One very common question that is raised when discussing our our off grid journey is “What are you doing for water?” This topic conjures fear, or at least anxiety, in many people unless you’ve done this before, and for good reason! We need water to survive and can only go a few days without it. We also see that a lot of folks really don’t know where to start and what it means to have the water you need versus the endless supply of city utility. We’d like to share a solution that’s working for us and hope it helps you find your own solution.
When you first dream of living off the grid and having a homestead, you dream up all sorts of crazy ideas. We envisioned buying 5-10 acres of land on a year-round creek with water rights or a natural spring, having a thick, beautiful forest with enough lumber to build an entire house without the forest looking bare, lush soil for growing endless food, a spot for a pasture to raise livestock, a view (a southern view at that for the solar potential), not too far off a county road so that we wouldn’t be responsible for plowing too much of a driveway (for starters), good drainage for septic, within our price range, and that the owner was willing to carry the contract.
While we all have our perfect dream of what starting a homestead or living off grid should look like, the reality is that unless you’re the 1%, your first property won’t have everything that you want. In fact you’ll likely end up working the pros/cons list pretty hard to decide what you’re willing to give up and can live without.
Bringing that fantasy back to the point of this article; we don’t have a natural free flowing source of water on our property. While everyone wants these, they aren’t everywhere and even then they aren’t all rainbows and unicorns. When you’re property hunting on a budget expect to make sacrifices. So we have a few options, one of which is drilling a well to tap the aquifer.
The problem is that drilling a well costs money, and potentially a lot of it! When you’re first starting out, financing your off grid projects is often one of the biggest challenges. Wells can run $3,000 to $15,000+ and it all really depends on how far down you need to drill. While you can look at other wells in the area to make an educated guess as to how far down you will need to drill to hit the water table, nothing is guaranteed. Then add in the pump, pressure tank, getting power to the pump, pipe, fittings, insulation… you get the idea!
We chose not to drill a well yet (we will address this concern at the end of the article). We did find a solution for water that is working, is simple and meets our needs. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Glamour and ego aside we’re after meeting our basic needs at this point.
Our Basic Off Grid Water System for Our RV
The first month living on our land, we took our travel trailer to get water and dump the septic every five days or so. This was inconvenient, exhausting, and actually took a lot of time, keeping us from getting important work done on the property. I think we were just foggy-brained due to the move and the fast-pace of life, because it didn’t even occur to us right away that we could bring the water in! While that seems obvious now we had a lot going on and we were looking for a proper solution not a temporary fix. Sometimes we overthink things (okay we do this a lot!) and make life harder than it needs to be.
We were shopping one day for a few things and in walking past the RV department in the store a light bulb went on that we could maybe find some water jugs. We looked and looked, but found nothing that was a good fit. We even asked at several hardware stores with no luck. They kept offering us buckets… BUCKETS?
Some time later we were shopping again and decided to look around a bit and VOILA! we ran into some camping canteens. These were rugged 6-gallon water jugs with a removable nozzle at the end. With 4 of them we could easily fill up the 25 gallon water tank in our 19″ Fun Finder RV. We had to use a funnel to make it work, but it was manageable.
The Cost of Our Solution
One of the most attractive qualities to this rudimentary solution is the low cost. These 6-gallon water jugs are just $20/piece. We ended up buying eight of them, so our total cost was $160.00 to have our water needs completely taken care of.
At first, we hesitated getting a bunch of jugs in case we were able to come up with a different solution in the meantime. It didn’t happen. Investing in these water jugs is not money down the drain- we could likely resell these, put them to use on our homestead, keep them as backups or even just use them as easy-to-access water storage when we are done with them.
Water is 25 cents (it’s coin operated) in town for more water than we can handle (rumor is 400 gallons, but we’ve never had enough need to find out). We fill up our water jugs maybe six times a month, so our water bill is about $1.50/month. This is a water station provided by the city and is used by a large number of off-grid households who don’t have water provisions. It’s also used by the fairgrounds for livestock during rodeos and other events, so it’s a nice public service and is available all year around.
How We Took This a Bit Further
We did have one small pain point with our solution… even though we could both easily lift and transport the 6-gallon water jugs when they were full, it was somewhat difficult to do the initial hoist into the air, and it it took a lot of muscle control to hold the jug steadily as to get as much water into the tank as possible. Due to the design of the water tank inlet, we had to pour slowly which mean even a greater strain on our muscles! We’ve said it before; we don’t want to risk injury, especially when this is a task we need to do pretty much daily. Apparently no one who designs RV’s intends for water to be added by hand?!? Who knew!
Jesse looked through a few of our reclaimed materials and found some basic parts to create a gravity-fed system for filling up our tank. It entails a short water hose (more on how we ended up with this hose in a minute), two funnels and a small shelf to set the jug on while it drains. With this in place, all we need to do is attach the end of the hose to the water jug spout, lift it onto the shelf with one big lift, and come back when it’s done or when we remember to add another jug.
I do have to be honest… the height of the shelf makes it difficult for me to lift the jug. When I was a practicing rock climber I had a lot more upper body strength, but not climbing any more it’s faded a bit. Once, I tried my best but my lack of muscle control caused the full jug to fall on my face just as it was about to settle on the shelf. But the important thing to note is that I am capable one way or another of filling the water tank by myself if Jesse isn’t available. Something we needed in case he ever needs to leave for a while for any reason.
Pros to Our Solution
The benefits to this type of solution may not be obvious to others and to some it doesn’t seem thought out at all, but some of the reasons why this works so well include:
- Cost-effective: Reducing costs when going off grid is a something you have to be diligent about. Not only did this cost us under $200 to set up ($180 for the water jugs and less than $20 for both funnels), but our monthly water bill is under $2.00/month. Not only that, but we didn’t have to fork out thousands of dollars for a well yet which is important because we had a million other things to spend money on… things we deemed more important such as installing our septic system.
- Lightweight: Some folks think that bigger is better when it comes to water storage. In our case, smaller jugs are actually better because we can both lift them with enough ease. If we went larger than six gallon jugs, it would be difficult to lift them in and out of the car, drain them into the water tank, and move them about in general. 6 gallons is about 48-50 lbs. It’s heavy, but manageable. We found some 7 gallon jugs. Believe it or not, that added gallon makes this an injury risk. So 6 gallons it is!
- Don’t need a trailer or vehicle for a water tank: Some think that it’s a better idea to go with say a 250-400 gallon truck, livestock or IBC tank, but this would be too heavy (2000-3500 lbs!) for our utility tralier, and we use the back of our truck for storage nor do we want to drive it in the inclement weather during winter to get water. Our Subaru also would not tow that heavy of a load, so you can see quickly that we would need to buy a new vehicle or a more suitable heavy-duty trailer… both would cost money and would be short-term solutions… aka poor investments.
- Keeping your water from freezing: It’s still funny to us when we talk about keeping thawed out and people usually respond with “Oh why not just use INSERT OBJECT WHICH REQUIRES POWER“. For example, “Oh it’s easy to keep an RV from freezing. My parents did it in -40 F in Nebraska. All they did was use heat tape.” WHICH REQUIRES POWER!So yet another problem with many water solutions is that freeze ups come into the picture. While a truck tank or even an above ground storage tank sound awesome, we’ve had 10 day stretches at 0 deg F. Keeping anything from freezing at that temp without electricity is challenging. During super cold snaps, we keep our water near the wood stove in our cabin addition to keep it from freezing up. This has worked well. A few times we mistakenly left it close to the walls which resulted in some slushing in the jugs, but getting it near the fire we were able to thaw them back out. Not a perfect solution, but workable.
- Fits our current routine: We run into town 1-2x per week for errands, checking the mail, getting propane or fuel for the generator, doing laundry, etc. so when we are in town, we simply swing by the local watering hole and fill up any empty jugs. Usually it’s 5-6 jugs at a time. It ads an extra 10 minutes to our trip and we never have to leave strictly for a water run.
How much water can you expect to use?
This is actually a very important number to have as it makes this type of water solution viable. We had spent hours reading and doing “calculations” on things like power needs, water needs before we arrived to our off grid property. However until you’re actually living off grid you simply can’t know what your needs will be. So now we can actually share some rough figures!
We had some experience with water conservation already.
If you’ve read our prior posts you know we spent several weeks car camping as we we searching for an area to homestead and selecting an off grid property. During this time we used four 1-gallon water jugs and these would last us conservatively about 2 days. We used them for drinking water, cooking food and doing dishes at the campsite. Each time we were in town, getting fuel or at a park we’d top them off. So we sort of had a rough idea that we’d like need more than 4 gal/day, but weren’t sure exactly how much.
Our Current Water Usage
Currently, on average, we use about 2 jugs (12 gallons) per day. This means we can go about 4 days before needing to refill our water jugs. We’ve been at the consumption level for 3 months now, so it’s VERY consistent. Some days we don’t use that much, but the days we both shower (we take full showers on average every other day and a quick rinse daily). We also do dishes at least 2 times per day with breakfast and dinner. We flush our toilet generously to help the rv waste tanks dump easier. Based on our usage when car camping and when we first arrived this consumption level isn’t being overly conservative.
While this is working now, it is not what we want to stick with forever (obviously!). Clearly once we start building we’ll need water for concrete. Once we have a garden we’ll need water for that and many more things. This isn’t the end-all off grid water post. It’s a getting started water post! Here is what we want to do over the next couple of years, in order of preference (we think).
- Get a cement cistern buried on the hillside: A plastic above-ground tank isn’t ideal for many of the reasons mentioned above. We want to go for a solid solution. We were hoping to have a 3,000 gallon concrete tank or so on the hillside so that we can have a gravity-fed system in place already, but it wasn’t meant to be before winter hit. Super low tech!The problem is that we need to find a contractor that is willing to do this for us which surprisingly has been difficult. The tanks are easy to come by, but putting it on a hill isn’t so straightforward. With winter here it’s just that much more difficult. Ideally, we’ll have a local water trucking service deliver water once every 3-6 months which we’ve priced out to be about $150/visit. We’ve considered hauling our own water and installing our own cistern. We still have many options and decisions ahead of us.
- Drill a well: Because this is such a variable, and large, expense, it’s not really an urgent priority. We then hope to have a solar-powered well pump that will fill the cistern when there is sun. This would be a very passive system instead of “on-demand” which would require far less power and much less stress on components.
- Install a back-up manual pump: Last on the priority list would be installing some sort of manual well pump so that if all else failed, we’d have a rudimentary way to get our water. This could be timed well so that we would have around 7 children capable of pumping the well round-the-clock (we kid… hopefully you know us well enough by now!).
- Rain collection: This is on the list, but it’s reliant on many other things like building our timber frame barn. So while we have a lot of precipitation now we don’ t have the means to collect, store, filter and access it. So in time, this will be a fun project! One thing at a time.
Why didn’t we choose other water solutions? Let’s take a look.
Small Water Tanks (Truck Tanks, IBC Containers, etc.)
When trying to solve the problem of holding up the water jug while filling our RV tank, Jesse had brainstormed a few ideas to solve the problem. One was putting a small tank in the attic of our small cabin addition and letting gravity do the work but there were numerous problems including: fitment, filling the tank would have had it’s own challenges and yet again we would need to spend several hundred dollars on a temporary solution.Lots of folks suggested getting a livestock tank or IBC tank. All good ideas! We looked at them at they’re affordable, portable and have a much larger capacity.
Except… we don’t have a way to keep things form freezing that are exposed. We don’t intend to burn our wood stove all winter unless the temps drop lower than 25 F. Thus we’d have to consume more wood or risk freezing up. In fact we haven’t run the wood stove for nearly two weeks except to remove moisture in the cabin, thus conserving resources.
One day we were in a hardware store for some other items and put the problem to the gentlemen helping us. He suggested using a drill pump. The idea hadn’t occurred to us and seemed like a great idea with low cost. We had recently purchased a Makita drill kit and could easily pump without the heavy lifting.
So we grabbed a potable water hose (mentioned earlier), the pump and off we went. Long story short, it was a stupid idea! Those pumps are low quality junk at best. Maybe they’re good for draining a clogged sink or bath tub, but they’re not something you want to rely on for your daily water needs. We had already cut the potable water hose so kept it and returned the pump. Our new gravity system uses the same hose and zero technology. Reliable as gravity!
Keeping Water From Freezing While Living in an RV
For those considering homesteading in a winter climate, and even for those who are more temperate but can have cold blasts, this is a major consideration. We’ve been holding nearly 32 F for over a month which is much easier to manage than the 1-5 F temps we had during December.
What we’ve found is that we can fairly reliably keep our trailer from freezing down to about 25 F by keeping the cupboards cracked so the heat can get into these areas and warm the pipes. Our fresh water tank is under our bed with a large storage area. On sub-freezing nights we keep the door fully open under there. Once it dips below 25 F we have to fire up the wood stove to protect things.
Also the way our trailer is designed the pipes are exposed in the back of the cabinets, making it easy to keep them warm. Not all RV’s are this way and if you plan to take on a winter in an RV, you’ll want to look at plumbing layouts. Stay away from any that store the plumbing in the floor. Guaranteed frozen pipes.
Time to Address Your Fears & The “What Ifs!”
Like we said before, water is a very scary thing for most people as we can only live a few days without it. Here are some common concerns and we’re not saying that our way is the right way, but we’d just like to share our thoughts on these matters and you can take it or leave it as you see fit.
If you don’t have your own well, aren’t you completely dependent on someone else for water?
Yes. We are not self-sustainable (yet) when it comes to water. We are not self-sustainable in many ways today, but we’re a million times better off than when we were living in the city. We’ve taken a huge step towards self-sufficiently but you need to learn to crawl before you can walk or run. We don’t let the fear of not being perfect hold us back. If you want to have the dream off grid property on day one, then you better buy a fully-developed home on day one and be okay with paying the price and very likely having a mortgage payment for the next 30 years. We believe that by using a simple water solution now will help us be fully self-sustainable quicker.
Shouldn’t you drill a well first and if there is no water, find a new property?
I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer for this question. For us, this is a journey of becoming self-sufficient, and we are okay up-leveling over time. We consulted with a well driller in the area prior to purchasing and based on surrounding properties, there is a pretty good / very good chance we should be able to get water at a reasonable depth. If the answer was a flat out “NO”, we would not have bought the property.
That said, if we drill a well or two and get nothing, we’re okay getting water trucked in once or twice a year or hooking up to the local water membership if a spot opens up, or seeing if we can work out a deal with a neighbor for sharing their well. Heck we might be able to make rain collection our sole water source. We can’t know all of this yet. Too soon.
Not ideal obviously, but we also aren’t certain this is our “forever property”. It’s more like our “training wheels property”. We are keeping in mind that we may want to sell it one day for one reason or another, and many people don’t prioritize being off grid. Either way, we’re better off than living in the city where your water supply can be shut off immediately or you don’t get a drop unless you pay whatever ridiculous fee’s the conjure up at the latest “everyone needs a raise” board meeting which no one has time to attend… Rant over. If we had a cistern, we’d likely always have a bit of water on hand, not to mention we’re in an area surrounded by self-sufficient people AND lots of water in general!
What if sh*t hits the fan and you can’t get water in town, your neighbors won’t share, and your jugs are empty?
First of all, if this is your concern I suggest you read our blog post about well-meaning critics and the fear-driven society we live in (not to be rude, just to give you some insight as to why you ask such things. It’s not your fault and you shouldn’t feel bad for being afraid).
If we want to be 100% self-sufficient today, then Jesse and I should probably both go get corporate jobs that pay extremely well for 1-2 years (which would require living in the city), we would be paying high rent, high income tax, should say goodbye to our property, and get the best damn mortgage we could get! This isn’t something a lot of people want to talk about. It’s a bit of an elephant in the room.
Fully self-sufficient, beautiful off-grid properties aren’t cheap… how many of you would qualify for a $300,000+ loan if you wanted? I was approved for $150,000 when I was making $40,000/year. Oh yea… the banks also don’t like to finance on off-grid properties, so you’d probably have to buy the property cash, or if the owner was willing to carry the loan they would likely want 25-50% down. Who has $75,000 to $150,000 in cash laying around? Not most folks! That’s why many off grid properties are being bought up by Californians or people other massive economic centers who’ve had higher than average wages for decades (stop me if I tell a lie).
The reality is that you can only do what you can do. On a journey such as this, we all start out as little baby infants, and we can’t change that no matter how hard we try. All we can do is put one foot in front of the other and up-level throughout life, and before we know it, we’ll be a pretty sufficient adult. And for you speculative extremists… if we DIE because we chose not to get a well immediately, then so be it… we’ve had a pretty good life, obviously weren’t smart enough to figure things out and would die happy knowing that we gave it our best shot!
What if we decided to go for water supply first?
Funny… we actually have someone write us on our Instagram and mentioned they chose to drill a well first. We were curious what this might look like had we taken that path. It turns out they have also have a unique problem… getting rid of waste! Their solution was to use a portable waste tank and dispose of it at a local waste site.
So having a water supply doesn’t get rid of problems, it creates a new one. As you might recall we chose to have septic installed first. This created a lot of debate on our Youtube Septic Installation video and blog post about off grid septic installation. Of course the waste “experts” out there will have a million solutions to their problem, but the reality is waste is a big problem and unless you plan to just dump it in your back yard or in the creek you’ll need a way to properly dispose of it. And we’re not just talking poop here peeps. You create a lot more waste water than poop. It all has to go somewhere.
Just ask yourself this question, which would you rather haul, waste or fresh water? We chose fresh water.
Oh yea… our local septic dump also turns off the water in the winter season which would mean that we couldn’t rinse out the portable tank, hose, our hands, any spills (it happens!), or anything like that. Doesn’t sound fun for anyone.
Wrapping It Up
This turned into a lengthy post! When people ask “What are you doing for you water?” we know that behind the question is more than an inquiry about water solutions. It’s often infused with a lot of fear, because lack of water is one of the things we fear the most and something we don’t all have years of experience to call upon. We thought that we would address some of the real concerns people have when they ask that question, and for those of you that try to understand our message, we hope that this is motivating to you and gives you another perspective to size up your own situation!
On all aspects of your off grid journey, you need to weigh the pros and cons of every option, and ultimately decide what is going to help you achieve your goals the quickest. If having your water needs taken care of is your #1 priority and would give you huge peace of mind, then make it happen and don’t look back… sacrifice other areas instead! Just make the best decision for you and your family.
We’d love to hear what water solutions are working well for you and your family. Did you decide to drill a well first? Do you have a spring on your property or even a creek with water rights? Did you get a large storage tank? Are you doing something similar? Let us know (try to keep the comments positive)!
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