How to Build a Legit Off Grid Water System [2020 Guide]

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Our most valuable resource for living off grid is water.

When we live in the city or the suburbs, municipal water makes life a cinch.

However, water is the first and foremost resource that you need to consider for your off grid installation.

Your off grid water system will determine the placement of your home and outbuildings. It will determine where you set up your garden and where you will place your livestock.  

Your water system needs to be planned first, and then you can make better building decisions.

Woman pumping water from a hand well, vintage photo

There are many factors to take into consideration in the design phase, which is why I wrote this inclusive guide to give you a good understanding on how to plan and develop your off grid water system.

There are three main methods that I will discuss today: using a wild water source, installing a well water system, and drawing water from a cistern tank. Each method uses different equipment, and has pros and cons. I will also briefly discuss water filtration and purification and setting up a gravity fed water system.

You can go from bare bones basic to very elaborate, depending on the level of luxury you want to have. I recommend after reading this article to head over to my off grid hot water heating guide as I surmise that most of us enjoy a hot shower here and there.

Alright, let’s dive right in!

water filter

Table of Contents

Section One: Using Water from a Natural Water Source

You can utilize the water that already exists on your property as your main water source. This could be a lake, pond, river, stream, or creek. A natural spring would be even better! Not all of us are fortunate enough to have water on our property.

Even for those of us that do, there are some considerations to make before choosing this to be your natural water source.

Pros and Cons for Using a Natural Water Source Off Grid

Pros:

  • Water source is very convenient; no need to haul in or drill for water.
  • Less worry about heavy contaminants and minerals in flowing water, unlike a well.
  • If water is located higher than your homestead, you can use the power of gravity instead of a pump.
  • You can build close to the water source.

Cons:

  • Water source may not flow year around or may dry up due to sporadic droughts.
  • Water may be cloudy, murky, or stagnant. Still usable but will require lots of filtering.
  • Water source may freeze over during the winter.
  • Location of water may not be ideal. You may have to run lots of piping to get water to where you need it.

Obstacles and Solutions of using a Natural Water Source

We need to address some of the concerns about using a water body as your off grid water source, and then come up with solutions for those concerns.

Your water source may not be year round. You may have a beautiful creek that runs for the spring and into summer, then dries up in the fall. I suggest that you use that water for half the year, and then switch over to a cistern system for the other half. You can fill your cistern tanks while the water source is still running, and then haul in water for the remainder of the year, if needed.

If your water source freezes during the winter, you can use the strategy mentioned above. Use the water source for as long as you can, then switch to a water tank system.

Your water will have to travel a long way to its destination. You will need to calculate how much distance and rise there is from your water source to its destination. Then, you can plan accordingly on what size water pump you need and what size pipe to use.

There are obstacles in the way from the water to the destination. This could be boulders, ravines, dense forest, etc. You can try to clear and level the path, as you want your piping to run as straight and direct as possible to the source.

The water source is murky, cloudy, stagnant. If this is the case, you can still use the water, you will just have to take some additional steps to cleaning up the water for potable use. This can be done by digging a sump hole near the water source and using a series of filters to clean it up.

Off grid water sources, a dry creek, frozen lake, and pond

Now that we have addressed the obstacles and solutions, lets move on to how to set up your off grid water system properly.

How To Set Up Your Off Grid Natural Water Source System

Now, let’s discuss how we are going to set up our system. It is rather easy as long as our calculations are sound.

Step One: Setting up the Sump Hole

Trust me, you don’t want to just throw your pump into the water and hope for the best! We will want to take some time and set up a proper sump hole to suck the water out of in order to minimize debris. I suggest doing this for all water sources, unless its a deep, clear running spring.

You will want to dig a hole right next to the water source. Dig it down fairly deep, enough to create a flowing pool of water.

Once you have dug the hole, you will want to fill in the bottom with large rocks. This will help it from getting filled in . You can also put in a layer of sand that will help filter out even more contaminants.

Off grid water pump system diagram with sump pump
Diagram of off grid water sump pump system

Step Two: Setting up Your Water Pumping System

Unless you can leverage gravity for your water system, you will need to use pumps and piping to get the water where it needs to be.

Although you can use a standard utility pump to pull the water out of the hole, I highly recommend using a submersible sump pump to push the water instead. Pulling water uphill with a pump can only travel a couple dozen feet, whereas pushing the water can travel a much farther distance.

This Wayne Waterbug submersible pump is sturdy, reliable, and pumps out a whopping 900 gallons per hour at 10 feet of head!

There is no on/off switch so to cut power to the pump you need to either pull the power plug or plug into an outlet with a switch.

Wayne is known for producing killer water pumps and I highly recommend their pumps no matter what!

Once you have chosen your submersible sump pump, don’t just throw it into the sump hole! If you do that, your pump can suck in all sorts of debris and clog up your system. You will want to build an enclosure around your pump so it doesn’t bounce along the bottom of the hole. You can use a bucket and drill some holes into it, or purchase a pump enclosure or screen to go around it. I found these submersible pump screen bags for cheap.

I also recommend elevating your pump so it is not touching the ground, sucking up sand, mud or debris.

chainsaw

Step Three: Running Power to Your Water Pump

Your pump will need power to run, of course! We want to run power safely and effectively. This can be done by running a power cord over a short distance, or setting up a solar power pumping system.

I personally do not like the idea of running a power cord out in the open as it can get damaged. You can resolve this easily by running your cord through some buried PVC conduit. Run your cable as straight as possible and do not accumulate 360 degrees of angles.

If you are handy with electricity (I am not at all) then you can run electrical cables from your breaker box into a GFCI outlet and plug in your pump to there, as shown below.

safe outdoor electrical diagram for water pump

If your pump is too far to run power to, I suggest setting up a solar power pump system. There are solar power pump kits, but they just suck, so I recommend building your own.

I wrote a detailed article about how to setup a solar power drip irrigation system. The second half of the article is devoted to setting up a solar powered pump system on a timer. Check it out!

shovel

Step Four: Running the Water to a Holding Tank

I suggest pumping the water to a holding tank near your homestead. This way, you can turn on your submersible sump pump and fill the tank as needed. Then, you can run all your plumbing needs from the water tank, including the water pressure tank.

Here are some tips to consider when running pipe (or hose) to the water tank:

  • How far the pipe runs – for a 500 foot run, pipe should be about 2 inches diameter.
  • 90 degree angles – sharp angles cause strain on the system so try to design your pipe to be as straight and direct as possible.
  • Elevation change – on top of accounting for water head, you need to think about the elevation from the water source to the destination. This is called suction lift.

In order to calculate suction lift, you need to figure out the vertical distance from your pump to its destination. You can easily do this by using the Pythagorean Theorum. Once you have your vertical distance calculated, you can then use the pump manufacturer’s information to determine suction lift.

Diagram to calculate vertical distance for water pump suction lift

Section Two: Install an Off Grid Well Water System

Historically, our pioneering forefathers dug wells by hand, using shovels. This was an arduous task, not to mention dangerous. The well was made to be wide enough to accomodate two men shoveling. As the men got lower into the ground, they lined the well with brick or stone to prevent collapse. They stopped digging once the water in the well was coming in too fast to bail out by hand.

Vintage photo of men drilling a well by hand
Vintage photo of men drilling a well by hand

Although it would seem that a well is the best choice for an off grid property, this is not always the case. Check out the pros and cons to see if installing a well is a good choice for you.

Pros and Cons to Installing a Water Well Off Grid

Pros:

  • A well can offer up consistent water year round for decades, possibly even longer.
  • Depending on your location, water from the aquifer can be very clean and fresh.
  • If you install uphill from the destination, you may not need to add a water pressure tank.
  • You can choose the location for your well to be installed.

Cons:

  • Wells are very expensive to install professionally.
  • Well water can be highly mineralized (hard water).
  • Wells can dry up.
  • The water table may be so deep on your property that it is not worth trying to drill a well.

Obstacles and Solutions for Using an Off Grid Well Water System

Wells are very expensive. According to Home Advisor, just drilling a 150 foot well (not any other expenses) costs an average of $5,500. If you decide to have all the components installed for you such as the casing pipe, pressure storage tank, water treatment, and water heater, you are adding an additional expense of $4,000 to $10,000. A complete artisan well system can be around $10,000 to $20,000.

water filter

It is possible to install your own well, especially if your water table is favorable. You may be able to do part of the install (such as the drilling) and save several thousands of dollars. If you do decide to make a DIY well, do lots of research before you attempt.

Wells can have water quality issues. Wells can have lots of minerals and contaminants in the water. If you live in heavy farmland, there can be e.Coli in the water from waste from livestock. There can be pesticides from nearby fields. Here are common contaminants found in well water:

  • Dissolved minerals and salts like calcium, magnesium, and sodium. These minerals cause hard water and can cause skin irritation and eventually ruin appliances and clothing.
  • Heavy metals and trace elements. Iron, lead, radon, and boron are all common metal contaminates in well water.
  • Chemicals and nitrates from farms. If your property is near a farm, take heed that pesticides and fertilizers can leach nitrates and phosphates into your groundwater.
  • Cryptosporidium and e.Coli can be found in well water and is found more prevelantly in shallow wells. The deeper the well, the less likely for these pathogens to occur.
  • Well water can also be discolored, cloudy, have a bad taste or odor. All of these could be a sign of contamination and toxicity and will need to be researched.
Calcium buildup on pipes and plumbing
Calcium buildup on pipes and plumbing

I suggest to have your water quality tested before drilling the well. Yes, it is an additional expense. But, if you end up with a water contamination issue, you will save thousands on expensive filtering equipment. You can also make a sound decision on if it is worth drilling the well if you find your water is sour.

If you already have a well that is experiencing water quality issues, you can install filters and purifiers. This can be very expensive, depending on what needs to be cleansed from the water. You also have to consider the costs of replacing filters on a regular basis.

Wells have been known to dry up for no apparent reason. Drought can be a cause of decreased well water production; some wells simply dry up over time. The lifespan of a well is only 20 – 30 years, so plan accordingly.

There are usually telltale signs when your well is going dry. There could be a change in taste. The sediments that have built up in the bottom of the well that become concentrated as the water supply drops. Other warning signs are pumps that are having to run longer and harder, sputtering faucets, and murky water.

Problem wells can sometimes be solved by deepening the well or lowering the pump, but an inspection may have to determine the best solution.

Legacy Emergency Food

Different Types of Well Systems

Shallow wells range from 10 to 30 feet in depth and are used when the water table is relatively close to the surface. Shallow well systems can be hand dug. The issue with shallow wells is that bacteria and viruses are more likely to occur. You will need to filter and purify your water for potability.

Deep wells range from 100 to 800 feet in depth, but can exceed 1,000 feet in depth. Most properties with professionally installed wells are deep wells. Deep wells are drilled out with heavy equipment. Deep well water is at a lower risk of being contaminated but can face issues such as hard water quality, which will require cleanup for potability.

Driven wells are a shallow well system that is built by driving pipe into the ground, usually no more than thirty feet. A screened wellpoint is attached to the bottom to not suck up any debris. You can build a driven well fairly easily and economically, but the water will need to be filtered and purified for potability.

Diagram of driven shallow well hand water pump
Diagram of driven shallow hand well pump

Dug wells are dug by hand with shovels or bored and are wide and shallow. Dug wells are then lined with stone or brick to prevent cave-ins. These are good wells to utilize if the water table is shallow but can be easily contaminated as the well is so wide. It can also face periodic dry ups during times of drought.

Drilled wells are deep wells drilled out by professionals by using a rotary drilling machine. The casing around the well is filled with grout to prevent contamination from seeping down from the top surface. This is the ideal choice of well but are very expensive to install and do require professional maintenance here and there, like if a pump burns out or the well fills in or is drying up.

Special note on digging a well by hand

Let’s face it. Hand digging a well. Is. Hard! There are manual hand augers that are specifically designed for digging a shallow well. However, I recommend purchasing a motorized auger to save you tons of time and toiling.

Most motorized augers run on fuel. This creates the need to constantly refuel and creates fumes that will waft up into your face.

I found this super badass electric hand auger that is highly efficient. It creates no fumes, is much quieter and only weighs 22 lbs. It uses a lithium-ion battery that holds a charge for augering 195 feet per charge.

I also like that you can add any 8″ bit to 3/4″ shaft to this machine, so you can get an extension bit to drill a well.

It’s expensive, but worth it if you are attempting to hand dig a well, need to install fenceposts, etc. This machine has tons of high quality reviews from its users; I have complete confidence recommending this product to you.


Section 3: Off Grid Water Tank Cistern System

An off grid water tank system makes it possible to settle on a property that does not have a water source or a feasible water table. You can also use a cistern temporarily while you are installing your main water system. This is a good choice for properties that only have seasonal water flow as well.

Pros and Cons of an Off Grid Water Tank System

Pros:

  • You can settle on a property that does not have access to water.
  • You can set up a cistern system temporarily while building a more permanent water system on your property.
  • A cistern system can be the solution to seasonal water flows.
  • You can choose the location and move the system around as needed.

Cons:

  • You will need to haul in your own water or pay someone to haul in water for you.
  • The water you haul in will likely be from a municipal source which will have chlorine, flouride, and other treatments in the water.
  • Cisterns need to be washed out yearly. They are not maintenance free.

Obstacles and Solutions for Hauling in Water for your Cistern System

Hauling in water is time consuming and can get expensive. If you really want to get technical, hauling in water from a municipal system is not exactly off grid either. If your local municipal water source is contaminated or unavailable, you will need to have a backup resource handy.

You may also be too far to collect water from a municipal system to make it even feasible.

If I was in this situation, I would prefer to collect my own water from a local natural water source. You can use a submersible sump pump to fill your water tank. There may be some legalities to pumping out water from a natural water source so check your local area before doing so, or don’t get caught by the ranger!

If you have to use municipal water as your main source of water, at least you will not have to worry about filtering or purifying it. However, municipal water is full of crud including chlorine and flouride. I would suggest to clean it up a bit, at least for drinking. You can install a whole house water filtration system to get rid of the crud.

I also advise to locate a backup water source location just in case your municipality fails.

Cleaning a cistern tank is a hassle and it needs to be done yearly, there is just no way around it. You can get away with 2-3 years cleaning schedule if you use water from a municipal source. However, natural water sources, including rainwater, will introduce sediments and sludge into the cistern.

man cleaning out a cistern water tank

You can do some preventive maintenance by running your water through a filter before entering the cistern.

Also, place your cistern where you can access it easily. If you are installing an underground cistern system, make sure to keep your manhole clear and accessible. Do not cover it up!

Special note:

Warm, stagnant water sitting in a cistern is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria, no matter if you use municipal or wild water. You can easily disinfect your water naturally by using a UV disinfection system.

I prefer UV water purification because it adds no chemicals into your water and doesn’t rely on expensive filters.

Check out this HQUA UV disinfection system for your water! It installs super easy and will rid your water of bacteria and viruses instantly.

Collecting Rainwater in Barrels

Collecting rainwater is an excellent backup water source for your off grid lifestyle. You can collect rainwater anywhere! For some areas, like Washington, you could probably collect enough rainwater to last year round!

The best way to capture rainwater is to use a large surface, such as a roof, to guide the rainwater into a collection barrel. This can be done by installing gutters around the perimeter of the roof, then installing a downspout that pours the water into a barrel.

Barrels designed specifically for catching rain have a hose spout on the bottom so you want to have the barrel on a platform, elevated from the ground. A pump can be attached to the spout and the collected water can be stored in a larger holding tank, or a succession of barrels can be attached to each other for storage.

rainwater-barrel-collection-systems
Various rainwater barrel collection systems

Do note that you need to purify your rainwater! This is due to potential rogue bird turds contamination.

If you are looking for a vast selection of rain barrels in all sorts of shapes and sized, pay a visit to Rainwater Harvest Systems. They have the hugest selection of rain barrels and storage tanks online and have a solid reputation in their industry.

How to Transport Water from the Source to the Water Tank

If you are relying on hauling in your own water, you will need to have a truck with a water tank installed in the bed or use a trailer to haul the tank. A great choice for a water tank is a food-grade IBC tank. This eliminates the hassle and cost of hauling around barrels.

food-grade IBC tank for transporting water

IBC tanks are sturdy, sloped at the bottom for full emptying, have a drain spout on the bottom, and have a removable lid on the top. The tanks are enclosed in an aluminum cage for easy loading and securing. They are also square which makes a 275 gallon tank fit easily on the bed of a truck or trailer without any wasted space.

You can buy a new 275 gallon food grade IBC tank for around $500. Refurbished and reconditioned IBC tanks go for the $200 mark. You can purchase a non-food grade tank for even cheaper but that is ill-advised.

There are also prefabricated tanks specifically designed to fit on the bed of a truck. This 305 gallon tank is molded to fit over wheel wells and has an aerodynamic design.

trucks with water tanks installed in the bed

How to Calculate the Size of Your Cistern Tank

According to the USGS, the average person uses 80-100 gallons of water per day. That is a whole lot of water, and I am sure that you can whittle that figure way down, especially when adapting to an off grid lifestyle. So lets say you get that number down to 25 gallons per day per person, and you have a 4 person household.

That brings us to 100 gallons per day, which I think is doable. Now, if you want 7 days of water, that is 700 gallons. So you will want to purchase a tank that is at least 700 gallons.

You also want to account for storing extra water on the property for unexpected situations like a long term draught or even possibly fighting a fire. Now we are looking at a 1,000 gallon tank.

machete

If you have a 250 gallon cistern on the back of your truck, you are looking at 4 roundtrips once a week to keep up with your water usage. You can put a water tank in the bed of your truck and on a trailer and knock that down to 2 trips. It sounds like a lot of work, because it is. That is why I recommend to only be reliant on a cistern for a partial year or use one while developing another water system.

Installing an Underground Water Tank

If your climate freezes during the winter or you have limited space, an underground cistern is a good choice for you.

When choosing the underground option, you need to purchase a cistern that is designed for subterranean use. There is extra pressure from the weight of the soil that an underground cistern is specially designed to handle.

An underground cistern tank
An underground cistern tank

Place your cistern at a minimum of 12-28″ depth to keep pipes from freezing upon entering and exiting the unit. You may have to place your tank deeper, depending on how deep the ground freezes in your area.

Check with your cistern manufacturer to see the maximum depth that the cistern can handle. It can only be buried so deep to withstand pressure from the dirt. If you install a cistern too deep from the manufacturer’s guidelines, your tank can literally crumple from the weight of the dirt around it!

Are you looking for a good selection of water storage tanks? They are not all that easy to come by . . .

I suggest checking out Rain Harvest Systems for the most massive inventory of water tanks online! They have 4.5 out of 5 rating on trustpilot from hundreds of purchasers and are based out of Atlanta Georgia.


Section 4: Pressure Water Tanks For Water Pressure

Unless you can place your water source at a steep enough incline from your homestead, you will need the help from a pressure water tank to give you the water pressure you need for your off grid water system.

A pressure tank works by creating water pressure from compressed air that bears down on the water. When the valve gets opened, the water is forcefully pushed from that air in the tank.

Once the pressure drops to a certain low, the tank’s water pump turns on and more water fills the tank; this is the cycle of the pressure water tank.

The larger the tank, the fewer cycles, therefore less runtime.

The proper sizing of the tank is crucial to limit premature pump failure. When in doubt, go larger.

Calculating Pressure Water Tank Size

  1. Determine the Gallons per Minute (GPM) of your pump. This will be given by the manufacturer. This is known as your Flow Rate. Let’s go with 5 GPM for the example.
  2. Calculate the hours of water use per day. This is known as your Runtime. Calculate in your showers, dishwashing, handwashing, toilet flushes, and any appliances that use water. For convenience, let’s go with 5 hours per day.
  3. Know the cut-in cut-out PSI of your pressure switch. This could be an unknown variable as you may not own a pressure tank yet. Let’s go with a standard of 40 PSI.

Now apply this calculation:

Flow Rate * Runtime = Tank Drawdown.

Tank drawdown is not tank volume; the drawdown is the amount of water stored or delivered between the pump shutting off and restarting.

In our example, our drawdown capacity is 25 gallons. We need to make sure that the pump we are using matches the drawdown capacity of the tank we purchase.

0 – 10 GPM pump requires a 10 gallon drawdown.

11 – 20 GPM pump requires 1.5 times the drawdown. Example: 15 GPM pump * 1.5 = 22.5 gallon drawdown.

20+ GMP pump requires 2 times the drawdown. Example 25 GPM pump * 2 = 50 gallon drawdown.

We also need to figure out the PSI of the setting. The most common PSI settings in a pressure water tank are 30/50, 40/60, 50/70.

Note that the low number is the pressure when the pump turns on and the high number represents the pressure when the pump turns off.

Here is the chart to figure out the PSI setting in relation to tank size.

Chart of PSI setting in relation to tank size for pressure water tank

For our example, our 25 gallon drawdown capacity need is met with an 81 gallon tank at 30/50 PSI. I would air on the side of caution and bump that up to an 86 gallon tank.

Calculations courtesy of RCWorst.com.

In the market for a water pressure tank? Check out these Water Worker pressure tanks. The price is right and the brand is known for their reliability and durability.

With hundreds of good reviews to back it up, I would feel completely confident purchasing one of these to pressurize my well water or water storage system.

Special Note: Off Grid Water Filtration and Purification

No matter what system you choose, all the water flowing through your off grid water system will need to be filtered.

The cloudier and murkier the water, the more layers of filtration will be required. Crystal clear snowmelt from the mountains of Montana will require far less filtration than the warm murky waters of the South.

You will also need to purify drinking water to eliminate microbials such as bacteria, viruses, and cysts. This is an additional process on top of water filtration.

I have written quite a few guides in relation to off grid water filtration and purification:

If you want some more off grid water ideas, check out Off Grid Maker’s article on off grid water system strategies.


I hope that you found my legit guide to off grid water systems both helpful and enjoyable. I would love to hear your feedback and questions. You can leave anything in the comments below. Can’t wait to hear from you!

Regina C.

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