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06/25/2004 Archived Entry: "Adventures in backwoods engineering: shower building"

ADVENTURES IN BACKWOODS ENGINEERING: SHOWER BUILDING. Blogispondent Ian McCollum has been off in the trackless -- or at least plumbingless -- wilderness again. He returns with experience on how to build a backwoods shower.

Adventures in Backwoods Engineering

By Ian McCollum

Ian here, checking in from another foray into the wilderness. I have some aquaintences who own a piece of vacation property out in the middle of nowhere, and I recently joined them for a few days of camping. They've been wanting to make some rough improvements to make it a bit more comfortable, and I volunteered to help out with the current project: a shower.

Our starting materials were a Solar Shower, a pallet (for a base, to prevent muddy feet), some rope, a pulley, and a selection of various pipes and bars that had been stashed on the property as potentially useful building materials. The goal was to create a setup which actually ran flowing water over a person while they washed (up to this point, on-site bathing had been done with a sponge). Specifically, we wanted a system that would allow convenient washing of hair.

Since we had the Solar Shower, we didn't need to worry about holding the water, metering its output, or heating it. The only thing we had to do was get it high enough up for a person to stand under. Sounds simple enough.

The first setup was straightforward: tie the pulley to the highest available sturdy tree branch, and then run a rope through it to the Shower. Problem was, the highest useable tree branch was only about 6 feet up, and the combination of water bladder, hose, and pulley ate up two or three feet of that. So the Mk I shower was great for eight-year-olds, but not any of us.

The Mk II plan was to built a tripod out of 2x2 boards and metal hardware. So we set out for the nearest town with a hardware store, to get some cold soda and use a real bathroom get the needed supplies. After looking around the

hardware store, though, we decided to scrap the Mk II. The 2x2s looked too flimsy (and the long ones were all spliced, rather than solid), and it was judged that the cost of 2x4s and hardware was too high to be worthwhile, given the infrequent expected use of the shower. So, back to the campsite refreshed emptyhanded.

Some rummaging through the pile of pipes produced the Mk III plan. We picked out a 10- or 12-foot piece of 3/4" copper tubing, and tied it to a tree branch close to the ground, and then leaned it through a crotch in another branch. The pulley was secured to the end of the pipe (which was a good 10 feet off the ground), and things looked good. So we put a test load of one gallon of water into the shower and hoisted it up. And this is when the Cardinal Rule of Showermaking struck us: Water Is Heavy. The pipe held, but flexed in an impressive arc between the places we'd secured it.

Before trying it with any more water, we upgraded it to the Mk IIIa by bracing the upper tie-down point with an extendable ladder that was on hand. Then, with two gallons of water in the shower bag, we tried hoisting. The pipe gave up, and kinked nicely where it was supported by the ladder (in what wold make an excellent homework problem in any number of engineering classes). Fortunately, we were able to take the weight off the pipe before it belt too much.

Back to the pipe pile for the Mk IV. We selected a length of rebar, and used a sledge to drive it inside the copper tubing. Not only would that reinforce the system, it also made the kink in the copper pipe insignificant. At the same time, we also pulled the pipe back so that the water-carrying end was close to the supporting ladder and tree branch. We tested this setup with about 3 gallons of water, and it held (finally!). We decided not to push our luck, and left it at that. The resulting shower required a bit of stooping to use, but was functional (and it was time for dinner).

The lessons learned (or reinforced)? Have a backup plan, even for the stuff that seems simple. By the time the Mk IV shower was working, we had an idea for the Mk V, in case it became necessary. The other big thing this project hammered farther into me is to overestimate everything - required strengths, time, and cost. Doing this would have allowed us to skip several unsuccessful designs. And, of course, there's the Cardinal Rule of Showermaking: Water is Heavy. :)

Posted by Claire @ 11:33 AM CST

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