Capturing Water

Sharon August 7th, 2008

I’ve talked before about storing water for emergencies - even the non-TEOTWAKI kind - you know, like the bad storms that contaminate your drinking water for an extended period.  But now I want to talk about how to get water off your roof, out of the ground or otherwise when things get difficult.  

 Why do you need to know this?  Isn’t it just crazy talk to imagine us not having *WATER*?   Well, how much is your water bill right now?  Are you sure you’ll always be able to pay it? Will you be able to pay for all the water you need for irrigating your garden?   Or do you have a well?  Are you certain you’ll be able to keep paying the electric bill?  If you live in a dry place, are you sure there will always be water coming out of the tap?  These are questions worth asking ahead of time, because water matters.  Some of us have no choice but to be aware of that already - those who live in very dry places may already be struggling with water issues. 

You need water.  You will be very unhappy without it.  And while we’re a long way from people dying from dehydration, not having it can be very tough on you and your body. So how do you get it if the normal routes get disrupted?  The very first step on this is to begin to research your local watershed.  Where does your water come from?  What are the long term planning issues facing your region or community in regards to water?  What impact does climate change seem to be having?  What projected impact might it have?  What issues are there with contamination? How safe is surface water?  Do you have problems with acid rain?  Pesticide runoff? PCB contamination?  Mercury?  What about your well?  What about the local reservoirs?  What are the legal issues of your water use?  Can you collect rain?  Can you make use of surface water?  These are things you need to know. 

 Basically, you have three choices - you can get water from under the ground, on top of the ground or the sky.  It is worth understanding fully where your water comes from and where you might get it.  This essay is necessarily an overview, rather than a complete resource - and if you are concerned about water, I recommend _The Home Water Supply: How to Find, Filter, Store and Conserve It_ by Stu Campbell as the most complete source I’ve seen on this subject. 

Most of us can get some water from the sky - how much varies a lot.  Some cities do prohibit rainwater capture, and in those places it is worth working on the legal issues - more and more cities are recognizing that keep heavy storm rains from causing problems is a benefit, and more and more areas are seeing strong movements towards permitting rainwater collection.

Rainbarrels can be made or purchased.  Or you can put in either an above ground water tank or a cistern to catch larger quantities of rain.  A cistern can a large, premade tank, or you can build it yourself:  If you can put your rainwater capture close enough to the house, you may even be able to bring water into the house from the cistern or tank for doing dishes, laundry, etc…  I have not yet achieved this, however ;-) .  

 From under the ground depends on where you live - generally water tables are higher in the east than the west.  You need to know how deep your well is if you are pumping directly from underground. 

If you have a well, and the power goes out, you have several choices.  The first is to put a manual pump on your well.  This is only feasible if you water table is less than 200 feet down, and it isn’t cheap - usually above $1000.  But it is a good system.  The following will also work, and work even a bit deeper than 200 feet.

If your water table is high enough, you may be able to hand dig a well - the difficulty being that most surface water isn’t that clean.  But if you have a good filtration system, you might find this useful - particularly if you have a source of drinking water and primarily need irrigation, laundry and livestock water.  Remember, most of the water we use does not need to be drinking quality - using drinking quality water only for drinking, rather than flushing, washing, etc…. and using either less perfect water or greywater for other things is one possible strategy.  Conservation is your first tool here, as it almost always is. Here’s information about hand-dug wells:  Do be careful doing this!

If you have a deep well, and are concerned about losing power to it, solar direct or windmill pumping is probably your best bet, but this is not cheap - if you are permitted to capture water from the sky and have sufficient rainfall, you might find the cistern option much less expensive.  Or you might not, depending on what you can put together.

If these options are too expensive, well, in much of the world, people rely on community wells.  This is something to consider proposing in your town - there have been enough natural disasters around that most towns, even if they are not preparing for peak oil and climate change may see the merit of central water access points - in public parks, at schools and community centers.  Consider asking your town to put in manual or solar powered water pumping stations so that community members can have water access in a crisis.  Or consider getting together with neighbors and putting in a neighborhood well. 

If you are lucky enough to have a spring, you can tap it - we have a bunch of them, and it is on my agenda  - we might even be able to pull off gravity fed water eventually here if we put in time and work enough - something we’ve thought about but not done much about. - many springs can be usefully developed, either for home us, irrigation or grazing.

If you are using surface water, you will need to have an extremely good filtration system - I’m a big fan of my British Berkefeld (which, among other sources, can be purchased from Sustainable Choice, advertising on the sidebar) and Kataydin, but there are other options out there.  You want something gravity fed, that doesn’t require electricity, and that handles as many contaminants as possible - since you don’t necessarily know what you will be dealing with.  Store filters are not sufficient.  You could also distill your water:

 Getting water from surface sources is pretty simple - you go there and bring some buckets.  If you have to carry a lot a long distance, you may want tanks that strap on your bicycle, or at a minimum a yoke and bucket set up (this is for illustration purposes - I don’t think those buckets are water tight, although you could probably substitute), which is far more comfortable than carrying them in your hands. In the winter, if you have one, you can melt snow, but it takes a lot more snow than you think to make a lot of water. 

I hope everyone will at least give some serious thought to water sources in the longer term.


23 Responses to “Capturing Water”

  1. wolfgirl says:

    My parents worried about their well going dry. That’s one reason I’m glad to be on city water. Tthat no help inan emergency, but it beats worrying right now. I just need to work out a long term solution.

  2. Anna says:

    I just found out the property I am buying has a spring! I don’t know much about them so your link is greatly appreciated.

  3. Eva says:

    Did you know:

    Saving rain: How much is too much?
    Collecting large amount runs afoul of ‘archaic’ law

  4. Brad K. says:

    Winter and livestock water tank.

    In winter I have gotten by with no water tank heater - I chop a hole in the ice on one end, just big enough for the pony. I leave the ice in the tank, usually just pushed below the rest of the ice. I figure it is still water, and if the ice melts, that conserves water. The unchopped rest of the ice forms an insulating blanket to keep the water from freezing harder than necessary, and the ice keeps wind from chilling the water below the chilling from air temp.

    When I fill the tank, I leave the ice alone. Usually, the fresh water melts part or all of the ice. The occasional warm day helps keep the tank from freezing solid, I refill at 1/2 tank in freezing weather, 1/3 tank during warmer parts of the year. I keep a few goldfish in the tank to keep algae from over-running the tank, and use a hose to siphon muck off the bottom of the tank a couple times a year - like cleaning an aquarium with an undergravel filter.

    If you put in a large cistern, would it make sense to run a chill loop through, near the bottom? Run that through a heat exchanger for a central heating system (while you have electricity) for a few degrees cheap comfort. May be worthwhile. Run the loop through openings at the top of the cistern, to minimize making holes below water level (fewer Likely Places to Leak).

  5. Paula Hewitt says:

    We have been living with a water crisis in Brisbane for a couple of years, and we have installed large rainwater tanks - our storage capacity is not enough for our current ‘needs’ (during extended dry spells) but would be if we were desperate ie we’d have enough for drinking, food production, some washing …just not daily showers and washing the sheets every week.

    For a long time the city would not allow rain water tanks …however once the drought hit and the dam levels reached critical - surprise - they re-assessed. We had ‘severe’ water restrictions using town water (140L per person per day - not really that severe) but now the dam levels have reached 40% the restrictions have eased up - even though this is one of the fastest growing areas in Australia. And despite the facr the govt are investing in recylcing sewerage water, and new dams - i doubt they have any clear idea of the areas future water needs. easing the restrictions, when people were used to them is just foolish I think.

    The costs of the water tanks is high - as well as set up costs, we still pay for town water, regardless of how little we use (thogh this cost is negligible really compared to the value of water) and our electricity bill has risen too - due to the cost of the electric pumps.

  6. Fern says:

    Property we want to move to has a spring and a spring house that waters the house and barn. House next door, a friends, has a well and a back up generator.

    Here in the close DC suburbs, digging a well is NOT an option. There are a few local streams that I assume are contaminated with lawn chemicals. Those streams are better than the Patuxent River they feed, contaminated with all sorts of things including poorly treated sewage. If I have to, I can divert water from my roof into some of my innumerable 5 gallon food grade buckets and use a water filter. Would LOVE a Big Berkey!

    Using runoff from the roof now, I rarely use city water for the garden. But I’d like a bigger garden… OTOH as I improve the soil it might hold water better. Used 8 gallons of water in the garden yesterday, only enough to keep things going till the predicted rain today. We ARE having the rain, but it’s coming down in sheets and running off, not a long slow soaking. In fact, this is how ALL the rain has been this spring and summer - gullywashers that run off. My tomatoes are in a low spot, so they have been well watered, but the sweet and white potatoes have had more problems, as have the beans.

  7. Survivalist News » Casaubon’s Book: Capturing Water says:

    [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Capturing Water I’ve talked before about storing water for emergencies - even the non-TEOTWAKI kind - you know, like the bad storms that contaminate your drinking water for an extended period. But now I want to talk about how to get water off your roof, out of the ground or otherwise when things get difficult. bison survival blog: non-electric coffee August 7th, 2008 [...]

  8. Ani says:

    Want water? Come and get it!(sigh)- hard to think about needing/storing water with endless rain but I know that is not the case for everyone. I have a spring- gravity feed- which is awesome.

  9. Linda says:

    Here’s a nice book on water storage:

    More info on their main site:

    We’ve had the guy in this yurt and bath house pic come and talk about water systems and also about “Time banking” and local currencies, which is another topic you might want to cover someday.

  10. Stephany says:

    I read the article on rainwater collection permits. What bunk! The thing is that what the city doesn’t know, doesn’t hurt them. That is why I have a privacy fence in my back yard.

    I have thought about this issue a little.
    The well thing probably won’t fly here unless we covertly dig it ourselves in the back yard, surface water sources are out of the question. The water in Iowa is horribly contaminated. We have some of the worst water quality in the country due to agricultural run-off.

  11. Emily says:

    How clean does water need to be to bathe? I don’t think I’d wash in my rainbarrel water (untreated) - it’s green! Do cement cisterns also have this problem?

    And what do we do when we can’t get Berkey filters any more? Should we be looking at biosand/schmutzdecke filters? Activated charcoal? (Could you make your own charcoal and get these to work?)

  12. Nita says:

    Our springs are located downhill from the flat land on our farm. To get water from these springs, we use old technology - a hydraulic ram which uses only water power from the spring to pump water to a holding tank which then is gravity flow to the house and the barn. These rams have very few moving parts and run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with a minimum of maintenance. The initial cost is not as much as drilling a well, or hooking up to the municipal water in our location. And, the water is much better!

  13. rdheather says:

    Water’s on my mind a lot lately because I live off rainwater collection(the past 3 years) and this year the drought has hit the fan. There’s been 3/4″ of rain since the end of April. I kept thinking the usual June rains would come-they didn’t. The hurricanes pushed any rain into my area so now I’m going to have to buy water if it doesn’t rain in a week or two. So, the next big project is having a tank dug so the animals/garden have water. Sigh…..

  14. Eva in Australia says:

    We ran out of water yesterday. Like Brisbane (see above) we also are in drought and the hydro-electric catchments that supply the states (Tasmania) power are at about 19%. A in Tassie lot of people are on tank water- Once you are about 15km from the from the middle of the capital city you are in a rural setting and mains water don’t come this far. So, turned the tap on….nothing. It was only 24 hours till the water man was able to come, but still, tricky. I let the children roll in the mud all day in the knowledge that I can dunk them thoroughly come nightfall.

    Just saw a story on tv about a house worth 750 million dollars. Maybe the TEOTWAWKI isn’t such a bad thing…..

  15. Chile says:

    The water ‘guru’ here in dry Arizona is Brad Lancaster. His second volume has just come out - you may have seen his article on the Oil Drum recently. I’d recommend checking your library for the books as each volume runs $25 so the final set would be expensive. However, he covers many aspects of rainwater harvesting including land contouring, house orientation, roof collection, cisterns, etc. Website here.

  16. Susan says:

    The thinking here is every man/woman/family for himself, as is normal currently in our nations focused on individual homeowners. It seems to me it would be a lot easier and more efficient for a given area to support people to specialize in such things as rainwater collection and natural filtration so as to offer these services as a small business activity in the community. A specialist could develop exprience, expertise, and best prctices for the characteristics of a given locality. A community could press for needed reg reforms, subsidies or tax credits. Synergistic efficiencies could be reaped. Unity is a very poweful force.

  17. andy hill says:

    our water comes from a well, and we have a spring fed pond in our garden, overflow runs down through the gardens.
    but i am thinking about how to go about building another pond to catch all the water that rains on the hillside above us. at the momnet it just flows away down trenches to divert it away from the house.

    and perhaps we’ll set up our gutters to run into tanks when it rains, to give some extra water for watering herbs etc around the house.

    I really cannot imagine going back to relying on a company for our water, it is so empowering to know that nature gives us what we need, and in abundance - there is a stream underground that fills our well.

    we also have two water mines, like horizontal wells, that we don’t use but plan to build a natural swimming pool, with edible plants and even fish.

  18. capturing water | Dismantle Civilisation says:

    [...] Sharon Astyk looks at how to get water off your roof, out of the ground or otherwise when things get difficult. Why do you need to know this? Isn’t it just crazy talk to imagine us not having *WATER*? Well, how much is your water bill right now? Are you sure you’ll always be able to pay it? Will you be able to pay for all the water you need for irrigating your garden? Or do you have a well? Are you certain you’ll be able to keep paying the electric bill? If you live in a dry place, are you sure there will always be water coming out of the tap? These are questions worth asking ahead of time, because water matters. Some of us have no choice but to be aware of that already - those who live in very dry places may already be struggling with water issues. [...]

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