It is minus thirty-six Celsius (-36C) or (-33F) here outside of Yellowknife and we are pumping water from our lake that is 250 feet away. Now that normally might sound like a slightly daunting task, one that borderlines on frostbite territory. Yet we're sitting in front of a warm fire blazing away in our living room. How is that possible? The answer is easy.
We have an amazing lake pump system that is both ingenious as well as simple. I say ingenious only because it was the previous owner that installed the system. I'm just the caretaker.
In a previous post, we wrote about how our off the grid water system works in the summer (see Our Off Grid Water System). Here's how our off the grid water system operates in winter.
How Our Off The Grid Water System Works in Winter
To begin, we have an 1100 gallon holding tank in the house that we pump water into, from the lake, about every three to five weeks. The basic pump system is fairly straightforward. It has a rubber line running from the submerged lake pump up to the house (Pic 1) over a distance of approximately 250 feet.
The lake provides all our water needs. This includes our drinking water, which we filter. Read our Big Berkey water filter review for the lowdown.
Now under normal spring and summer conditions, this by itself is ideal. But when you have ice on the lake from six to eight months of the year, you need a method to keep the water line from freezing up as you attempt to pump water. And for clarity, the six to eight months is not an exaggeration. We usually have to start winterizing our boat before the end of September. And by October, I'm right into my off grid winter home routine.
Freeze-up starts between mid-October and mid-November and does not leave until late May or early June. That is where the heated glycol (antifreeze) system comes into play.
Glycol Keeps Our Pipe From Freezing When It's -40 Degrees Outside
We have a converted propane hot water heater in the water tank room, a room just off our front entrance. It's a critical part of our off the grid water system. The hot water heater has been conveniently filled with glycol as shown in Pic #2.
The lines from the glycol tank run in a simple closed “loop” system. There's an enclosed rubber hose (about 500 feet worth) running along each side of the waterline. Hot glycol circulates inside the hose, alongside the water line to keep it from freezing.
Pic 1 shows the directional flow of glycol symbolized by the orange arrows with the lake water flow is shown by the blue arrows.
As a side note, the flow of water shows from the lake to the house although once we are done the pumping, the excess in the water line bleeds back to the lake. There is also a plastic 8inch pipe that has all the lines of our off the grid water system covered and insulated from the house to the lake.
Step #1: Heat the Glycol
To start the process we have to first turn the glycol heater from “Vacation” mode to “Hot”. We then allow that to heat up for 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the temperature.
The reason that the tank is not left “on” all the time is simply to conserve propane. This is a lot like turning your regular use water heater to vacation mode when you're going to be away for an extended period of time.
As another side note, we also keep the dial set lower for our regular water tank to also conserve energy. And we'll be installing an "on-demand" water heater this year.
Update: We got it in June 2019!!! Once the temperature outside gets below the -30C level, I'll generally go with the 45-minute pre-heat which is what we did this week.
Step #2: Turn on the Electric Glycol Pump
After the glycol gets to a nice temperature, I turn on the electric glycol pump (see below). This actually “pulls” the glycol from the 5-gallon holding tank above it. It then forces the glycol into the loop down to the lake and back.
When first starting this, the return is so cold. I mean seriously. Cold. As in you can't hold the line for more than a few seconds.
Within about five minutes, the return starts feeling warmer. We then allow that to run for another 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the outdoor temperature. This ensures the middle water line is heated sufficiently to prevent the lake water from freezing on contact with the line.
I should point out that the lake pump (Pic 1) is actually located about 60-70 feet out in the lake. And it's down about 18 feet. This is actually a good thing because the ice can get to about 6 feet thick in bad winters although currently, it's only about 3 feet thick.
Step #3: Turn on The Lake Pump
Once the above is done and we feel the line is warm enough, we turn the lake pump on. This is the pump that sends the (really cold) lake water up to the house. To do this we head to the breaker panel in the house and hit the double breaker that activates our Franklin Electric ½ hp submersible lake pump.
If everything works properly, water should hit the holding tank within about a minute. But that's a long minute when you're holding your breath…
There was only one time that the water did not come up. And it was due to my own impatience at not heating and circulating the glycol long enough. It was easily remedied though. I just had to start all over and repeat the cycle with appropriate timeframes.
We continue pumping for an hour to an hour and a half to fill the tank.
Step #4: Remember to Set the Overflow Alarm (aka The Air Raid Siren)
Fortunately, we have an overflow alarm on the water tank of our off the grid water system. That thing is capable of waking the dead. It's there to remind you that you're near the top of the holding tank, to prevent overfilling it.
I learned the hard way (twice actually) that it is best to leave the alarm on at all times. The first time I left it off was because we were just sitting in the nearby kitchen. I thought (there's the rub) that I would remember roughly when an hour or so had passed. Well, I didn’t. And then I heard water splashing on the floor somewhere. I was like an Olympic sprinter getting to the shutoff breaker when I realized it was the overflowing water tank.
You know, I'm really not sure though what was worse. That time hearing the water hitting the floor, or the other time sitting in the kitchen when that blasted alarm went off (coincidently about the same time my bladder released) but that is a different story…
Step 5: Keep the Glycol Pump Running.....
Once the above steps are completed, we do allow the glycol pump to continue running. We let it go for about 15 or 20 minutes more. This keeps the line warm as the water in the line works its way back to the lake once the pump is shut off.
I should mention that our house is some 70 feet or so above the water level of the lake so this is where gravity comes into play. I am not sure if we actually need to leave the glycol flowing that long but I don't want to have a frozen 30 feet of water line to find out otherwise.
So this is the awesome off the grid water system we have that allows us to pump water all year round. One thing to note is that we used to have to set the house power to run straight from the generator when running the pump. That was before we switched from a 12-volt battery system to a 24-volt system and that is a different story again.
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Hi there - we have an above-ground septic tank that is extremely well-insulated and partly under our house. It gets pumped out several times a year. We don't even need our glycol-line heating system to keep it above freezing. We let it freeze up gradually, then it thaws in the spring and we get it pumped out. See our post on Off Grid Toilets for more about how our septic tank system works!
I have a similar lake house that I'd like to try a set up like this with to winterize it. Do you use a septic? How is that affected by the glycol system? Thanks!
Thanks so much for posting this. I am going to use this as the "basis of design" for our OTG water system design. We'll be pumping water from a creek 700' lower, so I'll have to make some amendments to the system due to the difference in pressure, but thanks for the awesome idea!
Hi Chris! Thanks for the comment. And yes, it does run on a loop. 🙂
Great system! So if I understand correctly, the glycol system is melting the ice in the supply pipe, from where it's level with the water to approx 6-8' below the surface where the water is liquid. The rest of the water supply pipe should be empty.
Other systems use a heat tape for this function- but they have a big power draw.
How does the glycol return up to the house? It must run on a loop, I'm assuming.
I'm planning a system almost exactly like this, and I live close to Winnipeg. I really like the glycol idea, we are going to be heating our floors through a separate zone.
Hi Jared - the holding tank for our water is in our "water tank room" just off our front hall. So it's above ground and indoors.
How do you keep the holding tank from freezing? Is it in the crawl space? Below the frost line?
Thanks, Lesa! We're lucky to have it. 🙂
Your off-grid water system is amazing! Thanks for sharing it at the Homestead Bog Hop 🙂