Many older apartments and houses in Chile have a contraption called a Calefont which you will quickly learn to love and hate at the same time. The Calefont (sometimes called calefón) is a type of water heater that well, heats water. This is the thing that gives you hot water for your shower, for washing the dishes or anything else you may need hot water for.
How does the calefont work?
Basically there are lines of burners with many small flames that heat up water as it passes over them through pipes. The flames are feed by gas which comes through the mains or sometimes from 15kg cylinders of gas that you have to buy every now and then. So, whenever you turn the hot water tap on, a pilot light ignites the burners and thus heats up the water right then when you need it (unlike the energy-consuming hot water cylinders that are on 24 hours a day whether you are using the hot water or not).
Travel accommodation and calefonts
If you are just passing through the country on a short holiday, don’t expect to see many of these calefonts. Hotels have, in theory, constant hot water available just by turning on the tap. However, if you visit hostels you may see them in your communal bathroom or sometimes the water is pumped from a calefont situated outside the room somewhere.
If you take a shower outside of ‘normal’ showering hours (morning), you may need to ask for matches (fósforos) to light the calefont or have one of the hostel guys light it if you don’t know how (or even where it is).
How do you light a calefont?
First you have to turn the gas valve below the calefont so that the gas can start flowing. You then turn the dial near the bottom of the calefont to the encendido (ON) position. You then stick a match through the hole in the middle of the calefont until it ignites the pilot light. Once the small pilot light flame is burning, you are basically set. The main flames that heat the water won’t appear until the taps are turned on and water has started flowing though the pipes.
It may take anywhere from 10 seconds to a couple of minutes for the hot water to start coming through. It pays to wait outside the shower, and stick your hand under the running water until it is at a temperature you like, unless you have penguin blood and can withstand the cold water blast at the beginning.
Remember to check your gas cylinder!
If your calefont is not connected to the mains and needs a gas cylinder, then true to have a spare one on hand in case the first one runs out. There is nothing worse than having your hair full of shampoo and then suddenly the water starts turning cold because you have run out of gas. It’s even worse when it happens in the middle of winter.
Is your home safe?
Many of the older apartments and houses use the calefont system to heat their water. Before moving into a new apartment, check that the gas installations of the building have been approved which basically means that the calefonts have adequate escape ducts for the toxic fumes etc. You will know if the building has been approved if there is a biggish green OK sticker near the front entrance.
Please don’t die in the shower!
And here we aren’t talking about psycho killers but Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Sometimes when the calefont is in the bathroom, the gases from the flames don’t have anywhere to do escape to (and through in the oxygen that gets burnt up by them). Even though some older buildings have been approved, serious problems can still arise. Unfortunately the local expat community has been rattled by deaths due to this carbon monoxide poisoning (often students on university exchanges that don’t realize this hidden danger). To be on the safe side leave the bathroom door open if the calefont is in the bathroom itself.
A calefont tip
I personally find that I don’t need to use the cold water tap when in the shower. If you have the hot water tap on at full blast, the water passes by the flames quicker giving it less time to heat. If you turn the hot water tap so that less water comes out thinking it will, you will in fact be heating the water more since it flows more slowly hence being heated more due to more contact with the flames.
Having said this, the temperature of the water doesn’t necessarily remain stable. It can range anywhere between hot as hell and iceberg cold many times during the course of your shower. I think it depends on the make and age of the calefont that causes these fluctuations though don’t quote me on that.
Yet another calefont tip
To avoid wasting gas and accumulating an enormous gas bill, only turn on the pilot light of the calefont just before you are going to use it. Having it on during the day is not only expensive but can also be dangerous if it accidentally goes out and you don’t realize it.
How is water heated in other South American countries?
Have you had any experiences using the Calefont?