Offgrid Survival Well Informed: Things to Know Before Building a Well
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A fitness guru once said, “If you’re craving something and you don’t know what, it’s water. It’s always water.”
Indeed, water is our most basic human need, a resource that we’d only survive for three days without, so water availability naturally ranks high on wish lists of the self-reliant. Local governments have lobbied hard over the last decades to carry public water to even the most rural areas. As a result, 87 percent of the U.S. population has access to a public water supply, which explains why we never hear home seekers on those real estate-themed reality shows ask, “Does this place have water?”
If your chosen dwelling has access to a municipal water supply, an argument can be made for embracing that. The federal government regulates public water to ensure its quality against bacteria, heavy metals, and other contaminants, but when it comes to the purity of well water, the property owner is essentially on his or her own.
But 13-million homes in the U.S. still rely on wells, whether by necessity or choice. If you aren’t blessed with a spring or an idyllic mountain stream in your backyard and you desire to meet or supplement your family’s water needs without “city water,” then a well could be a viable option. Furthermore, with proper construction and regular monitoring of water quality, it’s entirely possible to have well water that’s as safe and reliable as your neighbors’ public supply.
“In some regions, there may be a large cost barrier for drilling a well, maintaining it, and treating the water,” explains Ryan Bushong, president and owner of Bushong Drilling LLC in Marysville, Ohio, and a fourth-generation driller. “For the most part, however, a complete private water well system will cost less to install than a private septic system, and the toughest barrier to overcome is the age-old stigma that well water is stinky, stains everything it contacts, tastes bad, and is unsafe.”
How Wells Work
A portion of surface water will make its way deeper and deeper into the ground, eventually accumulating in the pores and fractures of a layer of soil and rock. This accumulated water is known as an aquifer, and aquifers can be classified as either confined — bound both above and below by impermeable layers — or unconfined.
Confined aquifers tend to be deeper than unconfined, and because the water can’t move directly down into them, it may enter from a considerable distance away. The water contained in a confined aquifer may be thousands of years old.
A well is simply a drilled or dug hole that intersects that aquifer, allowing the water to accumulate in the bottom of the hole to be carried to the surface as needed by a well bucket or a pumping system.
Depending on the depth of the well and the hydrogeology of the site, it may take hours or years for water to move from the surface into the aquifer. Therefore, a seasonal drought won’t necessarily impact the availability of water in the well, at least not immediately.
Generally, the closer to the surface the aquifer, the more the water will be influenced by surface conditions, such as pollution or climate. Unconfined aquifers are more prone to contamination from the surface, due to the limited buffer between what goes on above and what makes its way below.
There are three types of wells that may be used in supplying water to a home: bored, driven, and drilled.
Bored or dug wells are what most of us past a certain age may remember from our childhoods. Imagine the picturesque, stone-lined wells with a bucket on a rope dangling at the top. These are typically only 10 to 30 feet deep, with a relatively large diameter. Again, because they tend to be accessing aquifers that are relatively close to the surface, this type of well is most directly impacted by surface activity.
Driven wells are the result of a pipe being driven 30 to 50 feet into the ground. This is usually done in areas with large deposits of sand or gravel, where the depth to the groundwater table is only 15 feet or less. As with bored wells, contamination from the surface is a moderate to high risk.
“Most people want a drilled well, so it’s drilled into bedrock with casing at the top,” explains John Jemison, an extension professor for soil and water quality at the University of Maine. “The well head sits up above the ground, and it has to be separated from the septic system.”
Drilled wells typically extend 500 feet or less, but modern drilling technology makes it possible to drill in excess of 1,000 feet.
Bushong suggests a bit of homework for anyone contemplating a well, including requesting a database of historic well records for your area from your state’s department of natural resources. This will provide an idea of the quantity and quality of water, as well as average depth. This is also a good time to talk with neighbors, as their experiences with the process and with certain contractors can be invaluable.
“Be careful to ask others in the area how productive their wells are,” advises Jemison. “If your well recharge is less than a gallon a minute, you may need to install a cistern to hold water in times of greater use.”
In determining the placement of the well, the contractor’s expertise in the local hydrogeology will guide you toward the most reliable water. Beyond that, the goal is to avoid anything that could contaminate your water supply.
“Well placement is usually done based on access, distance from septic systems, and drainage,” says Jemison. “You would not want to drill where water might sit around the well head.”
Distances can vary from region to region, but as an example, Texas law requires wells to be at least 50 feet from septic tanks, cisterns, non-potable water, and property lines; 100 feet from septic leach lines and drain fields; 150 feet from where fertilizer, pesticides, and animal feeds are stored and from pet and livestock yards; and 250 feet from any liquid waste disposal area.
During this fact-finding phase, consider any old wells on the property, which can provide a direct link from the surface to the aquifer, in addition to being hazardous to people, pets, and livestock. If old, unused wells are present, it would be wise to factor their decommissioning into the overall project cost.
Finally, a phone call to the local courthouse or reputable contractor can help determine what permits and other paperwork, such as a well completion report, may be applicable. The red tape can be confusing. Legal requirements vary from state to state and even across counties, so enlist someone in the know to help navigate. If a permit is needed in your situation, that’s likely to cost a few hundred dollars.
The website of the National Groundwater Association (NGWA), wellowner.org, has a contractor lookup feature, allowing users to pinpoint professionals based on location and certification.
“Contractors who are actively involved in their industry — and who undergo continuing education — are more likely to construct a well in compliance with industry standards and governmental regulations,” explains Bushong, “and more likely to construct for you a water well that can last a lifetime.”
He furthermore suggests that potential well owners seek a contractor who’s certified by NGWA and who’s licensed and/or registered and bonded through the appropriate state. Don’t be afraid to ask for references when seeking a contractor and speak with two or three customers about their experiences.
The process of constructing a well will include the actual drilling, followed by the installation of the casing, a steel or plastic tube that protects the borehole from contamination.
“In most areas with abundant water from precipitation,” says Jemison, “the key is getting a good seal — getting the casing fitted into the bedrock so that water can’t run right down the well head and drip into the well without getting adequately filtered. That’s the biggest issue I have found over time with new wells.”
The space between the casing and the sides of the drilled hole will be “grouted” with cement or bentonite. The depth of the casing and grouting will be determined by the geology of the site and/or by local or state law.
Finally, a watertight well cap can prevent contamination. Older types of well caps allowed insects to move inside, thereby transferring any bacteria or chemicals to which those bugs had been exposed. Modern well caps exclude that type of exposure and may be required by local ordinances.
In some instances, water flowing downward into a confined aquifer will create enough pressure to push water to the surface without the aid of a pump. This is known as a flowing artesian well. However, most water wells will require some type of pump, be it electric, solar, manual, or wind-powered.
Says Bushong, “Pump technology has come quite a long way in the last hundred years — from hand pumps to jet pumps to submersible pumps to variable frequency drive (VFD) pumps. The conventional pump systems of yesteryear could provide pressure varying between 30 and 50 psi, and later, between 40 and 60 psi. Today’s VFDs are constant pressure systems that can provide a constant 70 psi at every tap.”
When the well is up and running, a minimum flow rate of 6 gallons per hour (gpm) should be sufficient to meet the demands of most households. However, even with lower gpm, a plastic or concrete storage tank or cistern can ensure that water is available during peak demand.
Well construction costs alone will range from $2,500 to $8,000, not counting the pumping system and water treatment. According to Bushong, expect to invest an additional $2,500 to $4,500 on a pumping system and $1,800 to $4,900 on water treatment.
The quality of well water isn’t static, but can be influenced by a number of factors. The hydrogeology of the area can certainly influence water quality, as can construction, agricultural, mining, and other surface activities near the well. The integrity of the well itself, as well as the condition of household plumbing can have negative impacts on water quality.
Yet, with all these variables that can lower drinking water purity, it’s estimated that 80 percent of wells have never had a maintenance inspection. Most well owners tend to fall into the rut of being reactive, addressing maintenance only when a problem is noted.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitors the public drinking water supply via the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, setting standards for biological and inorganic contaminants, but private wells are unregulated at the federal level. That means the well owner is solely responsible for ensuring the quality of his or her drinking water.
Testing for coliform bacteria should be conducted annually. Coliform bacteria isn’t harmful in and of itself, but it’s an indicator organism that can signal that surface water is moving into the well, and more serious bacteria such as E. coli could be present.
Every three years, the pH of the water should be checked, and a sample should be tested for total dissolved solids (TDS). Depending on observed water issues or surrounding land use, other testing may focus on lead, arsenic, copper, iron, manganese, nitrates, water hardness, sulfates, fluoride, iron, and sodium.
Some land-grant universities offer formal well-owner education through their Cooperative Extension program. Texas A&M University, Pennsylvania State University, Montana State University, and Virginia Tech all offer programs that include classroom training on well construction and maintenance, as well as water testing. Water sampling may cost in the neighborhood of $300 through a private lab, but can run considerably less than $100 through one of these programs.
To find out if this type of outreach is available near you, do an internet search for “[your state] extension well water program,” or ask Cooperative Extension personnel who serve your county.
Dowsing or “water witching” is the process by which an individual walks across a parcel of land with a forked stick or bent wires in search of water. The claim is that, once the person walks over top of water, some form of subtle energy causes the stick to bend downward or the wires to cross.
The scientifically minded will argue that the practice is based on the outdated belief in underground rivers. The fact is that, in an area that receives sufficient rainfall, water will be encountered practically anywhere you dig, so the spot signaled by the water witch is no better or worse than a spot 100 feet away.
On the other hand, believers share stories of the almost supernatural success that their own dowsers had in finding just the right spot. See “Debunked” in RECOIL OFFGRID Issue 28 for more on this topic.
Constructing a water well is within the realm of possibility for most folks in the U.S., but it isn’t a do-it-yourself project, nor is it a drill-it-and-forget-it endeavor. It will take an investment and ongoing commitment, but the prize is the one thing that life on this planet needs the most.
Says Bushong, “Please understand, especially if you are a self-reliant type, you can own your own personal low-maintenance water plant on your own property for a reasonable cost that provides you and your family with water pressure and quality that meets or exceeds municipal water pressure and quality. Knowing this, why would anyone want to rely on a public water system when you can tap into Earth’s most precious resource right beneath you?”