The Turn of the Screw

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You may have had a sense lately that something is just not right in your domestic life, not calamitously bad but just bad enough to be annoying on a daily basis and in seemingly unpredictable ways.

You are not alone. In fact, a huge variety of personal and social problems trace to a single source.

First an inventory to establish what I mean:

  • You have the vague sense that your bed linens are not so much comforting you as hemming you in, restricting you and just not breathing as they should;
  • To clean your bathtub and kitchen sink requires an inordinate amount of cleanser and bleach;
  • Whereas you remember showers that once refreshed you, they now leave you only feeling wet;
  • It should be pleasure to put on a bright white crisp undershirt but instead it seems rather routine, dull, even uneventful;
  • The mop has a dusky smell of an old rag and you keep having to replace it to get rid of the reappearing and never disappearing stink;
  • Your dinner tonight reminds you of your dinner last night and that night before, and the flavors seem to be piling up into one big haze.

These are just six of the many dozens of typical symptoms of one of the most common household problems in American today. What is that problem? The simplicity of the answer might shock you: your water heater is set at too low a temperature.

Most people don’t want to think about their water heaters. It is a subject we would rather avoid. It just sort of sits there like a steel totem-poll in a dusty closet that is otherwise not used for much because there is not room for much else. The heater itself seems intimidating, plastered with strange insulating devices and warning stickers. It is something to be touched only by specialists. We even fear cleaning behind it, worrying that we will be zapped or scorched.

Sure, we know people who have had to “replace their water heaters” because their “water heater went out,” but because this has never happened to us, we don’t worry about it. Besides, what if it turns out that the water heater has some sort of scary blue flame and a clicking starter or something? Better to leave it alone so that it doesn’t become volcanic.

All of these impulses are wrong. The water heater can be your friend. It can be your greatest friend in your struggle to create and maintain a happy domestic environment. It wants to be useful. There is nothing to be frightened of. There are no blue flames (they are mostly electric now.) A water heater is made to heat and hold water. It is begging you to do something that will change your life from grey to bright white: turn up the temperature!

Chances are that your water temperature is set at 120 degrees. This is the preferred temperature of the establishment. Water heaters are shipped this way and installed this way. The regulations on new home construction mandate it to be this way. Who thinks to change it?

But 120 degrees? Come on. By the time the water leaves the heater and travels through the pipes and hits the air before landing whenever it is supposed to land, chances are that it will fall to 118 degrees. In the dead of winter, with pipes running under the house, it can be even lower.

Think about this: 118 degrees is the temperature at which yeast thrives. It is the temperature for proofing. What does that tell you? It tells you that things can grow at 118 degrees.

In other words, this is too warm! To know what 118 degrees feels like, imagine a bowl of water that you stick your hand in. It is warm, even quite warm, but you don’t really have the drive to pull your hand out to keep yourself safe. You can adjust. You know what? Everything adjusts to 118 degrees: germs, viruses, bacteria, dirt, smudge, sludge, stink, dust, and every other damnable thing in the world. All of this lives, even thrives, at 118 degrees.

Revelation 3:16 has it right: “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.”

Who came up with the idea that the standard temperature should be 120 degrees? The usual bunch: governments that want to impose a variety of deprivations on you, anti-energy people who think the less technological consumption the better, environmentalists who want to stamp out all things bright and beautiful, litigious lawyers who have intimidated heater makers, and safety freaks of all sorts. A quick search shows all.

We know these people. They are the people who say we should eat our own garbage, invite bats to live in our attics, and refrain from killing mosquitoes in the marsh. They are the ones who gave us toilets that don’t flush and shower heads that don’t spray. They seem to think we should all go around dirty and dissatisfied, and that anything resembling clean, neat, and, well, civilized has to be stamped out.

These people are always worrying about the risks of life, but what about the health risks of living in squalor of their creation?

Defy them all in one fell swoop! Turn your temperature up to 130 degrees. How hot is this? Contrary to the claims, it will not scald you. Imagine again a bowl full of water. Put your hand into this temperature and you will say: “Yikes!” or “Ouch!” or “Yeow!” and pull it right out and shake your hand in the air. However, it leaves nothing red, no burns, nothing awful. It is just what used to be called hot water before the lukewarm crowd changed everything.

How does yeast respond to 130 degrees? It dies. Bread bakers know this. You know what else dies? All the icky things mentioned above. They all die mercifully quick deaths at this temperature. Clean clothes! Clean sinks! Satisfyingly hot showers! Comfortable sheets! Clean-smelling mops! Plates that come out of the dish washer without dinner build-up on them! All of this awaits your act of defiance.

A brief note on shoes. Have you ever bought a new pair because your old ones…stank? Of course they did. Your socks are not getting clean. They infect your shoes. Oh sure, try to keep it at bay with Dr. Scholl’s. It won’t work. A shoe stink sticks forever. You thought you had a physical disability, and embarrassing foot odor problem. Nope. It’s your hot water heater.

How to fix all this? It will take less than a minute. If your temperature dial is in the open, good for you. Turn it to 130 degrees or higher. There is a reason these tanks go up to 170 degrees. I read a manual for a dishwasher that says it wants water of 145 degrees. When I was in the dish-washing business, you had to use heavy rubber gloves just to get near water. So be it.

If your dial is covered, ignore all stickers and scary warnings about scalded babies. Take off the steel plate that covers up the setting. Remove the Styrofoam. There you will find a tiny little dial. Use a dime or a screwdriver and give the dial a teeny tiny little turn over to 130 degrees. The benefits will start within hours. Within a day, you will experience the greatest increase in your standard of living since your gas grill and automated sprinkler system.

Your new life begins with a comfortable and happy sleep, a blasting hot and refreshing shower, a crisp T-shirt and clean socks, followed by breakfast on a plate so clean it squeaks. Even cleaning up breakfast will be pure pleasure: the sink gleams, the floor has never been cleaner, and your mop will end up as fresh as the day you bought it.

Indeed, with a water heater set at 130 degrees, all is right with the world — at least that part of it that you can control. Even if the whole world is conspiring against civilization, you can preserve your part of it with the smallest turn of a screwdriver.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org.

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