Friday, December 15, 2006

Heaven in the Hot Water

After returning from a recent trip to the United States, I realized what a luxury it is to have a constant supply of instantly hot and practically free water at your disposal from any tap or faucet, any time of day or night. Iceland, an active volcanic island with natural hot springs all over the country, uses this precious resource to an almost exploitative scale, but amazingly, it never runs out.

My mother’s nice house in a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC has two showers among its four bathrooms, but they can’t be used at the same time. In fact, two people wanting to shower in the same hour take the risk of a cold rinse if they don’t space them out enough. And forget about running the washing machine or dishwasher while trying to wash your body; it’s just not going to happen.

So I come back to Iceland, where the shower has two knobs: one to indicate the desired temperature (say, 104 degrees Fahrenheit) and one to control the water pressure. Without fail, every shower is perfect. And if you are not careful, you will burn the skin right off your face. My girlfriend, just the other day, was washing her hands and did not just scald herself, but actually burned the tip of her finger!

The trick is that the water needs no heater. The water is just like that when it comes out of the ground. The water IS the heater. Yes, the fact that it is naturally hot water does mean that it contains a bit of sulphur and the associated odor of old eggs, but you would be amazed at the softening effect that has on your skin. It’s like putting a Brita filter on your showerhead and bathing in purified drinking water.

Think of the money it saves, too. No energy needed to power a water heater, and no energy to heat the house at all, since Iceland’s priceless geothermal resource is pumped through radiators in every room in every house. And there’s more. When it leaves the house, it courses through a network of pipes and tubing placed just below the surface of the sidewalks and roads (at least in the center of town), heating the ground so that snow and ice does not collect. In a country with such an intense winter, that is many falls and broken hips avoided at a cost of next to nothing.

Such efficient use of Iceland’s natural hot springs, which heat a number of swimming pools and hot tubs around town also, by the way, ensures a comfortable winter for those of us unaccustomed to living 66 degrees north of the equator. Don’t worry about me. As hard as my day will ever be, I always have a hot shower to go home to.

Now to get used to the permanent darkness…