Water Wells and Planning for Problems
Many of us rely on wells for our water supply, and in such cases, we have an electric pump that lifts the water up and into a supply tank.
These pumps are usually long-lived and reliable, and draw little power (at least by present day standards where we have access to virtually unlimited electrical power at comparatively low cost).
But what happens in a future adverse scenario where first our power fails and then secondly our pump fails? The obvious answers are backups and spares, but there are also some design issues that should be considered well before any such problems occur.
Operating Electric Pumps When Electricity is Scarce
The first problem – power failing – will hopefully be addressed by your on-site power generation needs. One of the ‘good’ things about needing power for a water pump is that – assuming you have a reasonably sized holding tank above the well, the power your water pump needs can be time-shifted to those times of day when you have a surplus of (eg solar) power – use the power at those times to pump up water and to fill your above ground storage tank, and use the water from the storage tank at those times of day (eg night-time) when you have no free power.
Water pumps vary in terms of how much power they require, depending on the lifting height they need to bring the water, and the number of gallons per minute of water desired. Obviously, greater heights and greater gpm rates require more power. Fortunately, assuming moderate lifting heights and gpm requirements, you can get a lot of water from a pump that uses only 1000 or 2000 watts of power. From an energy management point of view, you would probably prefer to have a less powerful pump running for longer, than a more powerful pump running for a shorter time.
This also allows you to get good use from a well with a low replenishment rate. When specifying your well and water needs in the first place, you should give more importance to assured continuity of water supply at a low instantaneous flow rate but with sufficient total flow each day to meet your needs, rather than limiting yourself only to wells that can support rapid draws down of water via a high-capacity pump.
Chances are you can get the better part of a gallon of water lifted up your well and into your holding tank for every watt-hour of power – 1000 gallons per kWh if you prefer to think in those terms.
So the first problem – loss of utility sourced electricity – is hopefully not a huge problem (and see below for a discussion on hand pumps).
Planning for Pump Problems
However, the second problem – pump failure – quite likely may be a big problem, and so we offer several solutions to consider.
The first solution is a very simple one. If your water pump fails, simply replace it with a spare one that you’ve kept in storage, in anticipation of just such an event occurring, as it undoubtedly will, sooner or later.
Water pumps aren’t very expensive (probably under $500) and are fairly long-lived. You’re unlikely to need to be replacing pumps every year, indeed, assuming that the duty cycle for the pump is moderate and appropriate, it is realistic to at least 10 – 15 years of trouble-free life. With clean water and a light cycling rate, some pumps give up to 40 years of service.
When you do have a water pump problem, it is probably something you could – at least in theory – repair rather than fix by a complete replacement, and many of the problems actually relate to the fixtures and fittings and tanks outside the well, not the pump inside the well. But, if it is a pump problem, and to keep things really simple, obviously a total replacement should work (assuming the problem isn’t somewhere above ground, outside of the well, in particular the electrical and control wiring that goes to the pump to turn it on and off as needed).
Depending on your level of skill, your supply of spare parts, and how long you can manage with the pump system down, repair would always be preferable to replacement, of course. It would be a good strategy to talk to whoever installed and/or maintains your pump currently to find out what the likely failure points may be and to keep those appropriate spare parts, as well as a complete second pump assembly too.
For many of us, having a complete spare water pump would be all the protection and preparing we feel we need.
Here’s a useful but slightly muddled website with a lot of information about troubleshooting and repairing well based water systems.
A Large Temporary Holding Tank
These considerations point to a related point. You should have a larger than normal above ground temporary tank, and keep it full to half full all the time. Your choice of above ground holding tank should be such that you can live off the remaining half of its capacity for a reasonable number of days, if the pump does fail. That gives you the luxury of some time in which to respond to the failed pump and get it fixed, before the toilets stop flushing and the taps stop running.
There’s a related benefit to a large temporary tank. It means your pump doesn’t cycle as frequently. It is the starting part of the pump’s operation that is most stressful; you’ll get much more life out of the pump by reducing its frequency of cycling on and off.
It is common for the well water to be pumped to a small pressure reservoir, and then to travel from there to the taps as needed, primarily by the force of the pressure in the reservoir. In such cases, we suggest adding a temporary holding tank between the well and the pressure reservoir (rather than creating an enormous pressure reservoir). We also suggest locating the holding tank as high above ground as possible, so as to reduce your dependence on the pressure reservoir. A gravity fed system from the reservoir to your taps would be much more reliable.
Typical domestic water supplies have pressures in the order of 40 – 60 psi, sometimes a little less, and sometimes going up as high as 80 psi.
Yes, there is such a thing as too much water pressure. We’d recommend keeping the water pressure to around the 40 – 50 psi point so as to minimize stress on taps and pipes. Each foot of water height creates 0.43 lbs/sq in of water pressure. So even a 40 psi service would require the water level at the top of the holding tank to be 93 ft above the tap level – this is almost certainly impractical.
There are two workarounds. The first is to have large diameter piping and high flow rate taps. This will compensate for the lower pressure in all situations except showers. If you want to have good showers, you’ll need to have a pressure booster of some type, either just for the shower, or perhaps for the entire house.
The problem with holding tanks appreciably above ground level is that they are insecure. A vandal or attacker will see the tank, and almost certainly, rifle rounds will penetrate through the tank wall and while the holes might be readily repairable, the water you lose may or may not be so easily replaceable. Without wishing to over-engineer a solution, our preference sometimes is for two holding tanks. A large one that is mainly underground, and then a smaller ‘day tank’ type tank that is above ground at a high up point. That way your main holding tank is relatively secure, and your vulnerability reduced; indeed, you could even have your day tank built into the attic/inside the roof of your retreat.
Adding a Hand Pump to the Well
So far, we’ve recommended adding a large temporary holding tank, set into the ground, and a smaller ‘day tank’ located in the ceiling/attic of your retreat. We’ve also suggested keeping a complete spare pump and some replacement spares for those parts most likely to wear out.
But wait. There’s still more! We’d feel more comfortable if we also had some type of hand pump, so that pretty much no matter what else happens, we can always get water. It goes without saying that if we can’t get water to our retreat, everything else becomes irrelevant and our entire retreat becomes unlivable. Water is an essential part of any retreat, and abundant water allows our lifestyle to move massively up the scale.
Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind our water needs probably extend way beyond what we directly personally use in our retreat. We have agricultural needs too, for our crops and livestock. We might even have ‘industrial’ type needs if we have any sort of manufacturing processes. You’ll probably find a hand pump, while able to provide the essential water for living, would be inadequate to provide all the other water you might need over and above your domestic and personal needs. Perhaps better to say – the pump may be adequate, but your supply of pumping manpower may be inadequate!
Hand pumps come in many different shapes and sizes, and come with various types of claims and promises about being easy to operate and providing so many gallons per minute of water from your pumping actions.
There are, however, two main types of hand pump (and many other types of less relevant ways of raising water too, starting with a traditional well and bucket that is lowered down to the water level and then lifted up again).
Pumps that are designed to lift water only a short height are probably suction pumps (also called pitcher pumps) – their piston is above ground, directly connected to the pump’s operating handle, and simply sucks the water up the pipe and eject it out the other end of the piston.
But suction pumps quickly become less effective when the distance the water needs to be lifted increases. A sometimes cited rule of thumb is that suction pumps are good for about 25 ft of lifting. At that point, a totally different type of pump comes into its own, the lift or piston pump.
These pumps have their operating mechanism at the far end of the pipe, down where the water is. Each stroke of the pump handle causes the cylinder to lift another measure of water up into the pipe. Eventually, the water has been lifted all the way to the top and comes out the spout.
These pumps can lift water hundreds of feet, but the greater the lift height, the more effort is required to lift the water, and the more stress on the cylinder’s seals and the tubing in general.
Treat all the claims of gallon per minute (gpm) outputs and ease of use of hand pumps with a grain of salt. There are unavoidable physical laws of nature which dictate how much energy is required to lift water from your well to your holding tank, and while a hand pump can operate with a greater or lesser degree of efficiency, thereby influencing how easy/hard it is to pump the water, it can never be more than 100% efficient (and more likely, never more than perhaps 70% efficient) so you’re always going to have to put some effort into the pumping.
Adding a hand pump to your current well system is probably much easier than you’d think. Well, it is easy now while society is still functioning; it would be much harder subsequently!
The good news is that your current well comprises a pipe that is probably 6″ in diameter, and the pipe for the electrically powered pump water that comes up is probably only 1″ – 1 1/4″ in diameter. This leaves lots of room for more pipes, so you simply lower down an extra pipe, and mount a hand pump on the well head.
Now for a clever extra idea. You can have the output of the hand pump go to a valve, which can direct the water either to an outlet/tap or to feed into the water line from the electric pump (through a check-valve of course). That way, if your electric pump fails for any reason, you can still feed water into your holding tank, your pressure tank, and your household water system. This is a bit like having a distribution panel for your electricity, allowing your house wiring to be fed from utility power, a generator, batteries, or whatever other power source you wished to use.
What sort of hand pump do you need? Our first point is one of warning. Hand pumps are not necessarily long-lasting just because they operate by hand rather than by electricity. We’ve heard of people having their hand pumps fail on them after less than a year of moderately light use. In alphabetical order, we’re aware of Baker Monitor, Bison, Flojak, Simple Pump and Waterbuck Pump brands. You might also find used Hitzer pumps out there, but after some years of struggling, the company finally liquidated a short while ago this year (2014).
There are other brands as well, but we’ve not uncovered as much information on them so hesitate to mention them. We’ve not experimented with all the different makes and models of hand pumps, and hesitate to make a recommendation. We suggest you speak to a couple of different well digging and maintaining companies and see what they recommend, and roam around online user forums and see what type of feedback the different makes and models of pumps are getting from bona fide users.
The Waterbuck product seems impressive, but we don’t fully understand exactly what it is or how it has the apparent advantage and extra efficiency it claims. It seems to still be a fairly new to market product – maybe by the time you read this there is more feedback from people who have been using it for a while and who can comment accordingly.
If you are fortunate enough to be somewhere with a reasonable amount of wind, maybe you can supplement your water supply with a windmill.
The classic American windmill can provide a reliable regular supply of water, ideally into a reasonably sized holding tank so as to buffer the differences in supply and demand as between the vagaries of wind powered pumping and the water draws for your various requirements.
Windmill powered pumps can lift water up to almost 1000 ft, and the more powerful pumps can lift up to 1000 gallons per hour (albeit more moderate heights).
Windmills can therefore work well, even as primary water supply pumps, just as long as there is a reasonable amount of wind to drive them.
Well Depth Issues
There’s no avoiding gravity. The deeper you have to drill for water, the more hassle it becomes to then lift the water up to the surface and on into your retreat, the more energy it requires, and the more stressed every part of the pumping process becomes.
It would be time and money very well spent to explore widely around your retreat property to find the best location for the shallowest well. A well digger can probably tell you fairly quickly, based on logs from past drilling projects in your area, what the typical well depths might be and if there’s likely to be much variation in the distance down to the water table around your property.
It is massively less costly, from an energy point of view, to run a water line horizontally across your property than it is to dig down in the first place. Our point here is that if you had to choose between a 50 ft well, half a mile away, and a 200 ft well, right next to your retreat, we’d probably choose the 50 ft well (assuming there were no other risks or negative factors associated with then running half a mile of pipe from the well head to your retreat).
Best of all, of course, would be to do both wells, giving you another element of redundancy and assuredness of water supply.
Typical well water supplies have water feeding from a well to a relatively small and pressurized reservoir and then from there to the household plumbing.
We suggest a better design for a prepper has the well feeding to a holding tank, of sufficient size to store several days of water. The well pump should be configured to deliver water infrequently with fewer starts and stops, making it less stressed and therefore more reliable and longer lived. A second system then feeds from the holding tank to a pressurized reservoir and into the house. This makes it easier to troubleshoot your water supply system and, in the event of the well pump failure, gives you some time to fix the pump before running low on pumped water on hand.
In addition to the electric well pump, you should have a second pump line going down your well tube, with a hand-operated pump at the top. The pump should also feed into your main holding tank supply, plus have the ability to have water drawn direct from the pump itself.
Lastly, a backup system to feed water from the holding tank to your retreat would make sense also.