Monday, November 18, 2013

Remote Cabins: Cost of a Water Supply

Perhaps the most effective way to organize the daunting task of developing a remote homestead is to prioritize tasks and expenses based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs: water, food, warmth, shelter, and safety. This article describes how we developed a reliable water supply. Subsequent articles focus on food, warmth, shelter, and safety. Each piece outlines our experiences, good and bad, in developing such resources as a water and food supply, including some price points.  If you are considering alternate remote properties, one consideration might be the sources of fresh water, the depths of wells in the vicinity, and the cost of digging a wells (part of which is per foot down). 

Obviously clean, potable water is the first necessity for survival, but even non-potable water is important for fire suppression, hygiene, and gardening. For somebody like me, used to simply turning a tap for hot water or cold, without thinking about how the liquid GOT there and where it disappeared to afterward, “making” water was more complicated and expensive than I expected. I tried the most frugal solutions first, but inevitably ramped up to the expensive solution my husband had recommended all along. 

(I welcome your questions, and personal experiences developing a water supply).

Our Experience: We spent several thousands of dollars on water systems we subsequently gave up as inadequate for our needs but retained as back up systems should our primary infrastructure break down. For the first few years, we relied on lake water in summer and melted snow in winter, for drinking, cooking, cleaning, fire suppression, and garden irrigation.

Fire suppression is a high priority since we are too remote to receive any municipal services at all and cannot insure the cabin against fire. So we bought a high powered water pump and a set of long, heavy duty fire hoses ($600). This approach required no infrastructure so we bought it early on. The pump sits on the dock below our house and fire pit throughout the season when the lake is liquid.

For drinking water, we started off with high expectations of manual pump and drip filtration systems such as those sold for camping and in the Lehman's catalog, (a Big Berkey) for about $500. The latter works like this:  into the top section of a ceramic drip filter, one pours a few gallons of lake water so it can drip, overnight or throughout the day past the filters and into the bottom section. How hard can that be? Despite production advertised as several gallons in a few hours, (never got that) and a second set of filters, in case the first were faulty, we were thoroughly disenchanted with the product. I also pushed and pulled plastic pumps to squirt water through cotton paper (?) filters into jars. That was good arm and chest exercise, but every day? Every meal? No fun. What is Plan B, honey?

For personal hygiene, the initial purchases were a portable camp shower and “sun shower” bag (about $200). What totally worthless purchases! How bad? I STILL do spit baths at the kitchen sink all winter, and relied on that approach for several years during the summer, too, before we upped our system. 
To wash clothes, I heated water (from the lake or snow) on the wood stove and washed small batches in a 5 gallon bucket with a plunger. (I still do this all winter).  I can work up a sweat from the exertion of washing a few T shirts and socks at a time, but you can imagine that my sartorial standards went w-a-y down. During the winter, we wear our shirts inside out after we'd worn them right side out before washing. Who would know?  If my husband wants me out here... this is how we wash and dress all winter.

To irrigate the gardens, I started out filling 5 gallon jugs with lake water and hauling them to various positions in the yard. Uphill. Often. Later, we bought long hoses we linked to the subsequent lake pump and well. We also installed 55 gallon rain barrels ($10 each, re-purposed from a beer supply store) beneath the eaves/gutters of various buildings.  These were very handy, and filled much faster than I expected.

Once I admitted that the ludicrous manual drip water systems had to be replaced, we ponied up about $4000 for five AquaSun filters, a lake pump, and above ground hoses and and below ground pipes. My husband and I and a workman dug the trenches with hand tools, chopping through thousands of roots. They built a little dock like structure near the lake shore to support the pump and two filters that siphoned off large debris, like leaves and bugs. Two finer filters sat under the sink. One day, they called me into the kitchen to show me a brand new kitchen faucet in the previously dry sink. Wow! Running water?? Without my having to run somewhere to get it? How cool is that! The following year, they added more tubing under the sink to divert a small stream of water through a UV light filter and out to a small potable water spigot. Voila. Water, indoors, without dripping, pumping, hauling, or boiling. I will never again take for granted a water fountain or water sprinkler. 

The AquaSun system worked beautifully... when the lake was liquid, about 6 months per year. Before the first hard freeze in the fall, my husband needed to blow the water out of the hoses and pipes with an air compressor to protect the exterior plumbing from cracking.  After that, no more running water.  In the cold autumn, there is a long period in which there can be no snow but the lake freezes up (last year by Halloween).  Thus no water from either source.  So we tend to travel in the fall. 

After a few years, we built a shower/wash house ($14,000) in a clearing near the lake and serviced it with the AquaSun pump, too. Furnished with a low water washer and shower (with on demand heater hauled in by snow machine sled during the winter), I felt like I had jumped through a time machine! Now, for the first time, at least during the summer, I could adequately wash queen sized sheets, bath towels, and curtains caked with a winter's worth of wood smoke. The water pressure from the lake pump was excellent unless air got in the lines, when it dropped precipitously. Invariably, this occurred when the showerer was fully soaped and shampooed! To address that kink, a friend of a friend gave us an old water tank which we installed as a sort of degassing station between the hoses and the shower.  By drawing water from the bottom, we evaded air pockets. One small inconvenience was that the washer drew so much solar and wind power from our minimalistic, initial systems (see other articles about power) that I could only wash multiple loads on exceptionally sunny or breezy days. Otherwise, the circuit breakers for ALL power cut out.  So, protracted periods of rain meant extended periods without clean clothes.  (To alleviate this issue, when solar panel prices dropped in half while functionality increased (thanks to solar companies outside of the U.S.), we set up a second solar array.)

Finally, I agreed with my husband that we needed a better water system and the five digit cost of a well was starting to sound less exorbitant than before. Unfortunately, our names were now added to a three year wait list! (The well drillers waited until they accumulated enough off road customers on our side of the river to spread the high cost of helicoptering out the heavy equipment among them.
Water well drill next to shower house

Finally, the week arrived for our well. Around Easter, in temperatures ranging from 0 F to +23 F, three men heavily clad in Carharrt's garb snow machined back and forth from their prior job, bringing several sleds full of equipment which they then assembled into a huge, heavy, earth moving enterprise near the shower house. For several days, they worked long hours, flying in on two planes owned by the owners. All progressed as expected until the drill broke. Alaskans are great at jerry rigging equipment, but not this time, so they departed. About a week later, the skillful workers reappeared with relevant parts and were able to repair the machinery. Sound erupted again in the previously silent winter landscape, as mud, rock, and some say, bits of gold, spat out over an expanse of snow. Slowly, loudly, the equipment dug 20, 40 feet down. They tested the water flow rate, but it was too slow. At 61 feet, the 110 volt submersible water pump generated 15 gallons per minute. We had reached the appropriate depth. To get clean water, not silty or sandy, they instructed us to leave a hose running from the well for several days. At first, the water smelled sulfuric, and then the metallic taste reminded me of summer camp, but after a few days, we enjoyed clear, clean, potable water that tasted great. The cost, partly determined by well depth, totaled $12,000.  So we figure, that after our 12,000th gallon (winter usage is 10 gallons per day, summer, because of gardening, showers, and a washing machine, is more), we'll be able to say that our water costs $1/gallon.  How much do you pay for water?  One way to think of this investment is a 4 year pay back.  

Without additional insulation, our winter temperatures are too low to enable us to use hoses and pipes to deliver the well water to the cabin. Rather, for the rest of the first winter, we filled 8 gallon jugs, piled them onto the back of the snow machine, and hauled them over to the cabin.  Modest as that may seem, it marked the beginning of a new era. I gratefully kissed goodbye the all day winter tasks of shoveling 5 gallons of snow to melt down to 1/2 gallon of water, (which takes two hours), all day long,  to meet basic needs, like morning coffee and washing our faces, and every once in a while, a spit bath or a bucket of laundry.

The well was obviously MUCH more expensive than any other solution, but understandably so, given the equipment, the cost to get it here, and the incredible leap of advantage over the alternatives. The following summer, my husband linked the well to the adjacent shower house hoses and disconnected the lake pump. Then he dug up the water lines between the shower house and cabin in order to encircle them with three sets of heating coil that allow for heating and contraction during freezing temperatures ($1000) before reburying them.  This coil can heat the hoses to a bit above freezing, to transmit water to the cabin during the winter.  The system drains itself afterwards.  

The heating coil and the pump draw A LOT OF power, so we can't supply running water for spontaneous use.  Rather, on on sunny or windy days (since our electricity is derived from solar and wind power) we plug in the electric cords in the shower house and under the kitchen sink for about an hour before we plan to fill the 55 gallon tank which hides under a counter in the corner of my kitchen.  We seem to refill it about every five days, so we can infer that during the winter, the two of us (and poultry and rabbits) use about 10 gallons a day - 2-3 gallons of potable water for us, 2-3 gallons for the animals, and 4-6 gallons for washing dishes, floors, clothes, ourselves.  (When I lived in the city, I never thought about such numbers, do you?)  


If you are like me, and had never thought about the costs and effort to build a water supply, you might have thought camping equipment would suffice.  In my case, my error caused me to balk at the five digit cost of a long term solution, and that frugality set us back several years and wasted money on inferior "solutions." 

Most of us use water so much and so often without thinking about it, that once my "tap was turned off," I had to be constantly vigilant about how much liquid and frozen water I had on hand, how long it would take to melt, and to triage my uses for coffee, soup, the animals, washing the floor, washing my hair in the sink and anything else.  I discovered that without a constant supply, there is no spontaneity in water usage.

Read my lips: Make water related expenditures a high priority. You will do so early or you will do so later. Trust me.  
Please click here if you would like to download James Wesley Rawles' very comprehensive “list of lists” in Excel format as you consider potential purchases for your new homestead.

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to post it or a link to your favorite social media website, with attribution to Laura Emerson.

If you have any suggestions for future topics on this blog, or future places to post this sort of content, I appreciate your recommendations.

Note: I am pleased to say that I am now a monthly columnist for Alaska Adventure Media publications. The column is titled, “Off the Grid.”


  1. Thanks Laura for once again illustrating all that I take for granted and how much I am grateful for them.

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