Digging a Shallow Well

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The author drawing water from his shallow well.
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Diagram shows a cross-section of the shallow well the author built.
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Diagram shows the cover of the well.

A year ago–after spending the summer building our
house and bringing in a winter’s worth of firewood–my
wife and I were faced with the question of how to take care
of our new homestead’s water needs. Unfortunately, we
couldn’t afford the $400 necessary to hire a local
contractor to backhoe a hole and install concrete spring
tile. So we were about resigned to carrying water from our
nearest neighbor’s supply during the coming cold season
…until I decided to take the bull by the horns and design
a do-it-myself shallow well.

To begin the project, I dug a three-foot-square hole at a
point where a natural spring (“seep” might be a more
accurate term) was located. I was careful to position my
pit back from, and a bit above, a nearby marshy area.
(Ideally, a well hole should be dug in late summer, when
the water table is at its lowest. At that season you’ll
need to bail less while digging and can be
reasonably sure of an adequate flow of water during the
wetter parts of the year.) I was relieved to hit bedrock at
a depth of 5 1/2 feet, since I would have had difficulty
excavating deeper with hand tools.

Once the pick-and-shovel work was behind me, I obtained two
55-gallon drums (they had formerly held glue) with locking
ring-sealed removable lids. A friend kindly volunteered the
use of his oxyacetylene torch, and before long the bottoms
of the two barrels were removed and I’d brazed the
cylinders together end to end …producing a sturdy steel
tube about two feet in diameter and six feet long. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Torching used barrels, which could
contain flammable fumes, should be done outdoors and with
the greatest caution!]

In order to clean the paint and adhesive from the barrels,
I built a scrapwood fire and placed the reservoir-to-be, on
end, over the blaze, with its base propped up on rocks to
allow air to reach the fire. Much to my surprise, a column
of yellow flame was soon shooting some 15 feet
into the air, accompanied by the earthquake–like
rumble of a very violent draft. Within an hour the
paint had been vaporized by the intense heat and–after
waiting for the metal to cool–I wire-brushed the
remaining residue from the metal and rolled the assembly
down to the hole.

Of course, before I could install my homemade
spring tile, I had to set up a system to filter the water
that would flow into it. Therefore, I shoveled a six-inch
deep layer of washed pea gravel into the bottom of the
hole. The double barrel was set on top that stone, and
another foot of gravel was poured around the outside of the
lower drum, to provide further cleansing. I then filled in
around the cylinder with clay-heavy earth to help
prevent surface water from seeping into the well.

My next project was to put together a mount for the hand
pump to be used with my water supply. I simply bored holes
in one of the leftover drum covers, to match the mounting
hardware on the pump’s base, then cut a 2′ X 2′ square of
3/4″ exterior grade plywood and bored openings in it to
match those in the lid. By sandwiching the wood between the
pump and the barrel lid, I was able to produce a sturdy
assembly. I finished this step by applying silicone
caulking around all of the fasteners, for further
protection against ground-water seepage.

After fishing a few floating leaves out of the water, I
lowered the pump and cover unit into place. Then I fitted a
length of 3/4″ hose to the outlet on my pump (to avoid
having spilled water accumulate above my well) and began
the job of emptying out the somewhat murky liquid. There
was a fair amount of silt being carried in as the reservoir
refilled itself, and I had to pump out the well three times
to remove all traces of mud.

I also decided to chlorinate the water, to kill any
bacteria that might have been introduced during the
construction process. To do so, I mixed one quart of
household bleach with an equal amount of water, making a
solution capable of purifying 100 gallons of drinking
liquid. The mixture was then dumped into the well and the
system resealed with its locking ring and silicone
caulk. I pumped until a strong smell of chlorine was
evident at the hose outlet, then let the purifying chemical
do its work overnight. On the following morning, I pumped
the well out a few more times to remove all detectable
traces of bleach. After that my low-cost shallow well was ready
for use!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Anyone duplicating Mr. Adams’s well might
want to consider using only barrels–of heavy plastic or
otherwise–that are approved for food storage. The
author reports that his metal drums did eventually
introduce some rust into the water, which forced him to
install a filter. In addition, it’s best to have any new
supply of water tested for purity if it’s to be used by
humans, and to install a locking assembly on the lid to
prevent curious children from opening the well and,
perhaps, falling in.

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