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The Cistern

Mar
5

Yesterday I went out to drain the cistern under the house and I couldn’t remember if I’d ever posted about it. It’s just one of the numerous oddities about this old house. There’s a tank of water under the house.

Seriously.

Because I’m so dense, I never thought twice about this little setup to the side of the back porch for the first few months I lived here.
IMG_7216
Last week, I was conducting a fun little survey with my friends of my good and bad points. My friend Jerry kindly noted that my good points included such things as being adventurous, energetic, a dreamer, and good at business (as long as someone else is doing the books–Jerry grasps that I can’t do math). My bad points are that I’m flighty, helpless, and hopeless, which he summed up as a nutjob. He based this on my total lack of knowledge of anything construction, car, or mechanical related. He noticed that I had new tires and I told him that someone had pointed out that the wires were starting to show through on my tires and I needed new ones, asap. Perfect example, he said–I was driving around with tires that were about to blow and had NO IDEA. Because I don’t notice things like that.

Or things like this little setup sitting to the side of my back porch which I walked past every day.
IMG_7215
I asked the previous owners about it and they told me, yeah, there’s a cistern under the house and that’s a pump. Every once in a while, especially after it’s been raining a lot, you need to drain it.

Oh.

So I promptly plugged the pump in, hung the hose out toward the driveway, and water poured out for nearly an hour. Wow. The previous owners told me they used the water in the summer to water the gardens.
IMG_7218
Here’s what it looks like in there, using a light.
IMG_7220
Morgan is sticking the end of an umbrella in here–where the tip of the umbrella is, that’s the water level.
IMG_7222
I have no idea how much water this tank holds, but it’s a lot. A cistern, according to the dictionary, is a tank that collects rainwater. When the granddaughter of the long-ago family who lived here with 13 children stopped by, I asked her if they used that water for their water source back then. She said, yes, and it was the coldest water in the world. (It doesn’t even look clean to me!)

I find it slightly creepy to have all this water under the house and sometimes worry about what’s going to happen if I ever forget to drain it. Which is a likely incident since it’s true that I can be flightly, helpless, and hopeless and forget things like that.

When I went to drain it yesterday–Morgan wanted to wash the road salt off my Explorer with the water–the cistern pump wouldn’t turn on when I plugged it in. Adam’s coming over later this week so I’ll have him look at it and see if I’m just doing something wrong (not impossible!) or if I need a new pump.

It’s been raining and snowing a lot lately, so I hope the house doesn’t float away in the meantime!

Okay, who has a cistern under the house? Raise your hands. I know somebody else does! How would you feel about having a big tank of water collecting under your house? Am I the only one who thinks a monster might take up residence there?! The Loch Sassafras monster…..
IMG_7217
YOU KNOW IT’S DOWN THERE.

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Posted by Suzanne McMinn on March 5, 2013  

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  1. 3-5
    8:02
    am

    That is a lot of water. Is it in an actual tank with no lid on it? Or just the whole basement is in water?

    I don’t really know what is in the room next to my kitchen. But there is a wooden cover over a hole in the concrete floor. There is water down there. It could be a cistern, but there isn’t a pump or anything. Just that wooden box over it. It’s kind of scary. I’m glad the box is over it because that’s where my cats eat and sleep. And my grand daughter likes to play out there.

  2. 3-5
    8:04
    am

    Very cool! Many houses had cisterns, even barns. Using the water for your garden would be perfect.
    http://www.oldhouseweb.com/blog/cisterns-historic-water-convservation/

    A lot of them were under porches and I know people would pump them out and then dig out the silt now and then, now that sounds like a creepy job to me! lol No thanks!

  3. 3-5
    8:33
    am

    We lived in a house that had a dug well under the porch…an older neighbor said they used to hang butter and milk in that well during the summer months…”kept things colder than the ice box.”

  4. 3-5
    8:35
    am

    When we bought this house, we were told that we have a tank in the front yard. There is a downspout going into a pile coming out of the ground and I have followed that pipe only about 8 feet from the house. Then I would have to dig up grass to find it and I haven’t had time for that adventure. So we don’t know what we have and nobody can tell us what it is. Some day I’m going to send a water house down that pipe and see how far it goes. There is no pump. We do have a well in the back yard but to outfit it to use the water would be very expensive so that’s another project for later if ever.

  5. 3-5
    8:44
    am

    I have a basement that collects water, but thats not the same lol

  6. 3-5
    8:48
    am

    We had state grants to help pay to fill in old cisterns in Iowa. We have one right out back of the house and filled it in a few years back so we could pour a patio back there. The downspouts used to be tied in to it, but we re-did those before we filled it in.

  7. 3-5
    8:59
    am

    I wouldn’t feel too bad about the tire thing. If you recall, our trip home from Sassafras was interrupted by a trip to a tire store. Yeah, I knew that I was due soon, but “soon” turned out to be even sooner than “soon”. Still, being oblivious is not recommended. Same with oil changes.

    As for cisterns, I’d think they are more common in areas where dry spells are more frequent. But in farm country, waste not, want not is always the rule.

    I’m certain that some friends of ours in the dry hills overlooking San Jose have a big cistern in their attic — it broke loose during the La Prieta earthquake! Not farmers, but they do have a nice lawn.

  8. 3-5
    9:07
    am

    My Aunt had one accessible from the basement via a concrete pool. There was a metal box sunk in there that she used as an icebox – it kept things frosty cold. We used to drink from it with cupped hands, and it was so cold your hands would go numb! She also had a spring that ran through her “cold house” via a trough. She used to wash clothes in it, way back when. With the lack of reliable rain, I have been longing for one as a source for watering vegetables and an easier water source for chickens.

  9. 3-5
    9:10
    am

    My mother-in-law lives in an old historic antebellum home in Louisiana (complete with knocks, noises and things that move from one place to another..apparently by themselves). She has a non-working cistern under her house, but it is in the form of a bricked up tank…not just loose under there like yours appears to be.. i don’t know how the collection process worked, but I do know it is empty now and has been for years.

  10. 3-5
    9:18
    am

    I have a basement that collects water, but thats not the same lol

    Ha! My first thought was I have encountered many unintentional cisterns in the Northeast, that is what sump pumps are for!

    The first thing I would want to know is it really a cistern? The loose material in there makes me wonder if it isn’t just a basement collecting water with bits and pieces of masonry/wood falling into it, which would NOT be good. The cisterns I have encountered (in the Caribbean) are of poured concrete, even the old houses.

    “Real” cistern or not, it should be easy enough for Adam to figure out how it is being fed and cut off that supply. Where are your downspouts channeled? Is your house damp?

  11. 3-5
    9:29
    am

    Yes it is a real cistern, and no the house isn’t damp.

  12. 3-5
    9:30
    am

    I am surprised the plumber/water pipe guys didn’t notice the cistern when they were under your house last year fixing the pipes. Or maybe they didn’t want to worry you with more water woes.
    Do your rain gutter drains from the house run into there? If they do, they could probably be re-routed so there wouldn’t be so much water going in there.
    I wonder if there’s one under the barn somewhere as well?
    Interesting mysteries!

  13. 3-5
    9:37
    am

    Maybe that’s where the turtle came from, that visited you a while ago! They like damp spaces. You could have a whole turtle family under there! Or salamanders! Or frogs! Or…

  14. 3-5
    10:25
    am

    My mother-in-law has a spring house that’s similar to a cistern. It collects water from a spring. It has a pump in it that pumps the water to the house. The spring house has to be cleaned out a few times a yr. I’ve watched my husband clean it & it can get really nasty. You have to shovel out gunk & dirt, then scrub the ‘tank’ with a brush. we always use bleach to clean it out with the last wash then rinse it well & fill it back up.

    Your cistern looks like it would be impossible to clean out. I would think that when it was used for drinking water they would have tried to clean it out during the dry season at least.

  15. 3-5
    10:45
    am

    We have a cistern that used to be attached to a downspout but was disconnected before we bought the place. It’s halfway under the house with a poured cement top with the old downspout sticking out of it. It has a pipe with a faucet that comes out of the wall in the basement. I don’t know what condition it’s in as we have never used it.I’ve been thinking about capping it off. A lot of times those old ones leak.

  16. 3-5
    10:52
    am

    Yup,we have one and have had one in several of our houses over the years. We even had one in the attic of one house. It was to run the potty by gravity before the house was hooked up to city water.

  17. 3-5
    10:52
    am

    Wow! That’s a great source of water to use for your garden. You just need to figure out how use it for that. My grandmother’s family home in rural Texas had a cistern. I remember it from my childhood but haven’t seen one in use since then. Our Heritage Farmhouse Museum here in Plano has a non-working cistern for people to see what the family would have used for their water source.

  18. 3-5
    11:58
    am

    There must be another access point. Breaking through your foundation for access, can’t be the right way to do it. Cisterns do need to be cleaned occasionally. I would also be concerned about the moisture causing the wood to rot. Most cisterns are sealed off from the rest of the house.
    How fun it is to keep finding new things about your farm.

  19. 3-5
    12:12
    pm

    I have read about cisterns and it always seemed that they were located in areas that had long, hot, dry spells. It doesn’t seem that your area really fits this bill but perhaps the builder of your house was familiar with cisterns and wanted one.

    I have not heard nor encountered a cistern in western Washington (state).

  20. 3-5
    12:32
    pm

    OUTBACKFARM: About the covered hole in the room off of your kitchen….have you stuck something down in the water to see how deep the water is? I ask because I have a friend who found out that he had a “French drain” that his washing machine emptied into. He discovered this after he did a lot of washing and the drain hole in the basement started backing up water and suds. A French drain is much like a septic drain field and it has pea gravel in it. His house was built in the 1930s.

  21. 3-5
    12:41
    pm

    A cistern underneath the house! How wonderful! Here in Louisiana I would be more afraid of the water moccasins that would take up residence, but I would love to have one…the cistern, not the snake!!

  22. 3-5
    12:45
    pm

    I have a house that was built in 1837. There is a hole in the front corner of the basement floor, about 3′x3′x3′. There is 1″ pipe that comes into the hole on one side and a 4″ drain pipe that leads to the ditch on the opposite. The water flow is like a slow flowing garden hose. This allows the water to be about 18′ deep. I imagine the original housewife was delighted to have water in her house-no going out to the pump in the bad weather! I have also used this water supply when the power is out. Only trouble was when the pipe leading to the ditch got clogged w/leaves-my basement filled with 6″ of water in no time!

  23. 3-5
    1:20
    pm

    Our home was built in 1900 and it has a cistern under the porch that (THANK GOD) drains itself at a certain capacity. I think it is one of the creepiest things ever. It reminds me of Silence of the Lambs. There’s a lady that goes to church with me who says that she used to help clean their cistern out.

    In an extreme emergency situation it’s nice to have, although I have ZERO desire to get into it any other time! NO THANKS.

  24. 3-5
    1:41
    pm

    Oh, Lord, this is the stuff of nightmares for me. When I was little one of my aunts had a cistern beside her house—eeeeewwww!! I’d ask one of the helpers to drain it on a schedule & then TRY not to think about it.

  25. 3-5
    2:22
    pm

    A Link on Cisterns from West Virginia University! Educational

    http://www.wvu.edu/~exten/infores/pubs/ageng/sw12.pdf

    I would keep and use for watering Garden! I would not drink out of it or store anything in it as sounds like it has to be cleaned but also chlorinated. If a hot summer and water table levels are down this would be a good thing! Keep It! Someone in Your area will know All about Cisterns and will be able to share on a one to one basis. Plumbing Contractors here in So MD so make sure Everything is Code for Your State!

  26. 3-5
    2:25
    pm

    Our farmhouse was built about 100 years ago. We have a big old pole barn about 30 feet from the back of the house and the gutters on it, as well as the gutters on the house itself, both feed into our cistern. It’s a concrete tank sunk in the ground between the two buildings and it has a big, sliding, concrete cap on it. It has it’s own dedicated well pump in our basement and if our well goes dry all we have to do is turn a couple of faucet knobs in our basement and voila, our house is supplied with fresh water from the cistern. We live in Illinois, which ISN’T very arid or dry, and we’ve had to switch over twice in the past 5 years. It’s nice to have a backup water supply if you need it.

  27. 3-5
    3:05
    pm

    Kind of strange that access to the cistern is through the bricks on the side of your foundation. Maybe there is another access point? What’s under your porch?

    Also, you might want to secure that opening a little better if you’re giving classes and have kids around. Little boys might really like to poke around an opening like that and “explore”. Or maybe I’m just a worrywart?

  28. 3-5
    3:06
    pm

    :moo: I haven’t heard that word since I used to go to my grandparents house. I do know it’s a good thing. I even like the word c-i-s-t-e-r-n yep.

  29. 3-5
    4:37
    pm

    We have 3 cisterns. Or had. We filled the one by the barn in several years ago. The other 2 are by the house. One collects water from the eaves. The other used to have a hand pump on it. It wasn’t functional so we removed it and put a cover on the cistern. We think both cisterns leak since in 17 years we have never had to drain water out of either of them. All of our cisterns were hand dug and lined with stacked stones. Its fascinating to think about that job! In my area, there are actually people who still depend on their cisterns for water. The water table here is shallow and some folks can’t even dig a viable well. So filling their cisterns with water from town is the only option. It seems funny to have your well run out of water after a few loads of laundry with the Mississippi River nearly in your backyard!

  30. 3-5
    8:03
    pm

    My grandfather’s farm had a cistern and it was a concrete tank with a concrete cover between the house and the smokehouse. My only question is is your cistern a tank and why is it just accessed by a whole in the foundation of your house. That doesn’t seem to be the best idea, and how did the people before you keep critters out of there with that set up? I think it is a good idea to have someone look at it and make sure it’s contained and not causing any problem with your house. On the plus side, if it’s as it should be, it’s nice to know you have a backup water system.

  31. 3-5
    8:50
    pm

    Both of the cisterns I’ve had were completely enclosed in concrete (with lids for access.) It seems odd to me that yours is open like that. Of course, back in the day, there was no building code to adhere to. If a critter like an oppossum or groundhog got under there they could probably drown in it. The water in an enclosed cistern will stay clean and clear. I use mine to water my animals and the garden and in the summer I also use it to fill my washing machine. The soft water cleans better than hard, chlorinated water does.

    Your cistern is probably fed by the downspouts on your house. If that’s the case, you can have them routed away if you don’t want all that water filling up under there. Otherwise though, a cistern is a very handy thing to have! Every so often, even here in WV, we do get drought and water restrictions. It’s nice to know you can still water your garden or wash your car if that should occur.

  32. 3-5
    8:54
    pm

    The very idea of an open cistern (I assume it’s open) under a house would seem like a horrible situation. You should never have open dampness under any house for any reason. Something tells me this was completely sealed at one time, and maybe it still is, but has anyone actually checked? With the grade you have at that point, it might be better to install an overflow pipe so that you don’t have to worry about pumping.

    I know one thing, I’d seriously investigate the entire cistern to see if there’s access for animals to fall in… like cats etc.

  33. 3-5
    10:47
    pm

    YES!! my last house was built in 1865 and had a bottle-shaped cistern next to the back porch, and the bottom of the ‘bottle’ intruded into the dirt-floor basement itself. somewhere in time someone blocked it off and when we bought the house the cistern was dry and had old animal bones – we think possums and woodchucks – at the bottom. we climbed down on a ladder, vacuumed the cistern clean(ish), and opened it up to collect rainwater again. we used that water to water the vegetable garden during several new jersey droughts, especially when water was being rationed. interestingly, the interior of the cistern was lined with brick, and was pumped up to the porch where the laundry was washed, right outside the kitchen. there was also an old well that was a source of drinking water. the well had collapsed.

    re: journey11, there was a clay overflow drain coming out the side, above the ground level, . spilling out to a gravel driveway. since we had pets, DH made a fitted wood cover to keep to keep them safe.

  34. 3-6
    2:23
    am

    I have a cistern, it supplied the house with “fresh” water, just in case the well would fall dry and rain water was softer then the well water.
    But after we installed a water softener, we disconnected the downspouts who where “filling” the cistern and cut a door in the wall.
    Now I have a cold room in the basement in the old cistern.

    Like mentioned before by somebody, if it gets water, something feeds it..so disconnect that and you don’t have to worry anymore.

  35. 3-6
    8:29
    am

    I live on St. Croix, one of the US Virgin Islands and have a 15,000 gallon cistern under my house. This is very common for all houses here because not everyone has access to city water or a well. We use this water for everything, including drinking water. The water is collected from rainwater off of our roof and is routed to the cistern. I treat the cistern each month with bleach and we clean and re-coat our cistern about every 3-5 years. If you put in an overflow pipe, you will not need to worry about the cistern becoming too full. You would also need to seal all access points to keep critters and lots of dirt from getting in.

  36. 3-6
    10:58
    am

    Suzanne, I’m jealous, can I have it??? Huh huh huh CAN I PLEASE?

  37. 3-6
    12:17
    pm

    I have a cistern in my basement! We have no well or accessible water on our property, so we collect rainwater in it, and that’s what we use for ALL our watery needs – showering, gardens, drinking (we have a reverse osmosis filter for drinking water).

  38. 3-7
    7:26
    am

    I live in a house built in 1970 and have a cistern. There is no city water so it is the only option. My home is just 15 miles south of Cinti. Ohio and it is a suburb community. It is great! I haven’t paid for water in over 40 years. We drink it, wash in it etc. Your gutters drain into the cistern and it is a very ‘green’ solution. It’s clean and even if city water was available I would keep the cistern for gardens,car washing, or anything else you need water for. The cistern is part of my basement and is 24′ by 13′ and is 8′ high. Holds alot of water. The only down side is when the electric goes out the pump doesn’t work so no water. Oh well – nothing is perfect.

  39. 3-8
    4:51
    pm

    My grandmother had a cistern underneath her kitchen floor many years ago. She heard a loud noise in the middle of the night so she went to check it out. Fortunately, she turned a light on before she stepped into the kitchen. The entire floor had collapsed into the cistern. Big shock!

  40. 3-11
    9:32
    am

    We have 2 cement cistern’s under our back porch/patio shaped in the form of a backwards (L) we are going to be re-hooking them to our house and making them functional once again: we have city water, but having the back up for emergency’s and a better water source for the gardens,,I feel is a must have! I trully am thinking that one of the reasons our garden has not done as well in the past few years, is the lack of fresh rain water! using the city water to water the garden,,,I’m pretty sure was not as good as an idea as some may think! to many chemicals.They were put in in the early 1900′s: solid! about 8feet deep, and about 23 to 24 feet long:: big old concrete rooms: Now I just need one of you fine folks to tell me please:: whom does one call to clean, repair,re-align gutters and install pumps ???? :wave: Cause I have no clue who to contact w/ questions ???

  41. 3-11
    10:16
    am

    Some places have made it illegal to have cisterns and tanks to gather rain and runoff to use even to water gardens etc. This is mostly true out west where “water rights” are a huge thing for farmers in arid places.

    I’m sure that’s not an issue for you, but it is something to think about. I could toss a sump-pump into the river to water our garden if I really wanted to!… though the neighbors would probably look at me funny, they’d just laugh and shake their heads, though I bet fish and game would not think it was a good idea. (that would be the neighbors across the river!)

    A cistern is nice to save well water and even to chill various foods, (beer!) though yours does look awfully open, still I’m sure we’re not seeing the whole picture from the pictures! :lol:

    Has Adam had a chance to look at the pump yet?

  42. 3-20
    8:52
    am

    I wish I had a cistern! One of the things I see is encroaching drought. There’s drought now all over, esp. mid summer. I’ve been looking into xeriscape and other water-saving techniques because I’m convinced that the drought (now in select places in the state to my south) will make it here soon! If it were me? I’d get the cistern capped, repaired, cleaned, etc. and use the water and be grateful I could probably at least water my veggie garden with it.

  43. 10-17
    9:43
    am

    First, I found this posting when I saw the word Cistern and thought, how cool, I have three!…and then I realized the date of the post, my birthday…funny.

    Anyway, we purchased my husbands great grandparents, then grandparents home about 5 years ago, old thing, odd shaped rooms..just old…anyway, there are three cisterns on this property, two attached to the house and one under the garage. All of them were put in for the purpose of watering the gardens or crops. We have seen past photos where most of the property attached to the house was all crops, and we know when my husband was growing up that his grandmother always had huge gardens…so this is perfect for this house. There is a weird concoction of down spouting on the house that makes sure every drop of rain gets in these cisterns…..I would like to open the one that is in our basement and use it more for storage….not water….but we have enough projects going right now that this will never happen…lol

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