A Homemade Overshot Water Wheel

This homemade overshot water wheel pumps 1,440 gallons of water a day at a total energy cost of three shots of grease a year.
By Betty Wooding
September/October 1977
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The Woodings' 500-gallon storage tank is easily filled overnight by their homemade overshot water wheel.
Illustration By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff


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This homemade overshot water wheel pumps 1,440 gallons of water a day while saving the homesteaders money with a low energy cost.

A Homemade Overshot Water Wheel

The Waterpower Winner and Still Champion!

Back in 1947, Popular Science printed a five-part article by C.D. Bassett that very concisely sketched out every step necessary for the establishment of a small water-power plant on a farm or homestead. That information is still just as valuable today for many of MOTHER's readers as it was 30 years ago . . . and that's why THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS asked for — and received — permission to reprint the whole series as a two-part article in MOTHER NOs. 13 and 14. The Popular Science material was also included — by permission — in THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS Handbook of Homemade Power.

If any of the terms or ideas in the accompanying article are unfamiliar to you, then, you have three choices: [1] You can trot on down to your local library and exhume the old, original C.D. Bassett articles from the 1947 issues of Popular Science, [2] you can order out MOTHER NOS. 13 and 14 at $2.00 apiece from the ad on pages 114-115 of this issue, or[3] you can get your own copy - $1.95 plus 75¢ shipping and handling — of The Handbook of Homemade Power by using the MOTHER's Bookshelf ad on pages 174 -177 of this issue. Any way you go about it, you're going to learn all you need to know to lay out, install, and operate your own water-power system. All you'll need to add to this information is a free-flowing stream . . . and you're in business.

One final note: The following article describes a homemade overshot water wheel set up to do only one thing . . . pump water from a spring to a set of farm buildings 100 feet above. If you're more interested in learning how to use the same kind of wheel to generate electricity, see the article, schematic drawing, and photographs of Thomas Oates' water-wheel powered DC electrical system in MOTHER NO. 24. That piece was also reprinted in The Handbook of Homemade Power. — The Editors.

Today's politically created energy "crisis" has had at least one good effect: It's inspired a good many backyard tinkerers to unplug themselves from modern society's increasingly expensive "conventional" sources of energy . . . in favor of some of the more environmentally sound — and far less costly — energy sources of great-grandpa's day.

One very successful example of this "back to basics" trend is the water wheel-powered water pump now in operation on the Robert Wooding farm near Halifax, Virginia. The pump-powered by a home designed and home-built 6 1/2-foot, steel water wheel which, in turn, is spun by water from a stream on the family farm shoves 1,440 gallons of pure spring water 100 feet uphill every 24 hours. And, since the system was set up, it hasn't cost the Woodings anything for its tireless round-the-clock operation . . . except a few cents for lubrication.

"There are three things I especially like about my wheel," says Bob blooding. "One, unlike the hydraulic ram pumps featured several times in MOTHER, it doesn't use gallons and gallons of our drinking water just to pump a few gallons up the hill. Two, the overshot design of our wheel makes very efficient use of the small stream we tap for power. And, three, there's not a whole lot of banjo work to a rig like this once you've got it going. We spent a little time and money setting our system up, to be sure, but it's been practically maintenance-free ever since. About all we do is give its bearings a shot of grease two or three times a year."

You've Gotta Have "Fall" for a Homemade Overshot Wheel

The Woodings were fortunate enough to have a picturesque stream on their property (the first and most obvious requirement for any water-power system!) . . . but that's as far as their luck went. At no single spot along the creek was there enough "fall" to turn the 6 1/2-foot overshot wheel that Bob figured on installing.

Fall, as the name implies, is the amount of vertical distance that running water drops as it moves down a stream (if there were no fall at all, the water — obviously — wouldn't run and the stream wouldn't be a stream . . . it would be a slough or a lake).

The ideal location, of course, for an overshot water wheel (which must be positioned in a stream at a spot where the water abruptly drops at least as far as the wheel is tall) is a natural rapids or waterfall. If, like the Woodings, you find yourself working with a stream that has no such abrupt natural drop, however, you'll have to do what the Woodings did: Build your own man-made waterfall . . . which, as we all know, is commonly called a dam.

(NOTE: The reprinted series of five articles from Popular Science mentioned at the beginning of this piece contains everything you need to know to calculate the flow and call of a stream, design several kinds of dams, build and install an overshot wheel, and otherwise fabricate and operate a farm- or homestead-sized water-power system. — The Editors.)

"We needed about a seven-foot fall for our 6 1/2-foot-tall wheel," Bob blooding remembers, "so we built a three-foot-tall dam . . . and then flumed the water from the top of that dam to a spot 120 feet further downstream where the creek's banks were an additional tour feet lower. The dam's height of three feet plus the additional four feet of drop we picked up by running our flume that tar added up to the seven feet of fall, or head, that we needed for our wheel."

The Woodings' flume is a combination of approximately 85 feet of four-inch aluminum pipe feeding into an additional 46 1/2 feet of wooden trough measuring six inches deep by six inches wide. (The aluminum pipe, which extends about a foot and a half into the trough, can be lifted out and set into a curved metal deflector which routes its water back into the stream whenever the Woodings want to stop the wheel.)

Traditional flumes for homestead water wheels, of course, were of all-wood construction. But Bob Wooding decided to use rot-free, corrosion-free aluminum pipe for the first two-thirds of his wheel's feeder line, where the flume had to extend into the water and then run underground. The pipe's inlet is covered with a screen to keep the line from becoming clogged with misguided leaves, turtles, and crawfish. Care was also taken to position the opposite (wooden) end of the flume so that its discharge of water would hit the exact top-center of the overshot wheel.

The Woodings Don't Drink Stream Water!

Although the blooding family's water system for their house, stables, and swimming pool is powered by the stream on their farm . . . the actual water which flows through that system comes from a clear, cool, pure spring. This spring, too (just like their dam), is located about 120 feet from the overshot wheel and pump that is the heart of the whole hookup. So, in addition to the flume which carries the "driving" water from the dam to the wheel, another one-inch pipe was laid to carry the "driven" water from the spring to the pump that is installed next to (and driven by) the wheel.

Luckily for the Woodings, the spring water's temperature stays 52 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Merely by laying this feeder pipe so that it has a continuous slight grade from the spring down to the pump a few feet below, then, the family has been able to keep their water supply from freezing in the winter without going to the trouble of burying the pipe below the frost line.

Bob Designed His Own Overshot Wheel

When you buy a manufactured water wheel, a large portion of the purchase price goes to pay for the equipment's design. It follows, then, that you can save yourself a sizable chunk of cash by working up the specifications for your own wheel . . . and that's exactly what Bob Wooding did.

Actually, this isn't as difficult as you might think. To extract maximum power from any given flow of water with an overshot wheel is largely a matter of calculating the proper depth and angle of the buckets placed around the wheel's rim (ideally, each bucket must be completely filled at top center and then carry its load of water without spilling a drop until just the instant it passed bottom center . . . but anything even remotely approaching this ideal will handle the job satisfactorily in most homestead applications).

(EDITORS' NOTE: If you scale up the drawings shown here and use them to construct a wheel ranging anywhere from two feet up to 20 feet in diameter — and if you work carefully and in a craftsman-like manner — the chances are good that your finished wheel will work well enough to make you pretty dang proud of yourself. If you really want to go for the finer points of maximum efficiency, however, you can work from the more detailed dimensions and angles given in the full-page drawing of an overshot wheel on page 31 of MOTHER N0. 14.)

After drawing up his design (complete with "dribble" hole in the bottom of each bucket, so that the wheel is self-draining when not in use!), Bob had the individual parts for his water wheel prefabbed by the Carolina Steel Company in Greensboro, North Carolina. A Richmond, Virginia representative for the firm says that the 3/16 inch steel plate used in the 980-pound assembly's 37 eight-by-twelve-inch buckets, its five-inch-wide rim, and its one-foot-wide sole plate would currently cost about $130. You can add on another $70 for burning, forming, and welding the metal. (These prices, of course, will vary in different parts of the country and — as time goes on — are sure to escalate right along with the price of everything else.)

The hubs for the Wooding wheel were pretty much "Chinese copied" from the hubs manufactured years ago by the now-defunct Fitz Water Wheel Company of Hanover, Pennsylvania. Bob had them cast at a local foundry from a wooden pattern that he made himself, and the materials and labor for the raw castings set him back only $25. A nearby machine shop then bored out the hubs on a lathe, cut keyways into the bores, and made up the pair (each half of the set contains six 3/8 inch by 2 inch spokes) of spokes for the wheel . . . all for only $60 complete.

The Final Assembly . . . Slow and Laborious

Once he had all the components for his wheel prefabbed and in hand, there was nothing for Bob Wooding to do but assemble the power unit. "I used calipers to measure and remeasure the spaces around the rim for my buckets until I had them exact to the width of a pencil mark," Bob says. "Then I tacked the buckets in place all the way around and rechecked everything before I finally welded them in permanently. If you try to finish-weld each one as you go without tacking everything together first, you know, you can get off kilter and warp the whole wheel."

Every one of the six "ears", or extensions, on each of the two hubs has a recessed area 3/8 inches deep by two inches wide by four inches long on its inside surface for a spoke to set into. This end of each spoke is held firmly in place with two 7/16 inch galvanized bolts, nuts, and lock washers. The other ends of the spokes are welded to the outside faces of the wheel's rim . . . as you can see in one of the accompanying photos.

It should also be pointed out that the distance (16 inches) between the two hubs is four inches wider than the distance (12 inches) across the buckets on the rim. This "dish" effect — so typical of the Fitz wheels of years ago — adds a great deal of strength to the completed wheel . . . without adding any additional weight.

The finished wheel was hoisted with a front-end loader, hauled to the foundation that had been poured for it, and gently eased down until the pillow block bearings on its two-inch steel shaft could be bolted into place. A few small pieces of metal were then welded into some of the buckets to balance the completed assembly, and the whole wheel was given a primer coat of zinc chromate and a finish coat of black enamel.

The Overshot Water Wheel: Gearing' Up!

As water pours down over one side of the mounted wheel and turns it, the spinning of the wheel is converted to an up-and-down pumping motion by an eccentric arm attached to the assembly's two-inch-thick main shaft. This "arm", to be truthful, is not really an arm at all . . . but simply a spot one and a half inches off center on the face of a 15-inch gear salvaged from a local junkyard. The spot has been drilled and tapped to accept a threaded mounting pin for the lower end of a long white oak connecting rod.

As the water wheel's main shaft rotates, then, the 15-inch gear attached to it also rotates smoothly. This causes the eccentric pin fastened to the face of the gear to revolve around and around in a three-inch arc. Which, in turn, causes the guided white oak connecting rod that rides the pin to pump up and down with a three-inch stroke.

The upper end of the connecting rod (think of it as the hand holding the handle of an old-fashioned "armstrong" water pump) is bolted to a cross-arm that runs across the top of a reservoir and is secured to a red cedar post on the other side so that it can hinge up and down. And in the middle of that cross-arm — just off center in favor of the water wheel — is attached a cylinder rod which runs down to a cylinder pump that is firmly bolted to the bottom of the reservoir.

The Rest of the Water Wheel is Easy

And that's all there is to the Wooding stream-run, spring-fed water system. Water from the spring 120 feet away runs a couple of feet downhill to fill the cement reservoir. At the same time, a great deal more water from the dam — also about 120 feet away but in a slightly different direction — flows through the flume and pours down over one side of the 6 1/2-foot water wheel, causing it to turn. And, as the wheel turns, the pump in the reservoir pumps . . . which forces the fresh spring water 100 feet uphill (through a line buried beneath the frost line) to a 500-gallon storage tank which stands near the blooding house. And, from that tank, the spring water is then gravity-fed to the house, stables, and swimming pool on the blooding property.

And there's something rather nice about the whole arrangement. The "splash-splosh" of the water wheel is far more relaxing and natural than any huffing-puffing engine . . . and a lot less expensive to operate year in, year out than any quiet but increasingly costly electric motor. Every bit of technology used in the Wooding setup, of course, has been around a long, long time . . . and a lot of other farmsteads in the country could put a variation of the same idea into use right now.

"The only real trick to the whole thing," says Bob Wooding, "is taking what you already have and using it to your best advantage.


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