Green for less: Ma Yanjun's beer bottle water heater

When considering green technology, one key question has to be utility. While bamboo flooring or $160 composting bins might be environmentally sound and socially responsible, they also don't fill a really common need. The best technologies are, arguably, the most plebian ones; after all, a green advance that fills an unnecessary need isn't really much of an advance at all.

One of the most basic needs is clean water. To that end, my buddy Nick, who used to be a Peace Corps worker in Cape Verde, helped develop a low-cost still that uses solar power to de-salinize water. The prototype cost about $200 to make, but future models should be much more cost-effective. Best of all, it was constructed of locally-available materials. Here's a little video about it. In addition to addressing the problem of fresh water, which is a major issue in Cape Verde, he created something that can be endlessly replicated (and improved) by the people who need it.

Last year, Ma Yanjun, a carpenter in Qiqiao village, in China's Shaanxi province, came up with a similarly simple, ingenious idea that provides a basic need. Upset that his mother couldn't get a warm shower, he constructed a solar water heater out of old beer bottles and pieces of hose. Water heats as it slowly flows through the bottles and hoses; by the time it gets to the shower, it's comfortably hot.

Although simple and inexpensive, Yanjun's heater enables all three members of his family to have a hot shower every day. The idea has caught on, and he helped construct similar heaters for twenty other families in his village. While I haven't been able to find a plan for his water heater, the Department of Energy has a resource page for people interested in solar water heaters. They suggest that interested parties should hire contractors to build the requisite equipment, but I'm willing to bet that there are a few home-grown Ma Yanjun's out there who are already thinking about how to make a cheap American water heater from recycled parts!

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