Sunday, October 18, 2009

Water Woes

When we were house shopping a few months ago, one of the things that struck us as odd is that most places we looked at had cisterns rather than wells for water. We were uncomfortable with having to have water delivered, but there wasn't much we could do about it besides buy a place that had a well. Apparently the water is so horrible along the 'bench' in Homer (below the ridge that runs for miles above the Homer area) that wells are simply not feasible. Some people have them just for watering their garden, though that's expensive option for outdoor only use. One person I spoke to that grew up in the area said that when the water came out of their faucets they could see an oily scum on the surface and that it stank horribly.

Shortly after we moved into our house, I discovered one day that the water from the roof was going into the gutter, down a pipe and directly into our cistern! Yipes! That means all the ash, corrosion from the asphalt shingles, debris, etc. was all going directly into our drinking water, and from the looks of it had been doing so for years. This was a common practice to supplement the drinking water, and while our house has both a whole-house water filter and a reverse osmosis filter for drinking, we were still a bit concerned. Add to that the deep orange color of our water (which was not the color of the water we purchased to put into our cistern!), and we began thinking that something needed to happen.

We immediately disconnected the pipe that was drawing water from the roof into the cistern, and then we began to explore options for cleaning out the cistern. One lady suggested letting the water run out, getting a shop vac, stick it down the intake pipe and suck out the crud. We tried that with the result that 1) the shop vac was not strong enough to pull crud up 10+ vertical feet (the cistern was buried 6 feet below the surface, and was probably another 6 feet tall), and 2) the extension that I had duct taped to the end fell off, into the cistern. OK. On to plan B.

The water company, plumbers and others we talked to were of mixed opinion as to whether the cistern had a hatch or not. Since it was a 29-year-old cistern, who knows what the original owners put in. Being the young, athletic people we are, we decided to dig up our cistern. Four hours of my digging, an hour or two of the kids digging and a couple by my husband got us down 6 feet where we.....did not find a hatch. And we discovered the cistern went clear underneath our walkway. We could keep digging and eventually dismantle our wooden deck/walkway in search of the hatch, or we could move on to plan C.

Exploring our options, we now checked into a company that cleans out cisterns as their job. They said we had two options. First we could dig up the cistern, find the hatch and they would get inside it and scrape out the crud and clean it out really well. This was more expensive, but was preferable. Or they could shoot water down into it with a high-powered hose and run our garden hose and flush out the stuff that was in there, using about 4000 gallons of water in the process. At this point we decided not to continue looking for the hatch and opted for the second quick-fix option.

We were out moose hunting the day that they came to clean out our cistern. We hadn't wanted to be gone, but that's when the hunt was, and we figured they didn't need our help anyways. Luckily we had cell phone access while we were out there hunting (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), and the company called us after the fact and said, "We cleaned out the cistern as best we could, but there was so much crud in there that it went up the pipe into the house and plugged it up so bad we couldn't clean it out." He said there were living things in the water, a huge amount of sludge in the bottom of the cistern, and obviously there was so much and it was so thick that it plugged up the pipe to the house. So now, even if we wanted water, we couldn't have water. On to plan D.

Plan D: Get a plumber in there and find out if he could clean out that pipe. Plumber came and said, "I won't do it. It would be an all-day job, cost you over a thousand dollars, and you've got a 29-year-old cistern here that will go out on you in the middle of the winter when the ground is frozen. You need a new cistern."

Plan E: New cistern. Here are our options:
  1. Dig up the front yard, get a plastic or stainless steel cistern (we couldn't find one source that agreed with another on exactly what type to get), and sink $4500 into a new 2000 gallon cistern. Well, the front yard is the flowerbed that is the crown jewel of this house, perennials that have taken years to nurture. We were both so absolutely busy beyond sane we didn't want to think of the mess this would be to dig up the flowers, move them, repair the lawn afterwards, etc. At this point we hadn't even paid our first mortgage payment.
  2. Build a shed, insulate it, run a line to the house and have an above-ground cistern that would have to be heated all winter. Yuck. This would be unsightly, would take time to build the building, and we would constantly be worrying about it freezing all winter when it was cold. No, we didn't want to consider that option. Cost? Probably at least $3000 depending on whether we did it ourselves or hired out.
  3. One of my friends had recently given me a tour of her house and had mentioned in the course of it that they had a bladder in their crawlspace that held their water. This seemed like a radical and daring thing--a bladder?? to contain the water for the household?? I didn't even think of that option till I was sitting in the crawlspace with another friend who came over to give us advice and it hit me that it might be a possibility.
We came to the conclusion that we didn't want to deal with either of the first 2 choices. By default, that left the bladder. It was the simplist and easiest choice with our tight budget (we just bought a new house!) and time (the craziest time of year for teachers is August, and homeschooling was just beginning too).

Douglas researched bladders online. This is a common option in Australia, but not something you hear much about in the U.S. We found a company in Anchorage that sold them, $1295 for a 1360 gallon bladder. They ordered it from the Lower 48, and when it came in, Douglas drove up to Anchorage to pick it up. Installation was a cinche. In less than 2 hours he had completely installed it and it was ready for fillup. The most time involved leveling out the dirt in the crawlspace.

Finally: W day had arrived. Water day. The water truck backed in, hooked up his pipe to the intake pipe we'd cut through the foundation to get water into the bladder. He started it up. Down in the crawlspace, the kids and I kept careful watch. Wow! It was so exciting to see it get bigger and bigger, knowing that soon our month of no water was about to end.

Well, there was a leak in it. Back to square 5. Call the company, send them pictures of the leak, they ordered another one, the supplier had to make one since no more were in stock, ship it from the Lower 48, ship it down to Homer, get the old one out, install the new one. A couple more weeks went by through this process. By now we were so sick of our water woes we didn't even want to think about it.

I just found out a neighbor up the road has been without water for a month too. Another friend lived for 10 years without water in her house up on the ridge--and this was not that long ago! Yet another family kept a plastic cistern in the back of their pickup for years and would fill up with water at public water sources and use that for their house water. What amazed me about this whole thing was the variety of opinions. No two plumbers or people we talked to agreed on the 'best' option; there didn't appear to be a 'best' option. Getting a new water source is expensive, and with tight budgets, a challenge.

Our saga appears to be at an end. We have clean, untainted water in our house. All we have to do is turn on the faucet or flush the toilet. A shower doesn't mean a trip to the Bay Club. Wow. Amazing how I appreciate little things like running water now. Aaaaaaah. We have this delightful sense of 'roughing it' in Alaska. But I am ready for the luxury of running water!


  1. I'm hoping to build a log cabin in Alaska, and one of my concerns is the storage (and collection) of water.

    Does the water in a cistern freeze in the winter? Or if it's below the frost line then it won't freeze???

    Will your water bladder freeze in the winter?

  2. Hi John,
    Our cistern was 6 feet below ground, but others I know have their plastic cisterns just buried 2-3 feet below the surface and they have no problems with freezing (I would opt for 3-4 feet myself, since when we dig post holes, we go down 3 feet to avoid being bucked out by the frost).
    If you build an above ground shed for the cistern, you have to have a lightbulb on all the time when it gets cold. Supposedly that is all it takes to keep it from freezing.

    Our bladder won't freeze in the crawlspace since 1-it is insulated down there and 2-there was already a heater built in to keep the pipes from freezing so that will keep the temperature up.

  3. Oh, and about collection of water. Metal roofs are ok to collect off of, but of course if Redoubt blows again and there is more ash, it will have to be cleaned off completely before you use the roof as your water source again.
    There are ooodles of water companies around; it's like $40 for 1000 gallons of City of Homer water.

  4. Oh that sounds good!

    What would you suggest if I built a log cabin that was supported on posts about 2 feet off the ground?

    And if I have no electricity at first (I'm wanting to live mostly off the grid as possible), how would I keep the pipe from the cistern to our sink from freezing? Is there any kind of super insulation or anything?

    Or should we devise a way to have our tank(s) inside the cabin somehow?

    Thanks for your answers and interesting blog :)

    BTW, that's a good price for 1000 gallons of water in Homer! Cool!

    I'm thinking Homer might be a good place for me, because my wife and I are interested in organic farming, and it seems like a great place for that.

    I can't wait to move to Alaska!

  5. You could build a separate room, attached to the cabin, that would house the cistern. That way it would be kept warm from the house heat and less worries of freezing. If it is detached you'll need to sink the line underground to keep it from freezing.

    If you're looking to buy in Homer better start looking ASAP. The good spots are being bought up and there is little buildable land (boggy is common and creates some building challenges) near town that goes for less than outrageous prices. If you don't mind being out of town you'll have more choices.

    Good luck with your eventual move!

  6. Do you remember the name of the company in Anchorage you bought your water bladder from? We are looking for one. Thanks.

  7. It is Alaska Pure Water Products, 907-563-3770, 301 E. International Airport Road.

    Good luck!