The first goal of any homestead is to identify a water source and begin to protect and manage it. Even when there is no water source apparent, there will be when it rains.
Catching rainwater from your roof is the most accessible source of water for off-grid homes. Everyone gets at least a little rain, and if you size your roof and storage to match your annual rainfall, you need never go without water.
Water is such a necessity on a small homestead, that most people will not even buy land without a water source. If you failed to get land with a water source, don’t worry, you can still have water, although it may take some work. We have never had a source of water on our properties, but we were able to thrive with rain catchment, which is our favorite source of water.
Our first rainwater catchment was kind of an accident. When we first moved to the desert, before we had built anything, we lived in a bus. It was the perfect little starter home, until month number two when a hailstorm hit us. Hail stones the size of golf balls shattered all the windows and even put holes through the sheet metal roof. From then on, every time it rained, it rained inside. We knew where the holes were and had buckets at the ready. When the buckets filled up, we’d pour them into larger containers. It was awesome. Free water without having to haul… we were hooked. After that, it was just a question of making the system a little more refined.
A rain catchment system consists of a collection area or roof, gutter and piping, a storage tank, and a delivery system.
The main component is the roof, without that, you can’t collect much water. So, how much water can you collect? Multiply the square footage of your roof’s foot print (do not include the extra area from, say, a peaked roof) by 0.6. That is how many gallons you will collect in each inch of rain.
Calculate your average rainfall, and how much water you want (or need) to have, and you will have a fair idea of how much roof you will need.
You want to make your roof out of a material that does not leech toxic elements into your water. For example, concrete, acrylic concrete, and painted metal are fine. And it should slope sufficiently to deliver the water.
At the end of the roof are the gutters. The gutters are designed to collect the water from the roof and deliver it to the pipes that go to the storage tank. Your gutter should be cleaned often, and, in areas with lost of trees, some sort of leaf protection should be researched. The less trash that gets into the gutters means less trash in the pipes and tank later on.
When installing your gutter, mark a level line, and then drop the downspout end by an inch or so. That should be a sufficient slope for the water to run down. The gutter pipes should be at least 4 inches in diameter to properly deliver the water to the tank. Smaller sizes can cause backups in heavy rains, creating overflow in the gutter and possible damage to your system, not to mention wasting water that you could be collecting.
A screen filter in the delivery system before the tank is a good idea. Just in case some dirt or leaves gets down the pipe, you want to keep that sort of trash from getting into the tank. Be careful, however, and clean these filters regularly, as any type of blockage will create a problem. Keep your pipes and tanks completely dark to avoid growing algae and starting a food chain.
To ensure that the water in your tank stays as clean as possible, it is a good idea to install a first flush system. This acts as a primary diverter, so that the dirt and dust from your roof does not enter your tank. It is most useful when it hasn’t rained for a while and dust has been allowed to accumulate.
The idea is simple; place a barrel in line between your roof and your storage tank. The inlet to the barrel has a float valve. As the first water from your roof travels down your gutter systems towards your tank, the water enters your first flush barrel. When the barrel fills up, the water can then enter your storage tank. After filling up, the barrel slowly drains out to a tree or garden spot. This leaves it ready for the next rain.
Water catchment can provide for a home, even in the desert. Coupled with conservative usage and proper storage, a rainwater system is one of the best water systems available. The water is clean and very reliable. You have decent security, because you don’t run the chance that a neighbor could pollute your water storage like in groundwater systems.
If your property has a good supply of unpolluted groundwater, a well could be a good source of water for you. However, they are expensive to drill and it is not always guaranteed that you will hit water.
Water can also be stored underground and used as a source with the drilling of wells. Wells are temperamental, but in some areas, they are all that are available. The sad fact about wells is that in the areas that need water the most, wells are abused the most. If you and your 10 neighbors all have wells in a dry area, chances are, the water will run out. So, you can dig deeper, constantly chasing the water level. The groundwater must be recharged somewhere, and organic matter in the soil plays a huge role in the soil’s ability to soak up water. You rarely see runoff in a healthy forest, but in a plant-less desert, runoff is common. So, if you are using a well, you need to be spreading compost and constantly increasing the organic matter of your soil.
Wells are also extremely prone to pollution. The number one cause of groundwater pollution in the USA is septic tanks. For this reason, we are firm believers that septic tanks should be outlawed in all states and countries. There is no such thing as a “safe” septic tank. Municipal water treatment facilities are BIG septic tanks, and they pollute the groundwater at incredible rates. The E-coli outbreaks in your leafy greens and fruits are from contaminated water supplies. The irrigation water is coming from a groundwater source that has been polluted by a septic system, be it a giant one like from a town or a small one from a farm house (most likely is actually the municipal treatment plant).
That said, if you can control ground pollution and keep your soil from eroding and allowing excessive runoff, a well could be a great addition to the homestead. You will need to consider a way to pump the water from the well up to ground level. Windmills and solar pumps are the most energy efficient.
If you have access to a river or stream from your property, you are lucky. Naturally flowing water has all kind of benefits to a homestead. However, you must also be careful and check for pollution.
Above ground sources, like rivers and ponds, are excellent sources of water, not just for the water itself, but as a form of water and energy storage. Dirt ponds are the cheapest method of storing large amounts of water. However, if made incorrectly, they can be prone to problems. Rivers are unreliable, but can serve a useful purpose for irrigation and raw power. The unfortunate fact is that many rivers are polluted by industry and agriculture. If you are using water from a river in any way, get it tested for everything!
If you have access to a clean and constant river, good for you. If nothing else it is a place you can swim and do laundry.
An airwell collects water from the air through condensation. If you don’t want to wait for rain and have some humidity, this may be an option for you to add to your water sources.
An air well is an interesting device that actually pulls water out of the air. We have never seen one in person, but they are supposed to work very well, especially in coastal areas with fog. The basic concept is a big condenser, something to cool the air down. As the air cools, the water condensates, and you collect it at the bottom. There are many different methods from large screens and fences to huge piles of rocks. They are all very simple and many don’t require any input of energy to work.
If you happen to find a property that has a natural spring on it, you’re in luck. Many springs, especially in wooded areas, have sweet, pure water. Getting the water tested is a priority, but if it’s good, you have a great source of water.
You might not want to have it as your only source of water, just in case it dries up. Have some kind of backup, like catchment, ready. But otherwise, enjoy your spring, and feel privileged to have it.