Water: PV-Powered Water Pumping and Storage, by A. Haggard H. Rider

All sources of preparedness information stress the importance of water. Without water everything else is put at risk. You cannot drink bullets, beans do not have a lot of moisture and sucking on a bandage will not help.

The ideal situation is to have some form of safe running water on your property. But what if you don’t? Hopefully you have a well, but if your electric goes out your pump will not work. A hand pump will work, but it takes a lot of energy to get that water, and then you have the situation of Operational Security (OPSEC) while you are pumping that water and hauling it to the house.

About a year ago I started seriously investigating an alternative source of water. I looked at hand pumps but at my age of 70 that did not seem a practical solution. I also looked at windmills. In our area of the country windmills are a viable option and have been used successfully for years. But the location of our well is very close to the house and with the trees around here I did not believe that was our solution. If you have a well and the wind conditions, a windmill is something to consider. The costs are about the same as a solar system with less maintenance costs. Around the country there are windmills that have been pumping water for 40 or 50 years. Literally millions of head of cattle are provided water every day by windmills, and they are not the great big windmills being used today to generate electricity.

After much research we decided that for us the solution was a Solar Powered water pumping system. 

In our situation we live on top of a hill, there is no running water on our property or even nearby. But we do have an 180 foot deep drilled well. This works fine most of the time. But after one 500 year flood that wiped out electricity for many days, and tore out most water lines around the area, that got us thinking. The flood was so bad that it flooded the electric substation to a depth of 10 ft. All roads in every direction from our house were under water for a period of time. We live 10 miles from a small rural city and have the availability of city water, but do not use it. Our two closest neighbors are on city water and we were able to help them out because of our well and a generator. I called the local water department and asked if they had generator back up to be able to run the system and pump water, they do not. Most smaller cities do not have generator back up for their water systems.

 Then add in three tornados that happened in the area that wiped out electricity, we got to worrying. One tornado touched down just a quarter of a mile from our house and wiped out all electrical systems (including ours)  for about 6 miles. The second tornado touched down close to our sons house and wiped out 30 large trees on his property but luckily he house was not damaged. But it tore out the same electrical system as the first storm.

All of this was in a four year period, and we live in an area that has not been known to be flood prone or tornado prone in the south. Things can happen anytime and anywhere.

Recently I pulled the 220 volt AC (VAC) pump out of the well and installed a solar system that consists of a 1000 gal. approved plastic water tank partially buried, solar panels, two pumps and the control equipment necessary.

The water tank is 7 ft tall and has a diameter of 5 ft. We dug a hole two and 1/2 ft deep and 6 and 1/2 ft in diameter. This  had two purposes, the first to get the bottom of the tank below the freeze line and second to put the top of the tank at a height that will allow me to look down into the tank for inspection purposes. I put in a 6 in layer of fine sand for the tank to sit on and made sure it was level and well compacted before putting the tank in the hole. After installing the tank I filled in around the tank with fine sand. We installed the 2ö water outlet of the tank 4 inches above the bottom of the tank so that any sediment that might be pumped into the tank would settle and we would not be pulling that into the pumping system. The inlet to the tank is installed above the maximum water height of the tank so that when filling air would be introduced into the water on a continuing basis. We also installed a float switch in the tank that automatically shuts off the pump when the tank is full and adjusted it so the pump comes on after 100 gallons of  water has been pumped out.

 I also built a 10 ft by 12 ft building over the well head after putting the tank in the ground. After the building was finished the top of the water tank  is four ft. above the floor. This gave me a place to put the solar panels very close to where they would be used and also the equipment is all inside and out of the weather. We insulated the building in order to minimize the freezing potential. The 1,000 gal water tank is refreshed with 56 degree water from our well and will go a long way to keeping the building above freezing in most weather conditions here. With the 10 by 12 ft building I have enough roof space left to add six more solar panels in the future to bring some solar power into the house.

Our system is a two stage system. The Solar well pump is at 180 ft depth. That pump, actually pumps 1 gallon per minute into our 1000 gal storage tank. I know that does not sound like much, but over an eight hour day that is 480 gallons of water.  The pump is not on a battery system it is controlled by the sun, when the sun shines the pump is working. It even pumps a little bit of water when it is cloudy. I installed a float switch on the pump, so that when the tank is full it stops the pump. As it turns out we had a day that was cloudy all day and the water level was down to the point that the pump came on, by the end of the day the tank was again full, even with our water usage and no sun to speak of.

Solar systems are standard in 12 volt DC (VDC) and 24 VDC with some available in 48 VDC. The general rule of thumb is the higher the voltage the less the amperage draw. I elected to go with the 24 VDC system. This required two 12V batteries hooked up in series to provide the 24V backup for the pressure pump. The pump runs on 24 volts which draws less power than the 12V pump would, and the battery power lasts twice as long in a no sun situation. By opting for a 24 volt system the wiring was simpler.

The second stage of the system is an additional solar panel that charges two deep cycle large batteries, purchased from our local auto parts store. This powers the pressure pump that supplies normal water pressure to the house. Our water pressure to the house is the same as it was on the old pump and the volume is also the same. Our old system had a pressure tank in the basement, I installed a second pressure tank in the well house, this keeps the pump from kicking on so often.

I have tested the pressure pump system by disconnecting the power source and letting the system run on just the batteries with no charging. After five days the batteries still had more than half a charge. So I am confident that during a cloudy rainy period the water system will still work. Even on cloudy or partially cloudy days there is some charging going on.

We measured our water usage over a two week period of time, using our normal living pattern. We did not try to conserve water during this period. Our average usage of water was 80 gallons per day. The 1000 gallon tank would provide about eleven days of water if we had no sun, and more than twice that time if we were in a disaster situation as we would be conserving water.

When I first started investigating this project, all of the information seemed a bit overwhelming. I got a book titled Solar Electricity Handbook. (Mine is the 2012 edition, bit there is now a 2013 edition available.) It is written in plain English and easy to understand. I also got on the internet and searched for information and called many suppliers and manufacturers of equipment. Most of the suppliers were able to email me their installation manuals and spec sheets before I bought anything.  After all of that it made more sense and was really not that difficult to come up with a plan. I have a tendency to overbuild on projects, that’s just me. In designing this system I increased the solar capacity by about 25% to give me some extra supply in the winter when the sun is in a different position and the days are shorter. After one year, we will evaluate the situation and I will look into adding some low voltage lighting to the system.

In a project like this you need accurate information whether it is a do it yourself project or a contract project. Solar energy for home use is a somewhat new technology and there are a lot of people out there that claim knowledge but really don’t have that knowledge. Do your homework before hand and it will save you problems in the future. In evaluating this project I selected products that have good ratings and a history. In estimating your solar power needs it is important to remember that your pumps will only be running for short periods of time each day, so you may not need as much power as you think.

When planning a solar project it is very important to take into consideration sun and shade. The solar panels must face a southerly direction. I set up a wooden panel over the well when I started this project to see exactly where the sun would hit the building, for how long during the day and how the nearby trees would interfere with the solar panels. This resulted in some tree trimming that in my particular situation will be required about every two years. This is not a big project for me, it can be done with a pole saw from the ground. Shade is a killer for a solar system, so plan accordingly. Before you start make sure that trees or buildings will not be a problem. If they are you can move the system to another location and just have a little more plumbing work to do. Depending on your situation it may be a better idea to remove a couple of trees, you have to judge for yourself.

The estimated life of the solar panels I purchased is 20 years. The estimated life of the pumps are 15-20 years and both pumps can be rebuilt. The estimated life of the batteries is five years. I selected batteries that are both deep cycle and deep charge commercial batteries. Even with that the cost was just $100 each. I purchased kits to rebuild both pumps after getting the system up and running. That way I know that I have the parts available instantly, no matter what happens.

This can be a do it yourself project if you are careful, have a little background in plumbing and electrical work. If you don’t have the necessary background then you can hire a professional. Before hiring a professional, do your homework so that you do not spend more than you need. My background is in industrial maintenance, where I had to deal with AC and DC power sources,  so that made things easier.

A word of caution is needed here about dealing with DC power. An understanding of electricity both AC and DC is necessary for a do it yourself project. Most people understand that high voltage power lines can kill you. Low voltage can also kill you. Voltage does not really kill, it is the amperage that does the job. A stun gun may have as much as a million volts or more, but just enough amperage to give you a good jolt. Solar panels can put out high levels of amperage. If you do not have the background, get professional help. I have a friend that is an excellent electrician and has the capability to wire industrial systems correctly, but has no experience in DC or solar power. He would not attempt a solar systems without gaining more knowledge on DC power.

We also have 600 gallons of water barrel storage that could be used for flushing toilets etc. The water barrel storage is set up easily catch rain water if necessary. Right now the barrels are filled with our well water and are located where they can easily be reached and if necessary some can be moved into the basement. They are treated with a mild bleach solution and the plan is to empty and refill them on a six month basis.

With the system installed and running successfully we now have peace of mind about our water situation. This also gives us the opportunity to share the water with neighbors when  the need arises, all of them are on city water. I have convinced our next door neighbor to get some water barrels and keep them full. If the need arises I can help refill her water barrels.

We do not have a specific type of disaster we are preparing for. Just any type of disaster, sort term or long term. An EMP is one of those possibilities. So I purchased additional solar controllers for the system. These items are kept in our small Faraday Cage container along with an emergency radio, hand-held short wave radio, laptop computer so that I can even refer to the SurvivalBlog Archive DVD when necessary.

I ended up purchasing all of the solar equipment, including the pumps from Northern Arizona Wind & Sun, Inc. The reason being is that they were knowledgeable, helpful and spent a lot of time answering my questions and making suggestions. There were able to provide instruction manuals before I purchased anything. I am not in anyway connected with this company, I was impressed with the service and quality of information provided.

We will give this project some more time to make sure it works as planned, then I plan to add to the system to provide solar power to two freezers and one refrigerator with a few low voltage lights thrown in for good measure. For anyone that has been without power for a few days, you know what  pain it is to keep food cold or frozen with a generator, that needs gasoline that you might not be able to obtain.

As a side note: I hired a local person to build the well house. Turns out that as a child he grew up on this very property. He lived in a house that was on the back of our property which has since burned down. He related to me that his grandfather lived two doors down and seemed to be somewhat eccentric as he was a prepper before there was such a thing. He generated his own electric by means of a windmill and had battery storage in his basement. He had a 500 gallon underground gasoline tank, a water well with pump that was powered by the electricity generated by the windmill. He was also an avid hunter and fisherman.  Had a large garden and they canned most of what they got out of the garden. When he retired 25 years ago he sold the place and moved to Montana to be self sufficient. What did this man know that we are just learning?