This house is off the water grid — how much do cisterns suck?

October 18 |
My plumber
Get a good plumber!
Photo by Hyrck. Used under Creative Commons.

Chrissy needs input:

My fiance and I have been house-shopping for quite some time now, and I have fallen in love with one amazing little fixer-upper. It has three bedrooms, a fenced-in area, a pond, and it's on one beautiful acre… the only catch is that it is not hooked up to public water/sewer: it has a septic system and a cistern.

This isn't a dream-killer by a long shot, but I'd love input from anyone who maintains their own cistern. How does it work? What kind of maintenance would be expected? I'd just love a general idea of life with a cistern!

  1. I bought a house a few years ago that does get city water, but we have a cistern and are on a septic system. The cistern we used an electric pump to run water to the garden for the first couple of years. Unfortunately, after a big rain storm, the old cistern caved in on itself and created a sink hole that we are just trying to fill in at this point, but as far as being on septic, we are very cautious of how much water we use to avoid filling our tank due to its only a 500 gallon tank. We get it pumped out every other year and that works for us, a family of 3. I think that it is still worth it due to we dont have to pay for waste water disposal on our water bill, just the cost of pumping it every other year which is about $250. We have plans for the future to create a gray water system to reroute water used from the washing machine and sinks to the gardens to help relieve extra water from going into the septic. I really miss my cistern though and hope someday to rebuild it in a different location, even if it just collects rain water for the garden. Anytime you don't have to rely on public utilities is a great way to feel self sufficient.

    4 agree
  2. I don't quite know what a cistern is.. I have a well and a septic. That is VERY common up here…. is it the same thing?

    4 agree
    • It's basically a big tank for fresh water. You get a delivery truck to come out and fill it on a regular schedule. So, kind of like a well that you need to keep refilling.

      My church was on a cistern (built in the boonies before the city grew out to meet it). Only problem was making sure toilets weren't running, or if there was a big event – e.g., wedding – with high water demands we sometimes ran out.

      2 agree
      • You can also have a cistern that is fed by a rainwater catchment system (roof gutters).

        10 agree
      • good god a mighty…..
        You don't pay anyone to fill a cistern like a swimming pool!
        That's missing the whole point of catching free rainwater….

        2 agree
        • One of our properties on the ridge of a mountain had a well that only pumped 1.1 gallon per minute, so we installed a 1200 gallon cistern with a demand pump/pressure tank. It took a good day to fill up, but once it was filled, it worked great. Other homes in the neighborhood would run dry in July but ours was always more than half full. The only issue with this type of system is you still need electricity to make the thing work. So for those days that we lost power, I installed a back-flow valve with a RV 12 VDC pump. The batteries are deep cycle RV batteries and are three years old with no issues. A trickle charger maintainer keeps them from overcharging. Viola water with the power out….

          Most health professionals do NOT recommend using rainwater collection systems for home consumption. My Mom's a 30 year Nurse and Public Health Professional. She says flushing toilets and watering gardens are ok, but the bacteria levels in untreated rainwater systems can be pretty hazardous. Anything that poops on the roof, bugs, chemicals from the asphalt shingles, stuff that grown in the gutters and downspouts… Yick!

          There are UV filers that expose the water to UV light, but they have pretty low flow rate. You could use small amounts of chlorine bleach 1/4 cup per hundred gallons once a week, if I remember correctly, but don't use my numbers without checking with a professional.

          Delivered water us usually taken from a city water system so it is pre-treated with chlorine. Rainwater might be free, but delivered water is much safer.

          1 agrees
    • You don't know the difference between a septic (poo) tank and fresh water cistern (?)
      Some people should just forget it and rent – Duh !

      2 agree
      • That comment is neither helpful or nice. People ask questions to learn new things and everyone should be encouraged to do so. If we were all born knowing everything it would be a pretty boring world – even though no one would be renting.

        8 agree
  3. I grew up in a house that had septic and a cistern. The only issue I ever remember was needing to be conservation minded when we used water or flushed the toilet. That and we wouldn't have water if the power went out for very long.

    3 agree
  4. I grew up with septic tanks and wells, and now I have a house with a septic tank and well. Make sure you know the capacity of your septic tank and cistern. If it is an older home you may want to have a pro come out and look at them to give you a status update. I love my well, I am not familiar with the operation variances of a Cistern. And the only other thing I can sat about septic tanks is Scott Toilet Paper. I get the Scott Natural. This is THE ONLY non Camping Septic safe toilet paper that really is septic safe, lots of them say that they are on their packaging, but take it from my messy experiences that this is the only one that really is. We once had one back up and pretty much explode the septic people told us the trick to the Scott TP.

    2 agree
  5. I grew up in a house with a well and septic tank. Until I had been living in a city for years during/after college I didn't know there was even a difference until one day I asked someone, "Why don't you fill up the bathtub when there's a lightening storm? Won't you be unable to flush if the power goes out?" and the person was like, "Uhhh, city sewer/water, girlfriend."

    The home I grew up in had a deep enough well and large enough tank that we never had backup or water shortage issues. We flushed whenever we wanted. My parents had the septic pumped every other year or so. One friend down the street did have a well run dry and her parents had to have a new one drilled, but that was 15 years ago and they haven't had a problem since.

    I'd say make sure your well/septic tank are in good condition and that you know the location and it's easily accessible for regular pumping (and so you don't damage them if you're landscaping or anything), know where the leach field is and know the capacity.

    3 agree
  6. It's good you are asking this question. Keep doing lots of research. He are my own experiences:

    I grew up on a well/septic system. Inevitably, the septic would clog or the pump would fail every couple years and my father would be out in the rain and the dark digging many feet of heavy clay out of the ground to access the tanks. This would also result in several days of having to use the great outdoors and forgo indoor showers, washing dishes, etc.

    If you are looking at a system with a well that pumps to a cistern, make sure you know the capacity of both (i.e. flow rates) and have the water tested for toxins and minerals. Also, find out if the well ever runs dry periodically. It may seem more likely to happen in summer, but can also happen in winter since water tables fluctuate.

    I also lived for a few years in a house that used rain water collected by a cistern. Some summers it would run dry for months (super bummer). It also required cleaning to keep leaves and various aquatic organisms from taking up residency. After I left, the cistern was found to have cracks and that became costly for the owners. Finally, if the house does not have a well and is supplied by rain water cisterns, it will be very difficult to sell in the future as most banks will refuse to offer loans on a property with this setup.

    It can work, but be careful and get all the details before you forge ahead.

    4 agree
  7. Lots of people where I live have their own septics and cisterns. The septics are pretty much all the same idea – tank, a leachfield of sorts, get the tank pumped every other year or so, eventually the leachfield might become saturated and may need to be replaced. Over all, they pretty much take care of themselves with normal use. Don't forget to schedule the pumping though! Usually the septic is so "out of sight, out of mind" that it's easy to forget it… Until it's "in sight". :)

    The cisterns take a little more attention, but only because you need to watch the water level. Cisterns can take any shape and form, be above ground or underground, inside or outside and be made from many different materials (steel, plastic, fiberglass and probably lots more that I'm unaware of). The main thing is to know where it is and how to check the water level. This can be done with a dipstick or even by sight if it's above ground and plastic. Most tanks should last a long, long time, but I would recommend finding out what your tank is made of. Steel tanks, for instance, can last for over 20 years in certain ground conditions and also last barely 8 years in other ground conditions before they rust out. And again, you'll want to keep an eye on things before it becomes a huge problem.

    Personally, I have no issue with the way my cistern works. It's a plastic above ground tank in my crawl space so I can just duck my head down and take a look to see if I need to haul more water. I don't know how other parts of the country fill the cisterns, but here there are delivery services (about $0.10 per gallon) or you can haul it yourself with a smaller tank (about $0.015 per gallon) and off load it into the bigger tank at home. I really like having the tank accessible, purely because if the apocalypse comes, I have 1000+ gallons of water at my fingertips!

    Sorry for the whole lecture here, I'm just so excited because the place I work sells and installs these things (ie. this is my life!) and I never thought I'd see it on Offbeat Home! Good luck with it all and you'll be surprised at how easy it is to adapt. It's kind of a good "self-reliance" feeling!

    6 agree
  8. I grew up with a well and septic tank in the "sort of country" (not really rural, but not suburban, kind of in the boonies) and my family never had a problem. I think a cistern is different – some are attached to wells, some aren't, and I'm not sure which you have. I probably would not want a place that required water delivery – considering how annoying it was in my childhood to wait for gas deliveries when we had heat through an off-grid furnace (which broke irreparably, and we used a wood burning furnace for years before natural gas lines were run down our road. They didn't want to spend the money on a new tank system and apparently once installed it could not be easily converted). But one attached to a well would be fine as long as you get an expert to check all the important details (mentioned nicely above).

    Septic has never been a problem. I don't remember my parents ever pumping it, but I am sure they did.

    And yes, in any situation in which one might lose power, we had to fill our bathtub with water to get through the outage and dump a bleach solution in the toilets to stretch out how often they needed bucket flushing to get through it.

    0 agree
  9. I was raised on a farm with a well, a cistern and a septic tank. My parents just in the last year were able to get on the waterline after 44 years of being off the grid and are extremely happy to be back on-the-grid. Why you ask? Well, my dad had to maintain a pumping system from the well to the cistern and then another pump that sucked the water from the cistern into the house. So if one thing went wrong with one pump you were out of luck. Thankfully my father was mechanically inclined and could fix or replace the pump (very expensive to do BTW).

    The biggest downside of the pumping situation was if you lost electricity you learned how to fish water out of the cistern with a rope and a bucket. Once we lost electricity for two weeks due to an ice storm and we learned quickly how to haul water from town from friends and family.

    The one thing is that it did teach us how to think outside of the box and to respect how much effort it takes to do things. So if you want to be self-reliant that's great, but if I were to choose again which I'd rather I'd not choose it.

    Also on the septic – if it was put in right you shouldn't have many issues as long as the system is functioning properly. I think in the 40 years my parents only had to call for pumping once so all in all not too bad!

    0 agree
  10. My parents have never (as far as I know!!) needed their septic tank pumped, and they've lived in the same spot for 10 years or so. Rid-X! It's packed with bacteria and enzymes that help break down the stuff in the tank. Now I'm no expert on the environmental impact of this stuff, but a little research should turn up more info. You flush down a box monthly and it sets to work.
    My parents don't flush down/rinse out much toilet paper, no tampons, no grease, no food particles. They don't flush every time they #1, but always for #2 and it's worked magic for them.

    0 agree
    • Be sure to check all your soaps and cleaning products for septic friendliness. The bacteria that break down the waste are your friends. If they work properly you shouldn't have to pump your (properly sized for your household) tank more than once every 5-7 years.
      Bleach down the drain or in the wash needs to be followed by Rid-X after a few days. Anything with anti-microbial action (Dial? Clorox?) will kill your bug buddies!
      It's better if you can route gray water like the washing machine out onto your landscaping anyway. My mom did, and she had the tallest trees in town due to the phosphates in the old style detergents.

      2 agree
  11. You all are amazing! I love all the insight, it's really helpful.

    2 agree
  12. You could take the toilet totally out of the equation by getting a composting toilet, then you would get through less water and the cistern would need less refilling. I don't know what kind of places do them in the US but here is a website with some examples, and shows a bit about how they work. I know it is a bit unusual for people, but still worth looking into and also bonus environmental friendliness if that is your bag, baby.
    http://kernowrat.co.uk/page45.html

    1 agrees
    • I'm a little late to the party here, but if you're into going the composting route, you might also want to check out this do-it-yourself option: http://humanurehandbook.com/contents.html. I haven't yet settled down enough in a place where I can try it myself, but I find Joseph Jenkins' arguments for composting (and his lack of enthusiasm for commercial composting toilets) to be intriguing and convincing, and the videos on his site of what they've done in Haiti actually made me cry with happiness. If nothing else, you can download the book for free chapter-by-chapter for some apropos bathroom reading.

      1 agrees
  13. Is this a rainwater cistern?

    Our house has a septic and a rainwater cistern- I.E. our water comes off the roof, is collected in our gutters, and then flows into the buried 1200 gallon cistern tank. We have a standard pumping system which is fairly easy to maintain. It needs to be flushed out if you ever empty the cistern (we have only done this once, by accident- toilet left running emptied it out, and we got some debris in the pump- totally cheap to get someone to purge it)

    Figure out how many gallons of water you typically use in a week, (keep a tally by the toilet for a week, and clock how many minutes the shower is on for a week) and look at the capacity of the cistern, along with the amount of water you can expect (if you know the general size of the roof, you can look up the average rainfall in that city, and find the formula online to calculate the number of gallons that you could get off your roof in a year. Divide accordingly, and remember that some months will be drier than others.

    To keep our water in good condition, we have two layers of external filtering. One is a grate across the down-pipe of the gutters, and another fine screen on the in-take into the house. This requires no maintenance besides making sure the grate is in place so lots of leaves aren't going into the cistern. We clean our gutters out after all the leaves are off the trees to make sure snow melt can get through the gutters in the winter to refill the cistern.

    As far as the septic system goes, that's what I grew up with. Ask the previous owners how frequently they had theirs pumped. Ours was put in in 1992 and has not needed pumping yet. A single older woman lived here for many years, though, and didn't use it to capacity. If you get this house, make sure you know where the manhole to the septic is. Sometimes they are buried, and you want them marked. It can take a LONG time to find, digging blind with a shovel to find the cover. My parents had this problem 20ish years ago.

    Cisterns and septics are no big deal- definitely do-able, and rainwater catchment cisterns are really super because the water is soft, and you're using water that is falling on your house already. Simple.

    6 agree
  14. I've never dealt with a cistern, but my last house was lakeside and not hooked up to city water… it's water was pumped directly from the lake. For waste water disposal, I had a septic tank.

    My husband and I lived there for 5 years and other than having to purchase bottled water for cooking/consumption (the lake we lived on had a lot of boat traffic – neither of us wanted to consume boat fuel residue) there were rarely problems.

    Sure, a power outage would knock out our ability to use the toilet or shower (the pump was electric) but our neighbors were well-to-do and also reliant on the pump system… most power outages weren't very long term. I never did have to deal with the septic tank either. Then again, my husband and I worked to reduce our waste water output.

    We both miss that little cottage and would have happily rented it for longer… but the mold, the distance from town (we try to use public transportation as much as we can) and the lack of good bus service to that area caused us to look into moving closer to the city center.

    If you live in a rainy area, you can install rain barrels and whatnot to augment your cistern. My mother (who is actually on the city water grid) installed rain barrels to water her garden during the summer. She loves it! You can often get discounts on rain barrels if you're a homeowner too.

    Good luck! :D

    1 agrees
  15. I have a cistern and am very happy with it. It collects rainwater from the eavestroughs. Then a pump brings it up into the house for showers, laundry, etc. The "soft" water is wonderful. Our drinking water goes through a series of 4 filters(Reverse Osmosis System) and is very good to taste. We get extra water in the cellar during the snow melt or large rains and have a pump set up to pump the excess outside. A "green" way to use water resources. Some new houses are being built with cisterns, so it's economical.

    2 agree
  16. We just moved into a house with a cistern water tank (9000 G) and a septic field. I have to warn anyone who moves from a house on city water to one with a cistern, you are in for a huge shock. No more nice long showers, and flushing toilets takes a few times. The tank that pumps ours is only 8 gallons and each time a toilet is flushed we have to wait for it to refill. As for washing, no more dishwasher and we're looking for a HE washing machine.

    To have a truck refill the tank when there is no rain costs us $450.00, a hefty sum.

    It's a constant maintenance thing here, changing filters, adapting to low flow showers and hand washing dishes. We have teenagers and they are totally miffed as to the shower/toilet situation. So before you decide that cisterns are this happy hippie ideal, take into consideration that it's going to be a lot to get used to.

    Cisterns are only great for rural areas, not populated. Dealing with usage causes headaches. There's so much to learn and so little patience to deal with.

    2 agree
    • It sounds to me like you have a poor setup and not a problem with the cistern. There are some really good low flow shower heads out there that you would never even know they where low flow. Same thing goes for toilets, some of the old ones used huge amounts of drinkable water to flush, but there are some now a days that sip water instead, and if it takes numerous flushes it sounds like a poor toilet design. You could always change the size of the pressure tank if that is what you have, but it also sounds like your system is running with really low pressure. High efficiency washing machines are great, and due to being front loading do a better job cleaning your clothes while being gentler on them. For the most part washing dishes in a dishwasher actually uses less water than hand washing, believe it or not. Not much I can say about miffed teenagers though. lol

      0 agree
  17. Another concern about cisterns and well is parasites/cyanobacteria and the quality of water. Filters are not always enough to filter microbes and some give the water a bad taste. I've been applying a photo-catalytic nanocoating on the interior of cisterns and holding tanks as part of the water sanitation process. The nanocoating is a 100% green and safe for people and planet and works with either outdoor or indoor light. UV in light rays react with the coating and kill bacteria, mold/mildew, and little parasites that occur in the tank the same way hydrogen peroxide does. It has been lab tested and approved for use in food preparation under CFR 21. It's also easy apply as long as you can gain access to the interior of the tank to spray it. It works with clear/translucent tanks best. reply to my comment for more info.

    1 agrees
  18. I have an old koi pond (cement with cracking plaster) that must have a small leak somewhere because every time I fill it, the water level slowly drops. I am thinking if turning it into a cistern to irrigate my landscaping. Does it need to be water tight if its just for landscaping, not for the house? What other things do I need to consider before doing this?

    0 agree

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.

Biz owners & wedding bloggers

Please just use your real name in your comment, not your business name or blog title. Our comments are not the place to pimp your website. If you want to promote your stuff on Offbeat Bride, join us as an advertiser instead.