By Ol’ Tennessee Ridgerunner
This is the fourth in a series about the vital “must-haves” for individuals with a preparedness mindset who are considering an off grid retreat lifestyle. These articles are written as a primer for would-be homesteaders contemplating their first rural property purchase. They can also serve as a refresher for long-time retreat owners who, due to age-related or medical issues, are developing their documentation and inventory of features in order to showcase their off grid property for sale. Our focus here is retreat water sources.
In a grid down situation, water and food shortages will become reality within hours and will likely develop into a long term challenge for populations in every metropolitan area. As resources become more and more scare, survivors will stop at nothing to secure supplies of fresh drinking water.
After identifying a secluded property that’s defensible, a good reliable water source is one of the most important considerations when selecting any piece of land to build your retreat on. Most homesteaders place water resources at the very top of their requirements list. You’d think that water would be a top priority for all preparedness-minded individuals. But that’s not necessarily the case because we take clean water for granted and have easy access to it nearly everywhere. Nonetheless, a retreat property without any sufficient water sources is a dead end – keep looking.
As a self-sufficiency-minded person, you already know you need multiple sources of fresh water in case one source fails. Plentiful water, ideally from a spring or an artesian well, is the natural resource you’ll need the most on your retreat. Deep natural springs that flow year round are usually one of the cleanest sources of drinking water. Test the water quality to make sure your spring isn’t contaminated.
Make no mistake, fresh clean water is the single most important survival ingredient for an off grid retreat. New homesteaders will find more water sources in the mountainous regions, primarily in the northwest and southeast US, with some exceptions. If the property has a county water supply, that’s great but don’t plan to rely on it in a disaster. With no electricity to power the pumps, water pressure disappears. It’s also safe to assume that a new connection to the nearest municipal water utility will be outrageously expensive. What are your options?
The simplest self-reliant approach for a good water source then, is to consider properties that already have year-round water, such as running water from a river, stream or a natural spring. With these sources, it is your responsibility to construct a distribution line from the water source to your retreat cabin. This involves a properly-sized pump, plumbing connections, and a storage tank(s). In a gravity-fed arrangement where you have a minimum of seven feet of head (for modest flow) above the final discharge point, a springhouse can be constructed below a diverted or dammed-up catchment area at the water source, plumbed to nearby storage tanks with distribution piping installed to your retreat. At the dwelling, water from all natural sources will need to be properly multi-filtered, and probably UV light filtered, before drinking.
Digging a well may be required, unless you are building your retreat close to a year-round stream, river, pond or lake which is better. Pond or lake water can make a good back up source and will allow you to water livestock or irrigate. Be aware that nuclear fallout will contaminate these sources.
Pumped well water is a good second choice. If the property has an existing well, don’t think that will save you and your family in a prolonged disaster. Converting your well from a low-wattage DC electric to a manual pump is highly desirable so be prepared to do this yourself when required.
If a real estate agent or the property owner tells you the property has a good well, don’t take their word for it. Be sure to require a water quality inspection as part of the sales contract. Treatment or remediation can be expensive for you if you fail to detect water quality issues before the sale closes.
If your property has no surface water at all, you’ll probably need to drill for it. Drilling a water well is not a precise undertaking. A water witch can be employed to dowse (a type of divination) for naturally-occurring subterranean water locations on your property, but they are not 100% certain. Using USGS groundwater research and hydrologists’ studies, regional well drillers will have a decent reckoning about the water conditions in your area, where sweet water can be found, the uniqueness of your underground geology, and how deep of a well they need to drill to find good water. However, they usually do not provide any guarantee that they will hit water.
Of course, the drilling process is expensive. On Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau of the Southern Appalachians, it’s usually a $15-$20k+ project. Your property location, soil type (limestone on the Plateau), and how deep you drill all have an impact on the drilling cost. Be sure your pocketbook can withstand a dry hole or two and you’ll probably find the outcome to be acceptable.
Don’t overlook rainwater collection as a viable alternative if the native water supply is weak. Recognize that this option requires adequate water storage facilities to be in place. If the region experiences year-round rainfall, this option is very doable. Check the drought conditions at the property locations you find attractive. Again, be aware that nuclear radiation will make rainwater unsafe. Design the retreat roof and gutter system so that you can efficiently collect falling water. In addition, look for places where water flows during rainfall and what you can do to dam up those areas to collect water.
Calculate the amount of rainwater you might reasonably be able to collect during the rainy season and be sure that it is enough to last through any non-rainy periods. Add up your requirements for drinking, wash and bath water, sanitary flushes, cooking, cleaning, and irrigation water for gardening. You’ll be surprised at the amount of water storage that you may need if relying on an intermittent rainwater source. Use this formula to calculate the gallons of rainwater you can collect from your roof.
- Determine the square footage of the roof’s rain water footprint (multiply length x width)
- Convert the inches of rainfall to feet of rainfall (inches / 12)
- Multiply square feet of footprint times the amount of rainfall in feet (per storm, or per year)
- Multiply the total volume of cubic feet by 7.48 to get total gallons needed
A normal one inch rain could provide your retreat with about 900 gallons of water on a 1,500 square foot house. If you have a couple of 1,000 gallon storage tanks, you can capture nearly your total storage capacity in just two decent rain events. One thing to remember when using this formula is that the calculation assumes you are able to collect all of the rainwater, meaning you have enough gutter collection, downspouts and storage capacity to catch and retain it. If you only have four 55-gallon storage tanks positioned at the four corner downspouts of your dwelling, you can only store 220 gallons. That’s not much if that’s your only water source. It’s plenty if stored just for emergencies or to supplement your existing primary water source.
Another consideration is how to allow the first rain to flush off the accumulated leaves, pollen and other roof debris, while still collecting rain water from your roof. This is important because even small bits of solid debris will quickly clog your filter system. The efficient way to deal with this is to purchase a rain diverter system with an automatic valve that directs the first flush of debris-laden rainwater through a screening device while the clean rain water flows down the collection pipe to storage. These devices are available for less than $100 each and readily adapt to various downspout sizes and configurations.
Three days is about the max when it comes to you and your family doing without water. The average adult needs about 2 quarts of water per day to survive comfortably unless you’re in a very hot or cold location where you may need up to a gallon daily. In an emergency situation, an adult may need up to four gallons per day. In a dire survival situation, a minimum of one quart per day is the minimum for a 150 pound man based on the body’s output. Gardens need about 2 inches of water per week. Hygiene requires several gallons weekly depending on how conservative you are. It is important to properly gauge water production and storage capacity at your retreat. If the gallons from your primary source are insufficient, and if rain collection is not enough to make up the difference, locate or create some additional water sources. A man-made pond filled by reasonable run-off can be constructed on the property. If your budget allows, and the parcel meets all requirements, building a pond could make the property a done deal.
If you have the budget for it, there is the atmospheric water generator. This is relatively new commercial technology that produces fresh drinking water from humidity in the air at your retreat. Similar devices were used by our military in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. These pricey units work like a dehumidifier to create potable water. Although various residential class units consume from 400 – 600 watts per hour, they can make between 2 to 5 gallons daily, have multi-stage HEPA & UV filters and stainless steel hardware.
There are other options for establishing reliable water supply on your retreat, but this summary covers most of the conventional methods of securing potable water. More creative and low-cost methods are being developed and beta-tested for application in third-world countries all the time, so continue to research new developments at sites like this. However, our original recommendation still stands: if your selected retreat site doesn’t have sufficient water sources, keep looking until your find a better one that does.
In the next post, we’ll discuss food production options at your retreat location.