Tips for Using a Manual Water Pump

Take your water supply into your own hands — literally. Learn how to live well with hand-pumped water so you maximize every drop.

By Staff
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by Wren Everett
Carry and store your water in solid, food-grade buckets. Clean them weekly to keep them sanitized.

When we first moved to our homestead, we replaced our failing electric pump with a hand-powered manual pump. Backward though it may seem, it was actually a huge step forward on our journey to off-grid self-sufficiency, giving us both the exhilarating freedom and daily responsibility of handling our own water needs.

Having now pumped hundreds (and hundreds!) of gallons since that decisive day, I’ve learned a lot about using a hand pump. For those considering taking the plunge and declaring their water independence, here are some of my best tips for living with­ – and loving – a manual pump.

But First, What Is a Manual Pump?

Simply put, a manual pump is a human-powered means of bringing well water to the surface. Rather than relying on a motor to move the piston within the pipe, water is moved by old-fashioned arm power. Laborious as some may see it, I prefer to see it as secure. As long as I’m able to pump the handle, I know I can get water.

We use a Simple Pump. True to its name, it’s a simple device that was relatively easy to install in our existing well, and it’s been easy to maintain ever since. It also has the modern benefit of not needing to be primed. All the work required to install this pump can be done by two adults. Bison Pump also offers a similar well-made product.

Make the Most of Your Manual Pump

Switching to a manual pump totally changed the way I think about and handle water. From that experience, I offer these four hard-won tips to help your own transition flow smoothly.

Use the right posture. One of my top pieces of advice is to make sure your posture is correct while operating the pump. This is a lesson I learned the hard and painful way.

With only inexperience leading me, I first started pumping water by pushing with my arms or bending at my waist. Quickly, I wound up with a persistent lower backache, one made worse every time I went back to the well. Obviously, that wouldn’t work long term. Rescue came in the form of my husband’s much-needed input. He helped me correct my posture to a strengthening form that solved the backache and gave me a quick workout to boot!

Essentially, pumping water correctly requires many of the same muscle movements as doing a body-weight squat. With your feet oriented beneath each shoulder, use the strength of your legs to move your body up and down while pumping the handle; your knees, not your back, should be doing the bending. You should feel the burn in the tops of your thighs. If your back starts to hurt, you’re likely doing it wrong.

a person bending at the waist operating well pump, demonstrating

For most of us, this is a non-instinctive motion that will need to be learned. Search online to get an idea of how to do a body-weight squat, and then have someone observe you while you’re pumping water to help you correct your form.

Diversify your water sources. Even if you’re a champ at pumping water, it’s still a lot of work to draw the dozens of gallons needed to manage a day of homesteading life. Thankfully, there’s no need to use your well as the sole source of water. If your homestead has a pond, lake, spring, or creek, you can figure out a system that allows you to tap those sources of water for your garden and livestock, saving the pumped water for human use. (Check out “DIY Water Trailer” for inspiration on building your own portable water system.)

And even if your homestead lacks a natural water feature, you can create your own by installing a rain-catchment system. This can be as simple as a rain barrel attached to the roof of each animal shelter, or as complicated as a cistern that can secure hundreds of gallons of water each rainy spring. Popular choices for rain barrels include 55-gallon food-grade barrels and 275-gallon IBC totes. Call around or browse through your local Craigslist; these types of containers are surprisingly easy to find, and they’re easy on the wallet too.

Get good water buckets, and keep them clean. Of course, having a manual pump is only one part of managing a household’s water use. Getting that water into your living space requires a system too. This can take many forms, but the simplest system is run by lugging the humble 5-gallon bucket. These buckets can be purchased new or found by the hundreds in the food-service industry. Just be sure to get food-grade plastic; it’s specially made to not leach chemicals into liquids.

a person bending at the knees operating well pump, demonstrating

Three “house buckets” should be enough to keep your home in good supply. Store one inside for use, and keep the other two filled and waiting in a back room or other nearby, enclosed location. Once one bucket is emptied, you can easily grab a full one without having to run back to the well. Just be sure to fill the buckets again once you have a moment! It’s not fun to be in the middle of cooking a meal only to find you have three empty buckets and something sizzling on the stove.

Bucket maintenance is easy. Simply scrub them with water, rinse them with a mild bleach solution, and allow them to dry in the sunlight to keep them ready for action. Make a habit of cleaning all your buckets weekly.

Reduce your water needs. The average American uses around 80 to 100 gallons of water a day. That mind-boggling figure is untenable for those looking to establish their own water security. Thankfully, no one actually needs that much water each day; it’s merely a result of modern convenience.

When you move off-grid, water suddenly switches from a mindless resource to one that requires you to be mindful. You’ll have to relearn how to wash dishes, laundry, and yourself! You’ll have to approach toilets and sinks with an entirely new perspective as well. There are many different methods for conserving water, but here are a few suggestions to help you on your way.

Consider a waterless composting toilet system. If you have ample cash for it, Nature’s Head makes a ready-to-install system. If you’d prefer to go a less-expensive route, you can easily build your own composting toilet for a fraction of the cost. The details of building, using, and managing your own toilet system are far beyond the scope of this article, but for those interested, I highly recommend The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins. Also, Mother Earth News and search “composting toilet” to find a selection of how-to articles.

Try hand-washing your laundry. With little more than a galvanized steel washtub, a scrub board, a washing plunger, and a clothesline, you can get your clothes cleaner than the machines do, with a fraction of the water. Granted, claiming the laundry back into your own hands does take some time to learn and adapt to the process, but if you eliminate the washing machine from your home, you’ll cut down on your water usage exponentially. As a bonus, you can use the rinse water in your garden once you’re done (as long as you don’t use chemical detergents).

Learn the art of the sponge bath and revolutionize your ideas of what it means to bathe. Ole Wik’s 1981 Mother Earth News article “Sponge Bath: Keep Clean Without Running Water” provides an excellent and detailed write-up on how to clean yourself thoroughly with 7 cups of water. Be sure to take his advice and make it a daily ritual. It’s a pleasant end-of-the-day wind-down.

Rather than letting endless streams of water flow over your dishes as you scrub and rinse them, fill and use both sides of your kitchen sink. With a hot “wash” side and a “rinse” side, you’ll get the dishes just as clean, but use a fraction of the water.

Transitioning to off-grid water isn’t a task to take lightly, but neither is it a burden, unless you choose to see it that way. While no longer being at the mercy of a power outage is just one of the many benefits of having a manual pump, the deeper benefits include a much more intense, daily gratitude for the gift of water.

  • Updated on May 4, 2022
  • Originally Published on May 3, 2022
Tagged with: hand water pump