Off-Grid Water and the New Pumphouse

As we get ready to build our new home, we are trying to get the infrastructure in place before all the REAL construction starts.  The septic tank is in place, as is our well.  We have an orchard that is already producing fruit, a temporary garden site, a place to live on site while we build the house, and a gravel driveway with lots of gravel.

One of the last things we need to do is build a house to enclose our well head, the water storage tank, a booster pump and a pressure tank.  A lot of people don’t enclose these components, and that’s okay, but we want everything to last as long as possible and we also want a safe, clean water supply. Unfortunately, some of our neighbors are a bit shady, so we don’t want any of our equipment to go missing.  We also won’t have to worry as much about someone or something fouling up our well.

Ray built this water tower a few years ago, and it works very well giving us enough pressure to run a hose, flush a toilet or take a shower. Unfortunately, California Code Book says we can’t use it for our new home. 🙁

Being off-grid, we have had some challenges figuring out a system that is both energy efficient and will also pass California’s over-bearing and unnecessarily strict building codes.  You see, we really wanted to just use gravity fed water drawn from the wonderful water tower that Ray built some years ago. Unfortunately, we are required to install fire suppression water sprinklers in our home, which requires that a certain water pressure be maintained for a certain amount of time, and the water tower cannot supply this requirement.

Not only do we have to pay for this unwanted fire suppression water sprinklers (about $5,000 is the cheapest quote we have received thus far), but we also have to pay for the booster pump, pressure tank and all the necessary extra solar panels, batteries and wiring to support them.  Harrumph!

Why don’t we want the sprinklers?  Because, so far, we have heard of more insurance claims from damage caused by frozen sprinkler pipes (we live in the Sierra Nevada Mountains) bursting in the winter than we have heard of homes saved by the fire sprinklers.  Besides, we are also are required to have a fairly expensive smoke detector system that is integrated within the system.  Also California Code. Also a lot of money.

A lot. 🙁

We decided to build the pump house just like we built our tool shed (which we turned into our bunk house), with a concrete slab upon which two levels of concrete brick will be mortared, then the rest with framework of 2 x 6’s, and finally a metal roof.  Of course, the first thing we had to do was figure out where the building would be built!  We knew we wanted to include the original concrete slab that surrounded the well head.  It took a while to figure the best orientation: where a window would go and which way the ridge of the roof would run.  We also needed to decide how big the building would be.  We didn’t want it to be too big, but at least big enough to be able to move around inside to work on components and turn on/off switches and/or faucets.

Building an Off-Grid Pump House

Figuring out where to put the pump house, and how many concrete blocks will be needed.

We started out framing with 2 x 6’s for the concrete slab, because we wanted about 2 inches of gravel with about a 4 inch thick slab for the floor.  Ray figured out a system of Off-Grid Pressurized Water Systempipes and faucets and such, which were all imbedded into the concrete slab.  Since the slab was going to be fairly large, we decided to pour half of it one day, wait a day for the first pour to set up, then finish the slab with another pour.  So glad we did this because we hand mixed in a wheelbarrow a total of 52 bags of cement!  My back is aching!  As you can see in the picture to the left, we set rebar into the concrete along the edges, that will tie into the concrete block and make the block wall more sturdy.  Pressurized Water Off-Grid

The PVC pipes for two faucets and the household water supply pipe, along with electrical conduit for two wires was buried in the gravel under the concrete.  With everything either being in walls or underground within the building, we are hoping none of them freeze. One of the wires goes from the solar panels to the pump, and the other wire is actually a sensor wire. The sensor wire will be placed inside the water storage tank and trips the solar pump off when the tank is full.  Our pump is a really cool brushless pump, with a direct current motor that we bought from Advanced Power Inc. (previously called Robison Pumps) and runs on solar, batteries or generator.  Perfect for off-grid applications.

Cool, huh?

Once the entire concrete slab was poured, we next needed to set the concrete block.  We used 6 inch wide block (it also comes in 8 inch wide) because we plan to use 2 x 6 lumber for the framing, which would make the whole building look more uniform.  At least that’s the plan!

Setting concrete blocks is not easy work, but Ray had a bit of experience from being a hod boy for his step-father when he was young, and we have completed several projects over the years with concrete block and also clay brick.  Working with the concrete blocks and mortar, I must say, is nasty stuff – especially if you don’t have good gloves!  I ended up losing the skin on some of my fingers when it was all said and done, from the lye in the mortar mix!  Seriously…  I could rob a bank because I don’t have fingerprints right now!   Hahahaha…

Fortunately, we were able to get the two rows done in just a few day’s work.Water Systems Off-The Grid

Once the block walls were up, we had to fill the voids with concrete.  Not only does this make the walls more stable, but the concrete holds in the J-bolts, which will eventually Pressurized Off-Grid Waterhold down the sill plate, which holds down the framework.  In the picture above, you can see a loose J-bolt, and another one imbedded into the concrete.  You have to leave enough of the J-bolt above the concrete so that the sill plate will fit over, and the bolt will have enough room to tighten down.  You can see in the picture to the left how we filled each void in the concrete block with cement.  It’s not pretty, but it works, and the sill plate covers everything anyway, so you will never see this view again!

The best part?  All of the cement/mortar work on the pump house is done!  Wahoo.  Now I can grow my fingerprints back again.  😉

Finally, Ray set the sill plate.  He had to drill holes for all the pipes and bolts that intruded through the board.  The boards were put on right after we had finished filling the concrete voids of the wall, so that the pipes would be held in the correct position as the concrete cured.  With the sill plates attached, we are now ready to start framing the walls.

We were so excited when John at Precision Pump and his two apprentices placed the rest of our equipment!  These guys are professionals and had the entire system up and running in no time!  We got a Gould Booster Pump and an Amtrol Pressure tank – both American made, which is important to us.  You can see the schematic of our system in the picture below.  As always, you can click on a picture for a better view.How to get pressurized water off-grid

The water is pumped from the well by a solar pump, and flows into the water storage tank.  You can see the blue ball valve in the line between the well head and the water storage tank.  That stops the flow of the water into the storage tank so that the water can flow through the faucet in the picture that says “unpressurized water from well pump to faucet”.  Of couse, there is a little bit of pressure, just not a whole lot.  The upright PVC pipe at the upper left corner is where the electricity comes in from the solar panels and powers the solar pump.

The other faucet is fed by the pressurized tank.  Now look at the square of rock in the lower right corner of the concrete slab, where two PVC pipes disappear.  The skinny pipe is the one that leads to the pressurized water faucet.  The larger pipe will lead down the hill to our home.  We don’t want to trench and set the line for that until most of the heavy construction is done, for obvious reasons.

Building off-grid water system with pressure

The upper red circle shows where the electricity for the booster pump comes in from under the concrete. The electricity will come from the household solar system. Follow the red line to the pressure switch – the gray box – inside the second red circle. This controls the booster pump turning on and off, based on the pressure within the pressure tank. Following the red line around brings you to the booster pump, the blue thingy.

What happens is the booster pump will be fed by electricity from the solar system that will be placed on the roof of our house.  It pumps water from the water storage tank into the pressure tank, the big off-white thing next to it.  The pressure tank is what gives us enough pressure for household use and brings up to code for our future fire suppression sprinklers.  The booster pump runs on 110 and is 1-1/2 horse, which was important to us since we are off-grid, and keeps the pressure tank between 30 to 50 pounds of pressure.

household off-grid pressurized system

This picture shows where the electrical comes out (or goes into) from under the concrete in the pump house. The line on the left is from the solar panels that power the actual well pump. The one on the right is coming from our future household solar system, that will be on our roof. Once the heavy work is done on the house, we will trench and place the conduit with the wires, along with the 2″ PVC pipe for the water for the house.

In the meantime, as we are living in our travel trailer and small bunk house, we hooked up this system to the trailer and – WOW.  The pressure is absolutely wonderful!  I can actually rinse all the shampoo out of my thick hair now!  Whoopeeeee!

Now…   on to framing!

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