Getting Water When Living Off-Grid

Reader Contribution by Aur Beck and Advanced Energy Solutions Group

Water — the necessary elixir of life. Without it, we are not able to survive. I can say that my favorite modern convenience is having running hot water to wash with.

Growing up, I don’t remember having running water, except for one year when we rented a “modern” house so we would be allowed to take an elderly friend, Art, out of a nursing home in order for him to live his final few months in peace. I will be writing an article about all the different types of places we lived in (some were tent camping sites, covered wagon — two- then four-wheeled — a 16-by-32 surplus army tent, truck camper, old barn, old school bus, old army bus with wooden roof, and an abandoned house with horses), but most of them were one step up from camping or how the pioneers lived without modern conveniences.

I do want to point out that having running water now is wonderful. However, I still utilize the “Living Off-Grid, Really!?” mentality of not wasting it, as I remember the labor involved in acquiring water growing up.

Harvesting Surface Water

I do remember once, in 1989-1990, when we were traveling through the remote desert of Southern Utah — a long stretch of nothing, traveling a slow 20-30 miles a day — over to Grand Junction, Colorado, that we hauled barrels of water for the horses in our cart behind the wagon. It was interesting that the horses seemed to know that we didn’t have much water and just sipped it. We did run out of water as that stretch of road had nothing until we came across a gully/arroyo that had signs of a recent flash flood. We climbed down into the ditch and dug down about two feet to give the horses all they could drink and fill up our barrels.

Because we always had animals (horses, goats, chickens, kids, dogs, and cats) water was one of the first things we would look for whenever we made a stop or went to set up a homestead.

A Hand-Dug Well

In Alabama, our homestead consisted for a few years of a very old primitive, probably previously a slave, house. It had a hand-dug well with a hand-carved windlass that was a thing of wood art. However, the well had caved in or the water table had dropped, so there was no water coming up in the bucket. My dad went down into the well, over 80 feet deep, to have us haul up buckets of rocks, dirt and, finally, mud as he cleaned it out.

I remember this clearly although I was only 6, as it was hard work for all of us, and I had never been so scared for my dad in my life. You could hardly see the dot of light that was his huge lantern down there. The windlass had a very long handle, as my  tiny mother and I slowly, but easily, turned it to haul the bucket of debris up. I remember being told that we couldn’t allow the full bucket to drop as it could hit my dad on his head and kill him. All the work was worth it for that sweet well water that we could haul up for drinking, cleaning, and cooking. I don’t remember using it to water the animals.

Rainwater Harvesting with Sand-Charcoal Filtration

In Tennessee, it was a daily “chore” to ride the horses down the hill to the creek to water them and to go swimming (bathe). In the winter, we collected water off the roof of the barn for them and off the roof of the house for us. At our house, we made a sand/charcoal filter (basically layering charcoal to make it taste better and topping it off with sand to filter out the little leaf debris) to run the water through before storing it.

If you put a screen on top of the bucket charcoal/sand filter and have an open-ended gutter pipe come at it at a 45-degree angle, any big leaves/debris are caught by the screen and then washed/cleaned off by the angled water flow. This is how I do my rainwater barrels to this day.  I remember at least three houses that we lived in that had underground cisterns to store the rainwater. They did require at least an annual patching with cement and food-grade, rubberized paint to keep them from leaking.

Unused Septic Tanks

When I design off-grid places now, we put in large, unused concrete septic tanks cleaned and coated with the rubber paint or large plastic under tanks. The size is very hard to figure out but is determined by how long you think the property will go without rain and how much water the resident uses.

After you have your water, it was necessary for us to make sure we didn’t waste it. Dish-washing water was then used to water our garden. Except for drinking water, we never used water only once. Even drinking water as a tea or “soup” sometimes after it had already been used to cook something. For example, whenever my mother would make goat cheese and the cheese and the whey would separate, she would then cook something in it, thus not wasting both the liquid and the energy it took to heat it.

There were periods where we had so much whey that we got sick of everything being cooked in it, as it can taste sourish in large quantities. We had a running joke whenever it was time to eat: No whey. And mom would say, “My kitchen has two choices on the menu, take it or leave it.” I actually got her a shirt that showed a mean-looking goat on it that said, “NO Whey!”

PV Panels with DC Pumps

At one house, we had a hand-operated ringer washer, which a couple of us kids got our hands stuck in when we were ringing out the clothes. It was a game for us kids, as one kid would feed the clothes through the ringer while another would hand-turn the crank. Later, as our family grew, we would just do laundry in the large machines at a laundromat on our monthly town runs.

Having hot water meant heating it on the stove, which was easy in the winter as we always had a large pot of water on the wood stove for moisture in the air (wood burning drys it out) and for hot water. In the summer, we didn’t use as much hot water (we did have one of those plastic bag camping solar “showers” that we heated water in). Later, I did end up building a solar batch heater using a plastic tank painted black and mounted on the roof. The problem is, we had no pump so we had to haul the water from the creek up onto the roof to fill the tank and then it was gravity fed. It usually got way too hot. Now, a small solar-electric PV panel and a little DC pump can do it wonderfully.

I look forward to your questions on how to have running hot water off-grid using a solar thermal collectors and solar electric (PV), as this is how people living off the grid do it now. I look forward every day to the interactions I have on my Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page and hope you will join the discussion there.

Stay energized, Aur

Aur Beckhas lived completely off-grid for more than35 years. He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter atThe Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host atWDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on theLiving Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page, and read all of Aur’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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