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Off Grid Water Systems – How to Live without Running Water

Last Updated: April 30, 2021

Whether your goal is to become self-reliant by going off grid, you want to be more environmentally-friendly, or you are looking for a Bug Out Location for disaster preparedness, an off grid water system should be your first priority.

There are 3 main sources of water when living off grid:

  • A sustainable natural source of water
  • A well
  • Rainwater harvesting

Here’s what you need to know about each of them to start going off-grid.

1. Natural Sources of Water

It isn’t enough to have a natural source of water nearby.  That water source needs to be sustainable. By “sustainable,” I mean that the water is always going to be there.  Streams often dry out in summertime.  Even large lakes can dry out and rivers could be diverted.

In a very basic off grid setup, you might have your home next to your water source.  Every morning you’d go out with a bucket to collect the water you need for the day.  Water for cooking and drinking would need to be treated with a filter or boiling.

This is how millions of people around the globe already live.  Yes, it is tedious to constantly have to haul water and treat it.  Many people skip the treatment step, which is one reason that there are over 2 million waterborne disease deaths each year.

Forget heart disease!  Waterborne disease really is the world’s #1 killer.

Dying of diarrhea seems like a terrible way to go, so please don’t drink untreated water.

Throughout history, many cultures have figured out smart ways to channel water from natural sources to where they need it.  These “water lifts” are particularly useful for when you need large quantities of water, such as for agriculture.

Below are just some of the devices which can be constructed for channeling water.

water lift 1
A water lift for getting water into channels
water lift 2
This beats climbing downhill to gather water every day!
water lift 4
A counterweight makes this water lift easier to use

2. Well Water

The majority of the earth’s fresh water is below its surface.  Digging a well allows you to access this fresh water.

Better yet, much of the contaminants have been removed from the water as it filtered through the layers of ground.

So, well water can be relatively clean (though it still needs to be tested and treated).

There are three main types of wells that you can use.

Dug Wells

This is probably what you imagine when you think of a well: a hole in the ground with a cute little wall and roof over it. You throw a bucket down into the well and pull up water.

Dug wells don’t go very deep into the earth, so they must be over an aquifer which is close to the surface of the earth.  The ground water could easily dry up leaving you without a source of water.

Because you won’t get much water from aquifers so close to the surface, there are only really suitable for drinking water and not for agriculture use.

Drilled Wells

This is a more modern approach to well water. Instead of digging the well by hand, machinery is used to dig a very deep, narrow hole into the ground.

Because the well hole goes down much deeper – up to 3000 feet – it goes through more than one aquifer in the ground.  The deeper aquifer will have more water and the water will be cleaner.

To get the water out of the ground, you will need some sort of pump.  There are both manual and powered pumps.

Driven Wells

These types of wells are made by driving a special type of pipe into the ground.  The pipe is perforated and has a pointy end to facilitate the drilling.  There are numerous methods of drilling the pipe into the ground.  Some of these include:

  • Percussion driving
  • Water injection driving
  • Undercutting driving

To dig a well, you can’t just start digging and hope you hit water.  Ideally you thought about this before you bought your property and know that there are “sweet spots” for water underneath it.  You can find this out by consulting a geologist or the local state geological survey office.

Below is an image of a hand-powered water pump that could be used on a well.

hand water pump
A hand-operated pump for a well – Important for when the grid is down or you’re without electricity!

3. Rainwater Harvesting

I’m really happy to say that rainwater harvesting is starting to get very popular.  Increasingly more people want to take advantage of what nature gives them and become less reliant on the municipal water supply.  Some towns are even encouraging residents to start harvesting rainwater.

On the flip side, rainwater harvesting is illegal in some states.  Yes, illegal!

This has to do with arcane laws which were designed to prevent early homesteaders in the West from diverting natural streams.  It is cruelly ironic that rainwater harvesting is legal on the East Coast of the USA where water is abundant but mostly illegal in the West – an area where water is scarce.

rainwater barrel with separate use faucet
You can’t see it very well in the pic, but this rainwater barrel has two faucets: one for use and one for drainage.

Rainwater harvesting can be as simple as putting a large barrel underneath your drain spouts to collect the rain which normally flows off your roof.  However, this rain will be filled with debris from your rooftop and will quickly grow mold and bacteria.

The water may be suitable for agriculture, but you won’t be able to use it for drinking.

To use rainwater for drinking and other home uses, you’ll need a bit more complex of a setup.  Here are the basic parts that usually make up a rainwater harvesting system:

  • Catchment: This is where the rain will hit. In home rainwater harvesting systems, the catchment is usually your roof.
  • Mesh Filter: The mesh prevents larger debris like leaves from getting into the conveyance system.
  • Conveyance System: This is the components which will carry the rain water. Your gutters and downspouts can serve as part of the conveyance system.  The mesh filter goes between the gutters and downspouts to keep debris out.
  • First Flushers: When it rains, the initial rain which comes off your rooftop is usually the dirtiest as it picks up any debris and dirt on the root. As the rain continues to fall, the water coming off the roof becomes progressively cleaner.  First flushers are systems which divert the first spells of rain.  After the first flush is filled, it will trigger a valve so the rest of the rainwater is carried to the collection system.
  • Pre-Filters: These are the components which filter smaller debris from the water before it gets into the tank. There are many types of pre-filters.  Sand filters and charcoal filters are two common options.  If you only use rainwater for irrigation, then this is the only type of filter you need. Pre-filters are usually gravity-fed.
  • Storage Tank: These are the tanks which hold your collected rainwater. They can be aboveground or underground and come in many different sizes.
  • Post-Filters: Post-filtration systems treat water as it leaves the tank. They are usually pressure-fed (as opposed to gravity-fed pre-filters) and have a very small pore size to prevent bacteria, parasites, and algae from getting through.  UV treatment can also be used.
  • Distribution System: This consists of the components which will transport the water from the tank to where you want it to go. Advanced rainwater harvesting systems are connected to your home.  A basic system might just have a spigot so you can put the water into buckets to carry where you need it.

Are you living off grid?  What is your off grid water system?  Let us know in the comments below.

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