Thursday, June 18, 2009

We have a cistern!

No, for real, we do! It just amazes me what one can discover about the house one has lived in for almost five years now.

Actually, when we bought the house we didn't know we had a cistern. However, after a couple of years and idle chat about having one put in, we finally put 2 & 2 together (the first "2" = the big manhole-like cover of a hole in our basement with all the floors sloping towards it; the second "2" = well, just us being dense, I guess). However, for some reason I'd thought that the cistern had been filled in. Now, while it might be cheaper to just kill a weekend with a shovel & some rope digging out an old cistern than having a new one installed, it still wasn't my idea of a good time.

But today I went down to the deep freeze to grab out some stuff and actually looked at the hole (why had I never done this before?). The hole is very firmly covered and secured by thick wood--which is a good thing--but one piece of wood had come off and so I looked in.

No fill. Just hole.


One of the big concerns we've had for some time is how to get water during emergencies, or for if/when our city can no longer afford the cost of water treatment. We're surrounded by water that we could always just go & get with buckets, but even on fairly strict water rationing, most families use at least 10-20 gallons a day. Average usage is closer to 100 gallons/day. Don't believe this? Do two experiments. First, if your kitchen faucet doesn't indicate otherwise, it's probably about a 2.5 gal/minute faucet. Do your dishes and time how long it took (if you're like most Americans, you leave the water running the whole time). Yeah. And that was just on dishes. Second experiment, go get your water bill and look.

So anyway, hauling anything between 10-100 gallons of water every farking day just doesn't sound like a good time either. We've got rain barrels, three of 'em actually, that each hold ~50 gallons and refill quite efficiently. That would probably keep us in water for a bit, assuming no devastating dry spells.

But. There's a hole in our basement, dear Liza, dear Liza. There's a hole in our basement, dear Liza, a hole!

So now, there are several things to do. First, determine whether or not we're even staying here. My husband has not yet landed a job (although it's still early in the teaching cycle, so we're not panicky yet--yet). Even without a job, we might try and stay and find make-work. Or we might give it up as a failed project and move out to the family farm. If we move, well, I'm not throwing $$$ into fixing up a part of our house that any potential buyer will likely regard as "a hole in the basement". Assuming we do stay, however, we would need to get the cistern inspected, and I suspect have it lined or cleaned somehow. We would need to create a way to channel our rainwater into it (this should be pretty easy, as our basement floor slopes down toward it already), and we'll need some way to deal with overflow. We would also need a pump. In an ideal world, we'd also have a way to get it into our hot water heater, but frankly if we're using the cistern heavily, I suspect the hot water heater will be a distant memory. We've already got a Berkey water filter, which can handle more or less any nasty thing we might put into it, so we're good for clean water.

This might actually be doable.


  1. I'm jealous! I've done some research on different water options. The only two that are really good for my climate (extreme northeast) year-round are a cistern (alas, no basement ;) and a well. We have water barrels, too - good for summer animal water and such, but during the winter, they'd freeze.

    I hear you on the waterheater. I've been contemplating alternatives, because I really like a hot shower, and I'm *this close* to getting a solar camp shower, but it's one of those things I'm afraid my husband would balk at.

  2. Wendy,

    Hmm... Is your house an old house? If so, do yourself a favor and look around on the ground outside of your house for a cover--you might be surprised. The real reason we figured out we had a cistern was that our neighbor found hers, and our houses were the same plan, built at the same time, in 1902. But yeah, water barrels not great in the winter.

    Another couple of options for hot water: (1) if you get a wood cookstove (which we are also perpetually contemplating), you can get a water tank to put on back and have hot water that way during the winter (you can even have it channeled into your hot water heater). Second, and I'm looking into this soon, is a solar hot water heater. They're apparently not terribly expensive, and quite efficient. Don't know much more than that, other than they were one of the solar solutions highly recommended by some green architects for our new grocery co-op. Regular solar is prohibitively expensive, and would pretty much only allow us to power some lightbulbs--it wouldn't even touch the fridge & freezer cases! But water--that's a different story I guess.

  3. Wow! What a find! Now, you're sure it's a cistern (for gather and holding potentially potable water) and not just a sump crock (essentially a 20 gallon bucket in the floor for draining flooding)? Huh. Water gathering right inside the house...that's an interesting idea!

  4. Emily,

    Well, we have a sump crock in the other room of the basement, so I'm pretty sure it's not that (but not positive). Really, I need to go down there and triple-check things with a flashlight, but I'm pretty sure this is a cistern. Now watch and I'm wrong... grrr. =)

  5. My house isn't that old. In fact, my neighbor helped build it in the 1970s using several cabins ... long story. Anyway, when it was initially constructed the water was supplied from my neighbor's well. It has, since, been hooked up to the municipal water supply, but I'd like to convince my husband to dig a well and install a hand-pump. It's not the ideal solution, but it's better than carrying buckets of water from the brook that, then, have to be boiled and filtered ;).

    As for hot water, we have a woodstove and have talked about installing a water heater to it. Of course, during power outages my "farm girl" way to bathe is to heat up a kettle of water on the woodstove and then pour it into a wash tub that I've put into the stand-up shower stall. Between the nearly boiling water from the kettle and cold water from the tap, I can have a bath with nearly 16 gal of water - not a lot, but enough to fill a camp shower, and then some :). As likely as not, though, if we lose power for an extended period, what we'd probably do is punch a hole in the bottom of a 5 gal bucket, attach a shower head that can be turned off and on, and filled with hot water heated on the woodstove or on the rocket stove my husband is constructing outside. Then, hang it from the ceiling in our stand-up shower enclosure. Of course, the power would have to be out for a long time before I could convince my husband to rig up a shower like that ;).

    RE: electricity. I've come to the realization - after many years of trying to convince myself (and my husband) otherwise, that solar isn't the best option for us. What would work best in my situation is a biomass generator (one that generates electricity and heat by burning wood).

  6. it a cistern? That would be so cool!

  7. I'm reminded that when we bought this place, a year later my son was walking some visitors to the driveway and he fell through the walkway into an abandoned septic tank that had rusted away underneath. Wasn't hurt -- but what they hey! that one, we FILLED IN.

    We talk about putting up rain barrels but they haven't made it to the front of the list. A hand pump for the spare well, however, yes, we did. Would LOVE to have a cistern.

    Wendy, we used a 5 gallon bucket with a shower head at the bottom for years, they work fine.

  8. I have a 25 foot deep cistern in my house that has rock all the way down about 2-3 feet wide....always has at leaste 10-20 feet of water in it (depends on how much rain we get) I know my house is old but not sure how old, I went to the courthouse and they cant tell me......does anyone know when they might of dug this?

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