10 Years of Blog Archive

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Taking a Shower Living Overseas: ‘Nope, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore’.

Taking showers abroad, in some countries is just a little bit different than what most folks back home are accustomed to. What is used in many Latin American homes is the “on demand water heater”; it’s a small appliance and yet it is as tough as a tank.  We have used ours for showering five times a day, every day, for four years, plus washing dishes and the only thing that has ever needed replaced or fixed is the size-D battery about every three or four months. 

All the water faucets and showers in our kitchen and three bathrooms use propane gas to heat the water.  The “on demand water heaters” are nothing new to RV travelers as that is what is typically used in travel trailers and fifth wheels to heat the water when staying in camp grounds and RV parks.  It is also a common appliance in homesteading, self sufficient do it yourself circles.  As long as there is gas in the tank when you turn the hot water nozzle on anywhere in the house, you should have hot water. I say ‘should’ because the water line can get ‘clogged’and/or the battery can be worn out.

It is a bit more rustic than having a big water heater in the utility closet but it gets the job done and it is actually energy efficient and a more practical way to heat your water since it is “on demand” rather than using electricity to heat up a huge 500 gallon water tank all day and night. Watch the video for a more detailed look of using gas for heating, cooking, showering, etc.

The most common thing that disrupts your shower, which has happened to all of us on occasion, is running out of gas in the tank. Now at that point you need a backup gas tank to switch out for when that happens, and a helping hand!  The way to make sure this never happens is to check the tank before getting in the shower to see if there is enough gas for your shower.

Yes, it seems primitive but you just get used to it. Besides that, one of the blessings of having sons in Ecuador with you, is they do everything.  Frank and I don’t fiddle with any of it; our three sons take care of getting the gas tanks filled, hooking them up, and switching them out. That’s what sons are for, right?  It is why we brought them to Ecuador with us! LOL.  (joking, for you serious folks)

      The Nitty-gritty about “On Demand Water Heaters”

Did I mention that the “on demand water heaters” have their quirks?  Yes, there are a few things we have learned to do to adjust to some of these quirks, but after awhile it just becomes second-nature.

The water heater has settings of high, medium, and low, which adjusts the water temperature.  According to our experience the further away the bathroom showers are from the unit, the higher you will need to adjust the temperature so it heats the water hot enough, especially for showering.
For instance, our experience is, if taking a shower in the bathroom that is furthest away from the unit you will need to have it set on the high temperature, and still, the water does not get that hot, but rather is only warm water, which actually might be warm enough for some people.  

Here's a tip for those who already live in Cuenca and use the same setup: We like hot showers  and so what we have to do to get that hotter water is turn the hot water knob down in the shower by adjusting it ever so slightly, if you turn it too much you’ll have no water pressure at all and the water will get too hot. We have learned to turn it down just enough so we still have both, good water flow and hot water. Btw, we don’t need to use the cold water at all for showering. What a quirk, ah?

It is altogether a different story when we’re using the water in the kitchen and here’s why.  Our kitchen is closest to the unit so when we are doing dishes we have to turn the temperature gauge way down, from high to medium low because the water is scalding hot. And if someone forgets to turn it down (from high) after taking a shower you can scald yourself, and it has happened.

This has been our experience; we don’t know how it might be for other folks. Maybe they can comment below and let us know how their “on demand water heater” works for them.

All houses in Cuenca use this kind of system for heating the water. There are some condo/apt buildings in Cuenca Ecuador that have a centralized units located somewhere in the building.  This makes it so the tenants don’t have to fiddle with filling up gas tanks, hooking them up and switching them out, although it is the same kind of setup you just can’t see it as it is located in a central utility closet, or if it is a huge complex, a huge propane cylinder will be located somewhere near to the building on the property where the maintenance man can take care of everything.

                     How to Get Swap Your Tanks

Listen for the truck horn: Beep, Beep! Each sector in Cuenca has a propane gas distributor that drives through the neighborhood honking his horn. And each area has its own distinct Beep-Beep-Beep. We can hear the gas guy beeping his horn from several blocks away, so it gives us time to get the empty tanks, take them outside to meet the gas guy, and the swap out our empty tank(s) for full ones. Each tank refill costs $2.50.  You will need to have your landlord introduce you to the ‘gas guy’ when first moving in.

Our sons carry them inside and through the house and then back outside onto our covered patio where the hot water heater is and the gas line for our oven and stove, hook them up and we’re good to go for awhile.

If the tanks are too heavy for someone, the gas guy will carry them into the house for you and if you ask nicely he might even attach the line to your water heater too. And that is how it is done here in houses and many of the apartment buildings as well. We think it is the same system that most societies use in many Spanish countries.

We're an Expat Family of Five, Living Frugal, Healthy and Happy in Cuenca Ecuador! Enjoy the Discover Cuenca Ecuador blog!


  1. Hmmm...yes I am familiar with this system and I loved it while living in Cuenca.

    However to say that ALL houses have this system is, I think, erroneous. My experience is at least 15 years old but the majority of people I knew had the very dangerous method of what I determined to be a hot plate in the shower head and a switch outside the shower. The water heated as it travelled over this hot plate and out the shower head.

    It scared the heck out of me! To touch that switch with wet or damp hands and to know that there was water and electricity coming together right in the shower head...NOT for me!

    After awhile we were able to find a hot water tank; scarce as hen's teeth. When it gave out we discovered the on demand water heaters and they were a miracle!

    But in spite of the dangers the "asking for electrocution" method was what most Cuencanos used when I lived there. I bet some still do.

    As a side note, I know personally of one Iragui man who found two members of his family dead because of one of these contraptions. His wife was first and then his little son ran to help her and when he touched her he was electrocuted as well.

    1. Thank you Down to Earth for your comments. Yes, there were probably more electric showers 15 years ago but now it is rare to see one in a home in CUENCA. They exist, but seldom. Most people do not like them. HOWEVER, all along the Ecuador coast, electric showers are much more prevalent. Very sad story you talk about...I know the electric showers are scary!

  2. I am sure that few to none of the apartments that are geared to Gringoes would have this style but I wonder about older buildings and dyed in the wool Cuencanos. After all it is inexpensive. Sorry about the spelling...I meant Iraqui.

  3. Are the on-demand heaters pretty expensive there? Would it be cheaper to bring one in our suitcase on the plane? I'm enjoying reading through your site and gleaning as much as I can before we make the move!

    1. Hi Kendra. Last we looked, prices on the heaters have doubled. But if you're just renting it comes with the rental, usually.

  4. Thank you for your help. I'm guessing that it would probably be cheaper to bring one then. We plan on renting first, then building eventually.

  5. Hi, Great article by the way. I am using ecosmart and it running smoothly since last year. I am also using an under sink hot water heater. You can take a look from here.


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