Cool Students Keep Planet Out of Hot Water

Fashions may change. Technologies may evolve. But the average American continues steadfastly to spend 7.8 minutes in the shower—no more, no less. That’s how it was 20 years ago, and that’s how it is today.

Student researchers Shelby Kantner ’18 and Matthew Gulick ’18 want you to know that for each gallon of hot water in those millions of daily showers, the heating fuel used sends 1.92 pounds of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. That’s a chunk of Co2 the weight of six iPhone 7s.

Last summer the two students, along with Maya Bittmann ’19 and Bjorn Hoffman ’18, tried to move that shower dial—at least on campus—by conducting research into how to motivate students to make their showers a little shorter, and a little cooler.

Their research proposal, led by Amy Fisher, assistant professor in science, technology, and society, and Lynnette Claire, professor in business and leadership, won a $10,000 grant from Puget Sound Energy, in a contest co-sponsored by Independent Colleges of Washington (ICW). The annual contest looks for undergraduate research ideas on more efficient ways to use our state’s energy resources. ICW said that if the Puget Sound winners found a workable plan to save energy on hot water, it could serve as a model for other campuses.

Matthew Gulick ’18 and Shelby Kantner ’18, next to residence hall water heaters.

The students prepared a pilot study to run over the summer and a bigger trial for the fall. For both trials they put waterproof stopwatches, aquarium thermometers, pens, and notepads in and around selected residence hall showers. Students were asked to anonymously record the length and temperature of their showers.

The summer pilot worked out a few kinks, and in October the main trial began. The researchers split 12 residential halls into “test” and “control” groups. The six “test halls” were then split: In three they posted infographics about the potential health and beauty benefits of cooler and shorter showers; in the other three, they touted the environmental benefits. In all six test halls’ laundry rooms, they put up posters encouraging washing clothes in cold water.

Thus, a student looking to clean up in Smith Hall would learn that a cold shower boosts the immune system, prevents split-ends, and “improves tough-mindedness.” A student in Schiff Hall would read that 11 showers creates as much Co2 “as driving to Seatac!” All test halls had posters recommending: The Marine Shower (turn water off while soaping up) or The James Bond Shower (gradually make it cooler).

One of the fliers student researchers posted to encourage shorter, cooler showers.

The theory was that if students had the hard facts in front of them and they kept track of their habits, they could change their behavior. When the one-month trial wrapped up, participation proved to be “a lot more than we expected,” says Shelby. The team collected data on 1,500 showers from six residence halls.

The results: A full third of the test group students reported that they did alter their showering routine. The “health and beauty benefits” group reported mean shower temperatures 5 degrees cooler than the “environmental” group’s. (Ah, vanity!) However, gas meter readings showed their hot water volume usage only slightly less than the control group’s.

One figure was “off the charts,” says Matthew. That was a 33 percent drop in hot water use by residents of Schiff Hall, the home of outdoor enthusiasts. Together, the three “environmental group” halls—Schiff, Harrington, and Anderson/Langdon—cut their natural gas usage by 21 percent, during a chilly October when everyone else’s was up! Another victory: 75 percent of all test students said they had laundered their clothing on “cold.”

“This is fertile ground for future research,” Matthew says. The project’s data did not prove conclusively that the tactics changed behavior, but “I’m sure some students really did change their habits and once habits are changed they kind of stay that way,” Matthew says. The team is submitting their research to a professional journal.

Shelby, a science, technology, and society major, says working on the longer-term study helped prepare her for a career in public health. Matthew, an English and environmental policy major, may one day work for an environmental think tank. The study, he says, “opened my eyes to the possibility of pursuing work like this.”

At the very least, both stand to gain some future health benefits and “green” credentials from their insights. “I still have a thermometer up in my shower,” Matthew says, smiling.


By Shirley Skeel
Photos by Ross Mulhausen
Published March 6, 2018