What is a Cistern?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A cistern is a large vessel which is used to hold a reserve of water. Cisterns can be either above or below ground, and they come in a range of sizes and shapes, with varying features. Many people in dry or rural areas have cisterns to back up their regular water supply, and in some cases, a cistern is used as the primary source of water for a household. Several companies sell ready-made cisterns for people who want to install them, and others will custom build a cistern to exact specifications.

A cistern is used to hold a reserve of water.
A cistern is used to hold a reserve of water.

People have been storing water in cisterns for thousands of years. Many early cultures realized the value of saving rainwater, rather than allowing it to run off, and they built large jars and later big containers for the purpose of storing rainwater. Some cisterns could also be filled from springs or rivers. The cistern could be used to supplement water supplies during the dry seasons, and to water gardens.

In many regions of the world, you can still see gravity-fed cisterns. These cisterns collect rainwater with open tops or gutter systems, and they are mounted on platforms or towers which elevate them above a home or garden. The pull of gravity sucks water into irrigation or home plumbing, allowing the cistern to supply water without using power. A gravity-fed cistern's rate flow can be controlled with valves, or increased with the assistance of a pump.

When a cistern is used to store water for household use, it may have filters installed to clean the water before it reaches the home. Otherwise, people may need to boil the water or use water treatment tablets to make it drinkable. When used for irrigation, filters are not typically included, since plants are not as vulnerable to algae and other water contaminants.

A below ground cistern can be quite large, and tends to be more efficient than an above ground cistern, since it does not lose water through evaporation as the earth insulates it. However, setting up a gravity feed system for a below ground cistern is rather challenging, and many people must install pumps to get water out of a below ground cistern; in regions without electricity, people may use buckets to haul water up from the cistern. In both cases, the classic shape for a cistern is round or rectangular, although other shapes may be made to conform with unusual spaces. The cistern also typically has a cap or cover to keep animals, plants, and insects away from the water.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I have a cistern in the barn on my property. The barn was built in the mid 1800's. Now that I need a new septic tank and it will be located near the barn/cistern. I am being forced to remove the cistern.


I've often wondered why people don't use cisterns that much any more. After all, I still see huge water tanks which are in effect giant cisterns, in some towns with the name of the city splashed on them. It seems that they would prevent or help with the problems of flooding in many towns because they would control run off.



In the case of a nuclear disaster or an unexpected crop famine, it may become necessary for people to begin working their own land once again and installing cisterns. It would be interesting to postulate what this kind of world would look like.


In our modern society, mutuality has made cisterns unnecessary for the most part, and most of our supplement for life (food, water, etc.) is collectivized. We have no agricultural or water-related duties as we once did, but take these things for granted and focus on spending our time as we see fit, working jobs derived from profit (which is still, believe it or not, ultimately derived from sustenance and comfort such as crops and water). All of our produce still comes from farms, but these farms are often so far away that none of us give them a second thought, and likewise, many people don't even understand what the function of a water tower is.


Today, much of society shares water towers, but in the past, most people had their own well or cistern to supply water to their family. Conflicts would arise with neighboring clans over cisterns, especially in desert areas, where wells were exigent for life and could therefore be a source of fatal contention.


Above ground and below ground cisterns are quite common nationwide these days. The ribbed below ground cisterns used as water storage tanks are now constructed with such strength, that lasting 30+ years is no longer unheard of. Snyder Industries, Norwesco, and Ace roto-mold are the leading underground cistern manufacturers.

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