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A 12-volt "walking" water system.

My wife Tah'tini and I moved to our latest homestead in Minnesota from the high mountains of Colorado five years ago. The "hunting shack" on our property is 20 feet square. We camped in it for two years while we cleared an area for our upgrade to the status of "cabin." The hunting shack has been converted into a studio where Tah'tini has her cottage business of fine needlework and sewing.

The clearing work was extensive as our property is a 10 acre lot with a variety of trees, raspberry bushes, and lots of hazelnuts. A few years before we bought the property a tornado touched down and created quite a tangle of trees and other debris. It also created the clearing where we decided to build. The building site was swampy, and we had to clear it down to the clay. Sand was hauled in and packed, creating a high spot to pour our floating slab foundation. The rest of the area has had to remain swamp because the county classified it as "wetlands" after they did the first and only building permit inspection.

We bought a garage package and made it into a 24x40 cabin, doing the work ourselves with help from many wonderful neighbors. Tah'tini was in charge of plumbing for the kitchen sink and bathroom. We put the plumbing in even though we did not have running water, as this is easier to do during new construction than as an afterthought. Tah'tini also did the entire interior framing design and electrical layout. Again, this was easy to do then and will be ready for our solar powered electrical system. I did the grunt work under her close supervision.

For five years we hauled our water from town in one- and five-gallon containers and filled a 60-gallon plastic tank with a drain in the bottom. We then used a bucket to get water to wherever we needed it.

The county explained to us that if we had a well providing running water in the house we would be required to install a mound septic system even though we use a composting toilet. Their view is that if you have a well and plumbing, you will use it for a flush toilet. A mound system requires a large septic tank with an electric pump to pump waste water up to an aboveground (mound) leach field. No electricity--no pumping. The regulation-size septic tank holds more water than we use in a year. The mound can (and they frequently do) freeze in the winter here in Minnesota. The cost of this system in our area runs up to $15,000--more than the land is worth. All of this added up to one thing--no well for us.

Finally, on one of those 2:00 a.m. "I can't sleep" mornings, I thought up a "walking" water system that would provide low pressure water for our existing plumbing with no well, containers of water sitting around in the cabin or freezing outside. I call it walking water because it is a low pressure system compared to a well with a pressure tank (which runs). For those who have had an RV with a water pump, you'll understand immediately how this system performs.

This is how I built my system. Yours may vary, using what you can acquire new or used. RV salvage is a great place to get 12 volt stuff and potable water tanks.

Our system consists of:

* 12-volt DC on-demand RV water pump

* Potable water storage tank

* In-line filter for sediment

* Reinforced 1/2-inch vinyl tubing

* Hose clamps to fit the vinyl tubing

* 12-gauge electrical wire

* Electrical terminals

* In-line fuse holder with fuse

* On/off switch

* 12-volt trailer marker light

* 12-volt car battery

* Small solar panel--battery-maintenance size.


When we originally installed the plumbing, we put valved access taps for hot and cold lines in the pantry. Therefore, this was the chosen place for the storage tank. We purchased a custom-built tank because we needed it to fit into a specific space to get the most water storage. Whatever tank you use, be sure it is approved for potable water. Other types of tanks will taste like plastic, or worse, can contaminate your water. Used tanks may have had contaminants--possibly poisonous--in them. Be safe and be sure of the history of the tank you use.

I purchased our tank from American Tank ( or 707-535-1419) because they have more than 200 shapes of potable water tanks and will put the threaded holes anywhere you want. I measured the space I had, went to the tank chart, and picked the largest size that would fit. My tank choice turned out to be 58" long x 20" wide x 13" high, holding 58 gallons. For the holes, you use a drawing of your chosen tank to mark the location and size of your threaded holes. If this is not easy for you, the people at American Tank can help you do it. Just tell them what you want to do with the tank.

I had 1/2" NPT (National Pipe Thread) put in the corner next to the wall and near the floor for the pump input. NPT is the designation you must request to get a threaded hole that will accommodate threaded pipe and fittings.

A 3/4" NPT was used in the top corner next to the wall. I put a plastic plug with a 1/8" hole drilled in it to allow venting. I chose the 3/4" size hole so I could use an adapter for a hose or 3/4" plastic pipe going outside to fill the tank if I wanted to. Shortly after we started using the system, we heard a strange hissing noise coming from the tank. Thinking a major leak was under way, we checked everywhere for water. None. The hissing was caused by a too-small vent hole. The tank was partially collapsed and sucking air through that tiny hole, trying to catch up after a major water use! I increased the hole size to 3/16", and all is calm.

The last hole is a 2" NPT in the top corner away from the wall to use for my method of filling out of a one-or five-gallon container. I used a 2" threaded fitting with a male pipe end threading it tight to the tank. For the filler assembly, I attached a 2" 90-degree elbow connected to the threaded fitting with a 4" long piece of 2" pipe. A 24" piece of 2" pipe was next, then another 90-degree elbow. The final piece is a 3" to 2" reducer fitting that I use as a funnel. I did not glue any of this together so I can take it apart or swing it out of the way. A 2" cap is used if I remove my fill tube, leaving only the threaded part in the tank. Or, the cap may simply be dropped, upside-down, into the funnel, closing the hole. If you have moisture-loving bugs in your area as we do, keeping this hole covered is not optional.

Pump connections

For the pump input, the 1/2" hole (next to the wall and floor) received a 1/2" plastic ball valve with a 1/2" hose barb for the 1/2" reinforced vinyl tubing to the pump. Reinforced tubing prevents the tubing from constricting on the input side and bursting on the pressure side, and allows for the minor vibration of the pump. A valve at the tank is very handy for any leak or pump work and you can drain the water out if for some reason you cannot pump it.

I used a Shurflo on-demand RV water pump. This pump is capable of a six-foot vertical prime, giving me a high mounting location that is within easy reach in case I need to replace or repair the pump. The pump can run dry, shuts off when the faucet is closed, and mounts in any position. These pumps do vibrate some and make a soft pumping noise when in use. I mounted the pump on the wall in a position that made it easy to install and work on if ever needed. A length of 1/2" reinforced tubing from the tank valve runs to a strainer screwed it to the pump with a hose barb on the other end. Since we are currently using town water this strainer is sufficient. Other filters can be installed on the pressure side if the pump pressure is enough to meet the pressure requirements on the filter label. More 1/2" tubing then runs to the inlet of the cold water line. Secure all tubing connections with hose clamps, especially on the pressure side. Do not over-tighten. Over tightening may distort the tubing and cause leaks. However, make sure clamps are secure enough to prevent leaks when there is pressure in the system. When in doubt, use a light hand and tighten more if needed.


I ran 12 gauge wire to the pump from the battery outside, following the plastic pipe of the cold water line that provides an outside faucet. The battery cable clamps are marine-type, with screw lugs allowing the connection of a wire with an eyelet terminal. Make sure that the positive and negative wires are connected correctly or you will ruin your pump. Black is negative and red is positive. Install an in-line fuse in the positive wire in a place that allows easy servicing. The fuse must match the amperage listed on the pump label. That is, if the pump draws a max of seven amps, then the fuse used is seven amps.

I installed a push/pull switch after the in-line fuse. A blue trailer marker light tells me if the power is on (and also provides a night-light for midnight pantry raiding). I charge the battery with a small solar panel that I was able to buy at an auction for $5. If you do not have a solar panel, you can use jumper cables from your homestead vehicle or tractor to put a charge in. A full charge in a good battery will pump a fair amount of water. I may have to do this when winter comes and we have very little sun. With the solar panel keeping the charge up, I plan to wire in a 12-volt pantry light and a 12-volt receptacle for Tah'tini to plug in her bread incubator.

I want to elaborate on the battery I used because I am impressed with it. It is an OPTIMA gel battery. There are other brands, but this is the one I bought 12 years ago for my truck. A few months ago my wife told me that batteries do not last that long and I needed to replace it before the -30[degrees]F weather arrived. It was still working just fine. I am very stubborn about getting the most out of anything. I am still using my 24-year-old mower to mow our trails in the woods. I sighed, listened, and bought a new battery for the truck and used the old one for the water system. A gel battery does cost more than a lead acid one ($100-plus new), but I feel the benefits are worth it. You may be able to find a used one at an auto salvage yard--also a great place for 12-volt stuff. I can mount it in any position. It has high power density, rapid recharge capability, is maintenance free, and delivers higher, more consistent voltage under load. It does not lose its charge while sitting, like a lead acid battery will. There are no corroded terminals or connections because it lacks the battery fluid and gas that a regular lead acid battery has. This technology came from the space program. Deep cycle gel batteries are also available.

As with any battery, make sure it is in a well-ventilated area. No battery is shatterproof, so make sure it is well-secured in its location. We recommend a tamper-resistant box (locking if you have children in the area) in a place out of the weather. Shorting out across the terminals is very dangerous--be safe.


When testing the system, we found we had to remove the flow reducers and water-saving devices from inside the faucet. These devices cut down the water flow and overworked the on-demand pump. We could not replace the 3/8" water lines from the pipe to the faucet and we have some pump-cycling (the chug-chug of the pump going on-off-on-off) as a result. With the faucet fully open the pump works smoothly. We recommend using 1/2" lines throughout the system if possible, as this is easier for the pump.

Our system has worked well for several months now, giving us cold water at the faucet. The sun shining on the wall where the plumbing is gives us a cup of warm water. We still use a hand-pumped pressure sprayer tank (weed sprayer type) for rinsing dishes, etc. We got a new one to make sure no chemicals had been used in it. This works very well using little water. Our next water project is a rain collection system that is diverted into an underground cistern pumped through filters into our house tank--12 volts of course.

One additional benefit of installing our water system: we may soon be able to obtain homeowners' insurance. We can't get that unless we have "running water" and a backup heat source (electric--yuck!). So we're putting in baseboard heaters (to impress the insurance company, not to use). When I asked them why we needed backup heat, they explained it was so my water lines wouldn't freeze. You mean the water lines I put in so I could get insurance? Yup, those water lines. So, we'll be stocking up on baseboard heaters at the next auction and wondering what new hoops we'll be jumping through down the road.



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Title Annotation:Homestead water
Author:Serkahn, Maki
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Previous Article:Coming events.
Next Article:Ice cutting in the 21st century.

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