Forget about rinsing off with the garden hose. After a day spent mulching and weeding under the hot sun, nothing beats an outdoor shower. All that fresh air, warm water, and sunshine define “refreshing.”
There are several different types of outdoor showers, but the most practical is an enclosed design attached to the house. It’s convenient, private, and the least expensive way to run hot water outdoors. If you’re thinking about building an attached shower in your own backyard, follow these guidelines to ensure a smart design.
Scout the Right Spot
Exterior walls directly outside of kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms are prime locations for an outdoor shower. Having a clear path to interior hot- and cold-water lines means less work for the plumber and a less expensive price tag for you. Plan to have an access panel, similar to those used for tub decks, on the interior wall behind the outdoor-shower fixture. This removable panel allows you to easily maintain the shower’s plumbing and annually drain its water lines to prevent frozen pipes.
If the existence of windows or an air-conditioning unit makes it difficult to use interior water lines, there is a second option. To access water lines in the basement, a licensed plumber can drill two side-by-side, 1-inch-diameter holes through the house’s foundation and feed hot- and cold-water lines outside.
Getting Down to Basics
The minimum space required for an outdoor shower is 3 feet square, but go larger if you can. A shower enclosure measuring 4 feet square offers a generous amount of elbow room. If an attached dressing area is in your plans, you’ll need a 7-foot-long and 4-foot-wide area for the entire enclosure. Creating a structure with roomy dimensions is, of course, just the first step. Smart design also requires paying attention to privacy, drainage, and weatherproofing.
1. Create privacy
Design your shower’s enclosure with the most demure bather in mind. Before breaking ground, stand in the spot where you’ve decided to build the shower and take note of all sight lines, including nearby decks, tree houses, and upper-story windows. Your design must block all of these views, and there are clever ways to do it without sacrificing the open, breezy feeling of showering in the great outdoors. Here are just a few:
- Install an overhead trellis. Fast-growing vines on a trellis or a grillwork of beams can shield you from all bird’s-eye views.
- Construct slatted walls. To build a slatted wall, nail 1x6s side by side to three horizontal 2x4s, leaving a couple of inches between each board. Then nail a second row of 1x6s to the other side of the 2x4s to cover the gaps.
- Use offset partitions. This option is similar to the idea of constructing slatted walls, but it replaces 1×6 boards with 2-foot-wide sections of fencing.
2. Plan for good drainage
When it comes to installing a drainage system for your shower water (also known as gray water), home owners have several choices:
- Install a French drain. Basic by design, a French drain consists of a hole (at least 3 feet deep) filled with crushed gravel (preferably ½ inch to 1 inch in diameter). This gravel bed provides a permeable shower floor and extends one foot outside the structure’s perimeter. To make the floor kinder to bare feet, place a wooden grate or 1-foot-square slabs of stone or tile over the gravel. Gray water drains into the gravel bed and is absorbed by the ground, so stock your shower with biodegradable soaps. This system, not surprisingly, won’t pass code in some towns, especially densely populated ones.
- Take advantage of the municipal grid. You can connect your shower to the same drainage pipe that carries away the rest of your household wastewater. This is standard practice in urban locales, and you will likely need a licensed plumber to perform the job. If possible, situate your outdoor shower near a household drainage pipe. It’s always easier and less expensive to build close to water and waste access.
- Use gravity-fed irrigation. If you want to reuse your shower’s gray water, consider fashioning a gravity-fed irrigation system. With this option, a tray beneath a permeable shower floor catches the gray water. A long, flexible hose attaches to the low point of the tray and routes the gray water into the garden. As with French drains, eco-friendly soaps are a must with this system. Also, never direct the hose toward a garden with edibles. It’s unsafe to ingest untreated gray water.
3. Protect your siding
Because the walls inside of a shower dry slowly, they need extra weather protection. If you are building a new house and an outdoor shower is in the plan, installing 30-pound (or 30-weight) felt paper between the wall sheathing and the exterior material of the house will create an effective moisture barrier. If your house is already built, however, there are less invasive weatherproofing options. For homes more than 20 years old, place a weather-sealed partition over the portion of the exterior wall that is inside the shower enclosure. For newer homes, apply at least three coats of a waterproof sealant to any affected exterior wall; there are sealants available for every type of building exterior.
TIP: Avoid frozen pipes
If you live in a climate where temperatures drop below freezing, you must drain your pipes before the first frost hits. Ask your plumber to show you how this easy chore is done.
—Ethan Fierro is a designer, builder, and artist and the author of The Outdoor Shower. He lives on the island of Maui.