When deciding to go off the grid, most homesteaders face two major challenges — power and water. While you can get by without power and the modern creature comforts we’ve become accustomed to, water is a necessity. We can only survive for a few days without a source of clean and drinkable water, but if you want to stay off the grid, tapping into your local water utility isn’t an option.
With that in mind, here are our solutions for the best off-grid water sources and systems. The viability of each option and system will depend on a lot of variables, from your location to the depth of your water table and even average local weather patterns, but we’ll try to provide plenty of general information so you can choose what works best for you.
Option 1 — Well Water
Digging a well on your property and using well water is one of the most common off-grid options. Many homes already have wells in places where connecting to the local water main isn’t a viable option or there isn’t a grid available. With the average family using upwards of 300 gallons of water a day, wells are a valuable tool for homesteaders and homeowners alike. If you’re planning to go off the grid, this might be one of the first things you consider when managing water for your home, but there are some downsides.
For one thing, if there isn’t already a well on your property, it can be expensive to have one drilled, and it’s not generally something you’re going to be able to do on your own. For another, there may not even be a viable water table for you to tap into, or if there is, it may be contaminated with salt or other chemicals, rendering it undrinkable. If you can overcome these challenges, a well might be a good choice for your homestead.
Manual vs. Electric Pumps
You’ve got two options for bringing water up from your well — manual and electric. Manual pumps require a bit of elbow grease to generate water pressure, while electric pumps do all the work for you, but need a source of power. The former might be more challenging to use, especially if you’re used to turning on the tap and not having to worry about water pressure, but the latter presents a unique set of challenges for off-grid living.
Thankfully, advances in solar power generation mean that you can readily find a solar-powered water pump for your well. It might take a bit of tweaking to make it work the way you want, but if you get a sufficient amount of usable solar hours, you can hook up a solar-powered pump to your well.
Monitor Seismic Activity
If your homestead is in an area prone to seismic activity, or near areas where fracking occurs, you need to be careful about your well water. An earthquake or a fracking explosion can stir up mud and other sediments in your drinking water, change the water level or even cause your well to collapse, making it impossible to get water.
It’s essential to monitor seismic activity in your area and test your water after a seismic event to ensure it’s still safe to drink. We live on a geologically active planet, so avoiding earthquakes isn’t always possible, but you can take plenty of steps to protect your homestead’s drinking water if you rely on a well.
Option 2 — Springwater
If you’re lucky enough to have a natural spring on your property, you have an invaluable resource for supplying water to your homestead. Groundwater naturally wells up through cracks and issues in the earth. It’s often the cleanest and tastiest water you’ll ever drink, and it doesn’t take much to bring it into your home.
Bringing Springwater Home
The best thing about spring water is that it’s already flowing. With a few pipes and a storage tank, you can easily tap into the water your property naturally provides. It might not be in a conspicuous location, but if you can trace the spring back to its source, you can cap it and attach pipes that will deliver it to your storage container or your home. Doing so will often generate all the pressure you need to have running water inside your home without a pump or any additional hardware.
Challenges of Natural Springs
Springs may have a source deep in the earth, but weather and changing seasons can still affect them. If you have a long dry season or a cold winter, you may find yourself struggling to get water when the spring dries up or freezes over. Springs are often challenging to find. If you’re lucky enough to have one on your property, take care of it. Monitor your spring for a year or two before deciding to use it as your sole source of water to ensure a dry summer isn’t going to sneak up on you.
Option 3 — Collect Rainwater
A rainy afternoon can throw off your entire day, but if you are looking at off-grid water sources, a rainy day might be a cause to celebrate. We’ve been collecting and harvesting rainwater for centuries — why shouldn’t we tap into what essentially amounts to free water falling from the sky? Here are a few tips to help you turn your afternoon thunderstorm into easily accessible drinking water.
Watch the Weather
The first thing you need to do is keep an eye on the weather. You’re not going to collect much rainwater if it doesn’t rain in your area, after all. You’ll also need to figure out how much rainwater you potentially collect.
Remember this formula: roof area x rain amount x 0.623 = amount of rain you could collect per rainfall.
For example, if you get an inch of rain — as measured in the rain gauge in your yard — on a 1,000-square-foot roof, you might expect to get up to 623 gallons of water. If your household uses an average of 300 gallons of water a day, a single cloudburst could give you enough water for two full days.
Once you’ve collected all this rainwater, you’ll need to store it somewhere. You have a few options here, but in general, you’re going to want a large storage container you can easily monitor and clean, as necessary. Elevated cisterns can give you additional water pressure without needing a pump, but you’ll need to catch the rain in the cistern, making it harder to collect enough water to make it worthwhile.
Purification and Filtration
Rainwater by itself is probably one of the cleanest water sources you’ll ever tap into, but unless you’re sticking your head out the window and drinking it as it falls, purification and filtration will be necessary. First, consider your roof. You never want to use water that’s flowed off a roof covered by asphalt shingles. There will be too many chemicals and particulates in it. If you’re going to collect water, your roof should be slate, tile or metal.
When it comes to filtering and purification, adding an in-line filter will be your easiest option. That way, you can use the rainwater straight from the tap without worrying about any extra steps.
Option 4 — Natural Water Sources
Even if you don’t have a spring on your land, you may have rivers, lakes or streams running through it. Why not tap into these natural water sources?
Navigating Water Rights
Unfortunately, in most of the world, it’s illegal to use natural water sources for your home. Many rely on something known as prior-appropriation water rights to make a claim. Essentially, this means a natural body of water belongs to whomever first gets beneficial use from it, and they can continue to use it for that purpose.
If a farmer upstream from your property uses the river to water cattle or irrigate crops, that farmer has rights to the water in that river. States often cite these same rights when making it illegal for individuals to collect rainwater.
Purifying Natural Water Sources
Natural water sources might look clean, but there is no guarantee the water you’re drinking is free of microorganisms that can make you dangerously ill. The quality of a natural water source can vary dramatically, even from day to day, as things get swept into the body of water or removed via filtration. If you have obtained the water rights to the streams or lakes on your property, consider adding an in-line purification and filtration system that will make the water safe to drink before it ever arrives at your tap.
While this isn’t as big of a problem with lakes and ponds, rivers and streams that flow through your property offer a unique challenge. If something harmful gets introduced upstream of your homestead — which you likely won’t have any control over — it can make its way into your tap. There is no way to know what people are dumping into your water supply before it reaches your home.
Unfortunately, there is no solution for this challenge. All we can recommend is carefully monitoring your water supply — and ceasing use if anything seems out of place.
Option 5 — Buying and Storing Water as Needed
This option isn’t the best for an off-the-grid lifestyle, but in a pinch, it can mean the difference between having enough to drink and going thirsty. We’re not suggesting buying individually packaged 16-ounce water bottles or anything like that. Instead, focus on bulk options. You can often find potable water sources at RV parks and other similar locations. All you need to do to use them is purchase a large water tank that you can hook up to your trailer hitch.
We’ll repeat that this isn’t an ideal option, but as temperatures climb and climate change makes things more challenging, having a tank and a means to fill it could be a useful way to supplement your water supply if the spring runs dry or the well collapses.
Getting Running Water off the Grid
Having a functional water system is one of the creature comforts we’ve become accustomed to while living on the grid. If you’re planning to strike out on your own, you won’t be able to rely on that kind of water pressure to feed your kitchen and bathroom taps. Thankfully, there are a few ways to keep your system pressurized and ensure you have the running water you know and love.
Gravity-fed running water systems are nearly as old as the concept of indoor plumbing. Use an elevated cistern or storage tank to store your water. Gravity does all the work for you, pulling the water down into your pipes. If elevated tanks aren’t an option, invest in a solar-powered pump to move your water supply. They aren’t as straightforward — or as quick to fix — as a gravity-fed system, but they are just as useful.
Water Filtration Is a Necessity
Whether you’re tapping into a spring, digging a well or collecting rainwater, filtration is necessary. If you’re using city water, your water company does all the work for you. It maintains pipes, purifies water and tests for bacteria or contaminants as needed. Off the grid, all that responsibility falls onto your shoulders. Failing to monitor your water supply could be dangerous or even deadly.
Use professional lab testing for things like lead and bacterial content. Do not cut corners here. Your and your family’s safety is paramount.
Staying off the Grid
Water is essential for life on this planet, but you don’t have to rely on your municipal water supply. If you’re going off the grid, you’ve got plenty of options. Make all the necessary preparations and do some research to see what will work — and what’s legal — in your area.
Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.