Cisterns - Historic Water Conservation

By: Bill Kibbel , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Construction, Home Improvement Tips, Green Renovations

Cisterns, an ancient technology for the collection of rain water, were quite common at homes throughout the 19th century.   They can also be found at a few 18th century homes and some built as late as the early 1940s.  Using the roof as a rain collection surface, gutters and downspouts delivered water to the cistern.  Most had an overflow outlet and some had a diverter on the inlet, to direct the water away from the building when the cistern became full.

Although some were manufactured of iron, steel or made of wood, most were constructed below ground of brick or stone.  They could be made watertight with an interior parge coat of hydraulic cement.  After about 1900, formed concrete was sometimes used.  The masonry cistern chamber could be shaped like a vault, bell, beehive, jug or flat-topped with a wooden platform for the cover.  In my experience, most were a  large rectangular box located under a porch, with the porch floor being the cover.  As many porches eventually become enclosed and part of the living areas of the home, still active cisterns can contribute significantly to interior moisture.  There’s often still a trap door to access the cistern - a good place to lose kids or pets.

Most were built against the home’s foundation and water was drawn from a tap located low on the basement wall.  Some delivered the water with a hand pump.  The water, not of the quality for drinking, was mainly used for washing and laundry.  I’ve found a few large cisterns under barns that appear to have served agricultural water needs.  Even though the water wasn’t likely used for drinking, there’s still undesirable debris, like leaves, dirt and bird droppings.  The overflow would discharge some floating debris but the stuff that sank would need to be periodically cleaned out.

Although rare, there’s some remaining evidence of filtering the collected water.  Some cisterns are divided into two or more chambers encouraging debris to settle and finer particles were filtered out as the water passed through porous brick or stone partitions.  Some partitions were made with an interior cavity and animal charcoal, also called “bone black” filled the space, further purifying the collected water.  In the latter part of the 19th century, canister filters began to appear on some cistern outlets.

I’ve done the rain barrel thing, but only used the water for the gardens.  If I had a home with a real cistern, I’d be looking at a way to pressurize the water and delivering it for watering, washing and maybe even flushing the toilets.


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  1. 29 Responses  to “Cisterns - Historic Water Conservation”

  2. Mar 31, 2016
    We live in a house that has a cistern where rain water is moved away from house and before we bought it there was this big piece of steel with rocks on top and was told not to let kids lift it up because there is a huge hole there and now I'm finding sink holes how can we fill this in so that the sink holes stop and don't have to worry about kids getting hurt
  3. Mar 21, 2016
    I live in a Victorian house built ca. 1870, and it has not one but two cisterns. The larger one is in the basement beneath the original sink in the kitchen. It is made of brick and measures about 6 feet by 8 feet, and 5 feet high. There is an overflow leading out of the house, and there was once an intake from gutters outside. There is also a brick pad outside the cistern, with a pipe-sized hole leading into it, about a foot above the ground. I assume this was for some sort of pump, to get the water to the kitchen, although there is no evidence left. The second cistern is more intriguing: it is embedded behind the wall of the master bedroom, over a built-in set of drawers. It was (I assume) fed by the gutters immediately outside it, and is metal-lined. There is a spigot inside a cupboard next to the drawers. I've always thought it might have been to feed the toilet adjacent to it, but someone else once suggested that it could be for putting out house fires, with a hose attached. What interests me is whether this was the primary water supply for the house (I don't believe municipal water was available in this neighborhood then, and this is the oldest house on the block), or whether it was merely a back-up system.
  4. Pamela Moore
    Jun 30, 2014
    I live in a 90 year old house with an old cemented over cistern. My yard is beginning to develop a couple of holes, both not far from this cistern. About a year ago when I noticed the first hole, I thought one was an animal, but it continues to grow. The other one is under the blacktop on the driveway and a small hole in the pavement has formed. Since I live in an area not common for sinkholes (Kansas City, MO), I never thought of one, but now am concerned they are developing. Does anyone have any input? Thanks in advance.
  5. Cassidy
    Jun 2, 2014
    I would like to know how much a cistern pump would cost in the 18th to 19th century. What would the approximate price be?
  6. Kathy
    May 2, 2014
    I know someone who grew up on a farm in the Bootheel of Missouri during the Depression. They used their cistern for drinking water in the cool weather, not during the summer because of bugs. But it collected water from the roof, and pigeons and other birds roosted up there, so the runoff contained significant amounts of bird droppings. Animals sometimes fell into the cistern and died. He said, "Daddy just poured lime in there from time to time to keep it clean. It was the best, most delicious water you can imagine. We were all very healthy and we didn't think anything of it." He is now 87 and going strong, so I don't think it hurt him!
  7. Robert
    Nov 30, 2013
    During excavation next to the foundation of a 1920's brick house in Southern Ontario, we came across what appeared to have been an underground barrel (we could make out staves and metal bands). Would this have been a water collecting cistern? Or could it have been an outhouse 'pit' right next to the house?
  8. Jan 9, 2013
    We recently bought a passive solar home, in which water harvesting was built into the design, we are in southern Wisconsin, but originally from coastal Michigan. After moving to WI - away from the big lake, I was amazed at the cost of city water services. After buying this home from the Nature conservancy who'd acquired it as a donation from the original owners ( also the building's original contractor, 50+ year resodents and community physicians),we now supply all of our home needs from rainwater, yet have recently found we are getting overcharged for double sewer services. The house has city water for drinking, or an additiona option to chlorinate the water when pumping it into 4 - 55gal (1BBL) indoor reservoirs situated in the lookout/loft built up in the clerestory. Originally these were constructed some 10 years back to suffice that the toilet water could be flushed with potable water, so the city couldn't demand the cistern be disconnected. I am more and more amazed at the constant outcry for water conservation, yet when folks like the Dr(s). Frantz' build this home in the mid 1980's, and for my family, the new inhabitants of such a unique and inspiring structure, we are still having to deal with beaurocratic dodging, in order for the water utility to maintain the staus quo. Please, I encourage any and all whom read this fine article to rethink before you start that load of laundry or drain that bath water, or let the sink run while you "warm it up or cool it off" out of the tap. say to yourself, Is there somewhere else this water could go before I waste it out of laziness? A top load washer uses some 60/90 gallons of water each load, done with the kids bathwater? Grab a bucket (or hose/punp) and fill your laundry basin. Hard boiling some eggs? Water your house plants with the leftovers. Flushing your toilet "everytime" - if it's yellow let it mellow if its brown flush it down, if your 5 years old, and its brown, leave it for mom and dad as a surprise, they'll flush it down. :) Regards, tread softly - even the most irritating person you meet today, might just be having to olay a with a really bad hand of cards and are still doing their best. Lend them a smile for goodness sake. Joe Hatch Monroe, WI You can Find us at Sunshower Daydream on Facebook
  9. Aug 29, 2011
    We recently purchased a home that was built in 1923. It has this huge cast iron circular thing that is closed to the basement side but is in the wall. We do not see any evidents of where it goes or what size it is. The owner's son said they used to have a pool outside. If anyone knows more about a cistern that is in the wall, please email me back.
  10. Aug 29, 2011
    i would like to find more articles on construction styles for cisterns we live in an old house built in 1850? and has been in my wifes family since 1881 it is built of stone but what allways seamed odd the walls are 2' thick the front part is large blocks the back half is built into the hill and is made of smaller sand stone rocks of all sizes and shapes, since i spent many hours thinking about this and found out where the old cistern was located and every time it rained heavy it would leak in side the house, the cistern was filled in thirty years ago , i have knocked a hole in the concrete floor to build a sump hole to pump out excess rain water it was made of alot of rocks and stones did it fill and filter rain water off the hill and roof ?? Randy
  11. CA
    Aug 29, 2011
    My family had a rain gutter collecting cistern. The water fell fromm the downspout into a square brick container about 3'x3'x3' which contained layers of sand, pebbles. charcoal and rock with the finest layer on the bottom. The water then ran out thru a small hole at the bottom side into an attached smaller enclosed second brick box and it was again filtered with finer sand and charcoal and that water ran into the cistern. The cistern was brick-lined with a hand cistern pump at the top. My parents would pour a cup of bleach into the holding tank about once a month. This was the water we drank and cooked with, carried in by the bucket. We did not drink the city water that was hauled in to a different well (dry) that supplied the house with water. There was six of us drinking this water and we were all very healthy. Our cistern was about 10 ft away from the house.