You have to admit, the idea of off-grid living sounds exciting. But before you set it up, making sure of the availability of clean, drinking water is a must. When you do not get ready to drink water right out of the tap, hauling, storing, and managing water is a completely different ball game.
Human beings use water for a variety of reasons, some of which are more important than others. For basic survival related to food and water, the average requirement can be 2.5 to 3 liters (0.65 to 0.79 gallons) in a day. For basic hygiene practices, the requirement can be around 1 to 1.5 gallons. This can vary based on climate, individual physiology, and social norms.
For anyone used to the comforts of a steady municipal supply, the task of setting up your own water system sounds challenging. To start with, you need to do the right planning and create a basic system design. After that, you can start with the actual construction
So in this article, we will talk about setting up an off-grid water system that you can use in a remote cabin.
The Primary Off-Grid Water Sources
Basically, an off-grid water system is a water source independent of the electrical grid or a municipal water system. The first thing to do is to locate a dependable source of water. Contrary to popular belief, there are quite a few water sources in the wilderness that you may find.
People have used wells since the early days of human civilization. If your property has a well, you can use a submersible pump to draw water from it into your supply tank. In case the property doesn’t have one, digging a new well can be highly expensive.
The depth of the groundwater table will determine the final depth of the well. The average depth of wells in the United States is around 150 feet. The deeper you need to go, the higher the costs will be. It can vary between 100 feet in wet areas to 1000 feet in a desert climate. A complete Artesian well system for the off-grid cabin can cost anywhere between $10,000 to $20,000.
Most likely, you will need a permit to dig a well as per the local regulations. If you are planning to dig your own well, think again. Without professional drilling equipment, it is difficult to dig a deep well, especially if you hit a rock bed. Also, without the right equipment, the hole diameter might not be big enough for a pump.
The good news is, once completed a well can be a dependable source of water for years to come. The minimum requirement of maintenance is another big plus.
Keep in mind, well water may have quality issues. So it is best to have the groundwater tested for contaminants and toxicity before you start digging a well in a location.
It may happen, you have purchased an amazing piece of land but do not have the budget to dig a well. Thankfully, there are other options you can choose from.
A water body like a lake or a natural pond near your cabin can be a reliable water source throughout the year. All you need to do is use a jet pump and build a pipeline between the source and your storage tank. While this is less expensive, it is considered illegal in many areas. You may need a permit for doing the same from the local authorities.
However, the consumption of surface water from a stagnant source is not advisable without purification. Unless your property has a crystal clear mountain stream or a natural spring, limit the use of unfiltered surface water for livestock and gardening.
A Creek or a Stream
A creek that flows all through the year is an excellent water source for your property. Since the water is flowing continuously, it is purer than surface water sources like lakes. In addition, the creek water can be used to develop a DIY system for hydropower generation for your property.
Collecting the creek water will need a submersible pump. To transfer the water through rugged terrain or a steep gradient, choose a powerful pump. Combining the pump with a filtration system is a good idea.
Apart from that, using spring water is another option. Even though spring water flows freely, harvesting it requires a lot of initial effort. Firstly, you might find the spring in an inconvenient location. Besides, the water may get contaminated from other sources.
Developing a rainwater collection or catchment system for your off-grid property is a simple and inexpensive task. Generally, 1 inch of rainfall delivers 0.623 gallons of water from a single square foot of roof space,
Since the rainwater supply is inconsistent, it can not be your primary water source. Still, it can be effective as a supplemental option. It’s also one of the cleanest natural water sources and is free from chemicals and excess minerals.
To start with, get a clear idea about the annual average precipitation in your location. The easiest way is to collect and store rainwater in food-grade plastic barrels or tanks, instead of wasting the runoff. The barrels can be placed at a gutter downspout or at the end of collection pipes.
This may not be the best solution in terms of the off-grid spirit, but it is one of the easiest ones. You can simply buy water and haul it to your cabin. While this allows you to buy water as per your requirement, you will need to make regular runs to town. Besides, purchasing water in bulk is not possible in every location.
There are “ranch water fill stations” in some municipalities that can be another solution. They are also a lifesaver in case your off-grid system gets damaged in an emergency.
However, carrying a heavy water tank in your pickup truck will put a huge strain on the vehicle and also increase fuel consumption. Besides, it might be too far from your location to be a feasible option.
How to Move Water From the Source to the Off-Grid Shelter
In an urban setting connected with the grid, pressurized, pre-treated water is supplied through a system of underground pipelines. In an off-grid setting running water can be supplied either by setting up an off-grid power system or by manual operation.
Water System Design Concept
The basic purpose of planning an off-grid water supply system is to store the maximum volume of water in or as close as possible to your house. Most supply systems come with the following basic elements.
A supply or catchment surface – This can be a water source or a roof that can act as a catchment area for rainwater harvesting
A conveyance system– This is an electrically powered or manual system that conveys the water to a storage point
The storage system – A tank or cistern that can safely store water for prolonged periods
A filtration system– This is for purifying the impurities from the water
The distribution system– This can be gravity operated or electrically powered to deliver running water in the house.
The conveyance system will require a pump connected with supply pipelines. The pump capacity in gallon per minute flow rate can vary depending on your requirement. Using a pressurized water tank along with the pump is a good way to maintain a continuous flow rate while optimizing the power consumption.
For storing water storage tanks or cisterns are used. Both above-ground and underground placement is possible, depending on your conditions. Underground cisterns are a practical choice in cold weather to prevent the water from freezing or the tank from cracking.
Remember, the installation of underground cisterns requires some proper engineering and a close inspection of the soil condition. Without the right foundation for support, a large cistern may collapse or sink into the ground. Note, a cistern is designed to handle the stress levels at a particular depth. So do not place your cistern too deep in the ground.
Storage tanks made from food-grade plastic are an affordable option. They offer great durability and are also designed to resist microbial growth. Being lightweight, they are also easy to move around when empty.
Before you plan to set up a DIY off-grid water system, here are some facts and figures you will find useful.
- 8.33 pounds is the approximate weight of a gallon of water
- To raise one gallon of water against gravity by 100 feet, the energy requirement is 833 foot-pounds or 0.0003 kilowatt-hours.
- A one-foot high water column will exert a downward force of 0.433 pounds per square inch.
- The head is equivalent to the vertical distance that the water travels from the source to the cistern. The total head will also include the frictional losses in the pipelines.
Water Supply From Off-Grid Power Systems
The windmill and photovoltaic panels are two of the easiest options for setting up your own power system. These renewable energy sources can power the pump to deliver pressurized water to your line. A pump is also used to transfer water to a storage tank located at a higher elevation.
Solar pumps are becoming a popular choice for off-grid water supply. The solar arrays that produce electricity power the pump. Being powered by solar energy, they can function as a fully independent system.
These pumps are easily compatible with overhead tanks or underground cisterns. A submersible DC pump operating on solar power can draw water from a deep well. Also, solar pumps consume a lower energy per gallon than a conventional centrifugal AC pump.
An independent wind water pumping system can also be set up. Here, the pump is connected with a wind rotor, a tower, and a mechanical linkage system. The most important thing is to match the pump capacity with the turbine blade design. The minimum wind speed required is around 5-6 mph. For deeper wells, a multi-bladed turbine design will be necessary.
Another option is to use an electric wind water pump system operated by a wind turbine generator. Batteries can store the power for use when the wind is not blowing. The major advantage of this system is the pump can be located at a distance from the turbine generator.
A gravity-operated system is the most popular method of water distribution. It is one of the oldest techniques used in a water supply. The water from the storage tank at a higher elevation will naturally flow down the pipelines to the necessary points.
Manual or Hand-Powered Water Supply
Manual well pumps are a less expensive solution when your water demand is low. The old-school method of using just your arms to fetch water may seem a little backward. But it has multiple benefits in an off-grid setting. Since the system functions without power, it can ensure water security in case the power supply fails.
You can use the pump to fill buckets and carry them to the storage point. However, these pumps are best for shallow wells. Usually, manual pumps are not effective for wells deeper than 250 feet. As you pump the handle up and down, a simple rod and piston mechanism push the water up. In addition to that, the system requires very little maintenance.
To get pressurized water from a manual system, you need to use a gravity-fed system or a cistern connected with an electric pump. This makes the entire process more difficult and time-consuming. You may also use a manual pump alongside an electric pump to get the best of both worlds.
Hot Water Off-Grid
Ensuring a hot water supply for your off-grid cabin will be an energy-intensive aspect. Still, it is a necessity in some areas. One of the oldest methods is to boil water on a stove or over a woodfire. But that will require a lot of hard work and fuel.
Installing a propane water heater is another affordable option. Then again, your fuel supply may not be enough for boiling gallons of water every day.
One of the best ways is to use a solar-powered water heater and harness the power of the sun. This water is stored in a separate tank, before being supplied for household use. Note, the storage tank should be well insulated to prevent heat loss.
Before installing any solar water heating system, consider the cost and efficiency. You need to estimate the correct system size based on the water requirement and temperature of the supply water. Make sure to check the solar resource of your area along with the local codes and regulations.
There are two types of solar heating systems which are generally used.
Active Solar Water Heating
There are two forms of active systems. If your area is not too cold, a direct circulation system with a pump should be good enough. For colder climates, a more complex indirect circulation system is a better option. These systems use a non-freezing heat transfer fluid, a heat exchanger, and a pump.
Passive Solar Water Heating
These systems are less expensive but have a lower efficiency. However, they tend to last longer. They can be classified into two types- integral collector-storage passive systems and thermosyphon systems.
Purifying the water before consumption is an extremely important step. Impure water can not only affect your health but the sediment in it can damage equipment and clog pipelines. The first step is to conduct a water test to determine the quality.
That said, water used for livestock and plants does not need extensive purification. Unfiltered rainwater or well water can be used for activities other than drinking or cooking. To optimize time and resources, it is important to estimate the exact volume of water that requires purification.
Basically, the treatment of water involves both filtration and purification. Filtration is clearing the larger particles and sediments from water. Purification is the removal of unseen impurities like parasites, heavy metals, and chemicals.
We have listed some common problems related to well and surface water.
- The water may contain dissolved minerals and salts that can cause skin-related problems. It can also damage appliances and clothing.
- In case the area is near farmland, the water can contain traces of pesticides and traces of nitrates and phosphates.
- Shallow wells can contain pathogens like Cryptosporidium and e.Coli. So it’s best to god as deep as possible.
- The water can be cloudy or have a bad taste.
Many survivalists use a three-stage DIY filter made from sand, gravel, and charcoal for purifying water. But that’s not the best choice for filtering large volumes of water. So here are some simple but effective ways of purifying water for an off-grid location.
Boiling and Distillation
Boiling is one of the most effective ways of purifying water. In most cases, it is used along with sedimentation to remove the suspended particles from water. While boiling will not remove chemicals, it will remove the harmful parasites. However, boiling gallons of water will require a lot of time and a huge expenditure of fuel.
Apart from boiling, distillation is another great way of removing all forms of impurities from water. Here the water is boiled and the steam is collected and condensed back to obtain pure water. However, this is a labor-intensive process and best for purifying small volumes of water.
UV Light Treatment
Sunlight contains enough UV radiation to decontaminate water. But the process is time-consuming and dependent on solar intensity. Using portable UV light filters is a great way to destroy the bacteria, viruses, and protozoa that cause water-borne illnesses. UV rays between the bandwidth of 200 nm and 300 nm are best for this purpose.
Since UV filters will not remove the suspended particles, you need to combine them with a particulate filter.
Ceramic Water Filters
These are simple mechanical filters that are easy to use and are compact. The water passes through the microscope pores in the filter element. The larger impurities, including microorganisms, get left behind. Since they last long and the filter candles are replaceable, they offer great value.
In this method chlorine is the most common element used for purification. The chemicals used include bleach or sodium hydroxide which release chlorine. While this may affect the taste of water, it is one of the quickest and easiest methods for water purification. It is important to use the chemicals in the right amount with a given volume of water.
Tips for Effective Utilization of Water in Off-Grid Locations
Even with a fully functional water system, you need to adjust your lifestyle in an off-grid location. When every drop of water counts, following the standard idea of 80 to 100 gallons per person in a day is not an option.
Here are a few tips to help you optimize water consumption.
- To minimize water requirements in toilets, setting up a composting toilet is a good idea. Check the regulations in your state for the use of such toilets.
- The water pressure in your cabin may not be sufficient for operating a showerhead. Sponge bathing is a great way to minimize water consumption.
- Managing your laundry manually with a washing stick is another effective way to preserve water. Wash only those clothes which deserve to be cleaned.
- Reusing the greywater or slightly dirty water after you have used it once is another effective way to optimize water consumption. Note, you need to use this water at the earliest to prevent the growth of bacteria.
By now you will have realized, setting up an off-grid water system is not a simple task. The proper functioning of the system depends on multiple technical considerations. From the selection of the pump to determining the tank size and laying the pipelines, each step has to be precisely calculated.
It is best that you take the help of professionals or a renewable energy dealer to get the design correct. You can also take help from your neighbors to find out their method of water supply management. In addition, check out the locality to find out the option that works best for you. Budget is another factor that will play a significant role in your decision.
Even so, with the right amount of research and ingenuity, you can design an off-grid system that will deliver purer water than a municipal water supply.