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Starting Our Homestead: Pros and Cons of Our Off-Grid Water Options (with Video)

By Alyssa Craft

Tags: water, off grid living, cisterns, rainwater collection, rain barrels, Idaho, Alyssa Craft,

When living off grid, a practical water system is incredibly important but the number of options out there can make it tricky to pick the right one for your situation. Since we moved to our off grid homestead, we have learned that there isn't only one right way to do things. Finding a water system that fits the specific needs of any property takes time, research and a careful evaluation of the needs of that property going forward.

Looking Into Wells: The Most Obvious Solution

Wells are a great option for many properties and one of the most-obvious routes to go when living off the grid. Once installed, they are almost maintenance-free and provide thousands of gallons of water. If you know your property is located on a low point on the water table, then it's probably pretty safe to dig one.

However, in other cases wells can be extremely expensive and striking water may not even be guaranteed. Our property is on a glacial outcropping that keeps the water table far below us. Wells are hit or miss around here. When we evaluated our homestead priorities we realized that we aren't willing to sink 10 to 30 grand in a system that might not work so even though this is the route we’re hoping to go in the future, it doesn't make the most financial sense for us right now.

Investigating Rainwater Harvesting

Next we considered harvesting rainwater as we have an abundance of free rain falling from the sky in our area. In theory, no water system can beat the price per gallon of a rain barrel collection system, making this route very appealing. We initially planned on installing an 8-barrel system for our home, but a few experiments proved to us that they would NOT be right for our property for two main reasons.

off grid water systems and rainwater harvesting

One, our property is windy. Right now we are living in a trailer (more on that here) and don't have much roof space for installing a water catchment system. Instead, we would need to use something such as tarps. Our property is too windy to make that effective which means we would need a more elaborate system, so this would automatically complicate our project making it time-consuming and potentially cost quite a bit of money (making free rainwater less appealing).

Second, we live in a cold climate. Freezing conditions can be expected anytime from October to May. Rain barrels systems aren’t really ideal for cold climates unless the system can be designed to be freeze-proof. In an off grid situation you may have to bury both the barrels and plumbing or build a some sort of cellar for them. Again, this would be time consuming and expensive, further discouraging us from relying on rain collection for our immediate water needs.

Don't let our negative experiences with rain barrel systems discourage you from trying them yourself. If you live in a warmer climate that gets rain year round, they can be a great option. Regardless what water system we choose to go with for our immediate needs, we do plan on developing a rainwater collection system in the future, even if it’s just for spring to fall use.

Our Best Interim Solution: Exploring Cisterns

Cisterns are another great water option in homesteading situations because they can provide months of water with one fill up. They can be filled with an outside delivery, rainwater, or well water that's pumped in. Cisterns can be a great system even when you eventually plan to install a well because once a well is established it can be used to fill the cistern for convenient water storage.

There are two main types of cisterns including above and below-ground.

Above-ground cisterns are usually small enough to be put on a pickup truck or trailer. They are  made of lighter materials than below-ground systems because they don't need to be buried, which usually means they are cheaper.

Below-ground cistern tanks have a large capacity and are sturdy enough to be buried. They work well in cold climates because they can be put below the frost line to prevent freezing, which is essential for grid homes without an alternative power source.

above ground water cistern

Choosing the Best Water System for Our Property

It's taken a lot of experimenting for us to come up with our short-term off grid water plan. All things considered, we plan to go with a below-ground cistern for now. We estimate that water can be delivered to this tank every three months or so. When we’re ready, we will try our luck at drilling a well which will then feed the cistern. We love the cistern idea because we feel that it can bridge the gap between a well and what we’re doing now, without breaking the bank or taking expensive risks.

Does this make us 100% self-sustainable? No, and we are okay with that. Our quest for a long-term water solution needs to be a balance of today's needs with tomorrow’s desires. Someday we want to be fully self sufficient, but we aren't there yet and in the meantime we still need water to drink. For us, a below-ground water tank seems to be the best solution.

When researching off grid water systems it is important to remember there is no one solution that will work for every property. Experiments and an openness to trying new techniques will eventually get you to the right solution for you.

Alyssa Craft moved to Idaho after purchasing 5 acres of land where she will build an off grid homestead from scratch. She is blogging about the journey from start to finish in hopes of inspiring others that wish to take a similar path. Follow her many DIY projects including building with reclaimed materials, building an off-grid hot tub, milling lumber with an Alaskan chainsaw mill and starting an organic garden. Keep up on the journey by following her blog Pure Living for Life, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube channel. View Alyssa’s other MOTHER EARTH NEWS articles here!

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