Building a simple off grid system in areas that don’t experience severe and long winters is simple. You don’t have to worry about frosted up pipes or frozen tank water. In this case, you can leave all your tanks above the ground and run your pipes on the surface or dug into a very shallow trench.
Creating a winter capable off grid supply is more challenging. You have to employ extra techniques designed to keep the water flowing at all times.
How Cold Does it Have to Be for Pipes to Freeze?
Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. So technically, any water in pipes will freeze up once the temperature sinks that low.
Since most pipes aren’t out in the open, they need something lower than this for the water to actually freeze. Experience has shown that pipes will definitely freeze up if the temperatures drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Your goal, therefore, should be keeping the pipes or any water in storage from hitting these lows if you want your water to keep running.
You can accomplish this goal by:
- Burying pipes and tanks below the ground
- Insulating your pipes and tanks
- Heating up the pipes
- Creating a system that evacuates your pipes
- Keeping a reservoir tank in a heat controlled environment
Burying Your Water System Underground
This is the cheapest and simplest way to insulate your water supply from the cold. Ideally, you should burry your external plumbing and tanks below the frost line just to be safe.
The Department of the Environment thinks that around two feet will be sufficient to keep the pipe insulated from the cold in areas that don’t experience very severe winters.
Going deeper will give you peace of mind as the more the soil you get above your plumbing and tanks the better insulated they will be from the cold.
If you have any section of plumbing that needs to rise up, perhaps at the inlet to the underground tank or at the point where the tank enters the house, ensure that these pipes are either insulated or in a sheltered and heated space.
Insulating Pipes and Tanks
This is applicable to pipes or tanks that can’t go underground but still need protection. If they can’t be situated in heated rooms, invest in some isolative material and wrap it around them.
The insulation will cost you some money and it might not be as efficient as a deep trench. Keeping the water flowing will ensure that you get to use stored water long before it loses enough temperature to freeze up.
Some pipes and tanks that could benefit from insulation include:
- Pipes running along the outside walls of the house
- Pipes or tanks in the attic
- Pipes running in unheated shacks or sheds
- Pipes in an unheated basement
Buying insulation for your plumbing can be expensive. If possible, design your system such that most of the outside plumbing is underground and enters your house through the basement.
If you don’t have a basement, you will have no option but to insulate.
Heating Up the Pipes
If the winters easily go below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, you might consider heating up your exposed pipes to keep the water liquid when needed.
You can attach a secondary pipe that runs warm water on demand and is evacuated when you are no longer heating.
This procedure might work for people who get their water from lakes or ponds and cannot burry a section of their pipe deep enough.
Evacuating the Pipes
Your pipes won’t freeze up if they don’t have any water in them. A system that uses a couple of valves and pressurized air to blow water out of each pipe before winter shut down is a good way to accomplish this.
The alternative in a gravity fed system is letting all the water flow until the taps run dry. This could leave the pipe open for subsequent pumping and could be cheaper especially if you have no way to keep the pipes heated.
Keeping a Reservoir Tank in a Temperature Controlled Place
Keeping a tank indoors or in a heated shack is one way to avoiding frozen up reservoir tanks. This will only work for small temporary setups unless you have a lot of space.
An attic tank isn’t unheard of and it is easy to keep your water liquid in an attic since it will get some heat from the house below and barely drops below freezing point.
Nonetheless, nothing can beat the convenience of having an underground storage tank especially if you don’t have access to a deep lake or pond that doesn’t freeze through in winter.
Designing a Winter Proof System Can Be Costly
A true winter proof system might be more involving and costlier than you think. However, you will have little to no trouble if you take the time to burry and insulate your pipes.
However, some tiny homes or RVs don’t have the luxury of investing in elaborate winterized system. So how do you get running water in this case?
Getting Running Water in Winter the Cheap Way
Tiny homes, RVs and other small cabins that can’t install any of the above insulating techniques can still get running water on a budget. This, however, involves more work.
Everything Revolves around an Indoors Tank and Filtration System
You will need an indoors reservoir and a way to fit your entire water purification system indoors on in a heated sheltered place. This is simple since most RVs, Tiny homes on wheels and even cabin designs have this in mind.
With that out of the way, you can start looking for ways to bring in fresh water and feed your filtration system on demand. You can accomplish this by:
Running a Temporary Line to the Water Source
If you have access to a lake or a river that still has liquid water in winter, you can use a temporary pump and some hose pipes to feed your indoors tank once the levels dip low.
After you are done, you can empty the hosepipes and bring them indoors to protect them from the cold. In this way, you won’t have to worry about the low temperatures since the pipes will only be out for a short while and the water in them will be flowing all along giving it no time to freeze.
You can also choose good day without storms to do the refill just for your own comfort’s sake.
Bringing in the Water in Jugs or Containers
If you don’t have a pump, you can still fetch water from the source with jugs and manually fill up your indoors tank. This is a bit tiresome and time consuming but should be doable if you designed your water storage with this solution in mind.
You could also draw your water from a municipal outlet that isn’t connected to your house or have a water bowser deliver the water to your location.
Melting snow or ice is perhaps the easiest and most convenient way to get water in winter. After all, snow is just unpurified frozen water.
You can get a boiler system that divers some heat from your wood stove or any heating method, directs it to a rudimentary heat exchanger or large metal container and melts any snow you have there.
- Gather snow from your roof as it tends to be cleaner than ground snow
- Fresh snow can be cleaner
- Icicles are fair game
- The water must be purified before consumption, be sure to run it through a filtration system
- Avoid yellow snow or anything with slight coloration
- You can use the still warm water on a rudimentary gravity fed shower set up as long as you take your shower immediately
Since you don’t have to boil the water (unless that is your purification option,) look for a system that has an outlet at the bottom that lets any water that forms to flow out before it boils. This will reduce the amount of heat you need to get that precious liquid water.
Pro tip: A bucket of snow next to a wooden stove or just left in the house can melt from the ambient temperature in a couple of minutes or hours
Does Well Water Freeze in Winter?
Technically, wells water will not freeze up in winter. The water is way below the frost line and will stay liquid all year long.
However, the plumbing to the well, the pump, and even the pressure tank will freeze up and lead to drops in water pressure or no water at all if they are exposed to the elements.
If you use a submersible well pump, all you have to worry about is insulating the pipes leading from the well into your house. You can accomplish this by burying the pipes below the frost line and insulating the well head by building a thermally controlled shack around or stacking up some insulation over it.
If you use a jet pump, you can avoid the cold by locating it in your house. An easy way to avoid all this trouble is by building a well house. Well houses were common even in old manually dug wells and will serve you will on your modern narrow well.
A well-insulated shack might not even need a lot of heating to keep it warm enough for the water to stay flowing.
Keeping the water flowing in winter might be a hassle but it is still doable. Don’t wait until it is too late before finding the solution that works best for you. If you know you will experience some snow and frost, start by designing a freeze-proof system and build in backups so that you still have water even if your primary system fails on you.
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