Can a Homemade Biofilter Save You Money on Fresh Water?

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“Do not, my friends, become addicted to water.  It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence!”

Truer words have never been spoken; the quote above was made by the character Immortan Joe, played by Hugh Keays-Byrne in the 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road. In that film, co-written and directed by George Miller, Immortan Joe had taken control of one of the last remaining aquifers still filled with fresh ground water and used it to assert total control over his desperate subjects in a vast barren wasteland. Apparently, none of these people had ever considered to construct a homemade biofilter, but we’re jumping ahead of ourselves.

There’s no doubt that water is the essential substance that sustains life on our planet and, as far as we know, throughout the universe. The phrase “Where there’s water there’s life,” is a sentiment that’s been echoed within the scientific community for decades, so it’s understandable why astrophysicists and researchers get so excited each time they find water on other planetary bodies or orbiting moons. Meanwhile, here at home, fresh water is becoming more and more scarce and, in the case of California and some other regions in the world, George Miller’s dystopian vision seems a little more plausible each year.

Aquifers, the Farewell Tour

You may or may not be surprised to know that most people in the world get their water from large aquifers, which are porous rock or soil structures deep underground that contain fresh water. To get to that water, engineers drill into the earth and build large wells to pump out the water. What may be surprising, though, is that the human population is depleting these aquifers at a faster rate than its being replenished.

In a PBS NewsHour interview with James Famiglietti, a professor of Earth system science and civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Irvine, he explains why 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are past the tipping point of sustainability, and 13 of those threaten may be too far gone to be recovered.

About two billion people rely on groundwater as the primary water source. And it provides about half of the water that we need to irrigate agriculture. So we rely on it heavily. But we don’t manage it very well. And that’s true in the United States as well as around the world.

Some of the most affected aquifers around the world include the Middle East, Northern India, North China Plain, and Africa. Stateside, aquifers in the High Plains and Ogallala are in rough shape. California, especially, is being forced to rely more and more on the Central Valley aquifer because of the state’s persistent drought. Based on previous studies and the most report from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which Famiglietti was lead author on, Famiglietti explains:

…we have been losing about 5.5. trillion gallons of groundwater per year for the last four years during this drought. And that’s because in California right now, there’s no snow in the mountains, there’s no rainfall happening, there is very little water in our reservoirs. So, we have to rely on this groundwater, and it’s disappearing pretty rapidly.

With the case of California’s drought, strict water conservation measures have been in effect and fines being given to those caught not doing their part. Water prices in some areas have also increased due to the added cost of redirecting water from different states to ours. Desalination plants have also been considered to relieve the water shortage, but running those plants would likely drive the cost of water up, as well as cause some adverse environmental effects. So, begs the question:

How Can a Homemade Biofilter Save You Money?

California may not be getting a lot of rain at the moment, but it still gets some rain throughout the year; it’s just not enough rain or snow to do much good in replenishing our water reservoirs. The amount of rain California is currently getting, however, is enough to help off-set your municipal water supply usage, if you were able to capture and filter it.

Some proposed homemade biofilter designs claim to be able to produce five gallons of fresh drinking water in a 24 hour period. If ten thousand homes were to reclaim twice that amount of dirty water within a week, about 400,000 gallons of water could be saved per month. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 5.5 trillion gallons of groundwater that Famiglietti is telling us we’re losing per year in California, but every bit helps at home.

Building a Homemade Water Filter

There are several homemade water filtration designs, each with varying degrees of effective filtration. I’ve once seen Bear Grylls use his sock and pocket lining to create a make-shift water filter in the wilderness on his survivalist reality series Man vs. Wild. I won’t recommend that here because we’re aiming for something a little more sophisticated and effective.

Instead of using Bear Grylls’ survival tips, we’ll focus on the two types of homemade filters that seem to generate better water filtration results compared to the others. These are the homemade biofilter and the homemade ceramic filter.

Homemade Biofilter

food grade bucket
male plumbing fitting

Items needed:

  • Five 5-gallon food-grade buckets with lids
  • Drill
  • Plumbing fittings
  • Food-safe tubing or pipe and connector
  • Clean cloth or porous material
  • Gravel
  • Sand
  • Activated charcoal/carbon

Step One: Holes are the Goals!

  1. Based on the size of your plumbing fittings, drill holes into the center underneath your first two 5-gallon food-grade buckets.
  2. Trace drill holes onto two bucket lids using your drilled buckets and then drill the holes into the two lids. This will help keep your holes aligned.
  3. Based on the connector size of your tubing or pipe, drill a hole into the side of your third bucket about 1 to 1.5 inches above the bottom.
  4. Connect the plumbing fittings to each hole in the first two buckets and cover each hole with a clean cloth or porous material. This will keep each filter filament in contained in its bucket, but allow water to flow through.
  5. Connect the tubing or pipe connector to the hole in the third bucket and cover the hole with a clean cloth or porous material.

Step Two: Fill with Filaments!

  1. Wash your gravel and sand clean for best use. Use your fourth and fifth buckets to clean each filament separately.
  2. Place third bucket onto an elevated surface about three feet high. Make sure this surface is strong, sturdy, and level enough to support the weight of the entire biofilter system.
  3. Fill the third bucket about 2/3 full of activated charcoal and place one of the drilled lids on top.
  4. Place the second bucket on top of the third bucket and connect the plumbing fitting through the drilled lid hole.
  5. Fill the second bucket about 2/3 full of clean sand and place the other drilled lid on top.
  6. Place the first bucket on top of the second bucket and connect the plumbing fitting through the drilled lid hole.
  7. Fill the first bucket about 2/3 full of clean gravel.
    1. You can cover the bucket with the undrilled lid when you are not adding dirty water to be filtered.

Step Three: Let Gravity Do the Rest!

  1. Pour contaminated water through the top of the first bucket and let it filter through the three different filter filaments in each bucket.
    1. Be careful not to spill any contaminated water onto the sides, which may seep through and affect the performance of your biofilter.
  2. Thoroughly clean the fourth and fifth buckets and use the fourth bucket to catch the filtered water being dripped out of the third bucket.
  3. When the water stops dripping out, filtration will be completed and you’ll have fresh filtered water.

Step Four: Aeration & Boiling

  1. For better quality water, take your fresh filtered water from bucket four and pour it back and forth a few times with your fifth bucket.
    1. This process is called “aeration” and will circulate and add air back to your filtered water.
  2. Boil your filtered water to kill off even more harmful bacteria and microorganisms, if you want to be extra safe.

man drinks water from pond, river, lake, springThe way this biofilter works is similar to that of a water treatment plant’s multi-stage process or, more specifically, how groundwater is naturally recharged into underground reservoirs. The gravel is used to separate larger particles like leaves and bugs; the sand filters out smaller particles that have slipped through the grave; and, finally, the activated charcoal’s increased porous quality absorbs most bacteria and some chemicals from the water. When all of the filaments are working correctly, this should produce water clean enough to drink.

Homemade Ceramic Filter

This homemade water filter is much easier to construct and you won’t have to rely on gravel, sand, and charcoal.

Items needed:

  • Five 5-gallon food-grade buckets with lids
  • Drill
  • Plumbing fittings
  • Food-safe tubing or pipe and connector
  • Clean cloth or porous material
  • One or more ceramic filters

Follow steps one through four of the Homemade Biofilter design above, but use store bought ceramic filters instead of gravel and sand. You could use continue to use charcoal to absorb toxins, but it isn’t necessary with the ceramic filters, which are designed to filter water.

Will a Homemade Biofilter or Ceramic Filter Save You Money?

It’s entirely possible that these homemade filters will save you money on fresh water for general use or to drink. Depending on where you live, the cost of drinking water and municipal water service can vary, but any amount of water saved or reclaimed still translates to money being saved. The real question is:

Is a Homemade Biofilter or Ceramic Filter Worth the Trouble?

As mentioned before, the type of biofilter design described in this article will filter about five gallons per day, which is great if you’ve got a lot of dirty water that needs to be reclaimed, but still requires quite a bit of work and some maintenance once your filaments or ceramic filters become less effective. The cost of these homemade filter designs can range from $35 to $60 based on reports from online folks who have constructed them; the price may also vary depending on how much filament you’re using, the quality of the materials, or the place you’re buying it from.

NewAir water dispenser
NewAir WCD-200W Hot & Cold Water Dispenser

If you were to use your filtered water for general purposes, it would be very helpful in watering gardens, but not as convenient if you were to use it as drinking water. Those who have reported drinking water from a homemade biofilter claim they haven’t suffered any ill effects at the moment of the post, but haven’t posted any follow up since then–that’s not to suggest they died after drinking their homemade filter water, but that they do a poor job of updating.

Relying on water you’ve filtered at home could be an issue if you’re not entirely sure your biofilter filaments are completely free of harmful bacteria or heavy metals. The quality of drinking water should be thoroughly tested to confirm any potential health risks even if you don’t experience any short-term effects. City water plants test their water quality regularly, as do most bottling plants; you could buy a home water testing kit to check your own water quality, which adds a little more investment if you’re serious about making a long-term homemade water filter.

There’s also the issue of the water’s taste because some builders have reported the flatness of the water. This is likely an issue regarding the oxygen content of the water, which can be remedied by pouring the filtered water back and forth between buckets, as described in the aeration process of Step Four. This, however, also adds more time and work to produce quality drinking water.

If you were to invest a bit more money into a high quality water dispenser or under-counter water filter unit, you could save almost as much money as building a homemade biofilter in the long run and have the convenience and peace of mind that you’re getting the best possible water.

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