Best Off-Grid Water System Options for Your Cabin
Interested in an off-grid cabin, but not sure how to tackle the water problem? These are your options for water at an off-grid cabin.
As romantic as the idea of an off-grid cabin is for many, this lifestyle would quickly lose its luster without a reliable source of water.
Unlike homes in towns and cities, getting water to a remote cabin isn’t as simple as hooking up to a nearby underground pipe. Learn all about off-grid cabin water systems, how they work and the different options for satisfying this basic need.
What Are Off-Grid Water Sources?
Off-grid water is a fresh water supply and waste water disposal system that doesn’t depend on the electrical grid or a municipal water system. Like all water systems, off-grid setups need a reliable water source and a place for dirty water to go. Off-grid systems rely on one of three water sources: a well, a nearby body of water or collected rainwater.
If your cabin has a drilled well and fully off-grid power system, set up your water system just as you would on the grid. Hook a supply line to your drilled well and outfit the well with a submersible pump to push water into a pressure tank in your cabin. From there it can be piped anywhere it’s needed.
If you don’t have a well but do have an off-grid power setup, and your cabin is near a lake, a large diameter pipe and a jet pump can deliver your water via the same principle as a submersible pump and a well. You may need a permit for this, so check with your local authorities before hooking up your system.
If you do tap a nearby lake or river and intend to drink the water, you’ll need to install a primary filter to remove any debris, along with a UV or chlorine-based purification system to kill microorganisms that could make you sick.
A rainwater collection system can be as basic as a large water storage tank on your roof where rain is captured and stored. On the more complex end, it can also involve pumps to pressurize an indoor plumbing system.
Regardless of the approach, unless your supply pipe features a reliable heating cable, it will freeze when the temperature drops below 32 degrees F. That’s no problem if your cabin is strictly a summertime retreat, though you’ll need to purge all water from outdoor pipes at the end of the season. If you plan to use your cabin during winter, you’ll need to keep all outdoor pipes from freezing.
And if you plan on drinking the collected water, you’ll need a primary filter and purification system to make sure it’s safe, just like with lake water.
Moving Water From the Source to the Off-Grid Cabin
To understand off-grid water systems, let’s first review how water works for everyone on the grid.
In a typical urban house, water supply lines connect to large underground pipes carrying pressurized, pre-treated water. If you’re in the country, a drilled well could be your water source. Either way, the supply lines convey clean water into taps and toilets in the home.
Waste water from sinks, toilets and showers flows through drain pipes via gravity, ultimately connecting to underground sewage pipes leading to a purification plant. Some incoming water flows into a water heater, where it’s warmed and directed towards taps demanding hot water.
There are only two ways to get running water into an off-grid cabin: with electricity if you have an off-grid power system, or by hand.
Off-grid powered water supply
If you want modern indoor plumbing with all the bells and whistles, your best bet is an off-grid power setup involving a windmill and photovoltaic panels. While expensive to buy and set up, these two pieces of equipment can give you a reasonably steady and reliable supply of grid-free electricity.
Besides avoiding high monthly bills from the power company, this sort of setup can also provide a constant supply of water, independent of the grid. The electricity powers your jet or submersible pump, which pushes pressurized water into your cabin.
Hand-powered water supply
Depending on your budget and how much you want to rough it, there’s a simpler way to tackle the water supply challenge.
If you have a drilled well, a hand operated pump can be a big help. Use it to fill buckets and carry them inside. Or if your pump has a threaded end and a built-in check valve, temporarily pressurize your system by hooking the pump to an outside tap with a hose, then pump the handle until water fills indoor water pipes.
Think of it as getting running water and exercise at the same time.
Dealing with Waste Water
Waste water disposal doesn’t usually rely on electricity whether you’re on the grid or not. Chances are, your off-grid methods will involve one of the usual rural approaches: a septic system or gray water pit.
If your water system includes a regular indoor toilet, you’ll almost certainly be legally obligated to go with a septic system, because most places don’t consider gray water pits sufficient for breaking down human waste. Properly setting up gray water pits is a simple, easy alternative for folks planning to use a composting toilet or outhouse.
Whether you go with a septic system or gray water pit, make sure you follow local laws regarding location and setup.
No discussion about off-grid water systems would be complete without mentioning toilets. There are several approaches to consider.
If your cabin has a full off-grid power system and a septic system, you can install a regular toilet. Your electric water pump will pressurize your system, directing water to the toilet, as needed.
If you have an off-grid power system but don’t want to bother with a septic system, consider a composting toilet. They convert waste into rich compost without using water.
Composting toilets convert waste to compost in a small, self-contained chamber below the toilet bowl. Almost all composting toilets need small amounts of electricity to rotate the compost and run fans to speed evaporation of liquid, which in turn speeds up the composting process. Because the composting happens completely internally, composting toilets have no effect on groundwater.
Propane-powered incinerating toilet
Another waterless approach, incinerating toilets use small amounts of electricity along with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to incinerate all waste.
If you don’t have running water in your cabin, there’s no shame in going old school with an outhouse. They’re easy to build, eco-friendly and won’t break. If you go with an outhouse, research local regulations regarding location and acceptable distance from water sources like wells, especially those supplied by groundwater.