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Water is one of the top priorities when you’re building an off-grid world (for the full list see here). Having suffered plenty of experience in doing it the wrong way, I was a little obsessed about water this second time around. I’ve made sure in my new off-grid world that water is in abundance. I can tell you now, the difference it has made to my workload and general comfort levels is huge.
So here’s a list of the top five ways you can obtain water in your off-grid world, with (as always) some very common issues to watch out for, plus one thing you absolutely must factor in to your off-grid water system right from the outset.
Wells are pretty common in off-grid scenarios. Humans have been digging wells for a long time, after all. If they are decent wells with plenty of water all year round, it’s all well and good. Even if you don’t have your own well, you can potentially bore down and create one. But, before you shell out a small fortune for a borer, do consider some of the pitfalls of wells.
The reality: I’ve seen a heap of problems with wells. The troubles begin (but don’t end) when, as they are wont to, wells dry up. Even here in very rainy northern Spain, I see a lot of people running low on water if the season is dry.
So… as always when it comes to water systems. Unless you are 101% sure you have plenty of water all year, make sure you have a backup. This is probably the number one rule with off-grid water. Rely on one source at your peril. I have three potential sources now, and that makes me feel very good indeed:)
The other issue with wells and water systems in general is of course pumps (protracted groan). I often hear people say, “Oh we’ll just pump it up.” That phrase is delightfully short and simple, and belies none of the actual aggravation pumps can cause. More on pumps at the bottom.
I think this is the water system of the future. Almost everywhere in the world, even in dry areas, there is rainfall at some point in the year. If you can harvest that water and store it well, you can change your world.
The best rainwater harvesting system I have ever seen was in Tamera, Portugal. It was a massive water-retention lake designed by Sepp Holzer. You can read more about that here. But the key difference between Sepp’s permie rainwater systems versus classic rainwater harvesting pools, is that Sepp uses clay to line the base of the lake, rather than concrete or any other impermeable man-made membrane. This is fundamental in dry climates because it allows a little natural seepage into the ground, thus rehydrating the entire area around the lake and balancing your local water table. Ultimately it transforms the actual climate, attracting more rain.
But not everyone is in a super-dry climate, nor does everyone have enough land for such a project. In which case, the most common (and effective) way of harvesting rainwater is from your roof. It is then collected in a big tank for later use.
The reality: The main issue with rainwater harvesting is storage space, because depending on how many months are dry and how big your garden is, you may find yourself needing a tank the size of a house. I think for small off-grid worlds, rainwater works superbly as a backup. The water is also beautifully soft, which makes your skin and hair all soft and shiny (if you like that kind of thing:)
You can read more about rainwater harvesting, and about Sepp Holzers’s inspiring work here.
These two Abundant Edge podcasts also give excellent advice on rainwater harvesting.
If you have a spring on your land, then I doubt you are reading this post. It’s the source I favour most, especially if it’s pure mountain water that you can also drink. Like wells or course, springs can dry up. But if it’s an open spring above your living quarters, then you may well be spared the pumping. I’ve seen lucky folk with spring water pipes pouring next to their houses. So if you’re looking for land and find one with a spring in it, go for it!
Brooks and Rivers
Again, if you’re looking for land and find a plot next to a river or with a brook in it, it’s probably a good choice. If it’s above your land it’s easier to drive the water down without a pump, but you have potentially more chance of flooding. If it’s below your land you’ve got to pump it up. Ram pumps are very interesting solutions to this problem though. More on them at the bottom.
The reality: Both brooks and rivers can dry up, so make sure you check their status at the end of the dry season. Also, in many regions rivers are communal, or much worse, corporation property. Or there may be limits to what you can do with them. This is why I favour springs. Generally, if you have a small spring in your land, the government or the mega-corporation has nothing to say.
Dew harvesting/dew ponds
This is essentially a very old but fast-developing water solution. Essentially all you need is a temperature reaching dew point/mist, and a tarp. In the old days, dew ponds were for cattle. A hole was dug, an insulator like straw was put down, and then puddled clay for waterproofing. See more details about the old dew ponds here.
You can make your own dew pond by digging a wide basin or pool, lining it with straw for insulation, and then covering it with a tarp. In the evening and morning, dew will collect in the tarp in a small pond. People have adapted this system for their roofs too, collecting the dew much like rainwater.
The reality: This is way, way easier in a cooler, damper climate than in a hot, arid one. In southern Turkey there was basically no dew point reached at all for about four months of the year, so good luck harvesting dew there. It’s still possible, but you need a much larger, higher-tech system. However, if your climate is temperate, oceanic, rainforest, or cool, dew harvesting can be a nice easy backup source of water.
Video of how to make a dew pond: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66tAHmRd5FE
As alluded to earlier, I hate pumps. My neighbour in Turkey was killed by one, which has done nothing to cure my aversion. Pumps often go wrong, and personally, being an independent type of lass, I dislike that my water supply suddenly becomes dependent on power.
Electric pumps (which could be solar) are okay for lightweight jobs, but don’t forget that mixing water and electricity is a high-risk venture (this is what killed my neighbour). Also, if you have a steep incline, electricity isn’t going to cut the mustard. You will need a petrol pump instead. These are noisy, expensive, and of course require fuel.
There is only one pump system I like, and that’s the hydraulic ram pump. Old school, that’s me. Ram pumps use gravity and pressure as their power source, rather than petrol or electricity. Basically you have a pipe with a number of valves in it, and the pressure of the flow (in say a river) pushes the water up a certain way into the pipe and through a valve, which closes behind it. When the next lot of water gets pushed up the pipe, it pushes the first lot through the next valve. And so on, until you’ve pumped water up your hill. Ram pumps have a lovely click to them as the valves open and close, too. The only disadvantage is that ram pumps can’t usually drag water up very steep inclines.
You can read more about the wonderful ram pump here.
Here’s a video on how to make one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enBEMgDR3-A
Yes, you need drinking water, but not nearly as much as you think. There’s far too much paranoia regarding water, usually spread by people who have zero experience of life in the wild, and who are spewing second-hand stories they’ve seen on the telly.
Remember: Depending on your annual rainfall and the size of your veggie patch/orchard, anywhere between 50% to 90% of your water usage is for your garden. On top of that, the vast majority of your personal water usage is for washing clothes and showering, so it doesn’t need to be pure, either. Then comes the washing up, which unless you’ve got good reason to believe there is giardia or cholera lurking in your supply, and you’re eating off wet plates, can also be washed in non-drinking water.
The amount of water you actually ingest is minimal. I have no drinking water in my taps and collect it instead from a pure spring nearby. I usually use between 2-3 litres a day. What you need most is water, full stop. Provided it’s not downstream from a chemical plant, you are probably fine using it for most things except drinking and eating. Most people going off-grid are moving to remote places, which are automatically less polluted anyway. That is, after all, the whole point, right?
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