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Best Hydro Power Options for the Practical Homestead

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: August 22, 2019
Best Hydro Power Options for the Practical Homestead

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If you are lucky enough to have some running water on your property then you have some options for renewable energy that are not available to just everyone. Here are a few things to remember before getting started on a hydro project.

Check your laws regarding renewable energy

As ridiculous as it may seem to not have the right to produce hydroelectric power on your own property, there are some places that have laws about this. Sometimes you don’t actually have no holds barred water rights. If the power company in your region has hydro turbines for example then you may not be allowed to set up one yourself.

The theory is that if others do this then it reduces the flow and power producing capability of their turbines and that effects a lot of people. The reality is that a few small hydro projects probably won’t but they want you to get power from them.

It is also possible that some environmental laws come into play depending on the size of your project. It is just smart to check out all aspects of legality before investing the work and equipment.

The two main types of hydro power are water wheels or turbines. There are some very easy to buy and drop in a stream set ups out there but plenty of preppers put together their own unique set ups. Water wheels are really quite beautiful and they don’t have to cost a lot of build if you are smart about sourcing materials.

Hydro power is a great resource if you have some flowing water on your property. This post is offered as a brief intro into the world of hydro. While the concept of using a turbine to generate energy is pretty basic, there is a lot to know about this great source of energy!

The flow of your water

The greater the flow, the more energy you can produce and in a shorter time period. Adequate water volume is essential for hydro to be worth your time.


In order for hydropower turbines to work effectively, your stream of water needs to have enough drop or  “head” for the turbine in question. Some turbines can work with less and others require more.

How to determine head

Determining your drop is not always easy but you can do it and you need to take this measurement seriously because what it tells you determines the type of turbines that you can reasonably use. Low head turbines require 2-10 feet of drop and from there you can get into mid or high head turbines.

One way to get a rough estimate of head is to use a GPS and take two elevation measurements at the top and bottom of your system. This is not the most accurate method and just how accurate is going to depend on how good the GPS works in your area,

Other way to determine head. This is the method as dictated by the US Department of Energy. You can read the full article here.

Hose-Tube Method

The hose-tube method for determining head involves taking stream-depth measurements across the width of the stream you intend to use for your system — from the point at which you want to place the penstock to the point at which you want to place the turbine. You will need the following:

  • An assistant
  • A 20–30 foot (6–9 meters) length of small-diameter garden hose or other flexible tubing
  • A funnel
  • A yardstick or measuring tape.
  1. Stretch the hose or tubing down the stream channel from the point that is the most practical elevation for the penstock intake. Have your assistant hold the upstream end of the hose, with the funnel in it, underwater as near the surface as possible.
  2. Meanwhile, lift the downstream end until water stops flowing from it. Measure the vertical distance between your end of the tube and the surface of the water. This is the gross head for that section of stream.
  3. Have your assistant move to where you are and place the funnel at the same point where you took your measurement. Then walk downstream and repeat the procedure. Continue taking measurements until you reach the point where you plan to site the turbine.

The sum of these measurements will give you a rough approximation of the gross head for your site.

Note: due to the water’s force into the upstream end of the hose, water may continue to move through the hose after both ends of the hose are actually level. You may wish to subtract an inch or two (2–5 centimeters) from each measurement to account for this. It is best to be conservative in these preliminary head measurements.

Determining how many watts your stream can produce

To get an estimate of how many watts you can expect from your water use the following equation.

Head (feet) x Flow (gallons per minute) / 10= Watts

So a stream that has 10 feet of head and a flow of 20 gallons per minute would look like this.4

10 ft x 20 GPM /10=20 watts per minute

Flow rate

One of the more rudimentary ways of determining flow rate is to use a bucket. Hold a 5 gallon bucket and time how long it takes to fill up. If it takes 2 minutes to fill then the flow rate is roughly 2.5 gallons per minute.

Size of turbines

Regardless of the flow of your water, the size of your turbine is going to be another limiting factor in how much energy you can produce. Bigger turbines mean more energy just like a bigger water wheel.

Hydro is usually supplemental but can be sole source of power in some cases

For the small scale homesteader or prepper, hydro is usually done as supplemental power and not as the sole source of energy. Those with hydro often use solar panels and sometimes a little wind power.

Advantages Of Hydroelectric

Fantastically consistent

Water flows may change some as a seasonal occurrence or weather patterns, but hydropower is capable of producing power 24 hours a day whereas solar is only making power during sunlight hours and the lower the light the less energy those panels are producing.

I have written a lot on wind and heard back from some readers and I have to say that for a large portion of us I don’t think wind is a viable renewable energy. You really need to have steady directional winds and good equipment. Solar is more energy for your money and doesn’t make a ton of noise and for some reason people think it looks better in general.

Hydroelectric on a large scale

Growing up in Washington State and later living in Ketchikan, Alaska for a few years right after college exposed me to hydro power a bit. A lot of Seattle City Light was produced at the dams up in the North Cascades. Basically Seattle and the surrounding areas are run on hydro. For those in the Pacific Northwest it is the go to because there are some massive rivers and associated lakes. All that water produces massive amounts of energy.

Hydro power raises environmental concerns for some. No doubt there has been a ton of feedback from environmentalists over the years out west about the impact of dams on salmon spawning. One dam on the Hoh River was dismantled and a lot of activists applauded.

There are some things that can be done to help out fish and aquatic life. Fish ladders can be a big help but as with any solution, there are plenty that say they do not do enough to help out sensitive fish species. Some people divert water to the side to allow a lot of space for fish to be able to carry out their normal routines.  The dams and silt screens described further on help with this.

Types Of Turbines

There are basically two types of turbines: enclosed or external. Water wheels are an example of an external turbine system. Enclosed turbines are what most people go with because they are easier to get set up and cost less overall. Let’s compare the two systems

Water Wheel

There are some really cheap waterwheels out there that do the job but they are not something you are going to want to feature in your garden.

The water wheels that look pretty and are functional require some skill and considerable materials to build. This can become expensive if you are paying someone else to do it or if it must be shipped to you.

Water wheels can last for a long time but they are also made of wood generally which means they will decay over time if not maintained. This could be said for a lot of things though but when you are looking at costs it is important to realize how tough the finished product is going to be for the long term.

48” diameter waterwheels are about $400 shipped. After you get past 48” diameter, the price for water wheels shipped to you goes up a lot so larger ones are definitely best bought or made close to you.

Here is a video on building your own water wheel. People do build their own all the time but it is time consuming and the materials costs need to be considered in your area.  A water wheel must be hooked up to an alternator that is used to charge a battery set up. You can use an old alternator from a vehicle if you want or buy a new one.

Enclosed turbine

These turbines have a “wheel” inside them that turns. These are the basic set ups and designs that most people use due to the size and expense of a water wheel system.

Box or dam for settling and better flow

A settling box and dam combination helps out in any stream. You can build your own by pouring concrete after building a form. This will be very permanent so only do this if you are sure that this is where you want to always do your hydro if possible. A box helps catch sediment and debris because it has a screen on it. This will prolong the life of your turbine. Silt is no joke and you definitely do not want anything large jamming up your turbine.

This is a custom built screen. No creek or river is the same so a lot of them are made to your specifications and then sent to you after placing and order. You have to get a quote to buy one and wait which is one reason why a lot of people choose to make their own.

Flash floods and other water dangers

If your creek can rise a lot on a big storm and you are worried about debris damage, small turbines can be protected or even pulled out of the creek. It is better to take in a piece or two of your system than lose it in a flash flood or have it get damaged by a lot of debris.

I’ve lived in an area that floods a lot and it is always amazing how much garbage gets tossed about and washes into places.

Very Small Turbines

You can get small turbines that can fit onto a garden hose and generate a small amount of power as you water your livestock or fill up a pool in the summer. Sure it is not a lot of power but it is capturing some extra energy and it can be a kind of neat teaching tool if you are homeschooling.

Lack of middle sized affordable turbines

Maybe I am missing something here but during my research for this article I had a hard time finding turbines that fit into the middle level of power generation. Either turbines were very small or quite large. I assume that this niche is normally filled by those that build their own systems or have one designed for their specific property.

Power Spout

This company struck me as interesting. Their turbines are very effective and easy to set up but you are still looking at $2,000 by the time you add everything in like the turbine and tubing. If you are including some batteries for power storage you may easily go well over this cost.

At the same time, these turbines can generate a lot of power! You might be able to completely meet your energy needs with these. If you have ever had to have any home renovations or other work done, then I probably don’t have to tell you that $2,000 is not much. This is especially true if you can eliminate your electric bill in the process. In the right place, hydropower could pay for itself in a very short period of time.

Here are a few of the Power Spout Turbines that are worthy of consideration for the small holder that wants to produce a lot of hydropower

Here is a video that shows some of the Powerspout turbines in action. It is pretty impressive and I like that it seems simple enough that a slightly handy person could get it up and running. Sure you might be able to build one cheaper, but not everyone wants to get into figuring all that out. If you are building your own place off the grid and want a permanent and easy to set up system that is low maintainance, this is definitely one of the better options I was able to find.

Powerspout Low Head

This unit is capable of producing 1500 watts of power in a stream with low headWhen you order this turbine, it comes with all the tools you need to get it up and running on your place which is really nice. When starting out with any new project like this having the right tools when you need them can make things go a lot smoother.  It is nice that there is a low head option for those that don’t have a lot of drop to work with.

Sources For Turbines & Equipment


This company has a wide network of dealers to meet the needs of customers all over the world. Prices are pretty much the same at any dealer so shopping around is not really worth it if you are looking to buy one of these. They have excellent customer service and will help you find the turbine that is right for you and your stream.

Getting some help

Be prepared to pay a bit if you get a pro in to help you with your hydro. Most homesteaders and preppers find a way to do it themselves using Youtube videos, books, advice from dealers, and the help of a friend or family member.

While it may seem difficult, the principle is fairly easy to understand. Water goes in and turns a turbine that charges an alternator and this power is then transferred to batteries to be stored or it goes into your home and gets used depending on how much power you are actually generating.

Hydro power is never a cookie cutter system. Streams and topography vary a lot. This article can give you some of the tools to get started planning a system but it is impossible for me to even touch on a lot of the intricacies of getting hydro going on your place.

To sum it up, remember to take the following steps to planning yours system.

  1. Determine flow and head.
  2. Research what turbines will work with your flow and head rate.
  3. Add up costs for DIY system versus buying a system. This is good to know in case your time is better spent on something else.
  4. Install system and monitor for any flukes. Most issues are easy to correct if you have figured out your flow and head correctly.

Remember that there is a whole lot of videos out there that are extremely helpful for helping you install your system correctly. Take advantage of the great videos that fellow preppers have took the time to make.

Changing water flows

Sometimes creeks and rivers change course over time. A major flood or storm event can make the flow and location of your water source significantly different enough to effect your power generation. This is just something to be aware of and there is a good chance it will not happen.

If however you can see where your stream has changed course often over the years, then be prepared to make some changes to your system or in extreme cases you may have to move it entirely to keep up a good level of power production.

What types of hydro power projects have you done? Is there any specific aspects of hydro you would like to see covered more in depth on Backdoor Survival? I realize that this article is just a brief intro to a whole different way of generating power. We would love to hear about your experiences with hydro or any systems you have designed!

Author Bio: Samantha Biggers lives on a mountain in North Carolina with her husband and pack of loyal hounds in a house her husband and she built themselves. When not writing she is working in their vineyard, raising Shetland sheep, or helping her husband with whatever the farm and vineyard can throw at them. 

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2 Responses to “Best Hydro Power Options for the Practical Homestead”

  1. My family’s property has a creek running directly in front of it. We have a dock and boat ramp about 200 feet from the home.

    Where do I begin with my investigation on converting to hydroelectricity when it comes to the county, state and federal requirements? Do I need to do something prior to contacting a governmental agency?

  2. Easy Calculation for Real Output Power in H.P.: Generators average 75% efficiency (25% thru-put Loss) and Alternators are 5-10 % Better. Measure the Water Flow (in Gallons) over say 1 hour. Measure the “Head” (Vertical fall height) – Divide this up in Fractions/ or Multiples of 10 Feet. 1 Gallon of water weighs 7 lbs. Say your flow is 1 Gallon per Minute. Say your Vertical “Head” is 14 Feet. With a Straight “Over-shot” Water Wheel (and NO Overflow Loss) you will be Getting about 1 Horsepower (H.P.) Output. Gearing to an alternator should be about 250-300 to one ( 300:1). There you go.

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