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Technological Challenges of Off-Grid Homestead Living, Part 3: Water

Read Part 1, "Resources," of this series here. Read Part 2, "Electricity,"  here.

Choosing an off grid site for its water qualities makes good sense. In fact, with the right water supply you could have a constant supply of hydroelectric power as well as irrigate your crops and water your livestock.

My homestead water supply is not yet ideal. I get water from a local spring and haul 55 gallons at a time and store it in three 55 gallon barrels in my root cellar and then pump it up in batches into another 55 gallon barrel on the second floor of my house, which then provides gravity-fed water pressure for my sink, shower, and greenhouse.

cold creek spring

Cold Creek Spring--Where I Get Water

On the other hand, I recently discovered greener vegetation just over the summit of the mountain where I live and suspect that the water table is contained in sub-surface strata. My house is on top of the strata, while the lush vegetation is receiving water because the strata are exposed. I might be able to drill a shallow well next summer.

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So what are sources of water you can use? Basically, springs and wells are excellent; rainwater and snowmelt are marginal; streams, lakes, and ponds are polluted with bacteria and not potable without purification, but can be used directly for irrigation of crops, watering animals, and aquaculture.

You cannot assume that because the water flows across your property, that you can use it, because it may belong to someone else depending on local water rights. Check out who is upstream and have the water tested for man-made pollutants and naturally occurring toxic minerals.

A spring is a good source if it has a minimum flow of 4 to 6 gallons per minute, year round. If the spring is at a higher elevation than your home then you can have a gravity-fed water supply by diverting spring water into a holding tank and then plumbing that directly into your house.

Costs for drilling depend on the depth. You’ll never know how deep until you drill…it could be 40 feet or 500 feet. If your neighbor has a well they can give you some idea of the costs. After drilling there is the energy cost of running an electric pump to get the water into your storage tanks. Shallow wells can use a hand pump instead of an electric pump.

Rainwater and snow melt must be filtered before considered potable. The amount of rainwater you can collect is calculated by taking the horizontal footprint area (not the surface area) of the rooftops that have collection gutters multiplied by the average annual rainfall in your area, then converting the cubic volume into gallons (1 cubic foot of water equals approximately 7-1/2 gallons). Snowmelt is calculated by dividing the inches of non-compacted snow by 17; for example a 10-gallon pot of snow will melt down to about 2-1/2 quarts.

It may be possible to get double-duty out of your water source by capturing hydroelectric power and/or the cold temperature. If the flow is at least 15 gallons per second or the head is more than five feet then micro-hydroelectric power is feasible. If the water temperature is 40 degrees F or cooler then it could be utilized as a cold source for a refrigerator.

water requirement tables

Crops generally need one inch of water over the soil surface per week; in arid climates, it is double that amount. In hot weather, vegetables need even more water, up to about 1/2-inch per week extra for every 10 degrees Fahrenheit that the average temperature is above 60 degrees. There are ways to conserve water including timing irrigation in sync with the plant’s daily cycles, limiting evaporation, and hydroponics.

That’s a lot of math to get water! Well (pun intended), this article is just a sip of water techniques. To get a full drink of information like types of storage tanks, water purification methods, and what to do after you’ve used it and it becomes grey water and black water, you can tap into my book, Hut-Topia.

In the remaining articles of this series, I’ll go over how I applied old and new technologies in two more areas: food and heat.

Christopher James Marshall is the author of the do-it-yourself small house book Hut-Topia and is a modern-day off-grid mountain man. After weathering recessions and lay-offs every decade since the 70s through the “Great Recession,” he became semi-retired by making plans to live sustainably and then built his 500-square-foot off-grid home. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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12/11/2015 7:42:42 AM

Bathtubs from older mobile homes are smaller and require much less water for a bath.

12/9/2015 11:38:08 PM

re "Shallow wells can use a hand pump instead of an electric pump." The Simple Pump will give you water from as far down as 300' water level. And it not only CAN pump from 300'; it requires only moderate force to do so. 18lbs on the handle. Moderate effort for the average person. Simple Pump Co.

12/4/2015 11:25:22 AM

I use an 80 watt solar pump for my off grid water supply. The pump is at a 50' depth pumping 4 liters (1 us gal) per minute for a distance of 850'. A 100 watt solar panel will operate the pump, but I charge an RV battery with the panel so that I can pump anytime I want. You can get a bigger solar pump for greater water needs. We also use a water-less composting toilet and no dishwasher, other wise we have all the luxuries any other home has.