Mystified by water pumps and the prospect of digging a well to provide drinking water and more? Wade through your options for finding clean water and making it flow.
There are several homestead water sources you can consider, including digging a well, accessing groundwater supplies and collecting rainwater.
ILLUSTRATION: ELAYNE SEARS
Water is an essential commodity no matter where you live, and for those who live in the country, developing a homestead water source and keeping it flowing is usually a personal responsibility. While the process may seem daunting at first, the details behind success are simple. I’ve developed homestead water sources and kept water flowing on my family homestead without professional help for more than 20 years. I’ve also helped friends and neighbors do the same. Except perhaps for drilling or digging the well itself, everything else about rural water is something you can likely handle on your own.
Before you call a piece of land your own, you need to ask the right people the right questions. Less-than-honest folks can hide issues such as insufficient, bad-tasting or contaminated water until your name is on the deed. Asking questions beyond the real estate agent or the seller may be the most important water-related skill you exercise. How deep do wells have to go to find abundant water in the area? Will sulphur water, natural gas or other facets of the local geology cause problems with water quality? If you’re looking at a property with an existing well, what kind of well is it and how deep is it? How far from the surface is the water, and how much reserve water does the well actually hold? In addition to asking neighbors and your local health department and extension office agents, you can go to the Water Systems Council website to find your state’s well-construction codes.
Water in the country can be found in three main locations, and wells are only one of them. Surface sources (springs, lakes, rivers, etc.) are often options, as is rainwater collection (learn more in A Better Rainwater Harvesting System). Of all these possibilities, wells are by far the most important. According to the National Groundwater Association, more than 13 million year-round households in the United States rely on groundwater exclusively, with 500,000 new residential water wells created annually using one of four main techniques.
Wells can be deep or shallow, drilled, dug, bored or driven. Drilled wells are typically at least 25 feet deep, small in diameter (4 to 8 inches), and the only option for getting water from bedrock. Drilled wells include a metal tube (called a “casing”) pushed partway down into the hole and extending several feet above the surface to keep out surface water and dirt (see an illustration in the Image Gallery).
Traditionally, dug wells were made by hand and lined with stones, but today the work of digging a well is usually done by a backhoe or excavator. Dug wells can only be created in soil — they’re typically 24 to 36 inches in diameter and usually less than 30 feet deep. Tubular concrete well tiles keep soil and surface water out of the hole.
Bored wells are similar to dug wells, except they’re created by specialized equipment that augers a round hole into the soil. This lets bored wells extend from 30 all the way to 100 feet deep, and the boring operation is less disruptive to the surrounding landscape. Bored wells also use concrete well tiles to keep surface water, dirt and critters out of the hole.
Driven wells are made by fitting a sharp, rigid, screened attachment (called a “sand point”) onto the end of rigid steel pipe. The sand point allows a pipe to be pounded into the ground for extracting groundwater from abundant, shallow sources in coarse and sandy soils. Sand points are usually the simplest and cheapest option for creating a well, but they work only if hydrogeological conditions are ideal, in which case a driven well can extend to depths of 30 (hand-driven) or even 50 feet or more (driven by weighted hammers).
As the manager of your own private water system, you’re responsible for safety testing to ensure you have clean drinking water. Experts recommend lab analysis of water samples twice a year — in spring and fall — with additional tests whenever you notice changes in appearance or smell. Regardless of the tests available where you live, collecting water samples properly is key. Start with an approved bottle containing a stabilizing agent in pellet or powder form. Remove any screen, hose or filter from the collection tap, and then let the water run for two minutes before filling the bottle. Don’t let anything touch the inside of the bottle cap by holding the cap facedown while the bottle is filling. Refrigerate your sample right away, and have it analyzed within two days.
You must also ensure your well doesn’t introduce contamination into underground aquifers. In its natural state, groundwater is usually pure. The continued purity of groundwater depends on the time surface water spends percolating down through the earth. That’s why any situation that lets surface water drain immediately into the aquifer, either around or through existing wells, leads to trouble. This danger is the reason responsible governments police allowable methods of well construction. Created properly, wells are the only source of nonmunicipal water with the potential to be safe without the need for ongoing sterilization via chlorination or UV treatment.
As good as wells are, they’re not always the best option. Wells can be expensive to create, and sometimes, in penetrating down to usable amounts of water, wells encounter naturally occurring minerals that cause unpleasant water taste, odor or appearance. Those are a few of the reasons why some people choose to develop surface water sources such as lakes, rivers and springs.
Surface water sources are often abundant, but they’re also vulnerable to contamination, which is why water authorities everywhere consider it essential to treat water from surface sources even if it tests safe. You’ll also typically have to invest in filters to remove coarse sediments that aren’t present in well water. In cold climates, tapping into surface water sources year-round can also pose a challenge when it comes to keeping water intake lines from freezing. Even if your property includes a productive well, developing any surface water resources you have for less exacting uses — such as irrigation, livestock or washing vehicles — makes sense.
Submersible water pumps, jet pumps and piston pumps are the three most common options for making water flow, and each has unique strengths and weaknesses. To understand these, you first need to understand two crucial facts about the physics of water. The first is that the maximum practical depth for drawing water up by suction ranges from about 18 to 22 feet, depending on your elevation. The second is that water pumps can’t move air, which is why some pumps require a process called “priming.”
Priming involves filling intake pipes and pump casings with water before operation, and it can be one of the most challenging parts of getting a water system to work. As you’ll see later, the need for priming can also influence the pump you choose.
The depth of water below the surface is crucial, because it determines the kind of pump you can use to bring running water to your home and the way that pump is configured. The farther the level of water is below the surface of the ground, the more suction is required inside the pipe to pull that water upward against gravity. When a water-draw situation requires an overall vertical lift of about 22 feet or more, the vacuum inside the pipe becomes so great that the water will boil. You won’t notice this boiling, but it’s happening within the intake pipe just the same. All you’ll see is that your pump isn’t able to pull water up from these depths, because pumps can’t move the vaporized water.
Piston pumps make a pleasant “thumpa thumpa” sound as they operate, and most include a couple of visible rubber drive belts connected to an electric motor by exposed pulleys. Shallow-well piston pumps are great if you have situations in which you are raising the water no more than about 20 vertical feet, with no more than 300 feet of horizontal draw.
Jet pumps are a popular choice because they’re inexpensive and can work in both shallow and deep wells. A jet pump makes a kind of whooshing, turbine type of sound — most models are rather loud. Jet pumps need to be primed before they’ll work, and even a small amount of air in the lines will stop them from working.
Submersible water pumps aren’t cheap, but they are my favorite. They move more water than other pumps of a given horsepower, and they never need priming because the pump itself sits below water level. With a submersible water pump, there’s no pump to be seen anywhere — water simply flows from an incoming pipe, noiselessly.
Hand pumps are an option for any homestead, although most families need more water than hand pumps can practically supply. Shallow-water models are inexpensive, widely available and easy to install. Deep-water hand pumps are more complicated because they have a pumping cylinder that sits below the water surface in the well. To protect deep-well hand pumps from freezing, drill a quarter-inch-diameter hole in the intake pipe 4 or 5 feet below ground level before installing the system. This will allow water to drain back below the frost level after a pumping session. Traditional water-pumping windmills transmit the rotation of spinning blades to rods and shafts that operate the same kind of pumping mechanism used in hand pumps — it’s just that the wind does the work and not your arm.
Developing the understanding and skills to install and maintain your own homestead water sources offers more than the usual benefits. That’s because when it comes to water, self-reliance skills can often get your water flowing long before a professional would ever arrive — plus you’ll save a lot of money.
Safe well management includes sanitization by adding household chlorine bleach directly to the well as a short-term disinfectant. Although harmful microorganisms can’t live for long in underground aquifers, they can enter a well from outside sources. That’s why disinfection should occur immediately after a new well is drilled, and after every time your pump or intake piping is disturbed. The amount of bleach you need to safely sanitize your well is based on your well’s diameter and the depth of water inside the well. Read How to Disinfect a Private Water Well to access a handy chart to help you figure out how much bleach your well needs. Pour the bleach down the well at night, let it work until morning, and then run a small amount of chlorinated water through all indoor fixtures. Turn on an outdoor hose until the bleach smell in the water disappears before you use any water, anywhere.
Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build and maintain their homes for more than two decades. “Canada’s Handiest Man” is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on Google+.