Our DIY Off-Grid Fire Protection System
Moving off-grid? This should be your first investment.Posted Aug 4, 2015
Fire protection in remote areas is largely a do-it-yourself affair. With no road to our place, the small volunteer fire department couldn’t get here to help, and with only a few neighbors we would have little help to draw upon in a fire emergency. But with so much else to do when building a homestead, and with limited finances, fire protection always seemed lower on the list of things to do. Our early fire protection system consisted of a working hose and a few buckets, shovels and chainsaws to clear a fire-break. We were too busy and couldn’t really afford to do it right.
But one fine day about 5 years ago, our son Aran arrived by boat with two huge green water tanks, a pump and all the hoses, connectors and nozzles to put a first-rate independent fire protection system in place. He is an experienced firefighter and decided for us that it was time to be more responsible to ourselves and our community by taking fire prevention and fire fighting more seriously. And today, as we bake in a year of drought and the local fire hazard rating climbs to ‘extreme’, our DIY fire protection system is key to our security and peace of mind.
Right now, in the midst of summer, our tanks are full, the pump is primed and ready-to-go, the hoses are connected and laid out to within 20’ of the house, with the nozzle and extra hose coils in place. A smaller ‘fast attack’ hose is attached to the main line for spot fires that may occur nearby. During a fire drill we had last week, I was able to get water on the house within 2 minutes.
Here below are the components of this system, which is complete and robust enough to provide significant protection should a fire occur.
- Water Pump – Honda WH15X 118cc 1.5 in. NPT 115 GPM High Pressure Pump. Suction and discharge ports 1 ½” diameter; discharge capacity 105 US gallons (400 liters, 88 Imperial gallons) per minute; dry weight 49 lbs. (22 kg) – Approximate cost: $700
- Suction Hose – This is the 10’ ribbed intake hose which brings water from the tanks to the pump. The intake hose can also be used to draw water from a lake, the ocean or other source, using a strainer on the intake end. Approximate cost: $100
- Discharge Hoses – 50’ lengths of 150psi red PVC layflat water discharge hose with 1 ½” standard forestry ‘quick-connect’ aluminum couplings. Our system has 5 of these hoses, for a maximum reach of 250’. Approximate cost: $30 each
- Nozzle – Red lexan utility nozzle, 1 ½”, 95 gpm, with aluminum standard male forestry ‘quick-connect’ adaptor. This nozzle adjusts from fog-to-stream-to-off for a range of applications. We keep two extra nozzles as backups and if Y’s are used to feed two hose lines. Approx. cost: $20
- Small-diameter, Fast-action Polyester Fire Hose (yellow) – 1 – 50’ fast-action hose with threaded coupling. Approximate cost: $120
- Gated “Y” couplings – These couplings enable you to connect an additional hose from the main hose line.
- “T” couplings with small-diameter port – These couplings are for connecting the small-diameter fast-action hose to the main hose line. The yellow center section makes it easy to identify as the coupling for the yellow small-diameter fast-action hose.
- Strainer (Intake screen) – This is added to the end of the Intake Hose when drawing water from other sources such as a lake or the ocean.
- 2 – 480-gallon vertical water-holding tanks – Premier VF480 gallon poly water holding tanks, each 71″Dia x 44″H. Each tank has a 2” plastic drain fitting. These tanks are fabricated from high quality food grade polyethylene, are UV stable, rugged one-piece construction and impact resistant. These tanks can be used for backup potable water, and are fully recyclable. Approximate cost: $500 each
- Fittings to water tanks – Plastic fittings attached to each tank outlet hole connect the intake hose to the two water tanks. The fittings have a union ball valve with simple cock to open/close the water supply from the tanks. The intake hose has cam connectors for quick connect/disconnect to the plastic fittings.
System Cost: The total cost for this system, including spare discharge hoses, fittings to tanks, couplings and parts is approximately $3000.
Ready to Go!
A fire fighting system is only as useful as it is ready.
Pre-assemble system during fire season:
In summer months, or during any times of heightened fire risk, we connect the hoses together, attach them to the pump, and lay the line out towards our home so it ends within 30’ of our doorstep (and within 15’ of the barbecue). The nozzle is attached to the hose end, and one or two spare hose lengths lay alongside.
Have two hose options:
Beside the main fire hose is the small-diameter yellow hose, used for smaller fires or for a second fire fighter. The yellow small-diameter fire hose is screwed on to its quick-connect 1 ½” coupling, ready to go. (This is important to note because the small-diameter hose-end cannot be screwed into the 1 ½” coupling while the water is running. The quick-connect 1½” couplings, however, can be changed while the water is running.) In a small fire, the small-diameter hose may be the better choice since it is lightweight and discharges less water, thereby conserving the stored water supply.
The weight of the pump in this system is about 50 lbs., which is considered ‘portable’. This is a key feature if you have water supplies in different locations, and it gives you the option of bringing your pump to help with fire fighting in neighboring locations.
Drill, baby, drill:
In the event of a fire, as your adrenaline kicks into gear, it can be difficult to think clearly and decisively. Fire drills are the best way to ensure reliability of your system and familiarity with the equipment. We do a drill each month in summer.
Make it easy for anyone to use.
Summer visitors, workers, babysitters ….anyone who may be at home while you’re away should be shown how to run the fire protection system. For added security, leave a laminated page of instructions alongside the pump where anyone can see it and figure out how to run the system. Make the instructions brief and clear.
- Color-code your hoses. Fire hoses are available in different colors. It is recommended to use different colors for different hose types to avoid confusion. In our installation, the small diameter fast-action fire hose is yellow, easily distinguishable from the red 1 ½” discharge hoses.
- Gravity helps. The pump will deliver water from levels lower than your home, but locating the water tanks above the level of your house will provide some gravity pressure which can be useful if the pump is not working.
- Roll out hoses rather than unfolding. When laying out any coiled hoses, roll them out (like bowling). If you try to unroll them by hand you’ll have to keep twisting the roll to keep it laying out flat, wasting valuable time in getting water to the fire.
- Have a Plan B. Your system is limited by the capacity of the water holding tanks. Plan ahead for the possibility of drawing additional water from other sources as a backup supply. In our situation for example, we can run the pump to the shore and draw seawater. We keep an intake strainer and have extra hoses for this eventuality.
- Keep the couplings clean. The Quick-Connect couplings can oxidize over time and become harder to connect. Use steel wool or fine sandpaper to smooth the mating surfaces.
- Store hoses, spare parts in totes with lids. Even if your system is covered with a tarp, keep a couple totes with lids to store the parts and spare hoses. This keeps the parts clean and free of debris, and reduces mildew and weather-wear to the hoses.
- Inspect the hoses each spring. The hoses can develop cracks over time especially if stored improperly or in spots where the hose is regularly crimped. Lay the hoses out each spring and check for cracks, or have a fire drill and see if any leaks appear.
- Fuel stabilizer should be added to the gas tank of the water pump, since gas may be sitting in the tank for months. If left untreated, old gas may gum up the carburetor and stall the engine. Regular fire drills should keep the gas from getting stale, but if the pump is unused for a year or longer, then the old fuel should be siphoned out of the tank and replaced with fresh fuel.
- Secure the pump from shifting while it’s running, but also make it easy to lift and carry the pump if necessary. In our system there are some short 2”x2” cedar boards screwed onto the deck around the base of the pump to keep it in place. The front 2×2 has just one side screwed so it’s easy to swing it out and lift the pump. No tools needed.
- Keep a tarp over the system during fall and winter months. This keeps leaves, pine needles and windblown matter from collecting on the pump and attachments. Our tarp is anchored on the far side of the tanks, but only held down with a simple loop tie and a rock on the pump side. This makes it easy to fling the tarp over the tanks in an emergency, and easy to re-tarp the system after use.
A final word of advice is to buy only the best quality new components for your fire protection system. This system is your first line of defense in a fire emergency, and more valuable than fire insurance.
An independent home-based fire protection system is recommended for any off-grid homesite, but also offers security and peace-of-mind to any homeowner, regardless of location. How long does it take for your fire department to respond to a call?