One family’s off-grid journey to self-sufficiency explores the complex issue of a clean, sustainable water-management strategy.
Cam Mather and two of his raised rain barrels filled from the roof of the horse barn.
MICHELLE AND CAM MATHER
The Mather family knows off-the-grid living can be as difficult as it is rewarding — especially when it comes to safe and plentiful water. That’s why the family’s off-grid house utilizes a successful and self-sufficient water-management system along with an extensive vegetable garden, a wind turbine and two solar power tracking systems. Check out Little House Off the Grid by Michelle and Cam Mather (Aztext Press, 2011) to follow the family’s full journey from the city to the farm as they acquire the modern homesteading skills to live off the grid. You can also follow Cam Mather’s Homesteading in Canada blog on our website. The following excerpt is from Chapter 13, “Water.”
Water is one of those things that’s easy to take for granted, especially if you live in a city. You turn on a tap, out comes the water. You flush the toilet, clean water instantly appears to fill up the bowl. You have a shower, clean water cascades down on you from a fixture on the wall.
It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.
In the country, water is a whole other issue. You have to know where your water comes from. You have to go out and find it. Some people have to dig for it, and end up with a “dug well.” Dug wells are usually fairly shallow and often have concrete walls. When you think of “wishing wells” from cartoons and literature, these would be dug wells.
Many country dwellers go with a drilled well. This is when you bring in a large drilling machine, mounted on the back of a truck, and you start drilling into the ground until you hit water. If you’re lucky, like at our house, after going about 50 feet, you’ve hit lots of water so you can stop. Some people aren’t so lucky and have to go hundreds of feet down, often through rock and at great expense.
Most drilled well holes are about 8 inches across. After you’ve drilled deep enough, you generally will put in a casing, which is a piece of perforated material that you slide down the well. This prevents dirt and materials from falling into the well and plugging it up, while still allowing the ground water to seep back into the well after you remove some, for a shower for instance or to flush the toilet.
The key to a good well is the “recharge” or “replenish” rate, or how quickly water will pour back into the well after it’s been drawn down, say when you have a bath. As you drill down into the earth you hit seams of water, in the rock and sand and soil. Sometimes you get lucky and have lots of water in your area, and sometimes you don’t.
One thing that looks likely in the future is that for many people, getting water is going to take on increasing importance. Where we live in Ontario, lakes and ponds surround us, and the province itself borders the greatest source of fresh water in the world, the Great Lakes.
There are many areas of North America though that aren’t so fortunate. Many southern states have always faced water challenges, and now climate change is exacerbating it. States such as California and Nevada have huge problems finding enough water for their populations. The Colorado River, which flows through California, has so much water drawn from it — much for irrigating crops — that it no longer makes it to the sea and peters out in the desert in Mexico. Water shortages in southern states are going to affect the price and availability of fruits and vegetables for many Northerners during the months when we can’t grow our own.
Many states in the southwestern United States draw on the Ogallala Aquifer for their water. This is a huge underground reservoir that provides millions of Americans with their drinking and irrigation water. The problem is that it is being drawn down much faster than Mother Nature is replenishing it.
Atlanta, Ga., has a severe water crisis as drought has left water levels in its reservoir extremely low. Who would have ever thought it would become trendy in urban areas to use your bath water to flush your toilet, but in cities like Atlanta, this is part of the new urban chic.
Climate change is causing precipitation to be inconsistent and unpredictable. While one area is getting too much rain, nearby is in drought. Australia’s breadbasket, where huge amounts of grain had been grown for the world markets, is in its 10th year of drought. Yields have plummeted and farmers are giving up the land.
So regardless of where you live, there’s a good chance that water is going to become an issue in your life. Even if you are living in a city, you probably will find water will cost much more. This is for two reasons. First is that cities are starting to recognize how expensive it is to build water mains and get the water to your home. In many cities, much of the infrastructure was built 100 years ago, and they now have to rip up roads to replace those old pipes. The second is the cost of energy. Moving water around requires huge amounts of energy, so as energy costs increase, so will the costs of products associated with it.
When we think of electricity, many of us think about Niagara Falls and the original source of electricity that was “hydro” electricity, which harnessed the movement of water to generate electricity. If you’ve ever picked up a bucket full of water or a case of water bottles, you’ll recognize that water is really heavy. So when it’s moving it has lots of energy imbedded in it, and that makes it an excellent source of potential electricity generation.
The flip side of this is that any time you move water around, because it’s so heavy, it requires lots of energy. In the case of the cities, this energy comes in the form of electricity that the city or municipality must purchase to power pumps to move that water. As the cost of electricity goes up, so goes the cost of water. The City of Toronto is a good example. It purchases a lot of electricity. It uses it to power buildings, to keep streetlights on, and for transit. The Toronto Transit Commission has an extensive system of underground subways, and these subway cars are all powered with electricity. It also has electric buses and electric streetcars all powered by electricity. And yet, if you add up all of these uses of electricity, the City of Toronto still needs more electricity to pump water than all of its other uses combined.
So pumping water is energy-intensive, and for many country dwellers, it’s one of their greatest uses of electricity. Pumping that water from 100 feet down a well and then into the pressure tanks in the house, uses lots of electricity. If you live off the electricity grid in the country, pumping water is going to be a huge factor in your life. In our case, pumping water is one of the single biggest uses of electricity in our off-grid home. It certainly is in the summer when our gardens are at their maximum demand for water.
We have a drilled well with a pump that’s about 20 feet down. We also have two large pressure tanks that the pump pressurizes. Our well water comes into our house in the cistern. A cistern is a large concrete enclosure that was common in rural homes many decades ago. Rainwater would be diverted from the roof into the cistern. It was often located right below the kitchen, which made it possible to have a hand pump in the kitchen to bring that water out of the cistern. Cisterns are a brilliant idea, and it’s too bad we don’t use them anymore. Cheap energy has allowed us to use pumps to bring water from wells to circumvent this process.
In many homes with a well, there is a small pressure tank. When someone runs water in the home, the pump comes on and pressurizes this tank again. When the motor in a pump comes on, there is a momentary surge in electrical demand. After the pump overcomes that surge, the pump will settle down and draw less current. So one of the first things that should be done in an off-grid home is to install a large pressure tank to reduce how often the pump comes on. When just Michelle and I are living here, our pump usually comes on just once a day. This means that we can go a whole day flushing toilets, washing dishes, filling up kettles for tea and coffee and the pump will come on just once.
Because it’s such a big energy user, we’ve had to make sure we use water as efficiently as possible. This starts with basic things like toilets. We have a low-flow toilet that uses 6 liters per flush. There are many new toilets on the market that now actually have two choices for flushing, one for pee and the other for when more of a flush is required. In our case, dual-flush toilets weren’t readily available when we first moved to our off-grid home, so we had a sign on the back of the toilet that requested that users not flush for just pee. It sounds gross to some city folk, but hey, it’s just pee. And think of how many gazillion liters of water large cities have to process and clean before discharging it back into the environment.
Another use of water in our home is for bathing. We tend to take showers and we have a low-flow showerhead, which restricts the amount of water that comes out. This makes less water feel like more. These are the antithesis of the new rain shower type showerheads that basically try and duplicate standing under Niagara Falls. Those are wasteful and environmentally irresponsible. In an off-grid house, they are out of the question, except maybe in the summer when you have power to burn.
Sometimes we prefer to take a bath. Filling up a bathtub uses a lot of water, so in the early days we were very cautious about when we had baths. We actually got to the stage when often if we were running the generator in one of the months when we didn’t have enough electricity, we’d also have a bath. After dinner, we’d put the generator on and do the things that used the greatest amount of electricity. So we’d do the dishes, the kids would watch television and we’d have our showers or baths. This way, while the generator was charging the batteries, it was also handling our biggest loads.
There would also be times when I’d be ultra-paranoid about reducing water use, so if we’d had a bath, we’d leave the water in the tub. First, because it is a beautiful cast-iron tub, the tub absorbs the heat and radiates it back over time to the bathroom. With the bathroom on the north side of the house and a long way from the woodstove, this is a nice way to warm up the bathroom in colder months. Then, when we need to flush the toilet we use the bath water. We keep a bucket in the bathroom, scoop out some bathwater, and flush the toilet with it. My attitude is that we’ve already used the electricity to get the water this far, and it’s going to end up in the same septic tank. Why not put it to one more good use and have it flush the water? If you pour a bucket of water down your toilet, it will take whatever is in the bowl along with it.
Michelle showed me this trick years ago, because toilet cleaning was my job. This was voluntary on my part. I decided if I was going to be a feminist, my daughters were going to grow up thinking toilet cleaning was a man’s job. Because we’re usually the ones messing it up, it’s only fair. I pity the man who ends up marrying my daughters if he’s grown up being coddled by his mother and insulated from house work.
Michelle showed me that when you pour a bucket of water down the toilet, it drains the bowl and leaves just a couple of inches in the bottom, so you need another half a bucket to fill the toilet bowl back up. This is important. That water keeps the smell from the sewer or septic tank from escaping into the bathroom, so make sure you fill it up.
Flushing the toilet with a bucket of water sounds very backward to many people, but when you compare it with, say, an outhouse, it seems pretty nice. And if you’ve ever lived in an apartment building during a power outage, it’s an important skill to have. The pressure in the water pipes in a city will generally take water up to the sixth floor of an apartment building. During a power outage, many cities will have backup generators that they use to keep the water pipes pressurized, because otherwise you have sanitary issues. So as long as you live on one of the lowest six floors, you should be fine. But what if you live higher than the sixth floor? The apartment building will have its own pumps that it uses to get water up to the higher floors and most apartment buildings will not have a backup generator for this. So if you’re higher, you’ve got problems. I still remember an image on TV from the blackout in 2003 that left 50 million people in the northern US and Ontario and Quebec without electricity. The TV report showed people walking down 20 flights of stairs to get a bucket of water to flush the toilet, and then walking back up the stairs with the bucket. You’ve got to be in pretty good shape to do that very often.
When we flush our toilet, it flows to our septic tank. The septic tank has two chambers. In the first, solids settle out, and the liquid part flows into the second chamber. A bit more precipitation of solids happens here, and then the remaining liquid flows out to our tile bed, where weeping tiles or clay pipes (now usually plastic) with holes disperse the liquid over the “tile bed.” The pipes are laid on gravel to allow the liquid to flow, and it trickles down through the gravel, then sand, to be cleaned as it goes.
The solid materials in the septic tank should decompose over time. Every couple of years we have a septic tank pumper come to remove the solid materials that haven’t broken down. Septic tank companies have great slogans on their trucks, like “We’re number one in the number two business.”
Ultimately, anything we flush down the sink or toilet is going to end up in the tile bed, and begins its journey down through the earth, where it is cleaned, and it can ultimately end up back in the water table, from which we draw our drinking water. When you think of this cycle, you tend to be pretty cautious about what you flush. We buy environmentally responsible cleaning products, and use Borax to clean our sinks and toilet. As the toilet cleaner, I will tell you that I will not win any awards for the brightest toilet bowl on the continent. We have hard water, which means there are minerals dissolved in the water. This is wonderful for providing us with a healthy product to rejuvenate our bodies, but can be a challenge in places like toilet bowls where scale can build up.
But any time I think about calling out the Drano or other heavy-duty chemicals, I remember where it may end up. When city folk start making this link, I think we’ll find much better environmental stewardship breaking out everywhere. I can take a slight discoloration in my toilet bowl if it means my drinking water is going to be clean. With the number of people in North America who use bottled water rather than tap water, it would appear we all have to be more careful with what goes down the drain.
I am very aware of using our water efficiently. I remember someone at one of my workshops asking about putting an on-demand hot-water tank in his upstairs bathroom, because the water had to run for so long before it got there. Last time I checked I think an electric on-demand hot water heater was $800. I said, “Why don’t you do what we do? When we’re finished with our plastic apple cider jugs in the fall, we put one by the bathroom sink. Then, when we want hot water, we run the hot-water tap into the jug until it gets hot. We use that water to fill the kettle, water plants, any number of things that we need water for. I could see him processing the information and then I got the feeling he wasn’t prepared to go that far. Lots of people in water-challenged areas, especially in the southern United States are already into this habit. It just comes naturally to me now.
We have yet to experiment with greywater, but it’s on the list. Greywater is waste water from anywhere in the house except the toilet, which is called “black water.” You can use greywater for watering gardens as long as you use mild soaps.
Pumping water from our drilled well uses lots of energy, so I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to figure out ways to get water without electricity. Rainwater is the easiest and most accessible source of water, and it can be used for a variety purposes. I use it exclusively for watering gardens, but in some drought-prone areas it can be used for drinking water (with proper treatment).
One of our first tasks at Sunflower Farm was to get rain barrels on all the downspouts, where the rainwater runs off the roof and into the eaves troughs. There were four downspouts on the house, two on the guesthouse and two on the horse barn, so right away we needed eight rain barrels. We found a great source of them near our old house, and many of the plastic, 50-gallon barrels had actually been used to ship food products, such as clam juice. Who would want a 50-gallon barrel of clam juice was beyond me, but after it had been washed out, it smelled fine.
These used barrels were around $10 each. I put in a $5 tap and had a rain barrel that could retail in a high-end gardening store for $100. Now it’s not a designer color, doesn’t have a screen to keep debris out or to stop mosquitoes from breeding in it, but our house is surrounded by ponds, so we are going to have mosquitoes regardless of how fancy our rain barrels are. It does hold 50 gallons of water, and this is what we want them for.
With eight of them holding rain, after a heavy rain we have 400 gallons of water on reserve. Michelle will use some of this water for watering her flower gardens, and I’ll drain the barrels down into the garden, using a soaker hose to distribute the water. The water drains to the garden for two reasons. The people who built the house in 1888 had the incredible foresight to put it up on a small rise, so it is the highest point around. This helps water run away from the house, and helps the rain barrels run down toward the garden.
I help the rain barrels along by putting them up off the ground to gain even more pressure. Water pressure is called “head.” For every 2.3 feet that water falls, you get 1 psi of water pressure. So if the rain barrel was 4.6 feet off of the ground, you’d have 2 psi. When we moved into the house and cut down the huge silver maple at the back of the house, I used large round chunks of the tree to get the rain barrels higher. They looked quite "rustic," but as they got older and started to rot, they looked a little haggard and after they got soft in the middle, they had a tendency to collapse when the barrels were full.
When we had the vinyl siding put on, I knew Michelle wouldn’t be happy with hunks of wood as rain barrel holders, so I decided to use rock to build rain barrel stands. We had a large amount of rock from the flagstone walkway that used to run between the house and guesthouse, so I learned the fine art of piling rocks on top of each other to build rock cribs. I put the large rocks on the outside and filled up the middle with smaller rocks and gravel. Now, even if the rain barrel isn’t there and rain pours out of the downspout, the crib stays in place.
The higher the barrels, the better, so now I’ve even started building some higher than the original 2 or 3 feet I started with. The barrel stand by the horse barn is now almost 5 feet high and you get great pressure when you water with it. I have also started adding second rain barrels to double the amount of water stored at each downspout.
During an average summer, the area around Tamworth, where I garden, is prone to droughts. Speaking to friends in western Ontario, it would seem that so many storms cross the Great Lakes, dump the bulk of their moisture in western Ontario, and have little left by the time they get to us. I’ve spent way too much time on the Environment Canada website using radar to track rainstorms that seem to vaporize just before they hit us. Kingston will get rain, Bancroft, Perth, anywhere but my garden!
So we’re “rain water challenged” here, and as the world comes to grips with peak oil and we all watch our food costs skyrocket, growing some of your own vegetables is going to become an economic necessity for many of us.
We have a garden in the foundation of the old barn on our property and I’ve built a crib out of cedar at the top of the old ramp to the top of the foundation. The water falls almost 10 feet, and it’s pretty amazing how much pressure you get as you stand watering.
Getting the water up to those barrels is another story. There is a dug well beside the barn. When I first started using the dug well, I used to throw a bucket down the well and carry it up to the barrels. I used to sing the theme song from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as I did this. My neighbor Ken likes to point out how I like to do things the hard way. “It’s cheaper than a health club membership,” I proudly pointed out. That was until my 48 years started to catch up to me. So now I use a solar panel that outputs 12V DC connected to an $80 DC pump to pump the water out of the well and up to the barrels. I pull the water from about 10 feet down the well, and then move it to the rain barrels that are100 feet away, and another 30 feet higher.
This is the best illustration of renewable energy making life easier that I’ve ever had. Solar and wind power produce electricity that does everything in my house from toast my bread to keep my food cold, but displacing the physical labor of carrying buckets of water up to the rain barrels with a solar powered water pump was like getting an electrical shock. This solar power really works! Just another “eureka” moment at Sunflower Farm.
From the solar pump, once the rain barrels are full, I use the water for watering vegetables directly. Originally I created my own drip irrigation hose, drilling holes in an old garden hose. On my second attempt I put smaller holes at the end closest to the pump where the pressure is greatest, and larger holes towards the end where the pressure drops off.
Then I purchased a commercial drip irrigation system. This takes the water from the solar pump and distributes it to five 20-foot drip irrigation lines. This way I can water five rows at a time without having to move the line each time. I just need to come out in the garden every couple of hours to make sure the solar panel is in the sun and doing its job.
The challenge is that when I want to move the system, I now have to move five lines that are connected. Since I’m not using a higher-pressure household water system, I’m able to loosely connect the lines to each other for easy dismantling and moving.
The drip irrigation system works with the capillary action of the soil. If you use a sprinkler to water, you get lots of water over a large area, with a minimal amount getting deep into the soil. You also tend to lose a lot of water to evaporation before and after it hits the ground. Since you want to encourage deep root growth to help drought proof your vegetables, sprinklers can be wasteful. A drip irrigation hose will provide a slow, constant amount of water to the soil. Once it hits the soil it will spread out from the initial contact point and water a larger area using this capillary action. Think if you took a large fluffy towel, and kept dipping one corner briefly into a bucket of water. Even if it’s in the water just for a second and you take it out, if you keep doing this, eventually that towel will absorb a huge amount of water and it will become completely saturated. Soil works the same way.
With a clay soil, the capillary action will tend to take the water out and away from the drip point more horizontally, while a sandy soil like mine will draw the water downwards. The kit that I purchased had the drip holes at 18-inch intervals, and I think with my sandy soil I’ll need them closer together, since the water won’t spread out horizontally as much as clay soil would. The compost and manure I’ve added to my soil over the years helps the water spread out.
I found that the solar pump is a great aid in keeping the garden watered. Since I don’t garden full time, it allows me to fill up rain barrels all day. I go out once an hour or more, and move the water coming out from rain barrel to rain barrel. Then in the morning before I head to the office, Michelle and I can use watering cans to drain the rain barrels and put the water on the rows of vegetables that need it the most. Once the rain barrels are full, I use the irrigation system to drip irrigate a section at a time.
While we have yet to need it, we do have a pond beside that house that we may be able to use for garden watering in the future as the garden along with its water requirements grow. We noticed when we moved in that the spring melt sat in an area beside the house. So we hired a backhoe to come in and dredge out the area so that it will hold more water. Now after a winter of heavy snow or spring rains, we have a small pond. I can see it out of my window in the office and it’s wonderful to have. Spring peepers start serenading us as soon as it gets warm enough in the spring. We have several wood duck boxes and often get mergansers to nest there in the spring. And it’s home to a large variety of frogs, snakes, turtles and often several muskrats. And nicest of all, it gives us a place to skate in the winter. I think skating on a pond beside my house, under my wind turbines is one of the absolutely greatest things about living in the country. The pond is free and the cold weather that freezes the ice is free and it’s just a wonderful way to embrace winter.
The final thing I’ll mention in regards to water is hot water. We have four main sources of hot water that vary with the season. I have three hot water tanks. The first is from our solar domestic hot water heater (SDHW). This is the first solar panel most homeowners should put on their roof and it’s to heat their hot water they use for bathing and washing clothes and dishes. Using the sun’s energy for hot water is actually more efficient than using it to create electricity through your photovoltaic panels (PV) which is why if you live on grid it should be the first panel you install.
We installed a system made by “EnerWorks” which uses a flat panel rather than vacuum tube system. I prefer this system because it allows snow to slide off of it, and secondly because it was designed at Queen’s University near where I live. I decided to install it on the roof over our back porch. I didn’t trust the roof on our house since it’s the original from 1888 and wasn’t sure I’d be able to attach it without major problems.
The porch roof didn’t have enough of a pitch so I fabricated my own steel frame to mount it to. This was a pretty big deal for me, because when I was doing it, my neighbor Ken wasn’t available to help. With his kind of skills he’s always in demand. So I went to his garage with my steel, got him to remind me how to work the MIG Welder, and I was on my own. There’s something very satisfying about being able to design and weld a steel frame that’s going to house a device that’s going to take the heat from the sun and put it into my water.
Once I got the frame bolted to the roof, I got my neighbors Sandy and Don to help me lift the panel on to the roof. It’s quite a bit heavier than a standard solar panel and I wanted to be extra careful so as to not break it in the process.
Then I went about installing the heat exchanger. This is on a hot water tank that is in our bedroom. Some people are appalled to hear that we have a solar thermal hot-water tank in our bedroom, but I felt I didn’t have a choice. Our basement floods every spring, so I didn’t want it down there. And there is no room on the main floor. Surprisingly when the house was built in 1888 not only were they more concerned about just surviving, they hadn’t anticipated ever installing a solar hot-water heater.
The day I first pressurized the system was pretty great. After running for several minutes the copper pipes got so hot you could hardly touch them. And this was in February! Now on the coldest, sunniest days in winter those pipes get so hot you really can’t touch them. And now that I’m making my own hot water I’ve insulated all the pipes so I don’t waste a single bit of that heat.
I have a second hot water tank, also in my bedroom, which is my diversion or dump load tank. If I lived on the grid and had extra electricity I would be able to sell it to the grid, but the nearest electricity pole is 4 miles from my house, so this isn’t an option. And since I refuse to waste a single watt of electricity that my solar panels have generated, I “dump” this extra electricity into my “diversion” load, which is a hot water tank. So the excess electricity goes into the heating elements in the tank and heats water.
My third hot water tank is downstairs, under the other two tanks, in the pantry beside the bathroom and it’s propane. Now this tank rarely comes on. It does sometimes in the fall during the dark months or in the spring during those rainy weeks, but most of the time the sun is heating my water. Our goal is to pull the plug on this tank all together. To do that we’ll need to tie our woodstove into the system, since the woodstove is usually on during those periods when the propane comes on. This would eliminate our use of propane for hot water completely.
In the meantime we use the woodstove for hot water anyway. We always have a kettle on it for our tea, and we put extra water on if we’re having rice or pasta for dinner. And on bath nights, I get the stove loaded up with three big corn pots and our biggest kettle. I try and have them on top of the woodstove by noon if we’re having a bath that night. I also usually fill up five or six buckets of water that I carry to the living room and let them warm up by the woodstove. Whether your water comes from a municipal supply, or out of a well like mine, it’s very cold when it comes out. By getting it into buckets I let it get closer to room temperature all day and no energy is required for this, other than the wood we’re burning in the woodstove. The other advantage of this is that often I’m doing this when the sun is on the panels as opposed to doing it at night and having the energy for the pump drawn out of the batteries.
So by evening when I fill up the tub with the pots on the stove, that water is scalding hot. Then I add the five or six buckets of cold water that’s warmed up to room temperature and the water is still often too hot for Michelle to get in. After Michelle is done 15 or 20 minutes later I use the same water. In this day of hygiene obsession some people just aren’t comfortable with this concept, but I’ve been doing it for years. All this energy has gone into heating this water, why wouldn’t we use it for more than one bath? It’s just second nature to me. And then the following morning I use that now cold bath water to flush the toilet. I do this because it just makes sense to me since it’s going to end up in the septic tank regardless; I’m just rerouting it through the toilet first. I only do this at the time of the year when power is at its minimum, but it’s so second nature to me it’s hard to actually pull the plug and let the bathwater drain all on its own during the other times.
Our friend Bill Kemp has completely automated all his systems, including running his hot water through his wood cook stove and woodstove, and he describes it in great detail in The Renewable Energy Handbook. He thinks I’m taking a very backward approach to things like this by doing it manually, but it’s working for me. It’s good to know that I can strive to automate it in the future. It’s a technology I like though. I carry the water from the woodstove. It works.
The one thing that I love about living off the grid is that it keeps me in touch with how precious things like water are. They are essential for life. They are all recycled through the ecosystem so you become intimately aware of what you’re putting down your drain. And when you realize how much energy is required to pump from the ground into your house, you start to treat it like the amazingly valuable part of life that it is.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Little House Off the Grid, published by Aztext Press, 2011.
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