The 20-minute shower

Saturday December 22, 2012

At one time it was teenagers. My two daughters would luxuriate in their shower for an absolute minimum of 20 minutes. Skip ahead a few years and my fiancee’s teenagers would luxuriate in the shower for a minimum of 20 minutes. My electricity bill was going nuts, and this was the second time in my life that I was footing the bill.

All of these kids were so great that you couldn’t possibly fault them or deny them that little luxury, and just having them home made it all worthwhile. We survived it, and now we no longer deal with the issue. However, I have noticed that the 20-minute shower has become more than a teenage rite-of-passage. It has followed a generation, now in their 20s and 30s, and still many of them believe that it is an inalienable right to a 20-minute shower every morning.

Can you imagine the hassles and expense that apartment building owners are having? My parents converted their home into apartments to help fund their retirement, and rented them to post-graduate students in a small Vermont town. For a short time I have become responsible for the care and maintenance of this small business now that my mom is in a care facility.

The challenge is to administrate this property in hopes that there is enough left over every month to pay for my mom’s care. So far so good, but all the stories over all the years that my folks told me about hot water usage is beginning to hit home like never before.

When the apartments were created, before the first oil embargo, fuel was not an issue, so my Dad naturally went with petroleum-based heat for each unit that included the hot water, all based in a central "boiler room." He had put together an undecipherable formula based on electric counters that measured the amount of hot water each unit used.

This convoluted, possibly unreliable system worked for decades, but as my mother became unable to manage the business nearly 20 years after my father’s passing, the formula was lost to the mists of time. While this lack of hot water accountability weighs on my mind right now, I know that in the long term this will not be my responsibility, yet I have still spent quite a bit of time looking for an equitable solution that is good for all parties involved.

Idea number one: Coin-operated showers. Would it be possible to put a laundromat-style coin unit in each bathroom and charge a quarter per minute? The eight-minute shower would cost two dollars. Not bad, really. Thinking about how this would go over with the tenants is a completely different story. Why, I could envision protesters carrying signs in front of the house. Quarters at the local bank would become a scarce commodity, possibly creating a black market. The place would be unrentable within a year. Scratch that idea.

Idea Number two: A step back in time to metered hot water. A new, even more undecipherable formula would be calculated, and surcharges would be levied each and every month of the year, custom calculated for each unit. For the person managing the property it would add a bunch of steps each month to the process, and time is money, so I think we can dispense with that brain storm. No one wants to mess with something that complicated, and it’s sort of Draconian.

Idea Number Three: This one is not my idea. This belongs to a landlord friend of mine who shall remain nameless. This idea has actually been put into practice with dramatic and positive results. In each of this man’s three apartment units, he installed a small, cheap, 10-gallon electric water heater. He claims you can’t do anything close to a 20-minute shower with a hot water heater with a very slow recovery rate that only holds 10 gallons. Plus, each apartment unit has its own electric meter, so the landlord is not responsible for the cost of heating the water. If there’s one thing I have learned, word gets around fast in a small community. If these apartments suddenly got labeled as "the place with five-minute showers" you’d go out of business.

You’d think that 20 minute showers in times of ultra high energy costs would die a quick death, but no, there are always a few in the crowd who will not deny themselves this rather extravagant and wasteful luxury. I simply look on the bright side. There are a lot of really, really, clean people out there. ...

Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.


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