The Secrets of Low-Tech Plumbing

How to get all the fresh water you need, almost anywhere. Rain catchments, tapping springs, wells, water rams and more.

| June/July 1995

Most of us move to the country in search of a simpler life that's closer to nature, less wasteful, and more self-reliant. We happily trade smog for clean country air, city conveniences for rural independence, TV dinners and jogging for home-baked bread and the honest sweat of gardening. An adventurous few go "off the grid" to supply their own electricity with solar panels, a wind generator, or mini-hydro. But only true modern pioneers choose to relinquish that central feature of modern living: unlimited running water and a flush-and-forget waste disposal system.

Which is a shame.

Much of the continent goes unpopulated because the soil won't "perk" sufficiently to absorb effluent from a 1,000-gallon septic system that's Building Code-approved to handle a modern household—or the land is too rocky or too remote for a well driller's rig. As a result, too many good folks are forced to abandon their country-living dream because money is so hard to put by in the consumerist rat race of urban life-including the $10,000 to $20,000 or more needed to install a city-style water system in the country.

The greatest shame of all is that modern households don't really use the 30 to 100 gallons/person/day of water they consume. They pollute it—not out of necessity, but for mere convenience. Water is less the essence of life than a medium for wet-waste disposal.

An individual only needs a half gallon to a gallon of water a day to drink, cook, and wash up with. Laundry and bathing demands more, but not 40 gallons per drawn bath or automatic washer load. That monument to Victorian denial, the flush toilet, takes five to eight gallons per use to dispose of an ounce or two of waste per person per day, dry weight. Of the five gallons a minute little kids waste brushing their teeth (they always leave the tap on full, right?), only a brush-wetting and one mouth-rinse—a four-ounce paper cupful—is needed. Automatic clothes washers use 30 to 50 gallons a load to do what our great-grandmothers accomplished in a gallon or two of water with a washtub, a bar of lye soap, a washboard, and elbow grease, or with a little more water and a wringer/washer. Showers waste 12 gallons (eight to 10 with a water-miser shower head); by contrast, when I was a Marine we were rationed a count of five to wet down and soap up, and a count of 10 to rinse off-using perhaps a gallon of water in all. In the field, we brushed our teeth from a canteen and bathed, shaved, and washed our socks in a helmet half-full of water.

I don't suggest that we live on a wartime basis (my buddies and I didn't much like it at the time) or that we go back to the washboard. But mini-flush toilets, low-flow shower heads, sewage-treatment plants, and our other feeble attempts at water conservation not-withstanding, plumbing systems are predicated on an unlimited supply of pure water and an environment with an unlimited capacity to absorb sewage. I'll not belabor the world's growing water shortages and waste-disposal problems but to suggest that diverting a small river through every home to remove a smitter of waste indentures our water supply to an exaggerated fastidiousness. There is no reason but convenience to combine water-supply and waste-disposal systems. They should be separated in concept and practice, and water use reduced to a trickle with low-flow/low-tech plumbing. Water is to sustain life ...and to sail your boat over and to grow lovely tomatoes and to listen to as it flows over the rocks—not to insult.

Low-Tech Water Systems Aren't for Everyone

Hand-made low-flow, low-tech water systems aren't for everyone-not yet. They require rigorous conservation, replacing porcelain bathroom fixtures with privies and washtubs, and automated kitchen appliances with hand pumps and dishpans. These devices require time, attention, and labor-an inconvenience that some solid burghers I know disdain as pointlessly out of date, contemptuous of civility and good taste, and proof of a general societal decline into savagery and depravity. Savage it may be, but I prefer my spring water to what comes from the faucets in most cities, and would rather work up a sweat mucking out a spring or digging a cistern than riding around in a golf cart or straining at an Ab-Isolator.

Hannan Ahmad
12/13/2013 12:52:22 AM

Researchers have been working tirelessly for bringing up a revolution with environmentally sound plumbing products. These products would hit the market in a big way and they can change the standards of live entirely. Out of these innovations, are going to be the next big thing, which can prove to be a major blessing for the environment. Besides, it will introduce big savings on costs of water consumption.

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