I haul water for the first time.
“Off-the-grid” is a term that applies to property without access to public utilities like electricity, gas, telephone, cable television, and water.
By this definition, our home in Wickenburg is only partially “on-the-grid.” We have electricity and telephone but live beyond the range of cable television and town water lines. (I don’t think gas is available anywhere in town other than in tanks.) We have Dish Network, so we don’t need cable. (Ironically, Internet is provided wirelessly through the local cable company.) And we get our water from a well we share with the house next door.
Our place on Howard Mesa is utterly and completely off the grid. We get electricity through a small solar system Mike installed on our shed. We get gas delivered to a tank on the property. We use our cell phones for telephone service. We don’t have any kind of television or Internet. And water…well, it has to be hauled up to the property.
While it is possible to dig a well for water, this area of Arizona is notorious for its low water table. A well might have to go down thousands of feet to hit a good water source. It’s just too darn expensive to dig that deep. So most folks have water tanks and either hire a water service to keep them full or haul water themselves.
We have two tanks with a total capacity of 2,100 gallons. Because we don’t live up here full time, we only fill the tanks once every two or so years. Since we bought the property, we’ve had the tanks filled four times by water services (once because a crack in the valve drained a tank over the wintertime and once because I found a dead animal in one of the tanks). But when I called three different water services to fill the tanks sometime this week, none of them would come. (It appears that we’re not the only ones who have had bad experiences with the roads here.)
Not a big problem. Our friends Matt and Elizabeth, who live full time on the other side of the mesa, haul their own water. They have one of those water tanks that fit in the back of a pickup truck. It holds 425 gallons. They said we could borrow it, and the transfer pump we’d need to move water from the portable tank to our tanks anytime.
I picked up the tank yesterday. Matt had created a platform for it that made it level with the back of the truck. It was just a matter of sliding it off the platform and onto the tailgate, then lifting it slightly to get it over the wheel wells. Close the tailgate and it’s in.
Elizabeth also gave me their pump. It’s a black cylinder that stands upright in the bottom of the tank (on the inside). A power cord and a hose come out of the pump.
I went into Williams today to do some laundry, get on the Internet for a while, hit the Post Office, and pick up a few things at the local hardware store. I stopped at the water “store” — Running Water, which was also one of the water services that wouldn’t deliver to the top of Howard Mesa — on the way back. I pulled in behind a man with a pickup truck towing a trailer with the same 425 gallon tank I had in the back of my truck. I shut the engine, and got out.
“Mind if I watch?” I asked. “I’ve never done this before.”
He’d parked his tank right under an orange, flexible hose with a 2 or 3 inch diameter. As I watched, he pulled a piece of black plastic pipe with a 4 or 5 inch diameter and stuck it into the top of his tank. He put the orange hose inside that.
“I use an extension,” he told me. “My tank is so low that sometimes the water pressure pushes the hose out while filling. The extension keeps it in.”
He walked to the machine the hose was connected to and inserted a ten dollar bill. The water immediately began gushing through the hose and the extension and into his tank. He put another quarter in.
“I like to fill it all the way,” he said. “This way the water doesn’t slosh around while I’m driving.”
We watched the water fill his tank. It was white and somewhat transparent and the water looked blue. While we waited, we talked about the price of water going up because the price of fuel had gone up. The water at Running Water is hauled to the site, probably from Flagstaff or Belmont. The more water you got, the cheaper it was. But not everyone could haul thousands of gallons of water. 400 gallons for $10 seemed to be the most popular quantity. That made it 2.5 cents per gallon.
The water rose into the neck of his tank and stopped just beneath the 425 gallon mark. The man inserted another quarter. A moment later, the water was overflowing in the tank, splashing all over the trailer. He pulled out the flexible hose, which was still flowing water, and his extension. He put the extension in the back of his truck and came back to fasten the lid on his tank.
“Have a good day,” he said to me. Then he climbed into his truck and rolled away.
I pulled up carefully, aligning the orange hose over the top of my tank’s fill port. Since my tank was high on the bed of the pickup, I wouldn’t need an extension. I got out, checked the position, then moved the truck back about six inches. I killed the engine. I took the lid off the tank and inserted the orange hose in it. Then I slipped a ten dollar bill into the machine. The water started gushing; the hose stayed in place.
While I waited, a woman pulled up in a pickup truck with a smaller tank on the back.
Although I didn’t want the water to slosh around in the tank, I also didn’t want to get water all over the back of the truck. I’d bought three bags of mortar and I didn’t want them to get wet. So when the water stopped flowing short of the 425 gallon mark, I was satisfied. I pulled the orange hose out carefully and let the water in the hose run into the tank. Then I pushed it aside, fastened the lid on the tank, got into the truck, and drove off.
Let’s do the math here. A gallon of water weighs about 8 pounds. I had 400 gallons, which totaled 3,200 pounds. I also had the tank itself, which probably weighed about 50 pounds, 3 80-lb bags of mortar, and a 20-foot length of 1/2 inch re-bar, cut into 4 pieces. So I was hauling at least 3,500 lbs of stuff in the back of that truck.
That’s why we have a truck. Because we haul stuff.
It was 10 miles back up Route 64 to the turnoff for Howard Mesa, then 5 miles up those nasty unpaved roads. The speed limit on Route 64 was 65, but I soon discovered that when I got my speed over 60 MPH, I could feel a certain amount of instability in the truck. I don’t know if I was imagining it or if it was because of the gentle sloshing around of the water, which I could watch in my rearview mirror. So I kept my speed between 50 and 60 MPH and signaled for my turn long before I reached it, letting the truck slow to 40 MPH before I got into the turning lane. I didn’t want to have to jump on the brakes. I also took it very slowly up the roads to our lot, keeping my speed between 10 and 20 MPH the whole way.
I arrived without incident and backed the truck up to our small, 550 gallon tank, which I’d been using to keep the horses’ water trough filled. After letting Jack the Dog out to supervise and putting my lunch on the stove to reheat, I went out to transfer the water from one tank to the other. I started by lowering the pump into the bottom of the tank and running its hose into my tank. Then I plugged in the pump, using an extension cord from the shed. The pump started pumping, sounding strangely muffled from deep inside the portable tank. The water rushed into the other tank.
Elizabeth had said that it took 20 minutes to transfer a whole tank of water from one tank to the other. That sounded a little too quick for me. So I timed it. I also filled the horses’ water trough to make room for the incoming water. Whatever didn’t fit in the small tank would go in the larger one. But I was trying to use up all the water in the larger one so we could move it closer to the shed. Can’t move a 1,550 gallon water tank when there’s water in it.
I was standing by the tank, monitoring its pumping progress, when the pump sounded like it was trying to suck air. I unplugged it. My tank was nearly full. The portable tank was nearly empty. It had taken 38 minutes to make the transfer.
A lot of people think it’s some kind of crazy ordeal to haul water. I guess it would be if I had to do it every day. But this was the first time I’d ever had to do it — and we’ve owned our place at Howard Mesa for over six years. It wasn’t difficult at all. It wasn’t even inconvenient. I picked it up on my way home, then transferred it from one tank to the other while making and eating lunch.
I figure that between me and the horses, we probably go through 30-40 gallons of water a day. The horses are the big consumers; on a hot day, they’ll drink 15-20 gallons each. I don’t drink this water; I drink bottled water and we have 5 gallon water bottles we fill at home and bring up here for cooking. So this 400 gallons — plus the 300 or so gallons I had to start out with — should last about 20 days. With luck, we’ll have the bigger tank drained and moved before the end of the season. Then we can top off both tanks in three trips and be all set up for the winter (if we come up here) and next summer.
Next summer, I hope to put up a shade structure for the horses. It’ll have a gutter on the lower side of its roof to collect rainwater and dump it right in the horses’ water trough. With monsoon rains the way they are, the trough should stay full from the beginning of July through the end of August.
I will admit one thing about having to haul water: it really makes you conscious about how much water you use. You don’t let the water run in the sink when you know that every drop that goes down the drain is just another drop you’ll have to haul up one day in the future.
[composed on top of a mesa in the middle of nowhere with ecto]
water, tank, Williams, Arizona