An Old Country Cistern Wakes Up in the City

Our house came with a feature you don’t find on too many city properties.  Well, we saw it as a feature anyway:  An abandoned 2,500-gallon underground cistern.

This cistern fell asleep out in the country and woke up decades later in the city.  Let me explain.

A Little History

As I mentioned in my earlier post, A New Life for an Old Trailer Sink, our house, built in 1927, was originally situated among farmlands.

It was on a 2-acre parcel, and the cistern, which is located about 20 feet from the house and right next to the garage, was probably for irrigating a hobby farm or an orchard.

In time, the city expanded and gobbled up the farmlands, leaving the house sitting on a single city lot, although still a fairly large one.  At some point, the cistern was abandoned and a carport was built over it.

And there it sat until we bought the house.  My husband, Chris, was keen to get the cistern back in operation so that we could use collected rain water to irrigate our garden.

How He Did It

First let me say that the cistern is nothing to look at.  Since it is underground, only the top hatch is visible.  The cistern itself is a cement-lined cylinder that measures 21 feet deep.

Kind of creepy.  Here is a look inside.

Inside the cistern

Chris is a real estate agent by trade, but at home he wears many hats.  He has a background in building and maintaining large water systems, so he knew what to do to bring the cistern back into operation.

He routed a downspout from the garage to the cistern.  Yes, in this Puget Sound climate, rainwater from just our garage actually fills up the cistern pretty quickly.

Then he piped in a pressure tank and pump.

cistern and pump
The cistern cover is to the left and the pump is to the right. The downspout from the garage roof gutter is routed into the cistern.

This would get us water pressure so that water from the cistern would flow through pipes that he ran to several locations, including a hose and fence-mounted sprinkler system and another hose reel for watering the plants along the driveway.

hose reel
Hose with extension below it to the fence-mounted sprinkler system.
The fence-mounted sprinkler system runs behind the back patio.

And most recently he added a water source inside our new greenhouse.

greenhouse hose
Greenhouse hose

Water pressure was excellent and the system Chris set up was working so well that he decided to buy a 600-gallon above-ground water tank to hold overflow water from the underground cistern.

He placed this tank, which looks like a giant rain barrel, where it can’t be seen – in the no-man’s-land behind our garage.

water tank edited
600-gallon water tank

Now when the underground cistern fills up with rain water, Chris pumps some of the water into this giant rain barrel.  This frees up space in the underground cistern to collect even more water.

Climbing Into the Cistern

Sometimes we would get a little sediment coming out of the hoses from the cistern water.  We wondered how much gunk was at the bottom of this old cistern, 21 feet below ground and impossible to see from above.

It was clear that someone had to go down there.  And that someone would not be me.

So when the cistern was almost empty of water, Chris hired a young man with climbing gear to descend into the cistern and send up bucketloads of sediment.

This was quite possibly the weirdest thing this young man had ever done with his climbing gear.  At least I hope so for his sake.

There was some sediment down there, and, for some reason, bits of broken concrete.  So it was comforting to know that the cistern was now clean.


When the underground cistern fills up with water, Chris pumps some of the water to the above-ground tank.  On the flip side, once the water from the underground cistern gets too low, water is fed by gravity from the above-ground tank back into the cistern where we can use it for watering.

He always has to keep an eye on the water level because if the cistern runs dry while the pump is in use, it will damage the pump.

Pump gauge
Pump gauge

He winterizes the system by draining the pump of water and draining out the pipes.  If the weather gets below freezing, he places a trouble light inside the top of the above-ground tank to act as a heater so the water inside doesn’t freeze and crack the tank.

Guilt-Free Watering

While we still also have a sprinkler system that uses city water, in summer we can water about a third of our garden with the collected rain water.  And it’s a bonus if we get some mid-summer rain to replenish the cistern.

The system might be a little high on maintenance, but it’s low on guilt.  During a drought, we can use our cistern water to keep plants healthy and not feel bad about it.

And I like to think the untreated rain water keeps the plants happier.

vignette edited2


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6 Replies to “An Old Country Cistern Wakes Up in the City”

  1. I think it’s fabulous that he restored it! That’s a job not everyone could do! Thanks for sharing with SYC.

  2. That is so neat that it still works! And the flowers along your fenceline are absolutely gorgeous! One day my fence will look like that (maybe…). I’m hosting a link party at my blog on Thursday and I’d love for you to stop by and share one of your posts. I hope to see you there! –Lela @ In The New House Designs

      1. Thanks so much for sharing some of your posts at Inspiration Thursday! I am definitely following along with your blog. I love your ideas! Hope to see you next week!

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