Can You Drill Your Own Well?

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If you're game to drill your own well, the Hydra-Drill is the only device we know of for do-it-yourselfers.

A lot of people have considered buying a small, portable, one-person machine and drilling their own water wells. But before most folks will act on that fantasy, they want to know the answer to one question: Can I really do it?

MOTHER EARTH NEWS has talked with, heard from, and read about a number of individuals who’ve tried do-it-yourself well drilling. Some of our friends and staffers have spent days of their own time cutting earth at their future homesites. And we’ve even drilled a few holes ourselves out at our Eco-Village to see how well the equipment available for the job works. So we’ve gotten to the point where we feel pretty qualified to address that question. And our answer is …

Maybe. That’s right, maybe you can — and, moreover, should — drill your own well. Now we know that’s a wishy-washy answer, but it’s not a simple question, and we’ll tell you three big reasons why. But before we do, we can tell you the one part of the well-drilling decision that’s simple: If you decide to do it, the rig you’ll probably use for the job is the Hydra-Drill sold by Deep Rock Manufacturing. We haven’t been able to locate another company currently offering a similar small, portable rig.

Let’s now go to the three questions you need to answer for yourself before you put out the money for a do-it-yourself rig.

[1] Can the machine do it? Obviously, a portable rig powered by a three-horsepower, two-cycle engine isn’t going to have the capacity that one of those monster rotary machines does. In our own experience, the Hydra-Drill’s standard bit does a fine job of punching through dirt, sand, clay, and soft rock such as mica schist. When it hits a layer of tough blue quartz, though, that bit has met its match.

DeepRock does sell a special coring bit tipped with tungsten carbide (you can reap it yourself when it gets worn) for $45, and even a diamond coring bit for $145 for cutting through hard rock. We’ve never tried them ourselves. We’ve talked with folks who have used the special bits successfully, but all admit the going is pretty slow. As one reader from Ontario wrote us, “After drilling for four hours in hard granite, I had penetrated to the amazing depth of one and a half inches.” (That frustrated fellow subsequently called in a professional driller, who bored his entire well in four hours!)

But slow or not, oftentimes it can be done. Orville and Dot Synoground of Pine Mountain, Georgia, drilled through 35 feet of solid granite with a Hydra-Drill and a diamond coring bit. They hit the rock layer at 18 feet and kept drilling — cutting about six inches of granite an hour — until they broke through. After three solid weeks of work, Orville and Dot struck water at 165 feet.

So in other words, a properly equipped Hydra-Drill can make it through a lot of fairly rough rock, at least at slight to moderate depths. But busting through a lot of tough stuff may or may not be worth the effort. (Indeed, Deep Rock advisers often suggest pulling up your drill stems and moving to a new spot if you hit a particularly tough boulder.) Consequently, you would be well advised to learn all you can about your area’s geology before you invest in a drilling rig. Check with neighbors about the depth and ground conditions of their wells. Ask area drillers what’s the hardest rock they go through near your location. Contact the U.S. Geological Survey for a regional map with information on boring. And call your local Soil Conservation Service to see what they can tell you. As our Canadian reader put it after learning the hard way that his property was set over the massive Laurentian Shield, “If you want to lump into the well-drilling business, make sure you at least have a chance of getting your feet wet.”

[2] Can YOU do it? A lot of first-time well drillers we learned about created many of their worst troubles. Some people from the Community of Eden in Bruceton, Tennessee, got their rig stuck three different times in their first well! As they wrote in their paper The VOICE of Eden, “We recognize that many of our problems are due to our inexperience …. But our inexperience is not much different from yours.”

There are several calamities that can befall the novice. If you don’t keep water circulating constantly while you’re drilling — or use the appropriate chemical sealing compound when cutting through soft matter — your hole may collapse and trap all your drill stems and pipe! If you’re not careful to keep a tight grip on the still-in-the-ground sections when, piece by piece, you’re removing the drill stems, you could drop several sections of pine and the drill bit down the hole. It’s even hard to tell when you’ve struck water!

Fortunately, Deep Rock’s 18 page instruction manual is superbly informative. Along with clearly spelling out basic drilling procedure , it honestly warns of several common mistakes and how to avoid or correct them after the fact. Likewise, the company has five toll free lines staffed by people who will give you all the helpful advice they can. One of our local friends who had his fair share of drilling troubles readily admitted, “They have a lot of integrity. You couldn’t ask for much better service.” It seems clear to us that Deep Rock — a company with over 20 years’ experience — really tries to help its customers succeed.

[3] Is it cheaper? At current prices, if you buy all the equipment you need for drilling and casing one 100 foot well from Deep Rock (excluding any special bits), you have to spend $1,304 or $13.04 a foot. However, the gear for every subsequent 100 feet — at the same or a new well site — costs only $286 for the extra stems and casing. (A single 200-foot well, then, would cost $1,590 in supplies, or $7.95 a foot.) The national average for professional drilling is about $10 to $12 a foot. Since the rate varies greatly (it’s as low as $3.00 a foot in parts of Florida, about six or seven bucks in our area, and as high as $42 or $49 in parts of California or Alaska), you’ll have to make price comparisons for yourself.

Remember, though, that all such calculations assume your labor is free. Drilling takes a good amount of effort and time. Indeed with the Hydra-Drill, you have to cut the entire hole twice: once with a “pilot” bit, and the second time with a full-size reamer. And whenever you have to use a coring bit, you’ll be pulling and resinking all your drill stems every two feet! Also, you’ll end up with a 2″-diameter well; a commercial driller would probably give you a 6″ wide hole. This means you’ll have to use a more expensive jet pump, rather than the more common submersible pump. On the other hand, depending on the licensing requirements in your area, you may be able to recoup much of your outlay by drilling wells for others.

In sum, we’d say that if you’ve made sure drilling conditions are favorable, if the cost of doing it yourself is competitive with commercial drilling charges (or if commercial drillers can’t make it onto your property), and if you have the necessary time and proper aptitude for the mechanical tasks involved, you may well want to drill your own well.

You decide!