Hand Water Pumps Back in Style

Reader Contribution by Linda Holliday
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Less than 100 years ago, the most important site consideration for communities and homesteaders was whether an abundance of good water was easily accessible. With the introduction of electric power and drilled water wells, close proximity to clean water became irrelevant – or so we thought.

Our complacency regarding water is quickly changing, according to well pump installers I spoke with recently. Many are seeing an upsurge in interest among homeowners to learn about and install hand pumps on their wells. There are now numerous manually-operated water pumps to choose from, depending on considerations such as static water level and yield desired.

Emergency Backup, General Use and High-Volume Hand Pumps 

More frequent storms with longer power outages are one factor prompting rural folks to consider manual pumps, says Albert Brandt, general manager of Radiant Water Company in Tulsa, Okla. A 2007 ice storm that knocked out electric power for two weeks is one example of a disaster that caused many to contemplate their water-preparedness, he said.

“A lot of our customers remember using a hand pump on Grandma’s farm, and now want one as a backup,” Brandt told me when I called to ask about hand pump popularity. Radiant Water Company installs Bison, Hitzer and Baker-Monitor hand pumps.

Brandt, who has been with Radiant Water since 1998, remembers the surge in hand pump sales preceding Y2K. After a decade-long lull, people are again preparing for uncertain times and ensuring their families will have fresh, clean drinking water when the power goes out. Advances in pump design have made them even easier to use and less expensive, he said.

Richard Stothoff, president of Samuel Stothoff Company of Flemington, N.J., said manufacturers, such as Bison Pump Company of Maine, used modern technology to adapt their pumps to function with existing electric submersible pumps.

Stothoff, whose great-grandfather founded the company in 1885, said the company used to install many hand pumps in the then-rural area. Some households still use hand pumps exclusively for water, he said, although such use is rare. Stothoff has seen only a slight increase in hand pump interest recently.

Weather disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy that darkened much of the East Coast for extended periods, spurred more sales for fuel-powered electric generators than for hand pumps, Stothoff said, adding that long lines at fuel stations followed.

“We’re too advanced,” Stothoff said. “We’ve got electricity.”

In neighboring New Hampshire, however, a representative of Northeast Water Wells said hand pump interest over the past five years has steadily climbed as more people build off-grid or geothermal homes. Northeast Water installs Simple Pump brand pumps.

Many types of human-powered pumps have been introduced through the years to accommodate the variety of situations and applications encountered when bringing water to the surface. Until now, however, the discharge capacity has been too low for large communities.

In January 2013, Mother Earth News blogger Ed Essex introduced our hand pump machine to readers, now known as the WaterBuck Pump. Since then, the pump has been greatly improved, presently exceeding the capacity of a 12-foot diameter windmill, making it ideal for larger, remote communities that need more water from deeper water tables or need an irrigation pump with shallow wells. In a recent test, a 50-something man of average fitness pumped 17.5 gallons in 1 minute from a static level of 80 feet.

“Considering how important the commodity produced by the WaterBuck Pump is to sustaining life on this planet, you have created a very powerful piece of equipment,” Kresten Jensen, III, general manager of Cook Pump Company, said when he calculated the WaterBuck’s performance recently.

Why Hand Pumps Went to Scrapyards

Because most Americans abandoned hand pumps more than a generation ago, few today understand how they work or what their limitations are. The pump principle has changed little since its inception, whether for the piston pump invented in 275 BC by Ctesibius, or the rope pump invented in China during the 1st century BC.

Hand pumps were still commonly used in the countryside of the United States and Europe in the 19th century. One pump was usually sufficient to supply water for a family and its livestock. Also, communities were often built around a central well. The people of tiny La Russell, Mo., were so reluctant to give up their community hand pump when progress arrived that they had the new highway paved around it. For holidays, community members whimsically adorn the old pump with decorations.

Although hand pumps became obsolete with the arrival of mechanization and electrification here, they are still broadly used in developing countries. Where financial resources and fuel sources are limited, human-powered pumps are capable of significantly improving a water supply system and, consequently, the livelihood of a community.

While the installation of hand pumps in the United States is generally for emergency backup, intentionally going off-grid, or even novelty and nostalgia, in developing nations, human-powered and animal-powered pumps are vital to survival. Having a manual pump, for instance, significantly increases agricultural yields, provides fast access to drinking water, improves sanitation and empowers women, children and small farmers.

Types of Pumps and Hand Pump Operation

The majority of hand pumps fall into one of two categories: suction pumps (having a cylinder above ground) and lift pumps (having a cylinder below ground).

A suction pump, or pitcher pump, is the type we envision on an old homestead. Repeated strokes of the pump handle gradually “suck” water up the riser main and into the cylinder and out the spout. A suction pump’s operational depth is limited to about 26 feet, according to “Water Lifting Devices” by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Piston pumps have their pump cylinder below ground and the water table. Instead of sucking well water out, they lift a column of water upward through the riser main. Each consecutive stroke of the pump handle causes the piston to displace more water up the riser until it flows out the spout.

Theoretically, the depth from which a piston pump can remove water is unlimited. In practice, however, the limit is determined by the power a human can exert on the pump handle and by the fabrication and materials of the pump cylinder and rod and piston valves and seals.

Today, there is a hand pump for nearly every need. When selecting a hand pump for your home, consider your average daily household use, static (resting) water level, size of well casing and whether the pump will be used only in emergencies or every day.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.

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