If you’re new to this page, we recently purchased bare land in a remote part of Idaho where we will be developing an off grid property from scratch. One of the components we will need to figure out is a sustainable off grid water system.
Though we haven’t established our permanent system, we think that the things we have learned so far are invaluable and could be a lot of help to you too.
The goal of this page is to document the evolution of our off grid water solution, share resources and tools we find useful, and share both insights and discoveries we find along the way.
As this one page will reflect multiple stages of our water system evolution, we’ll be breaking the page into sections so you can jump to a stage similar to your current circumstances to see how we tackled that phase.
Pros and Cons of Different Off Grid Water System Components
Phase One: Starting Small & Carrying Water in Jugs
Phase Two: Affordable Introductory Gravity Fed Water System
Phase Three: Permanent Underground Cistern System
Books & Resources
Pros and Cons of Different Off Grid Water System Components
When living off the grid, water solutions aren’t always straight forward.
While the ultimate solution is to have your very own water source as well as a means to store and even treat it, that’s not always an option on day one.
Rain Water Harvesting
When researching water systems it is important to look at the price per gallon of various systems.
In most cases, nothing can beat the price per gallon of rain water, making a rain barrel catchment system very appealing.
However, a few experiments proved to us that they would NOT be right for our property for two main reasons.
- Our property is windy. So windy that a tarp roof system would be pretty ineffective in catching water. Sure we could rig up a big creative system of roofs for rain collection, but right now our property lacks the infrastructure to make that feasible. A crazy water catchment system would be an inefficient and time consuming way to collect water.
- We live in a cold climate. Our region of Idaho can be frozen anytime from October to May. Rain barrels probably shouldn’t be used during this time of year unless they can be kept above freezing temperatures. Because we’re off grid, this means we would have to bury the barrels or build a root cellar for them. This would get veeery time consuming and expensive, and much more effort per gallon than makes sense.PS: Learn about our winter living tips here!
In Summary: Rain barrels aren’t a practical solution for our us because the cost of implementation would be horrendous due to our cold climate and windy property.
However, if you live in a warmer place that gets rain year round, they can be a great option for you.
Cisterns are a great water solution for people in a homesteading situation because they can provide months of water with one fill up, which can come from rain water, water pumped in from a well, or even a delivery.
Even when the long term goal is to dig a well, cisterns can be a great interim system because once a well is established the cistern is still useful.
When the well pump is running, a cistern can be filled with well water in order to put less strain on the pump in the long term.
There are two main types of cisterns:
- Above Ground: Above ground systems are usually smaller on the smaller end and are quite portable. They can be put on a pickup truck or trailer and taken right to a fill up location. They are also cheaper and made of lighter materials than below ground systems because they don’t need to be buried.
- Below Ground: Below ground cistern tanks work well in cold climates because they can be put below the frost line to prevent freezing. This is an essential for off grid homes without an alternative water source. These cisterns are typically have a larger capacity, are built of sturdier materials, and more expensive.
In Summary: Cisterns can be a great homestead water option. Research your region’s climate, your preferred method of filling the tank, and your water needs to evaluate if an above or below ground system could be right for you.
Digging a Well
When people hear that we are looking for to implement a water system they inevitably start saying,
“Have you started your well” , “just go dig a well” or “when are you going to dig a well?”.
Can we reiterate that there are OTHER water options besides wells out there?!
While wells can be a great solution for many properties (particularly if you are located at a low point on the water table) they can be extremely expensive and there is never any guarantee that you will strike water.
Though there are wells in our region, they can be hit or miss because our property is on a glacial outcropping that keeps the water table far below us.
When we evaluated our homestead priorities we realized that we aren’t ready to sink 25 or 30 grand in a system that might not work.
Because we can have water brought to us very easily and cheaply, digging a well just doesn’t make financial sense for us right now.
In Summary: Digging a well can be a great long term water solution, but there is financial risk involved. Do your research about your region’s water table and take time to look into alternative options.
Phase One: Carrying Water to Our Property in Water Jugs
While it crossed our minds to drill a well when we first arrived on our property, we quickly realized that it wasn’t something we were ready for.
Since our RV only holds 25 gallons of water, we knew that we would want some extra on hand to fill up the tanks rather than having to take our RV into town simply to add 25 gallons of water.
We actually wrote an entire post on our rv water solution which we won’t go into detail in this post because it’s more of a solution for RV boondocking rather than off grid living where water needs are typically higher. However, we will show you the video if you feel so inclined to watch it!
Phase Two: Affordable, Introductory Gravity Fed Water System
To see a high-level overview of what our phase two system looks like, watch the video below, but keep on reading because we go into way more detail than we could possibly cover in a short video!
Outgrowing Our Portable Water Jug System
As spring arrived, property development kicked into high gear.
As we wrapped up the deck project and neared the completion of our DIY cedar hot tub project, we ran into a roadblock – our portable water jug system was unable to keep the tub full enough to seal the joinery.
This alone might not have justified upgrading our water system but prompted us to review our imminent water needs.
A few of the water needs we identified include:
- Fire fighting
- Watering the garden and compost piles
- Filling and keeping the hot tub full
- Simplifying water use in the RV
- Food preservation and the extensive cleanup
- Mixing concrete and cleanup of tools
- Automobile and RV washing
It was clear that our water problems were only going to increase so upgrading our system was justified if not urgent.
Designing a System to Fit Our Imminent Needs
Decision-making for us is often multi-dimensional. This project was no exception.
We really would prefer to go straight to a permanent water solution, but the timing just isn’t right. At that time we didn’t fully understand just how much water our property needs.
This makes it quite challenging to size components properly. We’ve also never used gravity-fed water, pumped water up a large hill or used water tanks for storage.
So, we approached the system with the attitude that we’d like to be able to either resell or repurpose the components. This relieved the pressure of hitting the ball out of the park on our first go at a gravity feed cistern water system.
Components and Methodology of the System
Below is a simple outline of the basic components of our gravity fed water system and the thinking behind each.
Many suggestions on the internet are thrown around and wouldn’t survive even the most rudimentary viability test.
We hope that sharing the what AND the why behind each component will be help you get an idea how to size your system and select components even if it’s your first ever setup.
Water Transportation via Food-Grade 275 Gallon IBC Tank
At present, we source our water from a community source about 6 miles away. It’s clean, municipal water that is readily available and affordable.
There are no water delivery services in our area so delivery falls on us.
Reducing the number of trips was important for us. Research led us to choose a food grade 275 gallon IBC tank for water transportation.
Features of the IBC tank that made it ideal for our water transportation solution:
- Cost per gallon: When considering our options, it was hard to beat the value of a second-hand IBC tank. Other options such as food-grade barrels were too small to be economical or had a slightly higher cost per gallon. Food grade tanks are often double the cost of their non-food grade brethren. The peace of mind was worth the expense for us. IBC tanks also include an easy to access lid, sturdy ball valve drain and sloped bottom for complete emptying. All features you’d either have to add or live without on other tanks.We paid $200 for our food grade IBC tank which puts it at $.72/gallon. Most similar tanks we found to be in the $.60-$1.00/gallon range. If price were the only factor, IBC tanks fall in the middle. Non-food grade IBC tanks are available for around $100, but our thinking was that should the day come our system evolves beyond an IBC tank selling a food grade tank will be much easier than a non-food grade tank. So we see it as an investment in both our health and future value.
- Maneuverability: The tank features an aluminum cage which makes wrangling the tank and strapping it down quite easy. Weighing 80 lbs dry the tank is easy to load and unload for one person, even Alyssa, which is crucial for us as each system must be operable by either of us should Jesse be unavailable for some reason.
- Tank size and shape: 275 gallon capacity fits our needs very well. At the time we purchased this tank our ideal transportation was our small utility trailer towed with our Subaru Forester. The rated capacity on the trailer is 1750 lbs and max towing on the Subaru is 2000 lbs. Water weighing 8.5 lbs / gallon means we could in theory haul approximately 200 gallons and stay within the limits of our equipment. A larger tank for transport would be foolish at this stage.With a square shape the tank has a small footprint and is easy to move around. Round tanks tend to have a wide base so as to keep the walls short to prevent collapse. With the metal cage for strength the square tank shape is viable and works very well!
½ Horsepower 110-volt Utility Transfer Pump
Our next challenge was getting the water to the top of our hill.
We’ve measured it to be approximately 70 feet of rise which is pretty substantial for most smaller 110 volt pumps.
The power source for our pump will be our small portable generator so the max current draw would ideally be less than 15 amps.
Our ideal pump would be serviceable for long life, self-priming, affordable, reasonably portable, able to pump for long periods without overheating and could be used for other purposes down the road such as fire fighting in a worst case scenario or filtering our cedar hot tub.
Some internet research lead us to a ½ horsepower 110 volt 8 Amp ¾” transfer pumpmade by Wayne.
The unit was highly-rated by users on numerous sites and seems to be a design that has been in use for many years.
The spec sheet for the pump indicated that it was capable of up to 120 feet of rise (head). We did some asking around at local hardware and ranch supply stores to see if they could offer any assistance and got the blank stare.
Since it’s a product that should be easy to return, we decided to go with spec sheet and give it a go. We found the pump locally for $129.
Buying online could save you $10-15.
Replacement parts are available for the wear components on this pump so hopefully we’ll get a long wear life from it.
Our experience with the pump thus far has been very positive.
With running amp draw around 5 amps under load it’s easily operated by our portable generator. At 70 feet of head there is still excellent flow of around 3.5 gpm or 210 gph. The time required to transfer 225 gallons to our cistern is right at an hour. The pump can even achieve 30 psi water pressure at this height which is encouraging should we need it for fire fighting.
625 Gallon Ace Rotomold Above Ground Cistern Water Tank
Having carried our water for the past 9 months, we knew our consumption was very consistent at 70 gallons per week total (2 people) for household needs only (showers, dishes, toilet).
It was reasonable to conclude this figure would double with the numerous other uses listed above. Ideally, we wanted to get water no more often than every 2 weeks.
- Problems sourcing water
- Sudden increases in demand like fire fighting
- Retain the strength of the tank sides
Given these figures and guidelines it appeared a tank in the 600 gallon range would be suitable for our short term needs.
Because we lack experience with water storage and were unsure about treatment problems we figured if we were changing over the water in the tank roughly each month that issues were less-likely to arise.
Without getting ahead of ourselves, we also factored into the decision the possibility of using this tank for future transportation once we have a larger cistern in place.
With a proper trailer and tow rig we should be able to transport far more water per trip. A tank in this range would weigh about 5000 lbs which our truck can tow if we can locate a trailer for the task.
A local farm supply store had in stock various brands of tanks, each with different designs and features. The tank by Ace Rotomold caught our eye for a few reasons:
- Round tank and moderate weight: Tanks are available in all sorts of shapes and densities. Locating our tank atop the hill makes it challenging. Round things roll easy and this tank was fairly light at around 90 lbs so we simply rolled it to the top!
- Base size will fit a trailer: As we mentioned using this tank in the future for transportation is something we’d like to keep open. The base size on this tank was 5’ and would easily fit on a trailer.
This tank was on sale for $419 and was of a size we could transport it ourselves in our small utility trailer. We have a little inside joke about the Subaru called “Will it tow?” because of some of the ridiculous things we’ve managed to transport.
Due to the distance involved, we chose to pick up all the items above in one trip. We’re happy to report, we arrived safely!
Single line ¾” PVC Plumbing for Both Feed and Fill
In many water systems, water only travels one direction.
With our system we’d need to be able to both fill and drain the system requiring a two-way flow. The most apparent solution is plumbing a pipe for each direction.
However, to reduce expense, components subject to failure and simplify design, we opted for a single line.
By using a high-flow wye at the high-flow spigot, we are able to add a hose and flow water into the plumbing without putting the system out of commission.
Pressure in the line is maintained whether we’re under gravity pressure or pump pressure.
At the cistern we added a ball valve at the outlet, which also serves as a shut off for the gravity system. Just after the valve we added a tee with a vertical riser which becomes an inlet at the tank lid.
When pumping the ball valve is closed forcing the uphill water to flow up the tee to the inlet.
When under gravity pressure the valve is open releasing water via gravity and the inlet is capped.
This design requires a little effort when it’s time to pump because you must ascend the hill to close the valve and open the inlet and when pumping is complete ascend again to close the valve and cap the inlet.
It’s a great interim solution that didn’t require modifying the tank in any way. Which is important if we want to use the tank for other purposes or sell it in the future.
High-Flow Valves and Wyes
With limited power for pumping and to improve flow characteristics we opted to spend more on high-flow valves and wyes.
On close inspection, you’ll find that many standard components are moderate or even low-flow in their design, likely as a cost-reduction method. We found that high-flow components were often made of brass or a higher quality material than the lower flow models also which should yield a longer service life.
With a low-flow valve or wye installed, our pumping rate was ½ to ⅓ that of the high-flow rate. Pumping 225 gallons to our cistern usually takes about an hour.
With just one low-flow component installed, that time extended well past 2.5 hours. This translates into more wear on our pump and more time babysitting the system.
Expect to spend 3-4x more on high flow parts. You will likely have to look harder or ask for help to locate them as they aren’t in obvious areas. Sometimes looking near gas fittings can put you on the right track.
Securing the Cistern
Though we don’t have many neighbors or trespassers and our cistern location is discrete, one can never be too careful with something like your water source.
For us, we felt installing a high-quality dual-hinge hasp and a padlock was sufficient to secure the lid from tampering. Since we don’t intend to keep an above ground tank long-term, we felt that more extensive security wasn’t justified and a minimum level of security was sufficient.
Frequent inspection of the tank and plumbing is also required to ensure there isn’t non-human induced damage such as falling tree branches.
Why a Gravity Fed Water System and How Does it Work?
Lowest Demand for Power
Our RV water solution worked well because it uses a 12v pump which is on a switch. This system would work okay if we had a tank at ground level and needed to pump only for our RV needs.
With all the other uses for water, having decent water pressure and flow were important especially fire fighting. To achieve this, a pump requiring considerable power would be required.
Gravity is always on and works just as good on cloudy days as sunny days!
Even now as we have relatively little power available without considerable effort we are enjoying the benefits of high water pressure and good flow!
Gravity Fed Water Pressure and Flow Calculations
After hours of online research, I finally conceded to using an overly simplified calculation to determine what water pressure and flow rate we might expect from our 70’ of head and ¾” PVC pipe.
Later I did find a hydrostatic pressure calculator and a flow calculator for those who LOVE math.
Hydro Static Pressure: http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/hydrostatic-pressure-water-d_1632.html
That pressure calculation is .43 lbs of pressure per foot of drop. At 70 feet of drop we could expect approximately 30 psi of pressure.
As it worked out we have right at 30 psi at 10 feet above our property where the spigot is mounted. In theory we might have 34 psi at the RV. Remember this is static pressure. Once the spigot is opened the pressure drops as flow increases.
For flow rate we estimated 15 gpm. We haven’t tested this as it hasn’t been an issue. Let’s just say the flow is plenty for everything we’ve needed!
Learning Experience to Determine Suitability for Long-Term Use
This fairly small system has taught that for our property and needs, gravity feed is a very viable solution.
It takes some considerable design effort and proper sizing is important, but once setup it’s pretty amazing to turn the knob and out comes water!
It’s also helped us better understand each component and how they interact as a part of the system. Perhaps most importantly we’re now better informed about our water needs and usage which will ultimately aid us in designing a long term solution.
Phase Three: Direct-Bury, Below-Ground Cisterns
At the time of this writing, our permanent water system is well underway and we have two Infiltartor cisterns in the ground waiting to be buried!
We’ll update this post with the details as we have time, but for now, enjoy the videos below for a sneak preview! Many to post in this series!
Videos are shown in reverse-chronological order.
We will continue to update this section with resources we come across that may be useful.Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds for Domestic Supply, Fire and Emergency Use–Includes How to Make Ferrocement Water Tanks – This book by Art Ludwig was recommended to us by one of our readers. We haven’t read it cover to cover, but it does have some great information about designing a sustainable water system.
Going Forward & Keeping Updated
As you have probably picked up on by now, our quest for the perfect off-grid water solution has led us on quite a research journey!
We have learned there is no one solution that will work for every property, and that experiments and openness to trying new techniques will eventually get you to the best solution for your property. Make sure to weigh the pros and cons of every system you look at and find out the cost per gallon of each one.
We will continue to update this page as we dive deeper and deeper into a permanent off grid water solution. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below and we’ll try to address them as we have time!
What have your off grid water experiments looked like? We would love to hear about them!
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