Water is a critical need for all of us, whether we live in a bedsit with a window box or run a six-acre smallholding. But for homesteaders, who also have to take account of the needs of their animals and food plants, water security is even more important. With compulsory metering set to rise to 80% in the UK by 2020, we take a look at how you can reduce or even eliminate your dependence on expensive mains water.

Most of the population has come to rely on mains water, but this has only became commonplace in the mid-twentieth century. Delivering safe, clean water to the tap takes a lot of energy. This makes it expensive – and it is likely to become more expensive every year as the rise in oil prices continues.

Water security

a manual water pump and bucket, image

Relying on mains supply as your only source of water has several drawbacks. The cost of the water, both ecologically and financially, is a primary concern to many of us. Mains water has been cleaned and treated with chemicals before it comes out of our taps. This delivers a supply that is reliably safe to drink – but only a tiny fraction of it actually gets used as drinking water. Using water cleaned to this high standard to flush a toilet, for example, makes little sense.

How well you could cope if the mains supply were suddenly disrupted? A 48 hour water stoppage would be highly irritating for an urban household, but for a smallholding with livestock it would be nothing short of disastrous. It makes sense to take steps to improve the water security of your plot – that is, its resilience to water shortages – and there are several ways to do this.

  • Make sure there is a cache of water such as a pond, storage tank or water butts on your plot
  • Look at alternative water sources, like harvesting rainwater
  • Reduce your water usage
  • Recycle as much of your waste water as possible

Other sources of water

Unless you are lucky enough to have a spring on your property or are prepared to invest in a borehole or well, the easiest alternative source of water is rain. Gardeners are already encouraged to harvest rainwater using water butts. This is inexpensive and can reduce the use of mains water, but the amount of water stored is not usually enough to cope with long dry spells. More serious systems involve larger storage tanks, sometimes underground. Fitted with a pump and filters, these can replace mains water all together in some areas.

Reducing water use

When mains water was first introduced, users were billed at a flat rate depending on the size of their property. This made people think of the actual water as ‘free’, which meant they didn’t mind wasting it. The UK has been slow to introduce compulsory water meters, but the government is keen to see 80% of all households metered by 2020. This could prove expensive for homesteaders, particularly if they irrigate from the mains.

Some ways to reduce domestic water use are well known, but others (like compost toilets) are not. You can also reduce the water needs of plants by choosing drought-tolerant species or varieties, and by using smarter irrigation techniques like mulching and drip irrigation.

Recycling water

Typically, about a third of household water is used for flushing the toilet. Once water has been mixed with human waste (including urine) it can’t be reused without processing. The waste water from baths, showers and washbasins is another matter: it can be collected and treated in a household-scale reuse system and used for toilet flushing.

Untreated greywater can also be used for garden watering immediately after it is produced. The waste water from kitchen sinks and dishwashers is not usually collected as it is too heavily contaminated, but switchable valves can be used in the kitchen to allow you to choose when the water is saved, and when it is routed to the sewerage system.

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