How Do Solar Showers Work? Simple Beginner’s Guide

If you are planning a trip to the beach, camping in the woods or a day swimming at the lake, a solar shower is the perfect piece of solar gear to bring along. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to deal with the grit of salt and sand on my body after spending the day at the beach, the slimy feeling after swimming at the lake, or the dirt and sweat from hiking and primitive camping.

This really became an issue for me because there often were no public showers to use and I was forced to grin and bear it or use cold bottled water to attempt to rinse off which neither were great options in my book.

Image by adeevaristo from Pixabay

Enter the portability, versatility and convenience of a solar shower. 

So how do solar showers work?

Solar showers absorb the heat from direct sunlight to warm the water stored in a typically dark colored container. It is then sent through a tube using gravity, pressure or pump into a showerhead. 

If you’re looking to learn more then be sure to keep reading.

What is a Solar Shower?

A solar shower is a portable piece of solar gear that gives you the freedom to take warm showers in the great outdoors such as when you are camping or washing off after a day on the beach.

There are three types of solar showers that will be covered in this article, but the most common one used is the gravity bag type. The bag is often made from PVC due to its durability and heat absorption, but you will find it is not the sole material used in these. 

They will have a large fill spout at the top of the bag and a rubber hose attached at the bottom. This flexible hose can measure between 1 to 3 feet in length with a showerhead attached to control the flow of water. It is recommended to make sure you choose a solar shower with an adjustable showerhead with an on and off valve in order to control the water output and extend the use of the shower.

Types of Solar Showers

As I mentioned above, there are 3 main types of solar showers to consider when deciding your purchase. The 3 types are:

Gravity Fed Systems

As you may have guessed by the name, these solar showers use gravity as a means of delivering the shower experience. These are often filled with water and hung up on a tree branch or pole to let the water flow out of the tube at the bottom of the bag.

Pros

  • Super Low Tech
  • No Electricity Needed
  • Packs down to small size
  • Gets warm in sunlight
  • Easy to repair if punctured

Cons

  • Need sturdy overhead support
  • Weight of the water
  • Poor Water Stream

Summary

This is a simple and inexpensive solution that gets the job done.

Pressurized Systems

This type of solar shower uses pressurized air to force the water through the attached hose. Within this type you will find 2 different kinds of pressurized solar showers.

Rooftop Pressurized Solar Shower

This is a roof rack mounted tank that can be made of PVC or aluminum to allow for heat absorption while traveling or simply parked out in the sun. Here are the pros and cons of using this type of system.

Pros
  • Great semi-permanent feature
  • Get’s hot with direct sunlight
  • Low tech and robust
  • They make your car look cool
Cons
  • Requires a roof rack
  • Pressurized and can explode
  • Dangerous if not secured
  • Can puddle up your campsite
  • More expensive option
Summary

This is great for those hardcore campers who want a semi-permanent option for showering.

Pressurized Container Systems

Unlike the rooftop option, these are more like the gravity solar showers in their construction. They are typically a bag that seals with a pump attachment that lets you force air into the bag to pressurize it. Where they differ is the bag sits on the ground and uses the pressurization to force out the water. Some Pros and Cons of using this type of solar shower are:

Pros
  • Low tech
  • No electrical parts
  • Compact design
  • Water weight not an issue
  • Fairly good water stream
Cons
  • You provide all the pressure
  • Air leaks can be an issue
  • Mid Price Range
Summary

This is an extremely versatile option that ticks most of the boxes for what you would want in a portable shower.

Water Pump Systems

Our final solar shower system is a bit different from the others because the main part of this system does not use the sun’s heat energy to work. You may be wondering how this would qualify as a solar shower. 

The reason why they do is because the water pumps can be used with a large water container to create the shower. What you often see is a large, darkly colored water storage container, and the pump is dropped in the water creating your shower. Below you will see two types of water pumps listed with their Pros and Cons.

Battery Powered Water Pump

Pros
  • Simple to use
  • Very portable
  • USB charging capable
  • Very inexpensive
Cons
  • Must be charged before use
  • Not as powerful as 12V style
  • Needs external water tank
  • Electrical parts tend to break
Summary

This is a great versatile and portable option that is incredibly simple and easy to use if you’re away from your car (hiking, trekking, etc.).

12V Water Pump Systems

Pros
  • No charging needed
  • Semi-permanent option
  • Inexpensive pricing
Cons
  • Electrical parts tend to break
  • Requires 12V source to run
  • Not as portable for hiking
Summary

This option can create a quick and easy shower station near your car or 12V power source. While it is not very portable when hiking, it is a great plug and play solution.

How Do You Use a Solar Shower?

The steps to using each type of solar shower listed in this article will vary and I strongly encourage that you read the instructions from the manufacturer of the solar shower you decide to purchase before use. The following steps will be more generic and an overview of the effort needed in using a solar shower.

  1. You need to fill the container or bag through the fill cap. Be sure not to fill it completely to allow room for expansion from the heat. This will prevent the water overflowing or the bags breaking open.
  2. Place it in direct sunlight to ensure optimal heating from the sun. For the bags, there is usually a side the manufacturer recommends facing the sun. Another good idea is not to leave the bag or container directly on the soil because it can absorb heat from the bag or container. Be sure to read our tips and tricks section for some great ways to heat your water faster.
  3. For gravity showers – When it is ready you will need to hang the bag above head level. Make sure the hose is as straight as possible to provide optimal water pressure.

For Pressurized showers – When the water is ready you will need to use the recommended device to force air into the container or bag in order to pressurize the water for use. Since this is pressurized, there is no need for hanging it above your head.

For pump showers – Make sure the pump is fully charged or is plugged into an approved power source. As with the pressurized showers, there is no need to hang these in order to work.

  1. Ensure the hose is connected properly then simply turn on any power switches and valves to allow the water to flow.

Congratulations, you are now ready to take a nice heated shower.

How Hot Do Solar Showers Get?

With exposure to full sunlight and ambient temperatures of the air exceeding 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the water can heat up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. At these temperatures the risk of scalding increases greatly. Because of this, we strongly recommend you get a solar shower that has a built-in temperature gauge for your safety.

To give you a little bit of insight, the American Burn Association states that water delivered at 120 degrees Fahrenheit will cause an adult’s skin to scald (burn) in 5 minutes. The risk is even greater for young children because their skin is thinner.

How Much Water Does a Solar Shower Hold?

Solar showers come in a variety of holding capacities, but are often found in the 5 and 10 gallon sizes. While there very well could be larger sizes, I was not able to find any above 10 gallons that were available for retail purchase.

How Long Do Portable Solar Showers Last?

  • A gravity-fed shower you will have around 2.5 minutes for 5-gallon showers and around 5 minutes with a 10-gallon shower.
  • A pressurized shower gives you around 7 minutes of shower time with a 5-gallon and 14 minutes with a 10-gallon.
  • The water pump shower will give you around 11 minutes with a 5-gallon container and 20 minutes with a 10-gallon container.

Do Solar Showers Work on Cloudy Days?

This would depend on your definition of cloudy. If it is partly cloudy then it can heat up the water, but it will take a lot longer for this to happen. Completely cloudy days will not work because you need at least a little bit of direct sunlight to heat the water.

Do Solar Showers Work in the Winter?

Solar showers can work in the winter, but the practicality and safety of using a shower or any type of water source to wash off with in winter weather is something that needs to be discussed. While direct exposure to the sun can heat the water over time, the ambient air temperature around you will have a negative impact on your health. 

According to the CDC, hypothermia can become a health hazard when the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit which can be a result of prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Even cool temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit can cause hypothermia if your body is chilled from submersion in water.

All of this to say, it is not safe to use a solar shower during the winter unless you are in an enclosed space that is heated. 

Safety first folks!!!

How Much Do Solar Showers Cost?

  • Gravity-fed showers can cost as little at $6, but for one that has all the bells and whistles will run you up to $40 which is a bargain compared to the others.
  • Pressurized shower will set you back $45 on the low end and can run up as high as $550 for a 10-gallon shower kit.
  • Water pump showers typically run between $50 and upwards of $300 depending on what features you are looking for.

Solar Shower Tips and Tricks

Heating Water Faster

The best way to heat the water faster is to place it between two heat sources. What I mean is placing the container or bag on a surface that also heats in the direct sunlight such as a flat rock or the metal on the hood of your car. 

One thing to keep in mind if you decide to use this tip with your car is to lay a thin blanket between the solar shower container or bag and the heated surface. This will protect both your car’s paint job from scratches, but will also prevent any damage that may happen to the shower bags.

Hanging Solar Showers on Poles

There may be times when you are outdoors and there are no places to hang those gravity fed shower bags. In those instances, having an extendable pole or hoist could do the job in a pinch.

Make Your Own Solar Shower

Do a quick search and you can find a bunch of DIY solar showers for whichever type of shower you are wanting.

Gravity-fed showers can usually be created using 5-gallon water buckets or even heavy-duty garbage bags if you are desperate.

Pressurized showers are typically made from PVC piping or a weed sprayer with attachments added.

For the pump showers there are no clear DIY ways to create them, but since they have a fairly low starting price point you may not have a need to create one.

Use a Shower Tent

Having a shower tent is a great option to provide you both privacy and protection from the wind. This is especially nice on those cool breezy days camping outdoors.

Conclusion

If you are someone who enjoys spending time enjoying great outdoor activities in areas with primitive amenities then a portable solar shower is an essential piece of gear you cannot afford to go without. 

If you are looking for recommendations on which one to choose then be sure to check out our Best Portable Solar Showers buyers guide.

James Adams

Just a geek with a passion for saving the planet with solar technology...Or at least my little corner of it. Researching tech is something I really enjoy doing so my joy became this website. Hope you enjoy the content!

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