Water, The Lifeblood of the Wilderness

Off Grid CTO: Water

This week we will continue our series about living off the grid working for ModelOp as their CTO designing advanced software for managing your ML/AI models in an enterprise environment.

In this week’s post, we are going to look at the challenges of living off the grid with no city services, including water.  So specifically, how do we get our water utilize it around the property and in our cabin.

When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water

There are many famous quotes about water, as water really is the most important need you can have.  You can go for quite a few weeks without any food, but only just a few days (or less) without water.  We use water for everything from consumption, to cleaning, cooking, and even just for dealing with waste. 

Living without it even for a short time, you really feel the impact.  The first winter I tried to spend up here at the cabin 15 years ago, the water line feeding the cabin froze, and I lived without water from November to April, and it was not fun at all.  I knew I had to do something different, and this post is about that journey


Whiskey is for Drinking, Water is for Fighting

This quote is often misattributed to Mark Twain, but it is an old statement about the realities of living out west.  Most of the west is quite dry.  When I was looking for property that was off the grid, it was one of my main considerations.  It is eventually what made me decide to head out to Colorado, rather than Utah, for land, as drilling a well is a very expensive proposition.  There is also no guarantee you are going to get water.  I wanted something that had visible water and several choices of where to get it from.

So when I found this current property that had multiple springs on it, a small creek running from wilderness above it, and a major stream running through it (Tomichi Creek), I new this was a contender.  Plus it already had a gravity feed pipe system setup on it.

So with the scarcity of water in the west, and the amount I could see on this property, I new that something could be done….  Of course in the first year up here in the winter that gravity feed froze up, so what to do about it…

First and Foremost, Drinking Water

So my first concern was to make sure I had a steady supply of clean and pure drinking water.  On this property, there are several springs down by the river.  Our favorite, we refer to as ‘pipe spring’.  It was a surface spring that pooled up, but by sinking a pipe into the ground underneath it with holes in it, and having sand all around that, the water instead flows nicely out of a pvc pipe for simple filling of bottles.  This spring sometimes dries up in the fall, but only in dry years.  It always freezes in the winter.  The snow damaged the boards this last winter, so yet another project to write about is coming.

And Water for the Winter

Another spring on the property was modified by sinking in a plastic trash barrel into the ground.  A pipe was then placed into the ground again below the spring, and the water flows through the pipe into the trash can sitting beneath ground level.  Thus it became known as ‘bucket spring’.

On the opposite side is also an equal height outflow with a pipe buried in the ground that flows out to the river.  A cover then goes over the spring so it is all insulated by the ground.

Even in the dead of winter, this keeps flowing and does not freeze in this arrangement.  Eventually, we would like to pump water from here into our cabin, but it is quite a distance up the hill.  So we dig down to this in the snow and get our drinking water from this spring all winter long.

Also, the Water from Above

So this just left us with the need for normal house water for bathing, cleaning dishes, cooking (as you boil the water when you cook), and other such normal house stuff.  As I mentioned, when I bought the place there was already a 3/4 inch poly pipe running from a beautiful creek above my property providing a great flow of water…  So I thought…

First off, it was always getting air in it so you would be taking a shower and it would ‘surge’ off and on.  Doesn’t sound so bad until you also realize that the temperature likes to change in pace with that, so not exactly the most relaxing shower in the world.  This I  solved by moving the intake higher, building a new intake using coarse metal intake filters from the tractor supply store, and building a nice pool in the stream.  I tried a fine filter up top, but that just clogged non-stop. I put a traditional sediment filter at the bottom, but that lasted only a week or so and would have to be cleaned and or changed.  This was not going to work.

Less debris, more water

I did some research, and I came cross an interesting self cleaning filter.  The principal is that you leave water flowing all of the time, and it creates a vortex around the outside of the filter.  This scrubs the debris off of the screen.  Then when you need water, it draws it through the screen, but water is still flowing out around the outside of the screen, so it tends to scrub itself off.

Now in a house where you may be paying for water, or have limited amounts, these may not be the best choice, and you likely have to switch the flow on and off.  In my case, the water is free and plentiful, needed to be kept running to avoid freezing and stagnation, and flows back into the river where it was heading anyways, so it was a perfect fit.

So I have the water flow down to my cabin, then through this filter, and control the outflow back into the river with a valve further down the property.  So all was good until that first winter.  The water stopped flowing, froze up, and would not be back to April.  Without a protective blanket of snow, even though the pipe is buried, it still froze up in the line.  There had to be an alternative situation. 

Tanks for the Water

By April, I had had it without having any water in the house.  Enough was enough, and I really had to come up with something.  Then it struck me that my house was basically a big RV already, so why not get a good RV pump, and make my own house pressure?  They are auto activated, and give you 60 psi, or normal house pressure and run on 12v.

So off to the tractor supply store for a 100 gallon drinking water safe tank I could keep in the cabin to not freeze, and online to order an RV pump.  After putting the tank onto a sled and towing it up behind the snowmobile (I did not have the tracked vehicle yet), getting it plumbed into the system and hitching up the RV pump, I was ready to fill the tank.  Of course the gravity feed water was still frozen, but Tomichi Creek below me flows open all winter long.

So with a gas powered pump, and two long garden hoses, I dropped the end into the river, fired it up, and was able to fill the tank.  If you are careful with water, 100 gallons lasts you quite a long time.  So we conserved water wherever we could, and would just go through the routine about once a week of filling it up.

We also hitched up the tank to the gravity feed, so we could fill from that once it was going as well.  And as a last resort, I have several 7 gallon water cans we can manually fill from if needed as well.  So now we had a great way of ensuring we always had water.

Water a Plenty

So now during most of the season, the gravity feed is reliable and we fill not only the tank in our cabin with the water, but we can enjoy our wood fired hot tub which we just refill each time we use it.  It takes hours to heat up, so it is for special occasions and you have to plan ahead.  Having no chemicals and fresh mountain spring water really soaks away the chores….

When it gets very cold and there is no snow, we drain the gravity feed and use the pump from the river and carefully drain the pipe each time so as to not freeze up.  This year, we will also have a 35 gallon tank on our tracked UTV with a small electric pump.  So we should be prepared no matter what happens.

In the future we would love to bury a much larger tank above the cabin, run the pipes deep, and pump water up from our ‘bucket’ spring.  This will require some heavy equipment to get done.  So many projects ahead of us!

Next week, we will look at a system I have been working on to monitor our energy usage using multiple raspberry pis, arduinos, and hall effect sensors to detect bi-directional energy flow.  This will include the hardware and source code available on github.

Thanks for joining me again this week,


Jim  Olsen

Off Grid CTO

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