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By Gail Damerow – Water storage tanks can be a practical solution if your fountain does not fill quickly enough for normal household use. But how do you get a building permit if the flow is less than local regulations require? A large water tank or cistern in which the water collects as soon as it is available when needed. Our household water comes from a well that does not draw enough water from start to finish for a single load of laundry. The problem is not too little water. The well produces approximately 720 gallons every 24 hours. That’s more than enough to satisfy our 180 gallon household average.
By installing a 1,500-gallon storage tank, we can draw water from the well around the clock, consuming as much water as we need during the day and making up for the deficit at night while we sleep. We also have enough water to survive most water emergencies. Additional premiums are sufficient to satisfy the building inspector and qualify for reduced fire insurance.
While the 1,500 gallons usually last for about a week for our two-person household, we were able to extend it to almost a month if necessary. A bigger household Homestead today would have a higher water requirement and would have to invest in some larger water storage tanks. The attached table “Estimation of water consumption” provides an initial overview of how much water your households use every day.
After deciding that we needed a cistern, the next decision was what type of water storage tanks should be installed. Our former place was equipped with an above-ground wooden cistern that had to be rid of frogs, insects, dead rodents, rotting leaves and algae forever. It was also clearly visible from the front door and took up space for which we could find a better use.
This time we wanted a sealed underground tank. We were looking for something economical, durable and tight. Plastic is a potential health risk. Steel and fiberglass tanks are durable and leakproof, but expensive. Wooden cisterns are cheap but tend to leak and eventually rot. Concrete is durable, dense, not rot or rusty and relatively inexpensive.
In some areas you can buy a finished concrete cistern. Another option is to construct your own. An online search for “How to Build a Concrete Water Tank” provides multiple locations with step-by-step, illustrated instructions. We wanted something that would work quickly, so we opted for a single-chamber concrete septic tank that required only minor changes to make it a water storage tank.
We hired a backhoe to dig a hole near our well that is deep enough to put the tank under 18 inches of earth, which is far below the frost line in our area. At this depth, the water does not freeze in winter and remains cool and algae-free throughout the summer. Further north, the tank may need to be deeper to get below the frost line, and additional precautions would be required to protect the pipes from freezing.
|Estimation of water consumption|
|Average per person||50-100 / day|
|dishwasher||20 / charge|
|Wash dishes by hand||2-4 / load|
|Sink||2-4 / use|
|sink||1-2 / use|
|Shower or bath||40 / use|
|Shower, low flow shower head||25 / use|
|toilet flush||3 / use|
|Toilet flush, low flow||1.5 / use|
|Laundry, topload||40 / charge|
|Laundry, front loader||20 / charge|
|Laundry, hand tub||12-15 / charge|
|Milk the cow||25-30 / day|
|Cow, dry||10-15 / day|
|pig||3-5 / day|
|sow, pregnant||6 / day|
|Sow with litter||8 / day|
|Sheep or goat||2-3 / day|
|horse||5-10 / day|
|Laying hens, 1 dozen||1.5 / day|
|Turkeys, 1 dozen||2.5 / day|
Make changes to water storage tanks
We were lucky enough to make all the necessary changes and fill the tank in dry weather. I say “luck” because we then installed a second tank in our barn and before it was filled with water and our backs with earth, heavy rains floated the tank out of the ground in a muddy sea. Returning the contractor and returning the tank cost almost as much as the initial installation.
Not all water storage tanks are designed in the same way, so the necessary changes may vary, but the basic concept remains the same. The tank we used had five openings. Since we only needed three for our purpose, we sealed the two openings that were not required with precast concrete. Of the remaining openings, two were at the ends of the tank top. One would become our pipe hunt, the other would take a spare hand pump. The third opening in the middle of the top was a large manhole – with a heavy concrete cover – through which we access the tank for regular inspection.
Since the manhole would be under 18 inches of floor to improve access and also prevent surface water from seeping in, we encircled the original manhole with a concrete collar that extends four inches above the slope. To keep soil, insects and wildlife away from this extension, we made a second concrete cover. Both covers are heavy enough to be childproof and require a winch to lift.
An opening at one end of the tank houses the three required water pipes. One is the pipe that conveys water from the well to the cistern. The second pipe transports water from the cistern to the pressure tank in the house. A third pipe serves as a combination of overflow and ventilation – a precaution against excessive water or air pressure in the tank. The overflow drains excess water into a French drain (essentially a gravel bed) and has a T-extension as a vent. The vent ends in an upside-down U to keep rainwater out, which is covered with a fine mesh strainer to prevent living things from crawling into the pipe.
In order to accommodate these pipes, we used pipe sleeves made of PVC pipe lengths before filling the pipe tracker with concrete. By using sleeves, the size of which differs from the diameter of each pipe, the water pipes can be accommodated without any problems, without any scope for falling or crawling objects at the edges. Around the pipe chase we built a concrete collar extension that protruded beyond the slope and covered it with a concrete cover.
We wanted to add a water level indicator to warn us when the cistern gets low. Electronic sensors are readily available, but we wanted one that would continue to work during a power outage. So we made our own. It consists of a long threaded rod with a toilet tank float screwed into the floor and is positioned in such a way that it can float freely without any interference from pipes or the tank wall. It extends directly into the tank through a ½-inch PVC pipe that was inserted into a wall of the pipe tracking collar when the concrete was poured.
A red measurement flag at the top of the indicator shows from a distance whether the tank is full or whether we are draining water too quickly. When the flag goes low, we look for a leaky toilet or a tap or hose that was accidentally left open. Or maybe it’s just a warning that we did too many laundry loads in a row or that we irrigated the garden too extravagantly. Or the well pump has to be repaired. In this case, we save water until it is repaired. When the water level drops, the threaded rod is long enough to prevent the indicator in the tank from disappearing.
Water storage tanks: how they work
Thanks to our experience in plumbing and electrical installation, we were able to make all the necessary connections ourselves. Otherwise, we would have hired qualified contractors to ensure that the system is properly connected.
Basically, water storage tanks work as follows: A submersible pump conveys water from the well into the buried cistern. The pump is triggered by a timer to pump water every hour for a few minutes. By setting the frequency and length of the switch-on time, we found that pumping keeps the cistern full with a slight overflow every 75 minutes for 2½ minutes.
To prevent the pump from burning out, a Pumptec monitor switches the pump off if a problem occurs in the borehole. The Pumptec diagnostic indicators show where the problem is – whether the well ran out of water before the two and a half minutes, what occasionally occurs during summer dry periods, or whether the pump needs to be repaired. In addition, a Square D HEPD (home electronics protection device), which is attached to the breaker box, protects the pump from voltage peaks during our all too frequent thunderstorms.
A pressure tank in the house supplies our house installations directly. If the pressure vessel needs water, it pumps a jet pump out of the cistern. Although our typical household consumption is 180 gallons per day, the system pumps around 300 gallons every 24 hours. The excess water initially filled the tank. Now we have the luxury of washing more than one load of laundry, watering the garden or even washing our truck in one day.
If the power fails or one of the pumps fails, using water storage tanks means that there is still water in the cistern so we can keep going for the duration. We have installed a hand pump to draw water out of the tank. It is the next best thing to one off-grid water system to make sure we have enough water to get us through an emergency.
As the last step before I filled the tank, I climbed in and cleaned up the accumulated rainwater, the stray leaves, and the workers’ footprints. Then we unloaded several jars of chlorine bleach as a disinfectant, pumped up the tank and let it rest for several days to disinfect and leach out alkali from the concrete. After draining the initial water, we filled the tank with fresh water again, opened the valves and let the pressure tank fill from the cistern. Finally – we had water on request! Self-supporting life does not mean that you have to do without an adequate water supply.
What types of water storage tanks have you used for your low flow wells? Leave a comment and share your stories with us!
Originally published in Countryside January / February 2015 and regularly checked for correctness.
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