Water and Septic Systems Can Be Tricky in a Little House

Part I – Deciding on a Water System that Best Suits Your Needs

By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

Water systems and sewage disposal can be a tricky thing when you are building a tiny house in the country.

This has been an issue for us since we built our Little House over six years ago. First, we had to decide on the water system. During construction, we were running out of funds, so we first had a huge tank system and water was trucked in. That was expensive at $140 a load, (I’m not sure of the tank size, but it was huge). However, when we didn’t live here full time, it worked. I think we typically had to buy 2-4 tanks per year.

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Photo Credit Kevin Pieper (Mother Earth News)

After we moved here full time, it just wasn’t economical. Even with trying to conserve water, we went through 1 tank every 2-4 weeks.

We decided to go for it and have a well dug. We estimated the cost, but wells are tricky. The person ¼ mile down the road might have lucked out and hit clean water at a shallow depth, but of course, that wasn’t our experience.

For three days, they kept digging and hitting only mud caves. They finally found water when we were $5,000 over budget. When it started spewing and they told me they had finally hit a source that would eventually run clear, I started yelling as if we had just struck gold!

Since our “clear” water still comes out muddy and is filtered through a small filtration system we can afford, we opt not to drink it, which causes more issues with plastics, etc.
The thing is, when you’re building in the country, you have limited choices for water.

Two other options include:

  • Rainwater system that catches the rain. The upside is that if you live in a wet area, this can work and it is free. The downsides are drought and questionable cleanliness for drinking water.
  • If you’re building a small house on someone else’s property, hooking up to their system.

Other things to take into account when choosing a water system is to research if your jurisdiction has codes for water systems. For example, when we built our Little House, all that was required was that we have running water, they didn’t care where we drew it. Now, it seems, they require a well to be dug.

We are going to have the county test our water, and if it doesn’t come back too contaminated, I would also like to find an affordable filtration system that will allow us to shed the plastic bottles and drink the water from the well.

We would like to hear your experiences with outfitting your tiny house – or country home – with water and any experience you have with affordable filtration systems that would allow us to drink the well water from our tap.

On, December 4, I’ll write a post on waste disposal in a tiny house.

Kerri’s Little House in the Big Woods is featured in the December/January issue of Mother Earth News starting on page 68. She blogs about life in 480-square feet at www.livinglargeinourlittlehouse.com

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ej - November 27, 2009 Reply

We have a creek, other neighbors have springs, seeps, or drilled wells.
Everyone I know who shares water systems regrets it. Water (especially during dry periods) is such a vital thing it quickly becomes a source of contention and worry.

Arlos - November 27, 2009 Reply

i’ll start by adding, I’m long overdue writing about plumbing, water and waste for small homes as a professional for Kent’s blog site
One of the big mistakes is to fall in love with a location without understanding basic needs like water and onsite waste treatment. Many tiny homes fall under the radar of building inspectors and jurisdictions and for good reason. Those of us on the front edge of smaller is better tend to exclude what sometimes is a daunting task of approval through building departments. Non the less, following code which was written to protect health and promote safety, just makes good common sense..

Arlos - November 27, 2009 Reply

Part 2. Any rural water source in the US today is going to have a set of challenges not faced 50 years ago. Cost is the first. In my area of northern central coastal California wells can range from $35 a ft+ and that does not mean water. Surface water including creeks, spring boxes and lake have a host of environmental issues even the EPA make clear. I my area we have ph from 5.9 to nearly 9, iron from none to over 50 ppm, HS2, manganese, salt water intrusion, high nitrates sometimes at 200 ppm in rural farm lands, contaminated streams and creeks from upstream neighbors failed septic systems and a growing concern of pharm runoff.

Arlos - November 27, 2009 Reply

Part 3; Water Needs
If you are living with a one bath and kitchen that means each plumbing fixture has a value for both required flow and disposal. A kitchen sink equals 2 fixture units or 2 cubic ft per minute drain capacity which gets into plumbing design for an article later. a toilet or water closet can be 4-6 units, a lav sink 1.5 units and a shower 2-4 units. the total design flow for this would be 2.75 GPM for the shower, 1.25 for the lave sink, 1.29 gpf (toilet) and 2.25 for the kitchen sink. That is a total requirement for design of over 12 gallons per minute capacity of flow. For each person, a minimum according to the american water works Association is a daily 120 pallon. In my area actual use is an average of 70 gallon. in my house it is 22 gallons per person. Depending on fixtures and personal habits. flow and volume, vary. this does need to be on paper before ever considering building and occupancy especially when 6 friends show up to share a meal in your 120 sq ft palace.

Arlos - November 27, 2009 Reply

Part 4; Waste Treatment
Onsite waste treatment and disposal is changing so fast. In California, many areas require not passive septic systems but aerobic digesters to reduce nitrates and biological oxygen demand. Here a distance of 175″ must separate septic from the well of house. However the septic tank can be as close as 5′ from the dwelling. Caution in off the grid systems must be taken as to not allow waste runoffs into a watershed, stream, creek or lake. large algae blooms are evidence of failed septic systems many times. A pre manufactured septic or aerobic is advisable and these add to the cost of a fixed loaction tiny house.

Matt - November 27, 2009 Reply

$140 per Tank
2-4 weeks usage per week

Average 3 weeks per tank
52 weeks/3 weeks = 17.3 Tanks x $140 = $2426

$5000 OVER budget
$2426 x 2 years of water haul= $4852

I’m not sure of your actual Budget but this scenario just helps reinforce that people need to consider cost-effectiveness before jumping in.

    Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell - November 29, 2009 Reply

    You’re right, Matt, everyone needs to consider the true cost.
    Wells are tough to estimate because you never know just where the water will be. Our neighbors found water at a very shallow depth so we had a range. I say $5,000 over budget, because it was $5,000 over the lowest end of what we expected. I guess I could just as easily say we were $5,000 under because it didn’t hit the ceiling of the worst case. The good news is that we got rid of that ugly tank in our yard and we will never (hopefully) have to spend another dime on water again. As well, that huge diesel truck carrying water is expending more energy and pollution coming way out here.

      Get Real - July 19, 2014 Reply

      Free water is like free puppies, IOW, TANSTAAFL. You pay to drill the well, you pay for a pump. Then it’s free until your well pump breaks, and $5,000-8,000 later, you have water again. Or unless your water flow diminishes, and you have to drill down several hundred more feet until you hit another water table. Then there’s the necessary water maintenance treatment to kill off parasites. For me, “free” water cost about $600/year over a 10 year time span.

Alice - November 27, 2009 Reply

In my area there is community piped water but not septic. In order to hook into the water you need to have an individual septic sytem which can be quite pricey (around $25,000 for my thickly treed steep hillside). Since I’m only there part time I have a “bucket and chuck it” system using 5L camping water jugs and grey water disposal pit as well as a sawdust composting toilet. The neighbours let me get water from their place but I don’t like to build up obligations. Hopefully by the time I’m able to full time it I’ll be able to afford the septic system. Unfortunately it doesn’t make any difference if you don’t intend to use flush toilets or not, you still need to build as though one was being installed. If you’re going to use rainwater collection systems make sure you don’t use asphalt shingles, they can contaminate the water. The price of my lot was considerably cheaper than most others, but if you add the cost of the septic system it ends up being about the same. The only difference being that it gave me a chance to delay that portion of the expenses and still have a place to go in the meantime.

Marie Johnson - November 28, 2009 Reply

I do not have a tiny house yet. We are looking at land at the moment. I just joined this blog. I am so glad I did. You have given me something to think about when we are comparing land prices. We will need to take into account how we will get a reliable source or water. We plan on using grey water, a composting toilet and a rain catchment system. But we live in the Southwest and the rain is as fickle as a pickle. So even if a property sounds like a steal it may not be if there is no water. Thanks for reminding me.

Mo Skba - November 28, 2009 Reply

Great advice so far. Arlos is spot on.

These days it is easier than ever to get information. Many states have Well reports/logs posted online that can be searched by location, number, owner…

The USDA has an excellent soil map that not only describes area soils and rates their suitability for things like septic, roads, basements, agriculture, flooding…

Using these sources will help you determine if that “deal” you are getting is really a good one.

Arlos - November 28, 2009 Reply

Grey water comprises about 35% of the total water generated by an average household and is ideal for gardening. With a little more effort it can be cleaned enough for recharging a toilet even further reducing potable water consumption.
We are going to try and exhibit at next years West Coast Green in San Francisco with our combined aerobic digester/ methane digester and collection system/ algea micro farm (to assist cleaning waste water and sequester CO2 from gas burning appliances) before then I hope we can complete a transportable version of this for above ground installations that is ideal for the small house community.
Bigger is not sustainable! After nearly 40 years in the building trades I’ve seen the failure of the entire system during several recessions that only forces people to work harder to pay down debt that they never should have been forced to. This is not how we were meant to live but I digress here. Learn to live simply!!!

Susan McReynolds - November 28, 2009 Reply

At our tiny place we have the extra concern of being in a natural bio-aquifer…we don’t want to discharge any pollutants into the surroundings, but the outhouse hole probably does exactly that every spring thaw. I have heard about poo composter systems but they require kilowatts which we don’t have…there is obviously plenty of water for us to tap into but we want to do so responsibly. We are considering a well but it will be a big expense…I agree consider your water source/septic when you buy your land.

    Arlos - November 28, 2009 Reply

    Dry composting toilets like Sun Mar are great. The optional power vent requires such low energy consumption that a small solar panel and an inverter with a computer back up battery would most likely be all you need.

      Susan McReynolds - December 5, 2009 Reply

      Thanks Arlo! You are a wikipedia of Tiny House living!

Pete - November 28, 2009 Reply

My experience 19 years ago: Had a property in the country, near Lake Oroville, Ca. We had an artesian spring, filling a below ground tank, with a pump, that supplied house water. We had a 5000 gallon above ground tank, that filled from “Irrigation Ditch” water that was not potable, or necessarily reliable. So we drilled a well…which only put out 2.5 gallons per minute. Hardly enough to pump to the house. But it was enough to install a submersible, solar pump arrangement, which could pump all day long into the big tank. Eventually, after one no-rainfall year, the ditch ran dry, and we were happy that our “half-price” well was operational. Just before moving to the city, our septic-tank erupted and we had to replace the dang thing!

Good luck in your endeavors

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell - November 29, 2009 Reply

Thank you, everyone, for chiming in. It’s these kind of discussions that might help the vast array of readers on Kent’s blog!

Michelle - October 7, 2010 Reply

The house I grew up in wasn’t a tiny house, but being in the country it still had to contend with no city water hook-ups available. My parents opted to build two rather large underground cement cisterns. These held a few thousand gallons of water which could be collected as run off rain water (which was filtered through a system in the house) or could be filled by water truck (our area has a few companies that haul large water tanks to fill cisterns and the like). When we had to use the water trucks, our fill up generally was only a couple hundred dollars and we took quite a while to go through the water (a dry summer might have taken 1-2 fill ups, but seldom more, and this was for a family of four with livestock and a farm to run). The initial cost of the cisterns and filtration are unknown to me at the moment, but that lasted us well. In the 20 some years we lived in that house we only had to reseal the cisterns once. And even if we didn’t have electricity (country living means plenty of power failures that can last days) we were able to draw water from the cistern via bucket through the man holes we placed to access them. A simple overflow spout also helped reduce problems by diverting excess water down the hill.

We had a septic system that needed very little maintenance back in the day, until city water and sewer can into the area.

Eventually, I hope to build my own small family home and return to the farm so to speak. I miss farm life more every year.

Good luck with your water situation. I hope your well water works out.

Hope Henry - November 9, 2010 Reply

This might be posted too late to be of any help, but here is a link for an inexpensive water filter…they make a larger version. I saw a program on TV, showing that filters like these are being used in disaster areas where well-drilling is not a viable option.

http://tinyhouseblog.com/construction-articles/portable-lifesaver-water-filter/

Phil Taccetta - December 26, 2011 Reply

Our off grid house south of Santa Fe, NM has a larger catchment area – about 1800 sq'( house is 1200 sq’) We receive less than 10″ annual rainfall average – maybe 7.5″ this year. (average 800 gallons/ 1″ ) We have 3 plastic cisterns totaling 5,000 gallons. We use a particle filter and a charcoal filter. This water is for household use. We buy filtered water in town for drinking. Our shower has a “pull chain” valve. We run water into a bucket until it’s hot, take a 3 gallon shower,and use the saved water for pets and plants. Dishes get washed once a day. We use a Staber washing machine – very efficient. Total usage about 170 gallons a week. Conservation works.

Phil Taccetta - December 26, 2011 Reply

I forgot to mention,we use a urine diverting toilet.
The buckets contents are composted outside.

Engineer Guy - December 26, 2011 Reply

Great, ‘been there’ advice from the Pros above. I laid out and designed our Solar Home, and jumped through all the hoops mentioned above. I chose to over-size Waste Plumbing some, and other details, because I could!

Prior to this Project, I metered Water Usage off a Cistern I put in and automated, fed from a slow, Rocky Mountain Well. 2 of us did fine on exactly 50 Gallons/day. The Shower Head was 0.75 GPM from a Well Pressure Tank set to 30 PSI ON; 50 PSI OFF. Inherited Appliances were nothing special or Low Flow. We used the Dishwasher only when completely full, and washed Clothes with only full Loads. We practiced Conservation w/o ‘suffering’.

Case-in-point, our Hard Rock Well was 410′ @ 50 Gallons/day. A Neighbor inherited a 75′ Well ~150′ away at >10 GPM. But, it’s in an Aspen Grove; a signal of near-surface Water.

For our latest House, I, too, used free, local Gov’t Info on local Soils. The local Well Driller was invaluable as a walking ‘Well Log’ of knowledge re: Well flow and likely depth. He Witched it AND drilled it. 7 GPM @ 72′ that we throttled back with a Fitting to 5 GPM to avoid Well emptying. We also could have run a pricey Water District Line from ~1 Mile away, but wanted to skip Water/Sewer Bills forever.

Do that Research for Water availability and Septic Perc performance! Along with Road Access and Mud, etc., take ‘The Long View’ on actual Land Ownership Cost.

Esther - August 21, 2012 Reply

We’re planning our off-grid tiny house now, and are a little concerned about greywater disposal. We are going to be parking in a state that considers waste water from your kitchen sink black water. Does anyone have experience with this? We’re getting a composting toilet, so we’re trying to avoid having any septic system. Hoping to make the greywater a French drain or leach field….

Tanway Gengris - December 5, 2012 Reply

When camping the police asked me about sanitation…can one say a tank like in a RV. I was using a 35 gallon tank which could then be pumped into a toilet. Small homes…big hearts…arts.

Tanway Gengris - December 5, 2012 Reply

A mini water tower would be cute.

Tanway Gengris - December 5, 2012 Reply

Some of these homes will be on the road, attached to a house, or near perfect natural facilities, or in a Walmart parking lot. Some of these homes should never be full-time, probably. I just envisioned a yurt with a sail crossing Tibet with a toilet hole. Ah, sweety daydreaming cheap whimsey.

Fritz schantz - October 23, 2014 Reply

I’ve been watching “Tiny House Nation” on FYI, network. Been wondering about in and out water – the shows never really cover that part. Has anyone considered buying a condemned house that has a nice lot, working well or public water, and public sewage or septic? Seems like the path of least unknowns, with the exception of local code restrictions and possibly HOA policies on building sizes, etc. Not all tiny houses have to be out in the country – they could be a part of urban renewal as well.

Dawn - January 14, 2015 Reply

Fritz, I was wondering the same thing. It seems like a great option if you can buy something that could be good for the local community and provide the tiny home owner with established hook ups.

I’m sure I’m overlooking something, but hopefully someone will chime in and educate me.

Off Grid Living: The Ultimate List of Off Grid Resources - July 16, 2016 Reply

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