Saturday, November 21, 2015

guest article





A North Idaho, Off-Grid Water Storage Example


Disclaimer: Here's an article on how my family and I have managed our water system for the last 20 years on our North Idaho Homestead.  This is not the only way to do a system. In fact, it's far from perfect. There are many other ways that are equal to or better than what we have done.  Depending on where you live and your average precipitation, this might not work for you at all.  This article is not about conservation or using less water.  We strive to live a pretty "normal" life, whatever that means in this day and age.  This is just what has worked for us over the years.


Background: Twenty years ago, my husband and I bought 10 acres in North Idaho, 2 miles from the nearest paved road.  (Over the years, we've bought out our neighbors and now have a total of 50 acres.) Our property is fairly level, treed and bordering a 14 acre beaver pond that is shared among several neighbors.  We get an average of 30 inches of rain a year.  Some of that falls as snow during the winter months.  July, August and September are usually dry.  There were no buildings, utilities, well, etc. on our property when we bought it. Access is seasonal depending on how much snow we get.  We use snowmobiles, ATV's, snowshoes, cross country ski's, to access our property during particularly bad winters.  One winter, we didn't drive our car to our house for six months. 


After we bought our property, we hired a company to construct a pole building shop.  We used this for our home base as we came up only on weekends.  There was a metal roof so we installed 12 feet of rain gutter and bought a 55 gallon, plastic barrel.  Every weekend, we would come up and the water barrel would be filled.  We used this water for bucket showers, washing dishes and watering the dogs.  We hauled in our drinking water from home.  What we discovered is that you don't really need very much potable water for drinking and cooking.  Most water usage is for bathing and washing.  So if that water is fairly clean but maybe not drinking quality, we'll that's okay.  


It took us three years to make the move permanently to our backwoods homestead.  During that time we built a woodshed, barn, and a couple of other small outbuildings.  Each of these building was outfitted with gutters and rain barrels.  After the move, we started building our cabin.  Our cabin uses a SunMar Composting Toilet -- no water needed. Wells in the area run 600 feet deep and the cost is out of our budget so we've just made do and expanded our rainwater system as needed. Plus, you need a pretty big pump for that deep a well.  Which also means you need a generator and gas. If the end of the world comes, how are you getting that water out of that deep hole?  Deep well pitcher pumps don't draw 600 feet.


A quick word on barrels.  We have found that the plastic 55 gallon barrels that have a large ring that allows you to remove the whole top works better for us -- much better than the barrels with two small bungs.  Being able to remove the top allows us to clean the barrels easier.  My husband installs a water faucet on the side, toward the bottom of the barrel.  The faucets have a threaded pipe sticking out of it.  The set up goes:  faucet-washer-silicone-barrel-silicone-washer-nut.  To keep bugs and debris out, we take off the lid and ring. Stretch the body of a panty hose over the top. (A knot is tied in the crotch area and the legs are cut off.  Small size panty hose are not big enough. I can usually buy a bag of used panty hose from the local thrift store during their "buck-a-bag" sale.).  The ring is screwed back on and the lid is saved in case we need it later.  The barrels are placed on cinder blocks so that there is space to put a bucket under the faucet. 


During our first winter, we moved a rain barrel into the house and put it on cinder blocks.  We melted snow on the wood stove and poured the resulting water into the rain barrel.  That way we always had 50 or so gallons on hand to wash dishes, take showers, water animals, etc.


For our drinking water, we are lucky in the fact that just 7 miles down the road from us is a fresh water spring that runs 24/7.  Hundreds of folks in the area get their water from here.  We prefer using the "Aqua-tainers" for hauling drinking water.  They hold 7 gallons, have a built in faucet, and have a square bottom so they don't tip over in the car.  We bought ours from WalMart for around $12. We have seven of these containers and that will last our family of 5 for a month. Though if needed for TSHTF, I have several different water purifiers so I can use the rain and pond water.  


Water for the grass and my small garden came from the pond using a gasoline powered water pump. I started with a small Homelite gas water pump that could run only one garden hose but it sure beat hauling buckets of water to the garden. We have since upgraded to a Honda water pump that will allow me to run 7 impulse sprinklers at one time for the yard and (now much bigger) garden. 


The second year in our house, we added a front porch and attached rain gutter.  At this time, we had 5 barrels (275 gallons capacity) set up.  Water was hauled into the house in plastic buckets. Poured into kettles and heated on the stove as needed. It worked but not too long after, I was pregnant and carrying buckets became less and less fun.


At this point, we used our tax return to buy a 1200 gallon, plastic cistern behind our house. We hired a friend with a backhoe to bury it for us. A cheap pitcher pump from Harbor Freight was installed on the counter next to the sink. We ran hoses from the barrels to fill up the cistern.  However, we would only fill the cistern with rain collected during the spring and fall.  During the summer there is too much dust and pollen in the air and on the roof.  The summer water was still collected in the rain barrels but the hoses were put away and we would use this water for animals.  Pollen water is NOT fun to shower with.  It makes your hair yucky!  


With a new baby, our water use increased.  Due to lack of funds and wanting to be self-sufficient, we use cloth diapers.  Twice a week, I would pump 50 gallons of water, heat it on the wood stove and wash the laundry in a wringer washer with two, side rinse tubs.  Once the wash water became dirty, the rinse water became the wash water and new water was used for rinsing.  It was rather labor intensive but it saved a lot of money.  Clothes are hung outside during the summer and on wood racks by the wood stove during winter.


Three years later when baby #2 came along, I wasn't looking forward to pumping the 50 gallons of water, twice a week.  I was using 5 gallon stainless steel kettles for heating the water and they weigh 40 pounds.  My shoulders were starting to get injured moving the kettles.  So we decided to install a 12 volt, RV-style water pump and instant on demand, propane water heater.  Plumbing was installed using RV tubing (looks like garden hose).  The system is only good for running one faucet at a time, but compared to pumping water, it's a big blessing.  The Shur-flo water pump and propane water heater were purchased through Backwoods Solar in Sandpoint, Idaho.  (You can find them online.)  We retired the bucket shower and installed a regular shower head.  A regular front-load washer was purchased.  Though, we still hang up our clothes.


Over the years, we had baby #3, and added two 1200 gallon cisterns for backup.  These are not connected to the main cistern and we use the gas water pump to transfer water or we could lower down a bucket if needed.  That way in case one cistern gets contaminated for some reason, we still have two others.  Drinking water is still hauled in from the spring.  The pitcher pump is on the counter and is used every once in a while if the 12 volt water pump breaks down. (They need a new diaphragms every few years).  One year, the intake line from the cistern froze to the 12 volt pump -and- the water pitcher line so we dragged in a 55 gallon barrel and had the kids collect the snow for us to melt :).  Every time we upgrade a system, we leave the old system in place so if something happens we are still set up.


Side Notes:  


All of our building have metal roofs.  Rain gutters are plastic and are taken down and stored over winter. We get a LOT of snow and it will rip the gutters right off.  We found some of our gutter material for free through Craigslist and Freecycle.


Sometimes we put our rain barrels away for winter but most of the time we don't.  In twenty years, we have only lost 2 to freezing.  One of these we just repaired the little split in the seam with silicone - still useable. 


Hoses are a great prep item to stockpile.  You can never have enough. 


Water "totes" are very cost effective and fairly easy to find.  They are used by food companies to haul juices and syrups. They are around 275 gallons.  However, they are too big to fit through a regular door so don't expect to take them inside.  They can't "officially" be buried but our neighbor dug a hole, lined it with scrap plywood and covered the hole with straw bales. You can clean them at the car wash using the high pressure hose - soapy water, then rinse.


Barrels are your friend and handy for so many things.  If you find a good deal, stock up.  Keep your eye open on Craigslist.  In North Idaho, you can get barrels and totes from Eagle Peak Containers in Athol, Idaho.  Remember if possible, buy the ones that have the whole lid you can remove.  The barrels with just the two bung holes are hard to keep clean. 


SunMar Composting Toilets are worth the money.  We have been very happy with ours over the years.


Not all Shur-flo 12 volt pumps are the same.  Cheaper is not always better.  Make sure you note the model number when comparing prices.


Some of the "pool side" instant propane water heats look interesting.  They are fairly inexpensive.  I bought one for a little cabin I built but I haven't had a chance to try it yet. 


Last but not least, Remember that all water does NOT need to be potable.  "Good enough" water is fine for showers, washing clothes and dishes.  Think about it, folks don't mind swimming in lakes and rivers even if they wouldn't drink the water....



Idaho Homesteader


  1. Excellent article, IH, thank you! One thing though: "I can usually buy a bag of used panty hose from the local thrift store during their "buck-a-bag" sale." You are made of hardier stock that I if you are willing to filter your water through used panty hose...or maybe it's just a guy thing on this end ;-)

    1. They're washed, LOL, and you are basically just using the waist area because you tie a knot above the crotch and cut it off.

      Panty hose really do a great job of keeping mosquitoes and pine needles out of your barrels. They work better than screen IMO. Plus, we don't drink the rainwater. It taste flat because there are no minerals in it. Ground water from a spring or well is much tastier.

      I save the leg part of the panty hose to store my onions and garlic. Put the first bulb down by the toes, tie a knot, add another bulb, tie a knot, continue until the leg is full. Tie a loop and hang in the pantry.

      We're pretty frugal around here so if it's cheap and it works, we do it.

      Idaho Homesteader

  2. thanks. great article.
    lots of posts write about well depth and the inadequate draw power of well pumps, not to mention getting parts in a collapse situation. if you live where it rains and snows this looks like the solution to the deep well draw power problem.
    thanks again.

  3. Good article- thanks. I've had mixed experiences with the Aqua-container. Four of eight that I bought held water fine, but the spigots leaked water. That also means there was no seal during storage. 50% fail rate seems high to me.

  4. Some good info there.
    Seems the Aqua-Tainers of late have been cheapened, as everything else has, according to Amazon reviews, and are prone to breakage and leakage.

  5. Thanks for the article, really enjoyed it. Where can we read your other posts at the other places you post. I appreciate your common-sense approach to living and making things work in ways not-so-typical. If you need to send it by way of email it is

    Thanks for all you do,