If you've decided to live "off the grid" — completely disconnected from outside electricity, water, and sewer services — you probably have a lot of logistical questions about the process. While solar panels and generators may be able to provide you with a fairly reliable source of electricity, how can you generate enough water pressure to power a shower or wash dishes? What happens to your "gray water" and other waste? Read on for some tips and tricks on handling plumbing issues in your "off grid" home.
What types of "off grid" plumbing are available?
There are a variety of plumbing systems available for your off-grid home, from the rustic to the modern. Features of the different plumbing types are listed in order below, from least to most water used.
If you want to minimize the amount of waste water produced, a composting toilet is your best bet. These toilets depend on the presence of bacteria — rather than water — to break down waste, and do so more quickly than septic systems. The "humanure" produced by the composting toilet can be used in gardening, and because composting dramatically reduces the amount of solids produced, composting toilets can be designed to accommodate any range of users -- from a couple to a large family, or even an entire community.
Pressurized shower sprayer
These types of showers are commonly used in campers and houseboats, but can also be used in your off-the-grid home. These contraptions are about the size of a two-liter soda bottle, and hold enough water to take a quick but thorough shower. First, you'll pump the sprayer several times to get it warmed up -- it will provide you with several seconds of a high-pressure stream. Once you're wet, you can soap up. Then you will pump the sprayer a few more times to give yourself enough pressure to rinse. Although this shower is fairly primitive, it requires no indoor plumbing — just access to a few gallons of water a day.
Harvesting rain with a cistern
One way to give yourself somewhat steady access to water is to collect your rainwater by directing your gutters to drain into a rain barrel or cistern. The most economical cistern design places the collection tank above ground, where the pressure of gravity is sufficient to direct the rainwater into your home to be used to shower, run the kitchen faucet, and flush the toilet. However, if you live in a part of the country without steady precipitation, unless you have a backup source of water (such as a well), or can drastically minimize your water usage, a cistern may provide you with unreliable water access.
If you're planning to use a cistern to collect drinking water, be sure to install a metal or clay roof -- shingled roofs can contaminate the water.
If you have access to a well — or are able to construct one — your plumbing options are nearly endless. Depending on the depth of your well and the water table (the depth at which a constant source of water is present), your water pressure and supply may be comparable to those of "on-grid" homes. With a well, you should be able to have a conventionally plumbed house, including showers, flushable toilets, and even a dishwasher.
If you're getting your drinking and cooking water from a cistern or well, you should invest in a home water testing kit. Both rain water and well water can contain contaminants or minerals which can prematurely age your appliances or harm your health. However, the installation of a water filter at the source should provide you with a constant supply of clean, good-tasting water.
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