For Michael Chandler and Beth Williams, owners of a design-build business in Mebane, North Carolina, motivation to arise at dawn is all about the shower. It's not hard to understand why. Their slate-and-glass bathroom overlooks the wild abundance of Cane Creek where blue herons and osprey float on the air. And thanks to the radiant heat from the re-circulating-loop hot water system, a wave of dry warmth envelops anyone who enters.
Most plumbing systems send water from a water heater to the bathroom pipes, where it's stored until the next bath. The trouble is the water cools while it waits, resulting in the universal "I'll just brush my teeth while the shower heats up" quandary. To solve the problem, Beth and Michael designed their own bath re-circulating system. Their hot water is in constant motion, pushed along by a tiny impeller that uses about the same energy as a nightlight. The system works because moving objects like to continue moving (think of stirring pasta in a pot-the water makes a current and tends to keep going in that direction). And, the couple figured, as the water circulates, they could harness all that warmth by snaking the water pipes through the walls and floor through radiant-heat panels that use half-inch PEX radiant heating pipe (one to two feet per square foot of tile) and extra insulation behind the slate tile's backer board. In effect, the water takes the long way around, warming the room in the process.
When the pump is on, the bathrooms end up being in a whole separate heat zone," Michael ways. When the couple is out of town, a simple flip of the switch turns the whole thing off. It's a savvy scheme with applications for other projects. In fact, the couple used such a system for a bed frame in a cabin they built. The cabin's potable water circulated 110-degree water at all times, passing through two-inch copper pipes that served as headboards and footers of a custom bed frame. The small PEX pipes warmed the bed so the rest of the cabin needed little additional heating.
"The whole system for the recirculator and heat in two showers cost us about $500 extra," says Michael. "Clean water is a precious resource we absolutely cannot take for granted. Baths consume a lot of resources, and we owe it to the planet to conserve and be a force for positive change in every way possible." He pauses, then adds: "Besides, not having to wait for hot water in the shower is nice. And the impact of walking into the bathroom and feeling heat on your face coming out of the shower walls is luscious."
Aside from its environmental bonus points, this bath is an attractive room. Beth loves open spaces that connect with the natural world, so she and Michael built sliding glass shower doors with a straight-on view to the outdoors. "Modesty isn't an issue when the house is on a cliff overlooking a river," she says. The rest of the room is detailed in basic materials the couple bought inexpensively and locally. For Michael, the issue was one of authenticity. "I like things to be what they seem to be, so we avoided fake stone," he says. "Our walls are wood because we see that as a renewable resource, especially here in North Carolina where tree farms are being planted in places where tobacco and corn were a generation ago."
The copper countertops were economical. "I love the way they age and how the patina changes from week to week," adds Michael, who notes that he's aware of the damage copper strip-mining causes. "So we only use copper as a decorative accent and for wiring-and almost not at all in plumbing pipes." Michael and Beth wrapped sixteen-ounce copper flashing around a piece of plywood for the countertop to help minimize their copper use.
Beth laid most of the Vermont slate tiles, which the couple found remaindered at the local stone yard. "I love that there's little manufacturing involved in slate tile's production compared with ceramic tile," says Michael.
* Above text provided with permission from the author, Jennifer Wilson