Hot Water In Ecuador Challenged By New Mandate

Cuenca, Ecuador - President Correa has the country all abuzz with his new mandate targeting hot water heaters for elimination. The norm in Ecuador is to have a gas heater (known as a calefón) installed, providing hot water on demand. The systems are powered by tanks of propane, which cost about $2 nationwide.

These $2 tanks are also the country's primary means of providing cooking and heating fuel in Ecuadorian homes. Stovetops, ovens, and even washer & dryer sets all rely on tanks to work. The tanks are delivered door to door through a loosely organized network of drivers, although some stores also provide gas exchange. New tanks are obtained by swapping empties, and even glamorous apartment complexes will have a tank chamber in their basements allowing them to boast of "centralized" gas.  However, this system of tanks and the way gas is used in Ecuador is being challenged.

Typical calefnes on display in Quito
Typical calefnes on display in Quito

Correa's No Hot Water Heater Mandate

In a spoken address to the nation, President Correa explained that he was calling for the end of gas water heaters.  The importation of the heaters will be suspended, as will domestic production under his plan.  The rationale behind the mandate is that state subsidized gas is to be used for cooking purposes only, and that in any event, the gas water heaters are a public health hazard.

The mandate has many wondering about the enforceability and practicality of the plan.  No replacement option was given for the millions of homes who depend on gas hot water heaters, and no mention was made of the fate of other appliances, such as gas powered clothes dryers.  In the meantime, the price of a basic gas water heater has skyrocketed from about $250 to over $400 in local shops.  Correa's policy has also been heavily mocked in social media channels by leading Ecuadorians.

No one likes an electric shower!
No one likes an electric shower!

Few Good Cuenca Hot Water Options

Even as locals rush to buy out existing stocks of gas hot water heaters, expat blogs and forums are starting to look at alternatives.  Some are proposing a switch to solar power, but that won't be as attractive here in Cuenca as it is on the coast.  We just don't have enough days of full sun, and the last thing the rainy season needs is a season of icy showers to go with it.  Another default option is the electric shower head (pictured).

I have some experience with electric shower heads, which I chronicled over in my personal blog in a post about Cuenca's hot water disappointments.  Since I wrote that post, I've heard more horror stories about them, and learned that in addition to "Widowmakers" they have the local nickname of "Suicide Showers."  Naturally, this does little to make them more attractive to the local expat population - or endear them to local residents, for that matter.  Many are vowing to maintain their secret gas hot water heaters, while expats are browsing apartments in other countries.

The Ongoing Hot Water Debate

Even as expats shop for a new home and locals grouse, all parties are hoping that the ban on hot water heaters will go away. Given the ribbing Correa's been getting for being anti-hot shower, it just might. The other potential change might be in the subsidies that currently exist for the gas canisters.

Some are speculating that the whole hot water heater ban is simply a way for the government to re-open negotiations on the subsidies that keep the price of a home gas canister at $2 (wholesale $1.60). By making the case that the subsidies are too expensive to keep in place when the gas is being used for purposes other than cooking, it might be possible to raise the prices on the canisters to lower the government's costs and still give the public hot water. The generally accepted going market price for a home gas canister is estimated to be $8 (it works out to about $0.32/kg for the gas in the canisters).

To expats, this remains a pocket change discussion for many. Gas canisters that provide about an hour of hot water a day last about a month based on my personal showering experiences. My total gas bill for a three bedroom home with a washer & dryer powered by gas is just over $4 a month. If I have to pay $16 a month, I'm still saving tons over what I would pay in the states, and hot water is a luxury I think of as a must-have necessity.

For locals, the debate shifts based on where in the economic structure you live. For middle and upper class Ecuadorians, the gas prices are a minimal expense. For the poorest citizens, however, this is a real concern. Correa's government has to be very sensitive to the needs of the impoverish indigenous and countryside communities, as these are the communities most likely to demonstrate or protest against the government making any changes. A favored tactic is blocking or tearing up roads, and given that Ecuador is in the midst of dozens of major and minor highway projects, the possibility of trade and progress disruption by protesters is unacceptable.

It's a fine line to walk, and the country is still working it out. At the moment, things are still lighthearted. Correa's being teased about his cold showers, and locals are repairing or replacing their water heaters to make sure they don't get cut off. What the future holds is a mystery, but I'll keep you updated with the news!

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WriterOnTheRoam 4 years ago from Cuenca, Ecuador Author

As an update, electric showers have not made a come-back in Cuenca. Instead, many water heaters are smuggled into the country from Peru to make up the difference in demand levels.

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