I remember a time not too far off when we gave no thought to water consumption. We grew grass, spent hours washing cars, hell we even used it to wash the side walk. Fast forward to now, at this point we have lived in an off grid house with a 1500 gal cistern, one with a 200 gal cistern, an RV with a 50 gal holding tank, and went without when it was freezing ass cold.
Living without or on limited water you learn a thing or two about washing clothes, clean dishes, showering and how lucky we are to have this precious resource. You get crafty, monitoring use. Taking a shower in increments, seriously, I turned off the water to shave my legs, wash my hair, saved every last second of water.
Then there were times when we would shower in the RV Park, I remember one time checking into one of our favorite parks. Rose said to me, “I bet you’re glad to be back.” I said it has been 5 days since I showered; I am SO excited to hit the bath house! We have even payed the $20 fee at a fitness center just to use their shower once.
I appreciate water SO much now! Oh my God, can I tell you how nice it is to have a hot shower daily and clean dishes? This seems like a minute pleasure to many, and while it is not a necessity to have a hot shower or clean dishes it sure adds value to your life when you live off grid or in an RV.
Set Up Your System
Setting up a domestic water system in your space is actually a lot easier than one may think, and good news RV’s come piped and ready. Ours is just old, so it’s getting a new Propane instantaneous Tankless Water heater to help reduce those 5 gallons of hot water, showers.
If you’re fixing to be in an off grid scenario and want to get started from scratch, you need to know a few things. First of all, how many fixtures (faucets, tubs, toilets) you’re supplying water to. Based on your needs and estimated use, you can go from there to sizing your system.
Some have said a good estimate is 7 gallons per minute for each bathroom, or you could follow the US Geological Survey estimates. Each person using 80 to 100 gallons of water per day, and get this; most of it is from flushing the toilet. If you have an outhouse, you can count on using a significantly less amount of water, or install an incendiary toilet. Also allowing you to have a grey waste water system, this is less expensive than installing a septic system.
The following chart may help you determine your usage based on federally mandated flow rate averages.
To give you an idea of what we have used, our 1500 gal system in Colorado fed our clothes washer, two full bathrooms, two hose bibs and the kitchen sink. We had a 40 gal water heater in this set up, a full cistern lasted us about two weeks.
Originally, we had water delivered but it was about $300 a month so we invested in a pickup truck cistern, and hauled our own every two weeks. It took about three trips to fill it but we saved at least $200 a month.
The Alaska system included a 200 gallon tank that fed a kitchen sink, a full bathroom with low pressure shower head, we had an instantaneous water heater and three of us lived there.
We used about 150 gal a week. I know it is barely average for a daily use, but we were on a water budget. You see, it was 30 degrees below zero and we didn’t have the option for delivery, because our tank was undersized (they only deliver 1000 gal or more), so we hauled our own water from the Water Wagon. Talk about an adventure, on icy roads for 25 miles with a full water tank in the back of the pickup. It was literally so cold the water splashing over the side would freeze before it got to the bed of the truck. Think about this when you decide how you will supply water to your tank.
Once you’ve added up the required GPM you can figure the source of water, type of pump, and pressure tank needed to maintain the desired water pressure of at least 50psi. (We will talk in more detail about this later.)
Choose Your Source
We have discussed cistern tanks thus far, there are other options however. You could have a rain water catch system, a well, or tap into a spring.
Hauled in- In this instance you will have some type of holding tank; a cistern for example will hold the water until it is demanded. A pressure tank and a pump either constant speed (variable speed drive) or constant pressure and a water heater.
Well- In the case of a well, you will still need a pressure tank/well tank and a pump, but the cistern is not required. Our friends in Trapper Creek have a Well but still use the cistern to feed water to the cabin; however, we have a well and it is hooked directly to our homes system. It all depends on what you want; one of the perks of living off grid is making fun decisions like this.
Spring- Some people are very lucky and live by a fresh water spring, they are able to use gravity to feed their systems, but in this instance a cistern is needed for water collection to ensure the flow can meet the demand. If the spring freezes you may need a type of hybrid system allowing you to gather water from other sources.
Rain water- Rain water can be used as a hybrid collection system in any of these set ups. Two important things to think about are, 1. Is it legal to collect rain water? In some places this is illegal because it disrupts the flow of rivers. 2. Does your area get enough rain?
What did you choose?
Now you have decided your water source and how to supply it, let’s talk about pumps. First of all, what type of electrical system are you running? Do you have the extra power to run a pump? On average the variable speed pump set at 50psi consumes more power than a constant pressure pump, with a Cycle Stop Pump Control Valve,. However, it uses considerably less start up energy and lengthens the life of the pump. The pump you choose, should account for power usage and your water demand.
Considering you are most likely off grid and powering your house with a hybrid electrical system, (if you want to know more about these systems click here) you need to consider the power draw of your pump system. For example, if you have a submersible 1/2 horse pump, providing 10gpm, it can consume at least 12 amp draw on 120v AC system. Alternatively, you might want a pump like the Red Lion PWJET50 Shallow Well Jet Pump with a 6amp draw and 7gpm flow rate.
If you chose to go for a Well, using a fully submergible pump is generally applied in this scenario, but an external pump can be used and is easier to maintain and replace but harder to keep from freezing. So depending on your area you may want to consider varying applications. The person digging your Well should have a vast amount of knowledge for your area and be able to provide you with suggestions on the best application.
The ideal pump for you is the one that works best for your application, and keep in mind the amount of use you will be giving this pump. It’s an everyday adventure, and needs to be able to stand up to continuous use.
Pressure Tank/Well tank
Why do you need a Pressure/Well Tank?? First we need to understand the tank. They vary in size and pressure, and have an air bladder inside. This has a set PSI you can check with an air gauge and pump up to meet specs as necessary.
The air bladder equalizes pressure as the tank fills with water, bringing up the water pressure to the desired psi; the pump senses the pressure in the water lines and shuts off when it hits the high limit, usually between 50-60psi.
When you turn on a faucet, the air bladder pushes the water out on demand without running the pump until it hits the low limit, between 20-40psi, and the pump kicks back on, providing a constant flow of water until the faucet is closed and the tank hits 60psi again.
The actual high and low limits will depend on your pump. For example, our Food Truck pump has a max pressure at 50 psi, but the well pump in our house is 70psi. It is important to have a pressure gauge on the supply side of the pump system, this will help you troubleshoot when necessary.
The amount of water you can use before the pump kicks on is dependent on the size of the tank. For example, a twenty gallon tank will let you use a little over 5 gallons before switching the pump on. That will run the kitchen sink for roughly two minutes. A small 2 gallon tank allows for about half a gallon.
Honestly we have seen off grid systems with and without a well tank. It is said that variable speed pumps don’t need well tanks because they ramp up to meet demand and they provide continuous speed for your water supply. In other cases, gravity is used to meet the demand, (this is usually not recommended and unless you have a lot of head pressure.)
In one instance our customer was having trouble with ramping and pressure changes, she had a continuous supply pump without a well tank. We added a well tank and solved the issues with this type of pump. In smaller applications such as an RV or our food truck, the well tank is not required.
Overall your well tank is important to extend pump life, and some well installers say the more capacity for a well tank the better off your pump will be.
Choosing a water heater is important because Off Grid situations are all about efficiency. You don’t want a 40g water heater that takes 45 minutes to heat and uses fuel or electricity or in the case of using a generator both constantly. The tankless types are known to use 30% less energy than a conventional tank type.
Obviously, instantaneous water heaters are THE BOMB! However, you can’t go out buy one and expect it to be useful in every situation. Do you want an electric heater? Alternatively are you using propane? Either way you will most likely need to use some amount of electricity to ignite the system, even if you don’t go for an electric model heater.
The two important things to know about this type of water heater are it needs ventilation and it is NOT recommended for heavy usage, but you can install two if your demand and usage is higher than average. Most likely, Off Grid, you will be just fine with one.
New models don’t have a pilot issue but the instantaneous or tankless water heater we had ran on a pilot and was a considerably older model. As soon as we increased flow through the coil, the pilot would go out; I had our daughter on pilot light watch duty when I showered to keep from freezing my ass off! After our experience with this, we wouldn’t recommend installing a tankless with a pilot; get one with an electronic igniter.
A few feet of pipe
Now we’re getting somewhere, pick the piping you’re going to install. Pex works just as well as copper and is easy to reroute and repair later down the line. It is much cheaper though. You can install either copper or Pex. Just ensure you have all the proper fittings and size to accommodate flow from the pump and reduce to the proper size for the application.
Depending on the pump you chose, your main size may vary. The main from the pump with a 200g cistern was half inch and all the piping stayed half inch. Other applications the main runs for the hot and cold water are ¾” reducing to ½” runs for each fixture.
Installing this pipe is fairly easy and in a compression or ring application with Pex pipe, you will use fewer fittings and install relatively quickly. Ensure you consider the exposed environments and use copper in any area that is easily accessed, such as toilet valve shutoffs and such.
Make sure you create a line drawing of your piping system so if you have a problem years later it is easily identified.
Last but not least, you will need a place for waste to go!
Installing waste lines can be done in cast or ABS and don’t forget your Ptraps on all fixture applications except the toilet. Running this pipe will be dependent on your layout however, even without the requirement of meeting plumbing codes on most off grid places, it is really important your waste is run correctly. Some tips would be to use long sweep 90s everywhere you change direction from vertical to horizontal. Look into Air admittance valves where it is impractical to run a vent line, such as under the kitchen and bathroom sinks. Unfortunately, we can’t go over all the codes and things you may run into when running your waste line, however hopefully we got you started.
When you chose your waste holding tank, back to the outhouse or incinerator toilet scenario, that leaves you with only grey water from your sinks, shower, and washing machine. All of which, in most places, can be piped straight into nature, unlike its nasty friend black water, it contains sewage and must be piped into a septic system.
Now you have the nitty gritty on the installation of your off grid system, and what to expect, you can get out there and doIToutside!
Thanks for reading!