar Shower

In very remote places, such as vacation and hunting cabins, electricity and other utilities may not be available. In those areas, installing a simple solar shower is a good alternative. A solar shower is a very simple concept. A dark-colored water tank absorbs the heat of the sun and heats the water inside. Cooler water in a reflective tank acts to control the temperature of the shower.

  • Ready-mix concrete
  • 1-by-6 lumber
  • 6-by-6 lumber
  • Saw
  • Heavy-duty bolts
  • 2 55-gallon drums
  • Old inner tube or rubber for gaskets
  • Drill
  • Hole saw
  • PVC piping and connectors
  • PVC cement
  • Shower faucet
  • Blow torch
  • Shower head
Select a good location for your outdoor shower. Select a location, if possible, that gets good sun all day. Decide on the size of your shower enclosure. A 6-foot-square base should be sufficient.

Pour a 6-foot-square concrete pad. If you live in an area that has exposed rock of at least this size, you won't need to pour concrete. Use the existing natural rock as a shower base. Make a concrete frame by nailing 1-by-6 lumber together and pour the concrete between 3 and 4 inches thick.

Make the top of the shower while the concrete is drying and curing. Make the top of the shower frame by bolting four 5-foot sections of 6-by-6 lumber into a 5-foot square. The top of the frame is slightly smaller than the base to allow weight transfer through the legs to the concrete pad. The overall frame will need to support the weight of two 55-gallon drums filled with water, so use very stout bolts. For added strength, add wood glue to all joints before bolting the outside of the frame together.

Measure the interior of the wood frame and cut four 6-by-6 beams to fit into the frame. Bolt these an equal distance apart to the inside of the frame so it forms a ladder shape. Use at least two bolts and add wood glue to these joints.

Decide on the height of your shower. Seven feet should be sufficient for even the tallest users.

Cut four 7-foot lengths of 6-by-6 lumber for the legs that will support the top frame and barrels. For now, bolt these with a single bolt to the top frame so that they swing freely for final fitting.

Place one leg on each of the four corners of the concrete pad. At this point, only a corner of each leg will be supporting the structure. The legs must have as much contact with the concrete as possible, so measure the approximate angle that will allow the legs to rest flat on the concrete. Do this for all four legs. Mark the angle on the legs.

Take the structure down and cut the angles on the bottom of the legs. Put the structure up again to double-check your fit. Bolt the legs to the concrete using concrete bolts to ensure that they will not come loose under the weight of the water.

Loosen the bolts on the top and add wood glue to the four places the legs join the upper frame. Tighten the bolts down and add another bolt to each leg for strength.

Choose a side of the shower to be the front. Screw and glue a minimum of six 1-by-6 boards to the other two sides. If you want more privacy, consider covering two of the three sides with 1-by-6. In addition to providing privacy, the lumber adds to the structural integrity of the outdoor shower.

Paint one of the barrels black. Paint the other one a reflective silver. The black barrel will provide hotter water than the silver barrel and allow you to adjust the temperature of your shower.

Bolt the two drums to the top of the shower. Place rubber from an old inner tube around the bolt on the inside of the barrel to act as a gasket to prevent leaks.

Select an open space on the bottom of each drum and mark where you will drill out for a threaded PVC pipe nipple that will feed the water down to your shower. Drill the hole slightly smaller than the PVC nipple. They are threaded and you will need to screw the nipple into the barrel.

Screw the nipple into the hole. Add PVC cement to help seal the joint. Caulk the joint with plenty of silicon to prevent leaks.

Select a location for your shower head and shower valves. Mount them per the manufacturer's instructions on the wood. You may need to add a strip of wood on the inside of the shower, depending on the type of head and valves you selected.

Plumb the hot water, using PVC pipe and joints, to the bottom of the black drum and the cold water to the bottom of the silver drum. Seal each joint with PVC cement. Add a length of PVC pipe to connect the valves to the shower head.

Fill the two barrels with water and wait several hours for the hot water tank to heat. While it is heating, check for leaks and drips. If you find leaks in the PVC joints, seal the leaks after draining the tank.

Tips and Warnings

  • Consider adding a permanently installed hose to each of the two tanks to make refilling easier.
  • Use cedar or pressure-treated lumber to prevent water rot.
  • Consider adding a wood ladder to the outside of the shower. Cover the tanks unless you are filling them to prevent leaves and dirt from blowing in.
  • If you won't need as much water, you can use trash cans instead of 55-gallon drums.

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