What works: water

Wed, Mar 24, 2010


Securing a potable supply of water is fundamental to life, including human life. Human members of industrialized societies have grown accustomed to water delivery in every home. Contrary to a vast majority of the human experience, we simply take for granted water coming out every tap when we turn the handle.

Adding to the absurdity, I will continue making the same assumption for properly prepared properties. At the mud hut, we have designed and constructed a water extraction and delivery system to keep the water flowing well into the post-carbon era. Annual average precipitation on this particular site is about 35 cm (14 inches), so gardening is aided by supplemental water.

We have two wells on the property. The first has been here for years, and is tied to the grid in conventional fashion. The local well inspector found this well clogged with roots or other undetermined nasties, and the cost of rectifying the situation would have approached the cost of a new well. We continue to use the old grid-tied well, but only periodically, while we transition to a recently drilled, solar-powered well.

The new well is drilled to a depth of 31 m (102 ft). The water table is at 6 m (20 ft), and lenses of sandy soil provide abundant water down to 20 m (65 ft) or so, at which point a conglomerate layer dominates. This layer is characterized by very sweet, high-quality water tucked into the cracks of the conglomerate. The solar pump sits at 27 m (90 ft), and we have a hand pump at 14 m (45 ft) down the same well pipe. We use the hand pump quite frequently because it is conveniently located near the goat shed.

The solar pump feeds water into a 3,000-gallon cistern (behind the hand pump, and protected by a block wall on three sides). We simply turn a mechanical switch to the “on” position every week or so to fill the cistern. From the cistern, gravity feeds the water into a pressure pump, which supplies a pressure tank, which pressurizes the water lines throughout the property.

We installed several hundred feet of 3/4” water lines. These lead to both houses (the old mobile home and the new straw-bale house, and from the latter to the outdoor kitchen), as well as to eight frost-free hydrants strategically located near garden beds, greenhouses, cold frames, the orchard, and animal pens.

We made a minor error when we ran a 1/2” water line off the 3/4″ line for a short run to one of the frost-free hydrants. The combination of narrower pipe buried only 18 inches deep and located on the north side of the straw-bale house where the sun fails to hit the ground all winter led to a burst water line where the 1/2″ line tees off the 3/4″ line. We fixed the line with new pipe and buried it deeper. Had we not been able to buy an inexpensive piece of PVC at the hardware store, we’d have had no water throughout the property from that day forward. I’ve stocked up on those inexpensive pieces of PVC — tees, ball valves, plugs, and so on — and this spring, after the ground thaws, I’ll move the line over a few meters so it will receive morning sun.

Domestic water is pre-heated by passive solar water heaters adjacent to the east and west sides of the straw-bale house. Each water heater contains a 42-gallon tank painted black within an insulated box. The pre-heated water from each tank goes directly into a six-gallon electric water heater within the house. We considered on-demand electric water heaters, but the pulse of electricity would have required a PV solar system about three times the size of the too-expensive one we installed, so the passive solar pre-heaters and small electric water heaters represent a relatively durable, low-cost compromise. And we’ll have hot showers long after the industrial age ends.

All the fixtures in the straw-bale house were selected with durability in mind. I’ll not provide free advertising by revealing the brand online, but let me know via email if you’d like to learn the “best” brand (according to the contractors with whom we corresponded). Here’s a hint: It’s not American Standard.

Although the mobile home has a septic system (a remnant from earlier years), trees are watered by all water leaving the straw-bale house (from two kitchen sinks, two bathroom showers, and sinks in the kitchens and bathrooms). No “blackwater” leaves the house because we use composting toilets. Water departing the straw-bale house spills into French drains adjacent to trees.

Another minor error warrants description: The initial French drains were too shallow, so they were hand-dug twice. The second version filled in with sediment, and one line was clogged with a pack rat, so I dug it again. This time, I dug a gihugic hole and filled the hole with large used tires; then I ran the drainpipe into the top of a large hole within the stacked tires, and covered the entire contraption with roofing tin before covering it with soil. I think this arrangement will deter all but the wiliest rats, and sediment should not fill the French drain for a couple decades. I’ll be long dead by then, indifferent to wily rats and sediment.

A 3,000-gallon cistern is filled by runoff from each of the two houses. We use this water for plants, although it would be potable with minimal treatment. The water is sieved before entering the cisterns. At some point, we probably will use this rainwater for making soap because rainwater’s inherent softness is perfect for handmade soap.

We also harvest rainwater from surface runoff. The property slopes at about 5% from north to south, and the richest soils are located on the south side of the property, so we “steer” the south-bound runoff with berms that direct the overland flow into large gardens.

Finally, the nearby river serves as a final source of water, if needed. Near our property, the river is perennial during most years, which explains the shallow groundwater on the property we occupy. If the other sources of water fail to keep us satiated in the years ahead, we’ll carry water from the river just as people did during the previous Stone Age.

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34 Responses to “What works: water”

  1. Privileged Says:

    Thanks for the overview. I also appreciate the pics!

  2. bubbleboy Says:

    Suggestion for the next installment:

    What works: goats.

    I can’t wait to see how Frankie, Fran, Franklin, Francis, Franz, and Frauline have all grown up.

  3. matt Says:

    there is a bike in the pic!

  4. Keith Farnish Says:

    Crapping hell! I want that water butt – moving to a single-story house next month, so we can harvest like mad.

    BTW: Feel free to steal lumps from my article, “Shit Happens” for when you inevitably get round to that subject –


  5. Dan Allen Says:

    Great stuff! Inspirational.

  6. Guy R. McPherson Says:

    Good eye, matt … that’s my post-carbon transportation. It might seem a little small, but apparently people shrink when they age.

    Thanks for the excellent link, Keith Farnish. My next essay is about food, so humanure will make an appearance.

    Dan Allen, thanks for the first-time comment. I greatly admire your essays at Energy Bulletin.

  7. Frank Mezek Says:


    Where’s the Mud Hut?? It certainly can’t be that luxurious house shown

    Double D

  8. Sean Taylor Says:

    Yawn. Another eco-yuppie showing off his cisterns. ;)

  9. John Warner Says:

    We’ve been preparing for several years. We have a two acre property near Fresno, CA, which I regard as a relatively good place to be when the bottom drops out. Here’s why:
    –Net food exporting area
    –Water flows by gravity from the Sierra Nevada mountains into irrigation canals and recharges ground water levels fairly well if one is located near a big river as our place is.
    –Close enough to town to participate in post-collapse commerce [bicycling distance = less than 10 miles]

    Water table is at 250 feet and new well is 400 feet deep. Grundfos [search] flex pumps [we have a spare] operate at 900 watts max, AC or DC current, voltage 30 to 250 [working from memory here which may be a little fussy at the edges. 18,000 gallons of water storage in polyethylene tanks. Also there is an old, more shallow well we are fitting with a hand-pulled drop bucket [search for plans online].

    Being market gardeners we have the capacity to grow lots of fresh vegetables and fruits and we have 30 or so hens [we sell eggs, flowers, produce and plants at a local farmers market.] But one should not be fooled into thinking they can grow all their calories by hand on a small piece of land. This, for as long as it may be around, is a job for industrial strength agriculture that uses tractor and combine. We have made our own bread with hand grown, hand threshed, winnowed and ground wheat–just like the little red hen–and I can tell you it’s lots of work. A combine can do more in a single minute that all of us on our little farm could do all day. Grains and dry legumes keep for 30 years at room temperature so buy them at the store and stock up now.

    Nice going Guy. Thanks for this nice website.

    I have much more on growing and storing food on my website Feel free to use the information in any way you wish.

    Good wishes all,

    John Warner, hand-scale market grower since 1996.

  10. Mark Says:

    That luxurious house contains two separate families, at less than 1000 sq. ft each (if I remember correctly). It’s nice, in fact, really nice, in the post-carbon context, but hardly luxurious. Been there,seen it.

    And really Sean…”yuppie”! Give me a break. For those of us old enough to understand where “yuppies” originated, Guy’s place is what we should have been doing all along.

  11. Michael Irving Says:

    Sean Taylor,

    You said, “Yawn. Another eco-yuppie showing off his cisterns.” And previously (3/16/2010) you noted that joining Xe is an appropriate response to collapse and that pillaging should be included in a successful survival strategy. I see that you are preparing for a “Road Warrior” future in which you intend to sign up with Lord Humungous. Have you considered that without eco-yuppies and their cisterns there would be nothing for a thief (a.k.a. pillager) to steal.

    Michael Irving

  12. vera Says:

    Sean Taylor, some folks here have no sense of humor. (People, that is what that winky is for…!)

    Nice setup for water, Guy. How long do plastic cisterns last in the desert sun?

  13. Sean Taylor Says:

    Damn right Michael, this place looks like easy pickings for the Road Warriors. I hope Guy will show us his weapons collection, armed neighbors, mean dogs, moat and other defenses in a future installment. Otherwise, I’ll know that he’s just another hippie dreamer who doesn’t get what the collapse of civilization means.

  14. Frank Mezek Says:

    In Bermuda the houses have cisterns on top of the roof for collection
    of their sparse rainfall.

    Frank Mezek

  15. Guy McPherson Says:

    John Warner, thanks for your informed contribution to this conversation.

    Mark (et al.), each of the two living accommodations is comprised of 750 square feet. But we have an outdoor kitchen and an old mobile home, as I’ll describe in a future essay.

    vera, these cisterns are comprised of material that photodegrades very slowly. They should be good for at least 30 years. The one under cover, with block walls and a roof, should last at least 50 years.

    Sean Taylor, please read this essay for my take on marauding hordes.

    Frank Mezek, one of the many reasons I would prefer any “third-world” country to the U.S. is the ubiquity of water-harvesting infrastructure (not to mention shallow, hand-dug wells).

  16. vera Says:

    I hear you can collect quite a bit of water in the desert by harvesting dew, due to the significant different between day and night-time temperatures. I don’t know if it would be enough to water gardens though.

  17. vera Says:

    Oh, I forgot: Guy, from reading I was not sure if I was understanding it right; is the system pressurized strictly by gravity, or do you use some electricity to pressurize the tank? And how much electricity is needed to run the whole set up?

  18. Michael Irving Says:


    As you can see, Vera nailed it. I just don’t seem to tune into those yellow gizmos at all. Sorry about being completely out of phase.

    Michael Irving

  19. Guy McPherson Says:

    vera, we’ll get plenty of water from two roofs — cisterns are full now, in fact — so there will be no need to harvest dew, which would require a lot of calories. Unfortunately, we have essentially no topographic gradient on the property, so we are not able to use gravity to our advantage … so we pressurize the water via off-grid electric power. We use DC power, though, which is extremely energy efficient — even when the batteries are too depleted to light a 60-watt bulb, there is still plenty of juice to run the pressure pump. We’ll be purchasing plenty of backup parts for the pressure pump and pressure tank because the built-in obsolescence of American “goods” suggests all the parts will need to be replaced before long. And, when all else fails, we’ll use the hand pump.

  20. Sean Taylor Says:

    Fine, you’re not worried about the Mongol marauders, who you believe are too dumb to pillage their way out of a paper bag. But what about when the climate fails? Isn’t the desert southwest one of the worst places to be in the longer term with regard to water? Maybe you’re not worried about the longer term, but isn’t that place projected to turn into an unlivable, inarable Empty Quarter?

  21. Guy McPherson Says:

    Sean Taylor, I’m very worried about climate chaos. But my partner isn’t worried about climate change or economic collapse, so we’ve compromised on a location within a tank of gas from Tucson. That aside, the area around the mud hut is, according to regional assessments, the location best buffered against climate change in the entire American Southwest. And, since I think the industrial age will soon come to an end, we’ll (unwillingly) reduce emissions by at least 80% — that should help a little.

  22. Frank Mezek Says:

    My father and grandfather built a cottage in Beverly Shores,Indiana in
    the 1930’s.We had no utilities.There was a hand pump in the kitchen sink.Kerosene lamps and a pot bellied stove if it got cold.Our outhouse was wall papered with worthless stock certificates.They were beautiful works of art always with a cornacopia in the center.

    My greatest frustration was the need to wait for the ice man to make his daily delivery before we trudged over to Lake Michigan.We had a large sign with 25,50,75,and 100 on it , which you placed in the window so that the ice man could see what size block to deliver from the driveway.

    I enjoyed this much more than our city house,which my father also built.
    My grandmother got up at dawn to collect wild blueberries in abundance
    around our place,which we had for breakfast–damn they were delicious.

    Frank Mezek

  23. Michael Irving Says:



    I’m still on water. Do you have any problem with freeze-up in the cistern itself (not the exterior systems)? We had an early deep freeze with no snow cover this winter and it tried to freeze up our buried septic system (which produces heat via decomposition). An above ground cistern would have frozen solid. Any thoughts for us northerners?


  24. Guy McPherson Says:

    Michael Irving, our water comes out of the ground at about 55 F. Because the cistern is adjacent to the goat shed, that huge body of water ameliorates the temperature year-around, which is pleasant for the goats (and us, when we’re milking or delivering babies). And because the water is 55 F, and we use enough to keep water coming into the system, we don’t have issues with freezing.

    The only thought I can offer is black paint and insulation, but I doubt that’ll overcome the cold, cloudy days in your neck of the woods. Sorry … no help here. Anybody else?

  25. Jan Steinman Says:

    How did you determine your capacity? Did you do a needs assessment? Has your 3,000 gallons kept you through an entire turn of the seasons yet? Have you ever run it dry?

  26. Guy McPherson Says:

    Jan Steinman, thanks for your excellent questions. We got a good deal on the three, 3,000-gallon cisterns, so we attached one to each house and used the other for domestic water. It’s that simple … sadly, no calculations were involved.

  27. Florence Mills Says:

    We have installed a solar water heater at home and it is also as good as conventional water heaters.

  28. Riley Cooper Says:

    Solar water heater is a very good technology because it helps conserve electrical energy for heating~*.

  29. Todd Cory Says:

    “We use DC power, though, which is extremely energy efficient — even when the batteries are too depleted to light a 60-watt bulb, there is still plenty of juice to run the pressure pump.”

    Any time you discharge a deep cycle battery below 80% you do permanent damage. Best to not discharge below 50% max, and do plenty of equalizations to keep all the cells working together.

    There is no energy efficiency difference between AC & DC. The efficiency is dependent on the loads connected to them. Off-grid DC is often lower voltage which requires larger & more expensive conductors to offset the voltage drop.

    Mount Shasta Energy Services

  30. Guy McPherson Says:

    Excellent point, Todd Cory, and it explains why we use DC to power our pressure pump. Also, we have rigged up a system to “trickle-charge” our battery bank every night, using power from the grid-tied mobile home on the property. This reduces the draw-down on the batteries over night. As long as we have electricity essentially too cheap to meter, we’ll use it to extend the life of our expensive battery bank.


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