PDF Version: Survival Homestead - Wells
Probably the most common source of drinking water in a rural location is the drilled well. Well depths can range from a few feet to over a thousand feet.
It is possible for drilled wells to become contaminated. For this reason particular guidelines are following when drilling and casing a well:
While providing water for a Bug Out Location or Survival Homestead it is tempting to build the house around the well so that the source of water will be secure. This would be especially useful in a situation where the well is supplied with a hand pump. But it is my personal opinion that this could lead to problems. Pumps have a life expectancy and eventually will need to be replaced. If the job is hired out, a well driller will need to get his truck placed at the well and this will be impossible.
On the other hand, if the well is not too deep and there are provisions made to pull the pipe, having the well inside the house might be a good idea and it would be great if using a hand pump.
A Typical Rural Well
First an explanation of a typical rural home well water setup.
In a typical grid-connected house with a well, the water supply system consists many parts:
3. Check Valve
4. Drop pipe
5. Pitless adapter
6. Pressure Switch
7. Pressure Tank
The well casing may be PVC or steel, and it may range from 2”-4” in diameter. The top of the casing should be well above ground level to keep contaminated water from getting into the well. After installation, a sealed cap will need to be installed on top to keep debris from falling inside.
The typical well pump may be a jet pump installed on the surface (or in the basement) or a submersible pump. I’ll discuss these in more detail later.
The check valve prevents all the water in the pipe from draining back down into the well when the pump is not running.
Drop pipe is the pipe that is lowered into the well and connected to the pump. There are basically three different types:
1. Galvanized steel pipe
2. Schedule 80 threaded PVC pipe
3. Polypipe (polyethylene plastic pipe)
Of the three different types of drop pipe, polypipe is the easiest to use. It’s commonly available in rolls three hundred feet long, so no intermediate connections will be required and you won’t have to lay it out on the ground; simply unroll it as it goes in. For depths of down to 100’, 100 psi-rated polypipe can be used and for depths of down to 220’, 160 psi-rated polypipe can be used.
Depths deeper than 220’ will require either galvanized steel pipe or Schedule 80 PVC threaded pipe. Steel pipe is heavy and will eventually rust inside. For these reasons I would not use it.
Schedule 80 PVC threaded pipe must be used with threaded couplings and can be used to depths of 500’. Steel couplings should be used at depths greater than 300’.
|Depth of Well||Drop Pipe|
|0’-100’||100 psi-rated polypipe|
|100’-220’||160 psi-rated polypipe|
|220’ and deeper||Schedule 80 PVC threaded pipe or galvanized steel pipe|
The pitless adapter is a two-part device that lets you connect the house water line to the well pump drop pipe. It is installed in the side of the well casing, below freeze depth. An excavation is made alongside the well casing, usually 3-4 feet deep, and a hole is drilled into the casing at the bottom of the excavation (usually drilled with a 1-1/4” bi-metal hole saw). Then the pitless adapter assembly is screwed onto a long “Tee handle”. The Tee handle is basically two 1” pipes welded together in a Tee shape, with pipe threads at the bottom of the Tee.
The pressure switch has two positions: one turns on the well pump and the other turns it off. A typical pressure switch might be called a 40/60. This means it turns on the well pump if the pressure drops below 40 psi, and turns off the well pump when enough water has entered the pressure tank to bring it up to 60 psi. The larger the pressure tank is, the more water it will hold before it trips the 60 psi position and turns off the pump. This ensures that the pump doesn’t cycle on and off every time someone opens a faucet, saving wear and tear on the expensive well pump; it is healthier for the pump to run for a few long cycles than for many short cycles.
The water is pumped from the well into the pressure tank. Inside the pressure tank is a rubber bladder containing some air. As water enters the pressure tank it pushes against the bladder and this creates pressure in the tank.
The pressure tank system works efficiently and keeps water pressure at the fixtures between 40psi and 60psi (depending on the pressure switch).
Types of Well Pumps
There are two types of jet pumps; “shallow well jet pump” and “deep well jet pump”. In both cases the pump is on the surface and needs to be kept from freezing. The term “jet pump” derives from the use of the venturi and nozzle used to create pressure to assist the pumping. The nozzle blows water through the venturi, creating a pressure differential which makes it easier to pump the water from depth.
A shallow well jet pump can pull water from up to 25’ deep (less in higher elevations) and the nozzle and venturi built into the pump. A deep well jet pump can pull water from up to 80’-100’ deep. In the deep well jet pump setup, two pipes lead from the pump to the well, and the jet and venturi are located in the well casing below the water line. One pipe pushes water down into the well to create the jet effect, and the other pipe sucks up the water.
The advantage of the jet pumps is that they stay on the surface, making repairs or replacement easier. Also, there are no wires going down into the well so money can be saved. But don’t forget pumps on the surface need to be kept from freezing.
If the well is 80’-100’ or more deep, a submersible pump will probably be required. Residential submersible well pumps usually range from ½ to 1-½ horsepower. The deeper your well is, the stronger the pump must be. But they can easily pump to 500 feet or more.
Submersible pumps are exactly what they sound like: the entire pump is lowered down into the well and into the water. They come in two basic types: 2-wire and 3-wire (in either case there is also and additional wire for ground). A 3-wire pump uses a separate starting capacitor located in a control box on the surface. A 2-wire pump has no control box and can be connected directly to the electrical supply without a control box.
Another type is the DC powered submersible well pump, such as the Grundfos SQFlex series pumps. With an additional control box, these pumps can be powered by either grid electric, a (relatively) small generator, battery powered DC, or directly from solar panels. In my opinion the SQFlex is the ideal solution for off-grid deep well pumping.
Hand Pumps And Wind Pumps
If a well is 300 feet deep or less, one option is a hand pump. Some hand pumps can be installed in conjunction with an electrical pump if there is room in the well casing. (Note that the deeper the well is the more effort required to pump water.)
Modern hand pumps include the Simple Pump and the Bison Pump. Both are built to last and the Simple Pump can be outfitted with a solar powered motor which bolts onto the hand pump mechanism, offering a redundant water supply system for the survival homestead.
Wind powered pumps were once common on farms in the US Midwest and there are still some operational today. They power the well pump mechanically and have no electrical parts. The downside is that they only pump when there is enough wind, so the water is pumped to a cistern or water storage tank. If the homesteader can find one of these gems in usable condition, it would be valuable to the homestead.
Another option to retrieve water from a well is to lower a narrow bucket suspended from a pull string. The bucket can be built out of a length of PVC pipe with a spring check valve at the bottom to let water in but prevent it from flowing out. This can easily be constructed with common PVC pipe and fittings.
Understanding that the volume of cylinder is:
(half the diameter of the bucket)2 x pi x height
We can calculate how much water we can get from the well. If we use a 2 foot length of 4” PVC pipe as our bucket, we can get:
22 = 4
4 x 3.14 x 24” = 301 cubic inches of water
There are 231 cubic inches in a gallon of water so we can determine that our 2 foot long bucket will yield 1.3 gallons of water every time we dip it into the well:
301 cubic inches of water ÷ 231 = 1.3 gallons
Even with a deep well, it would be easy enough to bring up enough water to support an entire family.
If the pull string on this bucket could be wrapped around a motor-driven capstan, the operation could be made much faster and with less fatigue. The motor could be driven by a rechargeable DC battery, or perhaps a cordless drill. I’ve thought about building a capstan with an old ATV wheel hub and a cordless drill motor but haven’t tried it yet.
I should mention artesian wells. A “flowing artesian well” is tapped into an aquifer which is under positive pressure so no pump is needed to get access to the water. The water flows through piping to the house or storage tank without a pump. As expected, a property with an artesian well may come with a high price tag. But those properties are few and far between. If have one you should count yourself as lucky!
It can be expensive and risky to drill a deep well; prices usually are $15-$30 per foot. With a 300 foot deep well that equates to $4,500-$9,000. And there is the risk that the driller will not find water and have to keep drilling deeper or worse yet, relocate and start over!
Include the price of the pump, drop pipe and wire and the installation of those items. In addition, a buried water line should be installed from the well to the dwelling which can add a few thousand more dollars to the total.
Well pumps come in many different sizes. Some are relatively low powered 1/2 horsepower 120 volt AC shallow well jet pumps which suck water from ninety feet below the surface while others are two horsepower 240 volt AC submersible mechanisms that push water from five hundred feet or more. The deeper the well is the stronger the pump must be and the more electrical power required to operate it.
After the well is drilled (and hopefully water is found!), the well drilling company will provide a Well Report (which will likely get filed with the county) detailing the depth of the well, the depth of the water level, and the refill rate of the well. For example, the well may be 500’ deep, the water level 400’ deep and the refill rate 4 gallons per minute. The well pump should be lowered as deep as possible so that as much water as possible can be pumped from the well before it needs to be refilled from the surrounding ground. The pump should not be rated to pump faster than the refill rate, or you run the risk of pumping out all the water faster than the well can refill.
It is possible to drill your own well if the water table is shallow and the soil is not too rocky. A common method that people use is to fabricate a pointed steel head to attach to a length of PVC pipe. The steel head has holes drilled in it. The top side of the PVC pipe is attached to a water hose and water pressure is applied while the operator pushes down into the soil, turning the pipe. The water assists in drilling the hole. In some cases cutting heads can be fabricated by cutting teeth into the end of a section of steel pipe and the operator can push and twist the pipe into the ground. I haven’t tried these methods and while they do seem labor intensive, people have claimed to have drilled their own wells this way. If the water table is thought to be fairly shallow, it would be worth a try.
Supplying Well Pumps With Electricity
Keep in that you need to power the well pump if the grid goes down or if the homestead will be off-grid. The most common way to do this is with a generator, but in most off-grid homes the well pump is powered by a 120 volt or 240 volt AC inverter which is powered by a battery bank, or directly with DC, as in the case of the SQFlex.
To size the generator or inverter, you must know how many amps the well pump will draw. A typical one horsepower pump might run on 240 volts and draw from 8 to 20 amps. If we assume 10 amps, the running wattage will be:
10 amps x 240 volts = 2400 watts
But the startup surge could be up to four times that amount, or 9,600 watts. So a fairly large generator or inverter will be required to start the well pump. One way to mitigate this is to use a pump with a “soft start” feature such as the Grundfos SQ series, which is what I have in my own well. It is a 1 horsepower, 10 amp, 240 volt pump, but I can run it easily with a 3,500 watt generator.
Off-Grid Well Pump Setups
The pressure tank system works efficiently but the standard system is not ideal for off-grid use, because we don’t want to cycle the pump on and off during times when we may not have abundant electrical energy stored up.
There are a few possible ways to get water to the plumbing fixtures in an off-grid house, and they all involve a water storage tank.
One of the most common methods works like this: the water from the well is pumped into a water storage tank (near or in the house) with a float switch. The float switch activates the well pump when the water level drops below a predetermined “low” level, and deactivates the well pump off when it reaches the “full” level. Note that there should be an “overflow” on the tank in case of a malfunction in the float switch. The system should also have a manual override to activate or deactivate the well pump.
Then a second, smaller pump supplies water to the fixtures. It can either be a pump with a built in pressure switch, like an RV-style pump, or the water can be pumped to a typical pressure tank as in a grid-connected house.
The water storage tank needs to be located in such a way that the connections and piping are not subject to freezing temperatures. Usually this means burying the tank in the ground or storing it in the house. If water consumption is minimal, a 275 gallon IBC tote can be kept indoors (this is what I do).
If the climate is such that the water pipes will never freeze, the tank can be kept outside on the surface or on a tower. With sufficient elevation, gravity will provide enough water pressure to the fixtures in the house.
Normal house water pressure is 40-60 psi. Every foot in elevation of the water tank will result in 0.43 psi. Therefore, to obtain 40 psi, the water tank would need to be elevated 93 feet. I would hate to try to make a water tower that high, but 20 psi should be enough to enable most fixtures to work. The EPA regulates that new faucets should have “a minimum flow rate of 0.8 gpm tested at a flowing pressure of 20 psi to ensure performance across a variety of different household conditions”.
The toilet can be modified with an adjustable float arm to enable it to fill with less pressure. To set the toilet fill for low pressure water, adjust the arm up so it allows more water in under the lower pressure.
The ideal solution would be to have the water storage tank located outdoors and up hill from the house. If the tank is in this way elevated at least 50’, that should provide enough pressure to provide water to the house even in the event of electrical failure, as long as there is water in the tank.
Installing a Well Pump
The most difficult pumps to install are obviously the submersible pumps because they must be lowered, along with the wiring, deep into the well. But it is possible for a do-it-yourself type of person to install the pump, drop pipe and fittings and I did this myself at my homestead. My well is 500 feet deep and I did it with the help of only my wife and her father, so I feel that any reasonably competent group of people should be able to take on the job. With a well a few hundred feet deep or more, the process can be made easier by building a structure out of timbers above the well shaped like two letter “A”s with a pole going across the top between the two and over the well. From the “A frame” can be suspended a pulley, and a rope connecting to the well pump can be run through this pulley and tied to a vehicle, which can either pull out the pump or lower it.
With the Tee handle, lower the pitless adapter down into the well casing and put the threaded nozzle through the hole you have just drilled. Then go to the excavated hole and screw on the rubber washer and retainer nut are screwed onto the pitless adapter, holding it securely.
Then pull the Tee handle straight up and the inside half of the pitless adapter will be brought out of the well casing because we’re not ready to leave it in there yet.
At this point the water line running to the house can be connected to the pitless adapter in the excavation you have dug, and that hole can be filled in. You don’t want to be trying to lower the well pump while trying not to fall into a giant hole in the ground.
Next lay out the pump and connect the wire to it with the water proof connect kit. Basically the water proof connect kit is a few non-insulated butt splice connectors and some heat shrink tubes. You’ll need wire strippers, a crimp tool, and a heat gun or propane torch.
Also tie the safety rope to the pump and lay it out so it doesn’t get tangled up. For safety rope I would use stainless steel and not poly rope. I learned the hard way.
Install a check valve to the top of your pump if it doesn’t have one built in. This will help prevent the water from draining out of the drop pipe and water line every time the pump is shut off.
Then attach the first piece of drop pipe to the pump. If you have steel pipe or Schedule 80 drop pipe, it should screw right into the pump. Polypipe will need a brass or steel male threaded adapter and some good clamps. Clean all threads first with a wire brush, and use plumbing tape on the threads.
Install the torque arrestors. These are plastic pieces to hold the pump in the center of the well casing and not banging on the sides as it starts up. Usually you install two of these, both low and close to the pump.
Attach the wire to the drop pipe with a tie-wrap so it doesn’t hang loose. At least one tie wrap at every pipe joint, or 20 every feet. If you use black tape instead, it will fall off and try to clog up the pump.
If you want to use check valves, install one at every hundred feet of drop pipe. Some people say they are necessary, and some say they are potential trouble spots because they always eventually fail and cause problems. My pump (the Grundfos SQ) has a built in check valve and I didn’t install any additional check valves.
At this point, you can either start lowering the pump into the hole, screwing on each piece as you go, or screw on as much pipe as you have room for. I screwed on the first 250’ and then ran out of room. I could have continued on into the woods, but 250 feet of Schedule 80 1” pipe is pretty heavy to drag around.
Obviously if you’re using polypipe you won’t have to screw pipe or lay it out so the process will be easier.
The pump should be lowered by holding onto the pipe, not the safety rope, and lowering it down by hand, while someone else helps feed the drop pipe to the person lowering the pump. After a few hundred feet this becomes very difficult. The weight of the pump, drop pipe and wire becomes to much for one man to handle (it can easily add up to a few hundred pounds), and there isn’t much room to have someone assist. I resorted to using the safety rope. I built an A-frame over the well, suspended a pulley from it and ran the safety rope through the pulley. I then tied the rope to a Jeep parked 100’ away. Then my wife drove the Jeep slowly forward as I “helped” lower it, and I made sure the wire didn’t chafe on the edge of the well casing and kept the PVC drop pipe angled for entry.
When the Jeep had driven right up to the well, we tied the rope off, backed up the Jeep and repeated the procedure.
When you have lowered in all the assembled drop pipe, but haven’t yet reached the bottom, you can either screw on more drop pipe all at once and lay it out on the ground, or start screwing on one piece of pipe at a time as it goes down the hole.
When you reach the end of your drop pipe (plan it so that the pump is at least a few feet above the bottom when you are finished!) screw on the pitless adapter to the last section of pipe and then screw on the Tee handle. Then the tricky part is lowering the pump while you shine a flashlight down into the hole and try to line up the two halves of the pitless adapter. When you get it lined up, the top half will slide into the bottom half and support the weight of the whole assembly. Then you can unscrew the Tee handle from the pitless adapter and store it for later. Tie off the safety rope.
The well casing cap has a provision for the electrical wire to protrude over the edge and into a conduit. The conduit should be alongside the well casing and go into the ground at least a few feet, then can be direct-buried to a cut-off switch or junction box.