The Windmill on Our Homestead

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw
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Our search for ways of reducing our electrical consumption began about a decade ago as we increased our use of the clothes-line, converted to heating with wood and added solar panels. We were just getting informed about Peak Oil and Global Warming back then and had thought we might even get independent of electrical use. 

Our little farm has grown to include many animals since that time and we have, not surprisingly, grown older. That combination has led to more work but not more energy, so that my husband and I are glad to have mechanical help when we can get it. The windmill, erected in the meadow about six years ago by Amish people, gives us a means to pump water for the cows, horses and miniature donkeys without electricity or our muscles. It has worked out well in allowing us to divide the pasture into paddocks, each with their own water source. It has given us water of excellent quality. It also assures us of water when there is a power outage. Here’s how we went about it: 

Before erecting a windmill, we needed a well in the meadow. The well for our farmhouse is shallow—less than 60 feet—and the water is heavy with iron that requires a softener. The water for our house requires electricity to pump and we therefore are without water during power-outages. To begin our windmill project, we therefore had a well dug in the meadow. It turned out to be about 110 feet deep and luckily has such pure water that my husband uses it “straight” for making beer. That’s not only good water but an unexpected bonus!  

We located people about three hours from here who would come and erect a windmill for pumping water (as opposed to generating electricity). We discussed the dimensions because my husband first had to construct a “pit” over the well and four cement piers on which the legs of the windmill would stand. This was no small effort because the piers had to be exactly square and level. The actual construction of the 30 foot windmill took only one day. Maintenance consists of climbing it once-a-year to change the oil for the gears. 

 People see the windmill and assume it “doesn’t work” because it usually isn’t spinning. If it were constantly turning, precious water would be wasted. We simply pull a lever at its base when we want the tail to swing around and set the blades into the wind. Even a slight breeze “up there” will pump water faster than I could hand-pump it, and certainly with more ease on my part. 

The trick to getting water out to the five 50 gallon tanks in each paddock is underground. One-inch plastic pipe has been trenched buried in the ground from the pit to each tank. We have to go down into the pit to change the gears that determine which tank receives the water. Our joke is that we’ll have to build a ladder to get back out of the pit before we hit 80 years of age! Windmill pits in the “old days” were used as a cool place to keep milk and butter.

At the base of the windmill is a regular hand-pump which can be used if we have a series of windless days. Fortunately, we can almost always get enough wind sometime during the day so that the wind, rather than our muscles, fills the tanks. This might not be true in other parts of the country. 

We feel that what the windmill contributes to our homestead has made it worth our investment. The well itself cost about $2,000 to have drilled. The windmill, erected in place, costs $4,500 and the pit and piers costs an additional $1,000. As our shallow house-well is threatened by a near-by ethanol plant that takes one-and-a-half million gallons of water from the water table daily, we get a little reassurance from this deeper supply of water. It supplies water to the animals that use the meadow. Finally, the windmill is beautiful and ties us to our ancestors who did not need electricity or connection to an urban system to pump their water.