When it comes to living off the grid, having an abundant supply of clean, drinking water is a top priority.
For people living on the grid, quenching their thirst or taking a refreshing shower is as simple as turning on a tap.
But if you’re thinking about trying out an off-grid lifestyle, sourcing and using water becomes a much more involved process.
In this article, we go over what that involved process looks like to help people looking to live off the grid, like yourself, figure out how best to find, store, and use water.
Where to Find Water Off The Grid
There are more sources of water off the grid than many people realize. Wells are the most obvious answer, but there are several other ways to source water sustainably.
Wells are by far the most common source of off-grid water. People have been using well water since the dawn of civilization and with good reason. Artesian wells provide a constant source of freshwater.
The biggest downside to wells is their cost. The average well in the U.S. runs about $5,500 and is around 150 feet deep. As the depth of your well increases, so does your cost. The good news is once you complete your well, it provides a source of water with very little required maintenance.
The water table determines the depth of your well in your area. In wetter areas, the water table may be as shallow as 100 feet below the surface. In desert climates and other arid lands, you may have to go as deep as 1,000 feet.
If you’re seriously considering using a water well on your property – and you don’t know where to start – our comprehensive piece on everything you need to know about wells and well water is a great place to start.
Getting the water out of your well requires a pump. You can go old school with a manual water pump or choose one of the excellent solar powered or traditional electric water pumps.
If you are looking to purchase a high-quality and affordable water pump, check out our buying guide that goes over the top 5 water pumps on the market in 2020.
One last consideration is seismic and drilling activity near you. A good-sized earthquake can destroy your well shaft, as can activities such as hydraulic fracking.
Consider the cost vs. lifespan benefits when deciding if a well is for you.
One of the best ways to get water is through a natural spring. An easy way to think of springs is as natural wells. They’re points where groundwater moves through cracks and fissures in the Earth up to the surface.
Springs cost you nothing and can provide a lot of water depending on their size. It’s easy to tap into this water with just a few pipes and a way to divert the water into storage.
Here’s a great explanation of the necessary steps:
The biggest downside to natural springs is their rarity. Most plots of off-grid land you find won’t have a spring flowing on them. Those that do will be noticeably more expensive than their neighbors.
Springs are also susceptible to environmental factors. If you have an exceptionally hot or dry year, many springs will cease flowing until conditions improve.
One potential source for finding water off-grid is rainfall. It’s free and easy to collect water if you live in a climate with adequate moisture. Even better, rainwater can be one of the cleanest, naturally occurring sources you’ll find.
A simple rain catchment system can divert water from your roof to a storage system. Figuring out how much you can capture over a year is equally easy.
Every square foot of roof space captures .623 gallons of water for an inch of rainfall. Figure out the square footage of your roof and look up your local rainfall statistics.
Even a tiny home with just 200 square feet of roof space will provide you with nearly 125 gallons of freshwater per inch of rainfall.
Natural Rivers, Streams, and Ponds
People have been using naturally flowing water pretty much forever. Many prospective off-grid dwellers wonder why they can’t merely use water found in natural springs, streams, ponds, and rivers on their property.
Unfortunately, there are several excellent arguments against relying on this source of water. First and foremost, it’s illegal in much of the United States and the rest of the world.
Western states rely on something called Appropriative Water Rights to determine who can use the naturally present water.
Without going into the legalistic details, most property owners out west don’t own the rights to water present on their land. If you draw water from a river or other naturally occurring source, you can be fined.
Realistically it’s unlikely you’d be caught or punished for drawing out a few hundred gallons per year. However, I don’t recommend you break the law to get your water.
Buying and Storing Water
While not necessarily in the spirit of off-grid life, it is possible to purchase water and bring it back to your home. The most common way to do this is with a water tank that you load into your car or tow behind it.
The advantages are that you only purchase the water you need and can get more whenever needed. The disadvantages are obvious.
Buying water and driving it to your homestead makes you more susceptible to issues with the grid itself. It can also be kind of a hassle, especially if you don’t already make a regular trip into town for other supplies.
Bulk water isn’t available for purchase everywhere, though most RV parks and other areas with frequent travelers will have some options available.
Additional related articles:
Off-Grid Running Water
Two main systems allow running water while off-grid. The first, gravity-fed storage, has been used for millennia and relies on the force of gravity to push water through your pipes.
So long as your water tank is at a higher elevation than your home, the water will naturally move through your pipes. Municipal water towers rely on this same system to provide water pressure to grid-tied homes.
The benefits of this system are apparent, but there are some downsides. First, you have to get the water to that elevation. If you have a rain catchment system or a well-located above your home, this can happen naturally. Otherwise, you’re going to have to pump water into a storage tank mechanically.
The other method for setting up running water is a powered pump. Solar electric well pumps (I highly recommend the Shurflo 288) are more than capable of providing pressurized water to an off-grid home. You can get pumps with any gallon per minute flow rate that you need. They let you experience high water pressure but do require a constant draw of power.
The pumps themselves aren’t what provide continuous water pressure. Most often a pressurized water tank is used. They use compressed air storage generated as the tank fills. When the pressure drops as you use water, the well pump kicks in and re-pressurizes the system.
Keep reading to learn more about well pumps and cistern water storage.
Off-Grid Water Capture and Use
There are several different ways to capture and store water for your off-grid home. These change depending on the source of your water.
Manual Well Pumps
One of the oldest systems used for off-grid water is manual well pumps. If you’ve ever watched an old Western movie, you no doubt remember the rhythmic sounds a metal well pump made while drawing water up from hundreds of feet.
These are great examples of old technology that’s still useful today. Manual well pumps are inexpensive and effective at drawing up water from shallow wells.
However, the downsides mostly outweigh the benefits. Manual well pumps have a hard limit on how deep they can draw water. For most, this is around 75 m/250 ft. Past that point, it becomes impossible for human power alone to draw water.
They also don’t provide pressurized water the way an electric pump does. You have to pour the water you draw up into a gravity-fed system or another cistern then add in an electric pump. This makes it a lot harder to have running water.
If you want to live a back-to-nature lifestyle off-grid, they can be a very viable option. For most, though, electric pumps are a better choice.
Solar/Electric Well Pumps
The newest electric well pumps can provide substantial water flow from even the deepest wells. They have meager power requirements and are plenty strong enough to offer either traditional water pressure or supply a gravity-fed cistern system.
Choosing the best well pump for your needs comes down to three essential factors:
- The diameter of your well shaft
- The flow rate of water (measured in gallons per minute/GPM)
- The power requirements
The most basic requirement for a well pump is fitting in your well shaft. It doesn’t matter how great a pump is if it fundamentally won’t work for you.
The next step is figuring out how much capacity you need. Well pumps can provide all the flow rate you need. Figure out how many fixtures you have in your home and how much water pressure you need for each of them.
That determines the gallons per minute your well pump has to handle.
The last consideration is the power draw. Find out how much power a well pump requires to see if your current system can handle it. Off-grid solar is getting cheaper and better every single year. It shouldn’t be too expensive to add more capacity to your solar system to power a well.
Here’s a great video that runs through the basics of sizing and installing a water pump on your well:
Depending on the source of your water supply, it may be necessary to store large amounts of water. Rainwater and spring water are the two sources most likely to need a cistern.
Traditionally cisterns were a form of covered underground water storage. They captured rainwater and held it for use during dry times.
Nowadays, cisterns refer to pretty much any water storage tank, whether above ground or below. The most common cisterns used for off-grid living are large plastic tanks, but you also see ones made from metal, cement, or even stone.
I recommend plastic storage tanks for most off-grid applications. They’re affordable, highly durable, and resist microbial growth better than natural materials. They’re also a lot lighter and more comfortable to move when empty.
If you use a rain catchment system, you need a comprehensive storage plan in place. A cistern makes it easy to store rainwater for the long term.
If you sight your cistern well it can even help provide water pressure through the force of gravity.
Rain Catchment Systems
Rain catchment systems allow you to collect rainwater as it falls passively. Most use their roof as the primary collecting point and funnel water from their gutters and drain pipes down into plastic rainwater storage barrels.
A rain catchment system is the cheapest and easiest off-grid water system to set up, but it does have some downsides. Only certain kinds of roofs are suitable for rainwater catchment. Metal roofs are the best, while tile and slate are acceptable. You should never drink water collected from an asphalt roof.
It can be used for watering your garden but contains too many potential contaminants from the roof material for drinking.
Once you’ve captured the water, you need to figure out how to use it. Some rainwater catchment systems collect the water in raised tanks. These are great for a gravity-fed system. It also makes it easy to add a filtering element between the water storage and your home.
Interested in setting up your own rainwater harvesting system? Check out our post, “3 Types Of Rainwater Harvesting Systems To Step Up Your Off Grid Game.” It goes through 3 proven systems to help you utilize rainwater efficiently and effectively. Check it out.
Off Grid Water Filtration and Treatment
Once you’ve got a reliable source of water, you need to filter or treat it. Some sources are cleaner than others, but I always feel it’s better to be safe than sorry where health and wellness is concerned.
The best options for treating water off grid are inline and gravity-fed water filtration systems. Inline filters hook into your plumbing and automatically filter all water entering your home. They’re the most natural water filters to use but require more advanced plumbing knowledge and running water to work.
The most affordable and most manageable water filters to set up are gravity filters. They work by pouring water into an opening at the top and letting it move its way down through filter elements.
They’re great if you want a workable basic solution to filtering off-grid water without dealing with a lot of extra work.
The exception to the filtration rule is water intended for irrigation and outdoor use. There’s no reason to filter water that you’re just going to pour right onto your garden after all.
I wrote a helpful article about the different types of water filtration that dive deep into what you need to consider when choosing a water filter.
Choose the Best Water System for Your Needs
The best off-grid water system is the one that fits your specific situation. Where you are in the world and your available budget plays a significant role.
Wells are always a good option but can get expensive fast if you have to go deep to hit the water table. Likewise, rainwater catchment systems provide a nearly free source of water but leave you entirely at the mercy of annual rainfall.
Spend a little time checking conditions in your local area to find the perfect solution for your off-grid home.
For future relevant reading, you may find the following reads to be helpful: