We have insulated and used heat tape on every water pipe we can reach, and with the microhydro running in the wintertime, we have the energy to run the heat tape at night. It’s a good system and has worked well for us.
December 2013, however, included a cold snap that brought temperatures dropping to -3.4°F and 7 inches of snow on the first night alone. For five nights, temperatures dropped below zero, and daytime temperatures only rose to the mid-20s. Our water pipes froze. The main water line coming to the house froze.
Now, this wasn’t our first rodeo. We watch the weather, so we knew the cold front was coming. I had two big plastic buckets of water sitting in the shower, ready to use for flushing the toilet. In the kitchen, filtered water for drinking and cooking filled two 5-gallon water containers. My biggest canning pot stood full of water on the wood heater so we had hot water when we wanted it. Knowing we would need to pour hot water on frozen pipes, I also filled all my stockpots with water.
The fourth day of the cold snap, our hydro’s 5-inch penstock pipes froze and burst in more than a dozen places. Bob-O found the breaks after scouting along the creek, trying to figure out why the turbine had stopped. Replacing 160 feet of pipe along the freezing creek was not a pleasant job, but knowing it had to be done, Bob-O purchased the parts. With our friend Mike’s help, he got the pipe run repaired and full of water again. The hydro started making power again 11 days after the hard freeze.
But that wasn’t the end of our water woes. The pipes that feed water to our house were also freezing. Although we tried pouring boiling water on strategic domestic pipe connections, the extended below-zero temperatures thwarted our every attempt. Our house water comes from a spring, and is piped across the creek and up a hill. The line that spans the creek had been our weak link, but with liberal use of insulation and heat tape, we had solved that problem many years ago.
What stopped our water this time was the line freezing along its buried length. Bob-O determined that our house pipes were unfrozen except in one corner. Using the boiling water, he was able to thaw that juncture. We were able to connect a hose to the outdoor house faucet, switch over to our well pump, and charge the house system. That is how we found out our basement had also gotten so cold that our “on-demand” water heater had also frozen. There were multiple splits in all of the small copper tubes. We had to order and wait for a new one.
By shutting some valves, we were able to isolate the water heater. We went back to using the well. When the sun was hitting the pump’s PV array and a faucet was kept running in the sink to keep the pressure regulated, I was able to refill all my jugs and buckets and do a cold-water laundry load.
When the new water heater arrived, Bob-O installed it right away. Now, when we ran the array-direct well pump to charge the house we could take hot showers, too. Oh, joy; rapture! Hot, running water is a miracle not to be underappreciated.
With our microhydro turbine running again, we were able to turn on the heat tapes again, hoping the water being thawed in the pipes would reach underground where the ice blockage was, allowing spring water to flow to the house once again.
On the 15th day, the kitchen faucet came on when Bob-O tried it. We thought it might be merely the pipes draining and the flow would soon stop. But as we watched, hopeful, the slow stream of water continued for several minutes, coughing and snorting occasionally as the ice shards moved along the pipes. Ten minutes later, our house water was running freely.
How is it living off-grid? It’s wonderful! I wouldn’t trade it for anything. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Kathleen Jarschke-Schultze is doing a rain dance at her off-grid home in northernmost California.