off grid water, drinking water, well water, grey water system, free water, diy water system

Off Grid Water Guide | Well, Septic, Sewer, Grey Water, and More

April 15, 2020
(last update April 15, 2020 )

Daniel Mark Schwartz Profile Picture

For quite a while I have been researching the best ways to build an off grid water system, and today I thought I would write down everything I know. There are many options for off the grid water besides just a well and septic. So, hopefully this helps people getting started get an idea how they can have water on their property.

How to have water off the grid. Option for off grid water include, deep wells, shallow well, springs, surface water (river, creek, lake), grey water, and rain water collection. Off grid sewer and waste management options include, septic, grey water, Humanure, and composting toilet.

Installing a water system on your property could be one of the most expensive parts of going off grid, depending on the choices you make and the options you have available where you live. That’s why I’ve gone in to detail on the options you may not have heard of in the sections below.

Introduction to Off Grid Water Systems

There are many things to consider when building an off grid water system. In the city, you may not have thought about where the water comes from or how it gets to your home, your builder just hooked up a pipe and then you pay the monthly bill. But, when you are making the move build an independent water system of your own there is more to consider, which is the price you pay for independence and self-sufficiency.

How Rural Homes Typically Get Water

The modern accepted way to get water and sewage service for a rural home is with a deep well and septic. Not surprisingly, both of these systems tend to be the most expensive option, requiring heavy machinery and in most cases licensed professionals to install.

Depending on the laws where you live, and the building codes in your area of the country, you may be required to install a deep well and or a septic before building on your land. Some states have requirements that limit how many people, if any, can live on a piece of land, depending on the size of the installed septic. Although other states allow for lower tech alternatives such as composting toilets or pit toilets.

For more information on how you can be off grid and within the law, check out my article:

Reasons to Avoid Deep Wells

Deep wells are generally considered one of the safest sources of water available, because they pull directly from the sealed aquifer. They are different than shallow wells, the old fashioned type with a bucket and on a rope, because deep wells punch through a layer of clay that water cannot easily pass through. This means any possible contamination from micro-organisms or chemicals from the surface is minimized, and you are drinking only water that has been underground thousands of years.

The biggest downside to deep wells is their expense. There is no way to know 100% how deep a well you need on you property until you drill one. Deep water wells are very commonly 100s of feet deep, and require special well drilling equipment. Commonly the cost of a deep will is $1,000s to $10,000s depending on the depth.

Many states regulate deep well drilling, requiring you to apply for a permit based on the use. I know in my state, if you plan to water a garden over 1/4 acre, you are required to apply for a second permit, and may be required to dig a second well for that purpose. You may also not be approved, limiting your crop yield.

Deep wells require powerful, energy consuming pumps, which may require more or larger solar panels or batteries for you off grid energy system. Again extra potential $1,000s depending on your climate and water usage. Pumps and electricity can also fail, leaving you dependent on “the grid” to supply you with a replacement in order to keep drinking.

Lastly, deep wells are drawing from increasingly shrinking aquifers. In the United States, the majority of major aquifers nation wide are retreating deeper and deeper as the water gets used up. Be aware that years or decades from now, your expensive deep water well may not be a reliable source.

Reasons to Avoid Septic Systems

For those who are unfamiliar, a septic is a large underground tank, usually concrete or fiberglass, that stores sewage and human waste from homes that do not have access to municipal sewer systems. While septic systems do typically offer some form of filtering to allow liquids to percolate in to the ground, depending on the design and the type of soil in your area, all septic do occasionally need to be pumped in to a truck, and the contents taken to a sewage treatment plant.

In my mind, that makes septic systems an “on-grid” utility, since you are required to pay a fee, and have external inputs to keep your system up and running in the long term.

Additionally, septic systems are also quite expensive. Just the tank itself can cost between $8,000 and $25,000 depending on the type, size, and building conditions.

Off Grid Alternatives to Deep Water Wells

With the problems with deep water wells discussed above, what can we do instead?

As mentioned above, depending on the laws in your state, you may be required to install a deep water well if you build a home requiring a building permit. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have other options to supplement the deep water well, or even that you have to use the deep water well at all.

Here are some alternative ways to keep your homestead watered without digging a deep well.

Rainwater Collection

Rainwater collection is a relatively expensive and low tech way to provide for your off grid water needs. Many states allow some form of rainwater collection by law.

How Much Rainwater Can You Collect?

How much rain water you can collect in a year depends on how many inches of rain you get in your area, and the size of the roof or collection structure used. The simple way to estimate how much water you would get is multiply the horizontal area of your roof or collection surface by the number of inches of rain you get, and convert to gallons or liters.

TIP: You can use Google search to do unit conversion for you. For instance, if your roof covers 1200 sqft and you get 30 inches of rain a year, you could get the amount of water collected per year in gallons by typing, “1200 sqft * 30 inches in gallons” in to the search box on google.com. You should get “22 441.5584 US gallons” as the answer.

How Much Rainwater Storage Do You Need?

Another thing to consider is the size of water storage you might need, which should be big enough to get you through the driest part of the year. Here on the west coast of the US, we get almost no rain from May to October, which means we need 5 months worth of water storage, covering almost all the growing season, where water needs are higher. The east coast and other areas with summer rains, however, will probably get by with much less water storage.

Rainwater Purification

To use rain water for drinking or other non-agricultural domestic use, it is recommended that you filter your water, and have a first flush diverter. For more information on how to set up an off grid rainwater collection system, check out the resources below:

Shallow Wells

Shallow wells are the old time well that, unlike deep water wells, pulls from underground water near the surface. This makes shallow wells much easier to build, with the potential for hand digging, but also makes them more susceptible to contamination. Some states no no longer allow shallow wells to be dug, so check with your county government to check what is allowed in your area.

How to Hand Dig a Shallow Well

There are a number of ways to dig a shallow well. One commonly suggested method is to use a water based drilling head, which works well in sandy soils and sites where you have some access to surface water, or are able to truck in water for the purpose of drilling.

Another method is to use a rotary auger, that is lowered in the hole, spun around to cut out the earth, and raised back up to remove the debris. Various methods have been developed historically around the world including hand digging and percussion drilling, which may be effective depending on your soil type.

Shallow Well Water Purification

Like any well, shallow well water should be tested regularly to ensure safety. Since shallow well water is more prone to contamination than deep wells, you may also consider purifying shallow well water before human consumption.

Surface Water Sources (Lake, Stream, River, or Spring)

Using water from surface sources such as river, lakes, or streams seems like a natural choice if you are lucky enough to have access to one or more on your land. While such sources are very commonly used for irrigation, you should be cautious using such sources in your home due to increased potential for contamination.

Can I Legally Use Water From My Stream?

Water usage right vary from state to state. Most states east of the Mississippi River automatically grand land owners some rights to use water in streams that pass through or are adjacent to their property lines.

However, many states west of the Mississippi employ a water right based system where you must apply to use surface water, even if it is on your land. Water rights apply to specific usages, so you may have to apply once for agricultural use, and again for domestic use (if that is allowed). Water rights have a priority based on age, so in drought conditions your water right might be suspended, and thus all water use from that source prohibited, in order to ensure the older water right holders’ access to water is maintained.

Surface Water Purification

Surface water sources are particularly prone to contamination, and should be purified before drinking. Also, be sure to ensure that your source of water is not contaminated by industrial toxins or agricultural chemical runoff.

Alternatives to Septic for Off Grid Sanitation

As discussed above, septic systems tend to be quite expensive, and require regular pumping from third parties, making them not really an off grid solution in my mind.

In off grid systems, a septic handles two varieties of waste water, lightly soiled water from sinks or showers called “grey water”, and heavily soiled water from toilets called “black water”. While many residential plumbing systems don’t have differentiate between the two, handling them separately in an off grid water system is usually the right way to go, since is tends to reduce costs.

Grey Water Systems

Grey water systems is a catchall phase that encompasses any plumbing system that stores, filters, and/or discharges grey water from household sinks and showers.

There are a wide range of grey water systems designs out there, from complex commercial designs with tanks and filters, to a simple pipe that discharges in to an outdoor “biofilter,” that consists of layers of sandy soil and filtering plants that ease the transition of water back in to the environment.

Can I Use Grey Water to Water My Garden?

Grey water systems, with proper care not to pour toxic substances down the drain, are suitable for watering plants. However, most sources do not recommend watering vegetables with grey water. Instead, grey water is best used for watering trees / orchards, or non-edible plants.

Which Plants Can Be Used to Filter Grey Water?

Some sources suggest filtering water through special plants to help clean the water. In general, passing the water through a layer of mulch or top soil is enough filtering if you follow the recommendations above.

If your grey water is too acidic, you may have better luck if you plant acid loving plants near by: such as fern, rhododendrons, or blueberries.

If your grey water is too salty, you can possibly get by creating a constructed wetland where your grey water exits the system. I recommend researching and using local wetland species specific to your region. Only go this route if you use your grey water system enough to keep the ground soggy most of the year, or you already have a small wetland area on your property which you can use for this purpose.

What Cleaners Can I Use With My Grey Water System?

Because grey water systems are designed to reuse water and discharge it back in to the environment, certain types of soaps and chemical cleaners should not be discharged down the drain in a grey water system. In general it is best to avoid any “toxic” chemicals. Also, any products like the following:

  • Don’t use bleaches
  • Don’t use products labeled whitening, softening, or containing enzymatic powders
  • Don’t use any product with these ingredients:
    • Boron, borax, chlorine, or bleach
    • Peroxygen or sodium perborate
    • Petroleum distillate or alkylbenzene

For more detail info on what to look for in grey water safe cleaning products:

My recommended grey water safe cleaning products:

Alternative Off Grid Toilets

Toilets handle human waste, which must be handled with care to avoid unsanitary situations. When mixing human waste with water, that water becomes sewage or “black water”.

In my option, the best way to handle off grid human waste is to give it a sanitary path to break down and return to soil directly on one’s own property, rather than storing it and shipping it out via a septic system. Not only does this save money in the long run, but serves to help improve the soil quality of your land over time.

Humanure Bucket Toilet

Humanure

Humanure is a dead simple and dirt cheap waste management system that focuses on direct composting of human waste. The system works in two stages, the first being an in door dry toilet with smell arresting biodegradable cover. Once full, the toilet is transported outside to a three stage exterior compost pile.

Common sense proper handling of the waste minimizes or eliminates smells. And, the multi-year composting regimen follows scientific guidelines for turning waste in to rich soil.

The biggest benefit of Humanure waste management is the simplicity and extreme low cost. The biggest downside is that there is more manual management that needs to get done, since waste buckets have to be transported outside, usually on a weekly or bi-weekly basis depending on size and use.

Composting Toilets

Composting toilets are similar to Humanure toilets, except that they are designed to hold more waste for a longer time. Composting toilets come in a wide variety of packages from portable commercial models to larger permanent installations like the “Clivus” models. And, they have a variety of operating modes.

Most composting toilets have separators inside, which allows the solids to be separated from the liquids, allowing the liquids to be moved separately, or piped directly outside to the compost, and vent pipes. They also frequently have agitating systems that automatically “flush” the toilet by dispersing cover material after each use.

Overall, these improvements make composting toilets require less frequent emptying, and may be easier to use and more familiar for the flush toilet user. The biggest downside is that commercial composting are relatively expensive, costing about $500 – $1,000 each for portable models, and $1,000s for larger permanent installations, even DIY concrete constructions.

Biogas

Biogas is one of the more interesting developments in waste management for the off grid lifestyle that I have seen. The theory behind biogas is that waste is stored and allowed to ferment in a air tight “digester” or bladder. The microorganisms that natural flourish in an oxygen deprived environment produce methane from the waste, and eventually a compost tea.

The biggest benefit to using a digester rather than directly composting the waste is that you get to use the methane produced for heating or cooking. Methane gas from the digester is filtered, to remove any smell or contamination, and then can be use just like natural gas for gas stoves or heaters.

Biogas can also be supplemented with animal manure and other combustible material, and has been used in Germany for decades by commercial farms to generate electricity for extra income. Smaller homestead scale designs are still mostly a hobby affair at the moment, but here ar some resources to get started.

In some areas, some form of septic may be required to live permanently on a piece of land. But, I haven’t seen any laws that require you to use the septic once installed.

For many people, their state may not require as septic, or allow a composting or alternative toilet to replace their septic entirely.

For more details on off grid waste systems, check out my in depth article:

Off Grid Water Storage

Those of you considering rainwater collection, using seasonal streams, with low producing wells, or who need water storage for fire water will need to install a cistern. Large water tanks can be a major expense, but also provide piece of mind that you have enough water to keep your family and your farm running no matter what happens.

Here are a few options for large water storage tanks.

Poly Tanks (Plastic)

Plastic tanks are available in smaller sizes at a lower cost than other options for pre-fabricated tanks, but quickly grow more expensive at 1,000+ gallons than galvanized steel tanks.

Plastic tanks generally need to be protected from the sun, either via a structure or by burying, since plastic breaks down in UV light. Some tanks are rated for use in direct light, but even still will last longer when protected.

Galvanized Steel Tanks with Liners

The supplier below offers large corrugated steel cistern kits, which saves a lot on shipping. For tanks about 1,000 gallons and over, these are the best price per gallon for pre-fabricated tanks that I have found.

These tanks are bolted together, to form the steel structure, and come with food grade plastic liners to make the structure water proof.

Stainless Steel Tanks

Easily the most expensive option on this list, stainless steel tanks have the benefit of being potentially the most durable pre-fab option. And are the only pre-fab option that doesn’t store water in contact with plastics, if you have health concerns that like I do.

While there many manufacturer’s in Asia that makes this product, I have only found one American producer of stainless steel water tanks:

Ferrocement Cisterns

One good option for the DIYer looking to save money are ferro-cement tanks. These either above ground or below ground concrete tanks don’t require a form to pour, but rather allow the builder to plaster a thick layer of cement directly on the steel wire or rebar core of the tank. This saves time and money.

Clay / Tadelakt Cisterns

For the environmentally conscious, another option is to build a large tank out of cob (clay, sand, and straw), and line it with a layer of water impervious lime and soap called tadelakt. Tadelakt is a Moroccan craft, originally used for making gorgeous water proof surfaces in public bath houses, but is becoming the darling of the natural building crowd because it is eco-friendly, using only natural materials, non-toxic, and relatively low cost.

Here is a paper showing the process of building a large tadelakt cistern. Be warned, tadelakt is a fairly labor intensive process:

How do you get running water off the grid?

Off grid water is usually provided by a combination of a deep well and septic system. In some areas it is possible to use other options such as springs, rainwater, shallow wells, and other surface water. As well as grey water systems, composting toilets, pit toilets, and Humanure systems for waste water and sewage management.

Can you live off rain water?

Yes, in most areas it is possible to collect enough rain water to live from. Officials recommend rainwater be purified before use. Check with your state or county government to determine what forms of rainwater collection are legal in your area.


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