Rain Barrels, Cistern or Well? (Explained)

Categories: Rainwater Harvesting


  • Our property is windy. So windy that a tarp roof system would be pretty ineffective in catching water. Sure we could rig up a big creative system of roofs for rain collection, but right now our property lacks the infrastructure to make that feasible. A crazy water catchment system would be an inefficient and time consuming way to collect water.
  • We live in a cold climate. Our region of Idaho can be frozen anytime from October to May. Rain barrels probably shouldn’t be used during this time of year unless they can be kept above freezing temperatures. Because we’re off grid, this means we would have to bury the barrels or build a root cellar for them. This would get veeery time consuming and expensive, and much more effort per gallon than makes sense.PS: Learn about our winter living tips here!

In Summary: Rain barrels aren’t a practical solution for our us because the cost of implementation would be horrendous due to our cold climate and windy property. However, if you live in a warmer place that gets rain year round, they can be a great option for you.


Cisterns are a great water solution for people in a homesteading situation because they can provide months of water with one fill up, which can come from rain water, water pumped in from a well, or even a delivery. Even when the long term goal is to dig a well, cisterns can be a great interim system because once a well is established the cistern is still useful. When the well pump is running, a cistern can be filled with well water in order to put less strain on the pump in the long term.

There are two main types of cisterns:

  • Above Ground: Above ground systems are usually smaller on the smaller end and are quite portable. They can be put on a pickup truck or trailer and taken right to a fill up location. They are also cheaper and made of lighter materials than below ground systems because they don’t need to be buried.
  • Below Ground: Below ground cistern tanks work well in cold climates because they can be put below the frost line to prevent freezing. This is an essential for off grid homes without an alternative water source. These cisterns are typically have a larger capacity, are built of sturdier materials, and more expensive.

In Summary: Cisterns can be a great homestead water option. Research your region’s climate, your preferred method of filling the tank, and your water needs to evaluate if an above or below ground system could be right for you.

Digging a Well

When people hear that we are looking for to implement a water system they inevitably start saying,

“Have you started your well” , “just go dig a well” or “when are you going to dig a well?”.

Can we reiterate that there are OTHER water options besides wells out there?!

While wells can be a great solution for many properties (particularly if you are located at a low point on the water table) they can be extremely expensive and there is never any guarantee that you will strike water.


Though there are wells in our region, they can be hit or miss because our property is on a glacial outcropping that keeps the water table far below us. When we evaluated our homestead priorities we realized that we aren’t ready to sink 25 or 30 grand in a system that might not work. Because we can have water brought to us very easily and cheaply, digging a well just doesn’t make financial sense for us right now.

In Summary: Digging a well can be a great long term water solution, but there is financial risk involved. Do your research about your region’s water table and take time to look into alternative options.

What We Have Learned So Far

As you have probably picked up on by now, our quest for the perfect off-grid water solution has led us on quite a research journey! We have learned there is no one solution that will work for every property, and that experiments and am openness to trying new techniques will eventually get you to the best solution for your property. Make sure to weigh the pros and cons of every system you look at and find out the cost per gallon of each one.

As for us, we plan to install a below-ground cistern in the near future. For the time being, we think we will have water brought to this tank every three months or so. From our calculations, this is a great interim solution for us prior to getting a well.

Will this solution make us 110% self sustainable? No, and that’s okay. Our quest for a long term water solution needs to be a balance of today’s needs with tomorrows desires. Some day we want to be fully self-sustaining, but we aren’t there yet and we still need to use water today. For us, a below ground water tank will be the right solution as we continue to strive to be more sustainable and self sufficient.

What have your off grid water experiments looked like? We would love to hear about them!

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via PureLifeofLiving

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