You can be in control of your own water, even installing the system. All you really need is a little knowledge about the different components, including conservation, plumbing, controls, filtration, hot water, and grey water.
Using your water wisely and efficiently is an extremely valuable skill to have. As water becomes more scarce, we must all take steps to use it effectively. Wasting water is no longer an option, and even less so on a homestead, where every drop counts.
Knowing how much water you use, and learning to avoid wasting it, is key to any off-grid system. Only then can you calculate how much you need to collect and store.
So how much water do you need? This is a very important question that most of us never ask.
It helps to make a list of everything you use. How many gallons a day do you and your animals drink? How many times a week do you do dishes, laundry, take showers? How many trees or plants do you want to irrigate? And so on. Watch how much your tank drops each month.
If you are using too much, think of ways to cut back or reuse your water. For example:
Once you review your usage of water, you will find that you can get away with very minimal needs and still have plenty of water to go around. A small farm can operate on less than 10,000 gallons of water a year. Be creative and conservative with water.
The second important thing to remember is that the quality of your water determines how valuable it really is. If you have a million gallons of bad water, you can’t support much. So, your storage must be clean and your supply should be filtered and maintained properly to ensure that your water will be usable when you need it. Your storage tank should be sealed against light to prevent algae and other photo-tropic organisms from growing in it. They are the base of the food chain. Without them, the food chain will be weak.
Doing your own plumbing is not as hard as you would think. You basically have to get from A to B, using the right size and type of pipe. It’s a little like putting Legos together with glue, with a few extra steps.
The type and size of pipe varies according to the task at hand. If you live in an area with codes, you will need to meet your local requirements. If not, you still need to make sure you do a good job, water leaks are no fun.
When using PVC you will need to get your measurements exact, as this is a non-flexible type of pipe. Measure and lay out your system, from A to B, and then go back and clean and glue each join.
Where possible we avoid PVC. One, it is unforgiving. If you get a leak or do something wrong, you often have to cut out the bad part and redo the whole thing. Two, there is a great amount of evidence that shows that PVC can be a source of carcinogens, especially if it is exposed to UV. So it is definitely best to avoid it in your drinking water supply.
If you must use PVC, make sure it is completely protected from sunlight. Painting any exposed pieces is essential.
Flexible black poly is by far the better option. It is cheaper. It is flexible, and thus more forgiving. It is put together with hose clamps, so it is easy to redo and change. Plus it is not toxic, nor does it break down in UV.
The pipe is often hard to get onto the fittings. To help make this easy, put the end of the pipe you are using into very hot water before putting it onto the fitting, or you can move a flame around under it. The pipe will soften a little in heat and thus slip on easier.
Metal pipes are more expensive than plastic, but they are stronger. You need to use Teflon on all the threads before screwing them together with pipe wrenches. We tend to use metal coming out of the cisterns or hot water heater, and then HDPE or PEX (for hot water lines) from there to the house and appliances.
Where possible, use brass instead of galvanized to avoid rust issues.
When doing your hot water lines, you will want to use a pipe that can withstand heat. PEX is perfect for this. You will need a special tool to attach it to the fittings, but you can rent or buy one for not too much money.
You should encase all your hot water pipes in insulation, so that you do not waste any heat stored in the lines.
Generally speaking, 1/2″ is fine from the source to your taps, whereas 1 1/2″ or 2″ is better for grey water. Any plumbing coming from your roof to your source should be 4″ to make sure it can handle large quantities of water quickly.
Don’t be afraid of plumbing. Pick a small project, preferably outside (like a garden hose), and try it out. Half the battle of most home projects is deciding that you are qualified to do it.
Knowing more about the pumps and controls of your water system will help you know what to buy and how to maintain it.
Once you have figured out the details of gathering and storing water, you have to get it to your house, where you need it. Delivering water to your appliances requires some level of pressurization and control. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, but we tend to focus on the simplest.
Pumps are the easiest way to deliver water on a homestead, but they have some drawbacks.
Water should be pressurized to properly deliver the water through the filter to the appliances and faucets that need them. A 12-volt pump and a pressure tank can easily provide enough pressure for your home. You can use a pump without a pressure tank, but the latter will extend the life of the former.
Size your pressure tank so that it has enough water for your largest appliance, like the washing machine or a bathtub. 30-60 gallons should be adequate. The pump should have a pressure switch, so when it fills up the pressure tank, it switches the pump off.
Unfortunately, pumps eventually wear out. An elevated storage tank has better water security than an on-demand pump, but can be more difficult to set up. For every foot in elevation you raise the water, you increase the pressure by .45 psi. Most appliances do well with at least 25 psi, so you will need at least 55 feet of elevation difference between the appliance and the tank for decent pressure. Your elevated storage tank should be large enough to supply your home with a week or so of water.
How do you get the water 55 feet higher than your shower head? This is achieved with a water tower and pump. The pump, in this case, only runs every week or so, saving energy and pump life. You can use a float valve on the elevated tank or a manual control to fill the tank whenever you need to. The water tower must be well built, to avoid any potential disasters.
Alternatively, you can just raise the storage tank the height of your roof. This will still allow for gravity feed, but it will not be at a great pressure.
Delivering the water beyond the pressurization system is easy. You just run pipe or tubing that is rated for the pressure you are using.
Most people will opt for some sort of filtration system for their water. If you employ pumps in your system, you should have a mesh screen on the inlet side of the pump. This prevents any large debris from damaging your pump. On the outlet side, go with a whole house filter, rated at 10 microns or less. A DIY alternative is a slow sand filter. These are simple to use and construct. This will take out the vast majority of things in your water, but it will not filter bacteria.
To make water potable, you can use reverse osmosis, activated carbon filters, UV filtration, or a combination of the three.
Having several filters within your system is a good idea. A separate filter each for before the pump, showers, kitchen sink, and for potable. The finer the filter is, the more expensive it is, so having cheaper filters working to purify the water before the potable one will make the latter last longer.
Hot water is the epitome of luxury. There’s nothing quite so soothing after a hard day’s work as a hot shower. And just because you live off-grid, there is no reason to be without.
If you live, or are striving to be, off-grid, hot water is an issue that will come up. Heating anything with electricity can be extremely inefficient and a huge drain on your power system. However, there are several alternatives for heating your water. You just need to decide which is right for you and your location.
If you live in an area that sees a little sun most days, a solar water heater is a great option. Once installed, you won’t have to do anything to it, other than the taxing task of using it.
There are several commercial units available that use vacuum tubes, which will even heat up in cloudy weather. However, if you want to go for a cheaper option, there are several available.
If you put black pipe on the ground or roof in the sun, the water inside will get extremely hot. Cycle this slowly through a tank or pool and you’ll be surprised by hot your water will become.
The system we use is solar. A friend of the family was going to throw out two 8ft x 4ft panels because they were broken. We fixed the minor damage, which involved replacing the glass and soldering some of the copper pipe that snakes back and forth within the panel. These panels are now mounted on our roof and connect to a tank that we placed within a well insulted box. A pump starts cycling the water whenever the temperature within the panels exceeds that of the tank. We are now never without hot water, unless we have about four days without sun. For those very rare occasions, we intend to build a backup Combined Heat and Power (CHP) system.
Compost water heaters are somewhat of a new concept, but basically, you are using the heat given off by the bacteria in your aerobic compost pile to heat your water. The great thing about this method is that it is 24 hours a day. The bad thing is that you have to either make a HUGE pile, or make an insulated box to make the most out of the compost. Plus you will have to stir it up occasionally, and make new piles periodically.
A compost pile basically consists of layers of nitrogen (like manure) and carbon (like sawdust or weeds). You will want to wet it down well, as the moisture will speed up the decomposition, and thus heat. Close it off so that the heat and moisture are trapped inside. It helps to circulate air through it so that it doesn’t turn anaerobic.
We have tried this method for heating a room, not for water. Although it worked well, it is fairly labor intensive as you have to make a new pile every so often. However, you do get the added bonus of beautiful compost for your garden.
An on demand water heater is a great source of heat. These usually use gas, like propane or methane. While you would have to buy the propane required, it is fairly efficient and thus not too expensive. However, you can produce your own methane with a biogas digester. This is something we have always talked about but never got around to. Maybe one day we will.
Click here for a full description of a methane digester.
You can use the excess heat from other systems to heat your water. For example, you can set up a dump load on your power system, so that whenever it produces more power than you need, it can heat the water. Likewise with other things like producing bio char or making ethanol. This method is often good as a backup system, and incorporates the principals of a Combined Heat and Power setup.
Unless you are using an on-demand system, storing your hot water is almost as important as producing it, if you want to be able to use it at any time.
Once you have figured out how you are going to heat your water, you need to be able to store it. This works on the same principle as the batteries on your power system – you are storing energy so that you can use it later, when your source is not producing.
The key to storing heat is insulation. If you don’t want to lose any heat you produce, you must insulate both the tank and the pipes. And that also means protecting that insulation from rain and UV.
Your tank can be metal, concrete, or even plastic, providing it is of a quality that can withstand heat. Your pipes should likewise be heat resistant, like PEX.
We have a 200 gallon plastic tank, set inside an insulation stuffed box that is then stuccoed.
Hot water is not a necessity, and we had a lot to do on our homestead that was far higher on the priority list. However, when we finally did get around to installing a hot water system for our bathroom and kitchen, it changed our lives. Such a simple thing, and yet so enjoyable.
Water is perhaps the most precious commodity on this planet; without it life would not exist. For that reason alone, we should appreciate each and every drop, learning to conserve and reuse as much as possible, even in areas where it is not scarce. Grey water should therefore never be seen as something to be rid of. It is a valuable commodity that can be used in number of ways, like in the garden or on a compost pile.
We strongly believe that archaeologists will look back on our time and see the flushing toilet as the most confusing and inexplicable item of our culture. To use clean water to flush away feces is a waste of both of these useful items. Not to mention that when excrement sits in water, especially underground, the pathogens than can exist in it are allowed to breed uncontrollably. With that in mind, we will not even discuss black water as a viable part of any waste water system; its only worthwhile place belongs as part of a methane digester. Grey water, on the other hand, is an extremely beneficial wastewater and plays an integral part in our overall system.
In our house, the water from the shower and sinks flows into an inside flowerbed that occupies the whole of the south wall of the dining and living room. We grow greens, tomatoes and herbs all year long in this little garden. They add a wonderful aroma and of course oxygen to the air, plus look beautiful. The overflow of this garden then feeds into the outside garden.
Grey water can be very useful in a gardening system, but you must remember that the water will be contaminated by anything you put in the sink, so dispose of any toxic chemicals you absolutely have to use elsewhere. Use biodegradable soaps and detergents, so that the plants can sufficiently break down the waste in the water. In fact, gardens act as a filter for this type of system, and can clean the wastewater before it returns to the water table.
For a system of this kind, you will need a large enough area to properly distribute your largest load of water, either in itself or with an additional overflow area. In most homes, this is never beyond 100 gallons. The water should have a collection bed under the plants, so that the plant roots are not sitting in water, but can reach down into it to filter and use it. In our system, we have a gravel bed that is about 8″ deep, covered with about a foot of good, organic dirt from the compost. The gravel bed has a pipe drilled with holes running through it. The pipe is connected to the grey water drains from the bathtub and sink. Whenever someone uses one of these appliances, the wastewater is delivered to the gravel bed for the plants. The plants have a good underground source of water, the water is beneath the ground, so less evaporates, and most gets to the plants.
Because the water from a kitchen sink can contain a lot of grease and debris, we run it first through an earthworm filter. This filter consists of a crate lined with vinyl that sits inside a tub. The crate is filled with sawdust and worms, which filter all of the “food” left in the dishwater. The water filters through the worms into the tub, which then drains into the garden bed. We have to clean out the filter every 4 to 6 months, putting in new sawdust for the worms. It has been a great addition to our grey water system.
If you don’t want to use your grey water in the garden, you can always route it to a compost pile. Moisture in a compost pile helps it decompose more quickly.
You can gradually increase the size of your water system as time goes by. Start off small, so that you can at least cover the essentials. And then work your way up to having way more than you need, so that a hot, full bath when you are really tired is a luxury you can afford.