Ladylike, On-Demand

by Heather Rae for

I am little like Princess Diana…soft, ethereal, ladylike, glowing, demure. I was even less like her as a pudgy college student, laying over in a very hot July Madrid, waiting for a flight back to the United States. The two Madrilena widows who ran a pensione out of their sprawling flat grilled me at their door: ‘Where is your husband? Why are you alone? No men allowed here.’ They surveyed me, distrusting, and may as well have asked the direct question, ‘are you a hooker?’ Another topic of great concern was hot water. ‘Do you want hot water? Because that will be extra. You have to pay us up front before we turn on the hot water heater.’ The third concern was the wedding ceremony for Princess Di and Prince Charles that was about to air on television — they did not want to miss it because of some trampy American wanting hot water. As I immersed into a hot tub, they fixated on the (their) angelic Princess.

There are vestiges of old technologies in this house: bits of coal in the old ‘ell,’ knob and tube wiring, the old boiler abandoned in the basement, holes in the chimneys that once served wood stoves. Purpose served, they must go. (I just wish, as I have in previous renovations, that people would clean up after themselves.) The Rinnai Continuum on-demand water heater is hung and vented. ‘The guys’ are putting together the PEX to replace the copper plumbing that will connect to the Rinnai. Living in the United States, these technologies are relatively new. But to the Madrilena widows, an “on-demand” water heater would not be. Nor would it be for the Istanbul, Turkey hotel where I stayed years ago.

In The New Yorker’s review of David Edgerton’s “The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900,” author Steven Shapin writes: “Edgerton says that we are wrong to associate technology solely with invention, and that we should think of it, rather, as evolving through use. A “history of technology-in-use,” he writes, yields “a radically different picture of technology, and indeed of invention and innovation.””

My stay at the Spanish pensione was just 10 days shy of 26 years ago. Since then, PEX has evolved through use (an earlier version would grow brittle when exposed to oxygen and UV-light); now it can be used for different applications, like plumbing. The technology of on-demand heaters evolves; there were numerous options for this old house. (I have evolved into a semblance of a lady, through use, too.) If there are other technologies that are evolving through use in other parts of the globe, then please bring them on. No sense in thinking that invention and innovation and gobs of dough spent on R&D is the only route to the US marketplace.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine and serves on the board of Maine Interfaith Power & Light. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

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