Growing up in suburbia in the second half of the 20th century, hot water was never something I thought about. You turned on the faucet, waited a few minutes, and there was hot water. And later, when I lived in an urban apartment building, there was no waiting, as the hot water was constantly recirculating. Oh, ultimately I knew about the environmental imperatives of conserving energy and water, and very rarely I experienced the discomfort and inconvenience of an extinguished pilot light or malfunctioning thermostat. But on the whole, hot water did not occupy a major place in my consciousness, even when I was a home owner.
Here in the Middle East (or maybe anywhere outside of North America) hot water is not taken for granted. Here, there is a third faucet in the shower, so that after adjusting the temperature, you can turn off the shower so as not to waste water while you soap yourself. In older homes and apartments, there is a white insulated tank, generally mounted on the wall in the bathroom, or in a crawlspace over the bathtub, heated by an electric element. Only the inconceivably wasteful/rich would leave the heater on all the time, relying on the thermostat to keep the water at the appropriate temperature (as we did, unthinkingly, in Chicago). Rather you plan when you will want to shower, when do laundry, and switch on the "dood" (water heater) two hours ahead of time. No coming home from a trip and taking an immediate hot shower; even hot showers in the morning are a problem, though that can be solved by replacing the simple off-on switch with a timer.
Newer buildings, as all travelers have noticed, have solar collectors on the roof linked to the dood. These are flat metal frames covered in glass, within which the water flows through a zig-zag array of pipes, absorbing solar energy and entering the dood at a high enough temperature to make the use of the electric heating element almost completely unnecessary from May through October.
Last week, as the weather turned cool and the skies cloudy, we found that the supply of hot water from the electric heater was erratic; there is nothing like anticipating a nice hot shower on a cold morning and finding the water not quite luke warm... Since the system was not short circuiting, and seemed to be drawing current irregularly, I assumed it was the thermostat, so I climbed onto the roof, and replaced the old one ($8 at a hardware store). Proud of my handy homeownership, I marched confidently into the shower the next morning... and froze. Must be the heating element. Back on the roof, I unscrewed all the connections and mounting bolts, but the element wouldn't pull out. All I succeeded in doing was breaking the seal, so the tank developed a leak right over the electrical connections. Time to call the dood repairman, a mild-mannered, competent young Arab from a nearby village, short and heavyset, whose agility in pulling himself up and down using my too-short ladder is impressive (I have never understood why dood repairmen in Israel don't come with their own ladders). I am embarrassed by my failure, but he does not rub it in -- indeed, dismantling the whole tank, he shows me that the heating element is so encased in mineral deposits that no one could have pried it out -- and no wonder it couldn't heat the water. The root of the problem, in his opinion, is that this water heater, which is relatively new, came with a plastic sleeve that directs the flow of water around the electric element so as to heat part of the tank more quickly, thus taking less time to get the first flow of hot water -- but this arrangement is known to facilitate the precipitation of minerals around the element, causing it to heat less efficiently and need more frequent replacement. He convinces me to have him remove the sleeve and install a simple element. While he is working, he leans on the tank to tighten a bolt and the rusty iron frame holding the tank about five feet off the roof starts to collapse on both of us, so he braces and reinforces the assembly with wire. $40 for the whole visit.
The country may be in depression, the government in collapse, and who knows what will happen if/when the US attacks Iraq. But we've got hot water, so all's right with the world.