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How To Live Off-Grid Without Plumbing (And Why You Should Consider It)

plumbing 1 -- pinterestFor those who understand life in a dry cabin, it’s no stranger to you the extra daily chores to maintain simple luxuries that many take for granted. But you may be surprised to find how often people ask exactly what dry cabin lifestyles entail.

The daily tasks become routine after time, but some people wonder just how and why a person would choose to live without the commodities that the rest of the United States has been enjoying for nearly 200 years. There are a number of factors behind taking the next step in deciding on a dry cabin lifestyle, but understanding what you’re getting yourself into is the first step in the decision-making process.

To start with the basics, dry cabins are typically small homes built without an indoor plumbing system. It is important to remember that dry cabins are not always considered off-grid, as they still have the capacity to wire into the local utility company or a generator, and many people still choose to go that route. Off-grid cabins often rely on solar, wind and rain power to generate electricity to the home, whereas dry cabins are not always this rural. Dry cabins are located in almost every state across the U.S., but a large majority of the literature you will read comes from Alaska, as the permafrost, extreme temperatures, and lack of city sewer grids makes indoor plumbing a personal decision that must be maintained year-round by the homeowner.

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Although at first it may seem like an impossible lifestyle, it only takes a short time to adjust to the few chores that are necessary to live in a dry cabin, and the benefits prove to be more than rewarding once you see the effects that your decision has on the environment and your ability to sustain living on your own. So what does a person need to do to survive in a dry cabin? Let’s take a look at the different rooms in your home that accommodate running water, and compare them to how a person living in dry cabins exists on a daily basis.

The Kitchen

There are hundreds of different set-ups for providing water to a dry cabin kitchen. Most of it depends on the space, the utilities and how you plan to bring in and dispose of water. While more sophisticated cabins incorporate a greywater tank underneath the home, the majority of dry cabin dwellers arrange a basic set-up with a spigoted five-gallon water jug that rests near the sink and drains through pipes, which then empty into 10-gallon buckets. Any local plumbing, plastics or hardware stores should carry the typical bright blue water jugs and dump buckets, or they will at least be able to point you in the right direction. It is important to note a potable water source here, as many towns have either a community center or designated water areas that provide free water fill-ups or, worst case scenario, charge a few cents per gallon. Hauling water back to your home will be the most work you put into a dry cabin.

Since the aqua-tainer doesn’t maintain hot water, most people find it useful to purchase an electric kettle that quickly heats water for when you need it most, or simply leave a pot of water on the stove for easy heating when doing dishes, cleaning or washing off. Many dry cabin owners find it cheaper and more useful to employ a gas stove and to keep a few extra tanks of propane on hand for when one inevitably runs out. But since dry cabins are not always off the grid, electric stoves are sometimes used as well, although if there are power outages, cooking and hot water go out the window until electricity is restored. When moving into your own dry cabin, look around and determine where you will store extra water jugs, if there is enough space to fit the water container near the sinks, and always, always remember to continually check the greywater buckets under the sink so that they don’t overflow. Once you do it a few times, you will understand the gentle removal and careful steps that dry cabin-ers take to not spill dirty water all over the place while taking the bucket outside to dump.

The Bathroom

Image source: polartrec.com

Image source: polartrec.com

This is perhaps the hardest room for many to part with in a dry cabin. Usually located around 20 feet or more from the cabin is an outhouse, where you can feel free to be yourself and escape the clutches of being indoors. Surprisingly, this is one of the quickest things that you will get used to, and many people living in dry cabins tend to appreciate their outhouse more than an indoor bathroom. Since there isn’t a sink with running water, brushing your teeth mainly entails pouring water into a cup in the kitchen and keeping up with personal hygiene to the best of your ability. Depending on your commitment to hauling water regularly, there is no reason that you can’t keep up with personal appearance just as much as you could with indoor plumbing. Washing your face at night and in the mornings is a routine that most people figure out quickly, and purchasing an electric kettle is a great way to warm water for this process.

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But what about showers, you ask? Oftentimes people will purchase a solar shower bag, a large wash basin to sit in and bath, or heat water and rinse off their bodies as regularly as they deem necessary. While this can go on for some time, eventually dry cabin residents will reach a point where taking a real shower is an absolute necessity and nothing else will suffice. Depending on the area you live, some businesses recognize that surrounding neighborhoods are typically dry cabins, and they will set up shower facilities where you are charged a minimal fee to shower. Whether it is a timed shower or not depends on the business. Also, the more neighbors you have, the better chance you run of finding a friend who is more than happy to let you shower at their place once or twice a week.

Laundry

This is another method that is left completely to you. Since laundry doesn’t necessarily require potable water, collecting rainwater or washing in a creek and hanging to dry is a great way to get clean clothes. If this seems too 1800s for your style, the same areas that offer showers and drinking water will usually have a laundromat to take care of that chore as well. Aside from simply hauling water, you now haul your clothes to and from town, which really isn’t that different from many people living in city apartments. Doing laundry isn’t a task that needs completed every day, so it will be the smallest of your duties when living in a dry cabin.

One of the best things about dry cabin lifestyles is the ability to gauge how much water you actually waste on a weekly basis. Aside from drinking water, there is usually only one or two greywater buckets under your sink that will need emptied every week or so. It is completely rewarding to know that you are doing your part for the environment, as well as living away from the clutches of modern lifestyles and providing for yourself by good hard work.

How you set up your cabin and what works best for you will inevitably go through a few changes until you find the perfect solution, but once you get there and get settled into the regular maintenance of a dry cabin lifestyle, you will find that it is much less difficult than you think, and living day to day is actually not as complicated as it has been made out to be. Once you try living in a dry cabin, you will learn to appreciate all the modern commodities that many people take for granted, and you will also feel a sense of accomplishment knowing that you can make life work all on your own.

Do you have any experience with dry cabin living? Share your suggestions in the section below:

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15 comments

  1. When one takes responsibility for hauling and disposing of ones own water you quickly realize how much water the ‘developed’ world wastes daily.

  2. I’m a full-time RVer who never stays in campgrounds, so basically I live off-grid. I have solar panels, so the only thing I need from elsewhere is water. Here are some suggestions for off-grid living, based on my experience:
    1.) Get a composting toilet. Then you don’t have to go outside and you’ll have compost for your garden. I have a small portable one that is made for boats and RVs. It’s less expensive than the full-sized ones made for homes, although you have to empty it more often. Also, a composting toilet requires barely any water.
    2.) For laundry, get a Mobile Washer (Amazon and elsewhere) and a large bucket or mop-bucket/wringer combo.
    3.) For showers, take sponge baths or buy one of those tent-like shower stalls. They’re for use outside, but I think you could adapt one for use inside. Also, if you’re doing only a quickie face wash, you don’t even need to heat water. You’ll get just as clean with cold water.
    4.) To wash your hair without showering, stand over a sink and pour warm water over your hair with a bottle or large tumbler. However, this may not work well if your hair is long.
    5.) Although I have a propane-powered hot water heater, I rarely use it. It’s faster and cheaper to heat water on the stove for most needs.

  3. For grey water, it is very important to use very environmentally friendly products, preferably food grade. Then make a filter out of your collection bucket by filling it half way with a mixture of clean travel and sand. The water enters the top of the bucket, and on the bottom you can have a drain hose going outside into a small hand made trench out to the gardens or trees. Have a fine mesh screen in your sink to collect any large particles. Every once in awhile change to clean gravel and sand. This is low tech and keeps you from having to lug water all the time. Plus the water is good for your garden, especially if you occasionally add anorganic composting liquid.

    • While you are absolutely correct about the detergent choices, a small trench heading outside in Alaska will just create a sheet of grey water ice as it will freeze almost instantly and remain frozen for roughly 7 months of the year.

      If your filtration is not doing a good a job you will have a giant pond of nasty, rotting and hazardous organic materials right under or around your house!

      A carefully planned mulch basin or leach field (maybe a cool combo of both) at least the same distance away as the outhouse MAY be acceptable if one can figure out that whole instant freeze factor.

  4. I had a lot of 1/2 gallon jars I used to can in when I canned for a family of 6.. Upon investigation, I found I could “can water” in them. It is so easy… we were with out water in the house we moved into, for over 24 hrs. It was great to know I had water for what ever we needed… Currently have over 100 qts… Knowing that will not go far, I plan on “canning” more. Regular mouth qt. jars I use because I don’t like to can in them anymore. Odd jars that lids & rings fit work great as well. Also… have been saving T-paper & P-towel tubes. Shredded paper, dryer lint, any burnable I stuff the tubes…Storing in plastic bins. Also purchased 4 for now, the “luci an inflatable solar powered lantern by MPOWERD”. Or the like, They are awesome. I keep one by my window / computer & it is charged all the time. It has bright, brighter & flash button.

  5. The article totally describes our current life style. I do very much miss the convenience of hot running water for my daily bubble bath… which are nonexistent…. I save 30 gallons of water easily. Solar showers are great. Dishes take 10 gallons max. A once a month trip to the Laundromat covers what I cannot wash in tubs. And line dried clothing makes the whole house smell great…. not just the clothes. Company doesn’t appreciate the composting toilet but do prefer it over the outhouse in 0° weather. 250 gallon rain collection containers keep water close on hand as does a well about 50 yards from the house. Gray water is used to water the garden. Kitchen gray will turn black if it is not done right and is illegal to drain out into the yard so I built a vernal pool to compost it. I love our lifestyle and I love my improved figure that came with hauling water. I am leaner than ever.

    • I realize this post is quite old but I thought it was worth a try. I was wondering if you could share more about the vernal pool you described in your comment. I’m trying to come up with a plan for the kitchen sink water.

      • While it is illegal to dump grey water out on the ground in most locales, this is, for the most part, a stupid regulation for folks that don’t have running water anyway because there is so little water being dumped out. Think about what is in grey water: some small food particles, perhaps a little oil, and soap. It’s no different than people using a camp shower and letting the water just drain out on the ground, except for food particles, which will quickly turn into compost.

        That being said, you don’t want grey water flowing into a water source because soap is toxic to fish, though it works excellently as a plant fertilizer, as do the food particles.

        And again, we’re not talking about much water if you’re only emptying out a few buckets a week, and you can empty them into a garden or at least different locations so that you don’t create a mud hole.

        When my brother-in-law came to stay at our place for a week in his motor home, we told him to just dump his grey water in our yard. For the rest of the summer, the grass where he dumped it was noticeably greener and fuller than the rest of our yard. Take it for what it’s worth.

  6. We lived off the grid for a while and used 5 gallon water bottles and a stand up dispenser to hold them. We had a composter toilet, washed up in a basin and went to the KOA once a week for our showers. Of course, in the summer we swam in the lake. You are right about laundry, it isn’t much different from living in the city. There are laundrymats everywhere, even in tiny towns. But you do become very conscience about the amount of water you use, and tend to drink all of the water you desperate into your glass.

  7. I have lived off grid in a dry tiny house. I love the relaxed routine it established in my life. I was fortunate to have water near by for washing but not for drinking. I filled 5 gallon glass wine fermenting jugs of drinking water from friend’s homes and pumped the water manually when needed. I used the glass jugs because I felt they were more sanitary then the plastic jugs and never left a plasticity taste in the water. For drainage I connected a garden hose to the sink and allowed the drain to run into my garden, I only use environmentally friendly products. This eliminated the need to water for my garden. For my bathroom I do have a black water system but chose instead to use a composting toilet which I empty frequently just to feel fresh. I have a membership at the YMCA which gives me access to many facilities including a hot tub for soaking in, showers, and drinkable water if I need to refill my jugs.

  8. Great article. I think we all should be forced to live like this so many days every year. I think it will teach us to appreciate things and people more plus allow us to slow down. I think our country has gotten so routinely that we do not care who is in our way, but of course, we all know that things will probably speed up with technology and the taste of success that Americans crave. Just my thoughts…

  9. My husband and myself are about to embark on this off grid lifestyle in order to save up enough to build our own tiny home. I can honestly say the toilet and shower situation seems the most daunting. We will have open access to the main house but it’s hard to wrap my head around going to someone’s house to take care of basics. Loved this post, gave me a few ideas of possible solutions. If nothing else it eased my mind.

    • I drive into town everyday for work and take showers at my mom’s house. The shower part is the what I most dislike about the situation. I feel overly dependent on her. If the creek near us runs dry I also do dishes at her house.

    • Katie,
      My husband and I have owned a dry camp that we built for ourselves 12 years ago. We have an outdoor gravity fed shower that is seasonal. But, in the winter months, I devised a way to shower indoors. Our camp is a one room area with a sleeping loft. The ladder/steps to the loft is in the center of the space. I heat up water on the wood stove and pour it into a 2 gallon garden watering can. I made a shower enclosure by simply sewing two shower curtains together and hanging it on a hula-hoop with shower rings which is suspended from the ceiling just for showering. I use a galvanized bucket or a kiddie pool as a shower pan. Have hubby climb up a few steps and be your “spigot”. Get wet, soap up and have hubby rinse you off! Trust me, it works and you can get it done with that little amount of hot water! Composting toilets require no plumbing. There’s also one called the “Dry Flush” which needs 12V to work. Google it. And, good luck!

  10. The art of “Washing Up” has been lost. We get used to 20 minute showers, sometimes just enjoying the feeling of the warm water cascading on us. When I started having to haul my own water, I realized how much I was wasting. All it takes is a wet towel and some clean water to rinse with, and you are good for the day. I used a gallon of water on days that I washed up, and only washed up when I needed it. Biodegradable Baby Wipes can be your best friend if you are worried about stinking. Using a biodegradable toilet, saving rain water and filling the 20 gallon barrels that I have with city water, I can get by on less than 10 gallons of water a month. Less in the winter. A wash cloth and air drying on the deck of my yurt means that I can use less water in a year than you use to flush your toilet in a month.

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