The Complete Guide To Off-Grid Water Systems

The Complete Guide To Off-Grid Water Systems

When you hear “off-grid living,” you might imagine waking up in a cabin full of fresh air and morning light. You light a fire to cook yourself a breakfast of freshly collected eggs from your backyard chicken coop, enjoying a cup of pour-over coffee as you wait.

This lifestyle – often called homesteading is characterized by self-sufficiency and independence from modern utility systems and power grids.

Off-grid homes appeal to many – but the lifestyle isn’t for everyone. It involves generating your own supply of light, power, and drinking water.

Water is arguably the most essential feature of off-grid living, so we’ve compiled this guide to get you started.

We’ll discuss:

  • What an off-grid water system is
  • The parts of an off-grid system
  • Types of off-grid water sources
  • Storing and treating off-grid water
  • Options for off-grid wastewater disposal 

How Water Systems Work

Before jumping into off-grid water systems, you must understand how public water systems operate. Off-grid systems will typically mimic public systems in some fashion.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information describes the three essential components of a modern public water system:

Water Source
  • Where potable water ultimately comes from.
    • Must meet the demand for municipal, institutional, and industrial water needs.
    • Can derive from either surface water or groundwater.
  • Surface-water – Drawn from rivers or lakes.
  • Groundwater – Drawn from wells beneath the water table.
Water Treatment
  • Raw water from the source is typically contaminated to some extent and needs treatment before distribution.
  • Water treatment involves filtration, sedimentation, coagulation, softening, iron removal, and disinfection.
Water Distribution
  • The transport of water from the treatment facility to the users.
  • Transported in pipes rather than open channels to avoid contamination.
  • Water flow is controlled by either pressure pumps or gravity.
  • The distribution system consists of a network of interconnecting lines often made of iron, steel, or PVC.

What Is an Off-Grid Water System?

An off-grid water system is a potable water supply that’s not connected to an electrical grid or municipal water system. 

True off-grid water systems are entirely independent of the water sources, filtration plants, and distribution pipes that supply water to on-grid households. This means you’ll need to provide your own water for drinking, cooking, bathing, watering the garden, and using the restroom.

Like municipal systems, off-grid systems require a water source, treatment method, distribution system, and wastewater disposal system. 

Without these parts, your system could fail due to insufficient supply or contamination.

So, while a remote cabin may seem like the perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of modern life, you’ll still need a reliable water system for sustainable living

The following sections will go over different options for sourcing, treating, transporting, and storing your off-grid water.

Off-Grid Water Sources

Determining a source of water for your off-grid home is the first step in creating a reliable water system.

We’ll look at some standard options for sourcing water for your off-grid property. While reading, think about ways you could incorporate one or more of these methods into your water system.

Natural Spring

A spring forms when pressure forces groundwater above the earth’s surface.

If you’re still shopping for a homestead location, you’ll ideally purchase land with access to a year-round spring. They can be reliable sources of drinking water for off-grid homes. 

Before selecting a spring for your off-grid water source, you must ensure the spring’s flow rate is even throughout the year. 

Fluctuations in a spring’s flow could be a sign of low water supply or a threat of contamination. The PennState Extension recommends monitoring a spring’s flow rate through the late summer and fall before developing it into a water system. 

Groundwater levels are typically lowest during these seasons, so you’ll get an idea of the spring’s fluctuation throughout the year.

Well

A well is a human-made hole that reaches into the ground and accesses aquifer water.

Shallow wells are the most common water sources for off-grid systems. The Groundwater Foundation states that over 42 million U.S. citizens use private wells to supply water to their families.

Shallow wells are typically bored into an unconfined water source less than 100 feet below ground level. Once the hole has been dug into the source of underground freshwater, a pipe and well pump pull it to the surface.

You’ll ideally build your off-grid home after establishing your well to ensure it gets the best location for aquifer access.

Rainwater Collection

Some off-grid homeowners opt for a water catchment system instead of pulling from the ground. 

Rainwater harvesting systems are excellent ways to collect water – especially if your off-grid home isn’t near a spring or aquifer.

When planning a rainwater collection system, your primary consideration should be whether your location gets enough rain to meet your water needs.

A general rule of thumb is that every square foot of catchment area – such as the top of a roof – collects .62 gallons of water per inch of rainfall. Measure your roof’s area and compare it with average rainfall trends to determine how much water you might collect.

Along with a catchment area, rainwater harvesting systems also include the following parts:

  • Gutters to collect rainwater as it flows off the roof.
  • Pipes to direct the water from the gutters to a storage unit.
  • Storage basin to collect and keep the rainwater.

Off-Grid Water Storage

You’ll need to develop a way to store water once you have a source for your off-grid system.

When you first start, it’s a good idea to stock up on drinking water to keep in your off-grid home. We recommend filling recycled milk jugs or containers with fresh water and keeping it on hand for drinking, cooking, and emergency use.

However, as you develop your off-grid water system further, you’ll need a long-term solution for safely storing your water. 

Next, we’ll discuss several water storage tank options and how to incorporate them into your off-grid home.

Rain Barrels

A rain barrel is a collection container that holds 50 to 200 gallons of water. They’re excellent storage containers for small outdoor spaces. You can connect or “daisy chain” multiple rain barrels to create more storage space.

You’ll undoubtedly save money collecting water, and you can even more by installing your own rain barrels. 

This video from the Utah State University Extension explains how to build a DIY rain barrel:

The Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association recommends the following rain barrel capacities based on the surface area of your catchment space:

Surface Area (In Square Feet) Minimum Number of 55-Gallon Rain Barrels
Up to 750 1-2
750-1,250 2-3
1,250-1,750 3-4
1,750-2,250 4-5

If rain barrels aren’t providing sufficient storage for the amount of water you’re collecting, you may want to invest in a cistern.

Cisterns

A cistern is a large rain barrel. These containers are made of food-grade materials and can hold thousands of gallons of water. 

They’re the best storage option for long-term off-grid water supplies.

Cisterns are installed above ground and often utilized in gravity-fed water systems. Other cisterns sit below ground to store water out of sight and save usable property space.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Trust, water collected directly into a cistern from a catchment system isn’t potable because it might contain debris or pollutants. 

However, you can filtrate off-grid water to ensure it’s drinkable.

The following section will discuss different methods of off-grid water filtration.

Off-Grid Water Filtration and Purification

Before taking that first sip of well water, ensure your water has been filtered or purified.

Filtration systems remove sediments and contaminants to produce clearer, better-tasting water.

On the other hand, purification systems remove sediments, pathogens, and minerals.

Installing a water purification system for your water supply is the best way to keep your water drinkable.

You’ll generally need to follow these basic steps when purifying your water: 

  • Sedimentation – Allowing large particles to settle out in the bottom of a pipe.
  • Filtration – Running water through a strainer that filters out smaller particles. 
  • Chlorination – Adding small amounts of chlorine to the water to kill bacteria.

Some water filters, such as this one from Berkey, remove metals and toxins from water while functioning entirely off-grid. They operate as water dispensers, negating the need for a pump or water pressurize.

Powering Your Water System

You’ll need some power to provide your off-grid home with running water.

Some homeowners opt for manual pumping, which involves cranking a pump arm to pull water up from a well. 

However, you can take a different approach for more convenient access to running water. We recommend installing a water pump or gravity-fed pipeline in your off-grid water system.

Electric Pump 

An electric pump is a solid option for homesteaders seeking good water pressure.

Electric pumps use energy to draw water from a water source or storage tank. These devices are often paired with a pressurized tank to get the water flowing. 

Electric pumps require an energy source to work, which may be a pain for someone living off-grid. We suggest a solar-powered pump for accessible, continuous energy.

Solar Panel Water Pump 

Solar power is becoming an increasingly popular method of power generation. Luckily for off-grid homesteaders, it’s also useful for pumping water.

Solar-powered water pumping is when solar panels transform energy from the sun into electricity to power a pump. The panels collect light units that produce an electrical current to energize the pump’s motor. 

Solar-powered pumps help pull water out of wells, divert water to an elevated storage tank, and transfer running water into an off-grid home.

Healing Waters International lists the following benefits of solar-powered pumps:

  • Solar panels are significantly cheaper than they once were. 
  • They don’t require fuel to operate, saving the user money.
  • Solar pumps produce clean, renewable energy without emitting greenhouse gasses.
  • Sunlight powers the devices, so no connection to a power grid is necessary.
  • Solar pumps are easy to install and maintain, making them an excellent DIY energy source.

Gravity-Fed Water System

A gravity-fed system relies on a storage container sitting higher than your home. The water will naturally flow through the distribution pipe without pressurized air or power.

Gravity-fed water systems do best with a constant downhill slope. 

It’s acceptable to make bends in the pipeline as necessary. However, the bends may need support against the constant downward water flow. 

If the intake area or storage container is much higher than the system’s endpoint, consider installing a break pressure tank along the pipeline. This will slow the flow rate through the system – thus, lessening the risk of damage to the pipes.

Options For Off-Grid Water Disposal

Water has to go somewhere after you use it. 

Municipal water systems connect to sewer systems that lead to wastewater treatment facilities. The facilities treat the wastewater for pollutants before moving back into local waterways.

Off-grid systems don’t connect to city sewer systems, so the water has nowhere to go if you don’t install a disposal system. Without proper disposal, the dirty water could leach back into the environment, causing severe harm.

Don’t sweat it – there are several ways to dispose of wastewater off-grid to keep the environment safe while keeping a clean home. We’ll discuss a couple of these off-grid water disposal options next.

Greywater Systems

Greywater is wastewater produced by showers, tubs, sinks, and washing machines. It’s less harmful than sewage water and needs less treatment before moving back into the natural water supply. 

Some off-gridders recycle grey wastewater to tend their gardens or flush their toilets.

One method of disposal is to install a greywater recycling system. 

This system will pump used water back into the ground to water plants and trees. Remember to check local regulations before using one of these systems. 

You’ll also need to use biodegradable cleaning products and toiletries to improve the safety and sustainability of the system.

Blackwater Systems

Blackwater is the wastewater produced by toilets. It needs careful treatment during and after disposal.

Options for blackwater disposal include:

  • Compost toilet – A toilet system that combines human waste with organic materials to create compost.
  • Septic tank – An underground tank that collects blackwater waste and filters it through a series of pipes.
  • Aerobic system – An alternative to a traditional septic tank. This is a series of tanks that use oxygen to speed up the decomposition of wastewater

Final Thoughts

Now that you understand how off-grid water systems work, you’re ready to start your homesteading journey. 

Remember that off-grid water systems use many of the same mechanisms as municipal systems – just on a smaller scale. No matter where you wander, you’ll still need a way to source, transport, purify, and dispose of your water.

With a fully operational water supply system, your off-grid house will undoubtedly start to feel like home.

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