Sunday, November 02, 2008

Digging a Well

In New Hampshire, we lived with a drilled well, but back here in Kentucky our mobile home is connected to "city water." Both sources have had their drawbacks. For our new house, I have resolved to provide our own "drinkable" water. Water for the toilets and water for laundry will come from a cistern that collects rainwater from our slate roof. Drinking, cooking, and bathing water will come from a well... hopefully!

With the notable exception of possible bacterial contamination, it is my opinion that better water comes from a dug well than from a drilled well. The best water I've tasted on our farm has come from (ephemeral) surface springs, so maybe the second best water will come from a dug well. The deeper into the earth you go, the older the water. Old water from deep in the ground has had time to pick up heavy metals, radon, arsenic, sulfur, and even oil leached from shale. A dug well essentially provides rain water that has been naturally filtered by the top several feet of earth.

At an elevation of 150 feet above the bottom of the nearest holler, our house is probably much higher than the natural water table. (a holler, more properly called "hollow, is a small valley.) To have a better chance of striking water, I went to the bottom of the holler and chose a spot to dig our well. To avoid getting surface runoff in our well, I chose a spot 30 yards from the small creek that runs through the holler.

I invited my neighbor over to run the backhoe while I watched intently in the hole we created in the earth. In the two months preceding this effort, we received practically no rain, so this seemed to be the perfect time to find a reliable source of water. In the first seven feet, the ground was so dry it was almost powder. In fact, we had to stop digging a few times to let the dust settle so we could see into the hole. My wife visited with the kids and I admitted that things were starting to look doubtful.

Shortly after family left, we busted through a thin layer of sandstone, and miraculously hit a stream of water amidst the dry dirt and clay. Water started seeping into the bottom of the hole from several points around the side. Possible success, and lots of excitement! "Taste it," my neighbor suggested. Looking into the muddy hole, my first thought was "yuck, no way", but then I realized I would be drinking this water for the rest of my life, so I cut the top off of a water bottle and jumped into the bottom of the hole. One of the seep holes was clearly beginning to run faster than the others, so I positioned my bottle there and collected a swig of clear water. Bottoms up! It tasted cold and wet... with a hint of metal. Shucks, iron water... but that is to be expected here. Just look at all of the orange tinged rocks on my house - iron is everywhere. That's ok, we can filter it.

Just beneath the vein of water, we discovered a thick layer of rock. I authorized my neighbor to try and bust through it with the backhoe, since I felt I would need at least 3 feet below the water table to allow for reserve water, debris settling, and a pump intake. Three broken bucket teeth later, we declared the sandstone the winner and started to rethink the plan. The euphoria of striking water in the first hole was wearing off quickly as I sized up the stubborn bedrock just inches below the water vein. I borrowed my father-in-law's Hilti hammer drill and determined (by drilling several holes) that the layer of sandstone that had defeated us was at least 12 inches thick. In more innocent days, dynamite was easily acquired by farmers for such dilemmas. It didn't seem like an option for me. Two friends suggested I give up and just hire a well driller. No way!

While I pondered the problem (for several days), I diligently pumped the well dry each morning and measured the amount of water. First, I wanted to make sure that we hadn't just hit a stored pocket of water that would be easily exhausted. Second, I wanted to make sure that the flow rate would meet the requirements of our house. I was able to pump about 100 gallons of water each morning, but the instantaneous flow rate was closer to 15 gallows per minute. I presume that once the water reached a certain level each night, the flow tapered off to zero, or else I should have been able to pump out 360 gallons each morning (based on the instantaneous flow rate). The well would provide enough water, but how to get through that bed of stone?

After racking my brain, I remembered a local friend with a construction company. Surely he must have a jack hammer and the requisite diesel powered air compressor. I called him up and he said he would loan one to me. My neighbor and I took turns in the hole with the 90 (?) pound jack hammer working on the sandstone. My neighbor had some experience with a jack hammer (and I had none!), so he went first and within an hour, he created the initial through-hole in the sandstone. We stopped occasionally to bucket the stone chips out of the hole.

The first thing that impressed me about the jackhammer when I used it was the raw power and devastation it could render. It was like shooting a 50 caliber ma deuce into the ground... without ever running out of bullets! The downside was the collateral damage it could render to the operator's body. How people run these things day in and day out, I can not imagine. Shortly after my neighbor admonished me not to, I left the jackhammer running in one place too long... and got it stuck in the stone. Doooh!

It took about 3 hours to create a 3 foot diameter hole in the stone. We spent the rest of the day hammering and clearing out hard-pan beneath the stone. The hard-pan was composed of a blue rocky-shale-like substance that turned to clay upon exposure to air and water. To keep us from getting wet, I ran a 12 volt RV pump from a dewalt battery pack, but it was still necessary to stop and bail out the hole at times. My friend needed his jack hammer back that evening, and I was never happier to return a tool in my life. My fingers would barely uncurl and the 90 pound hammer felt like 150 pounds when I lifted it back out of the hole and into my pickup truck bed.

I searched in vain for ceramic well liners (big enough to climb into) that must have been a common item 50 years ago. One place advised me that they could probably order them, but that I should expect to pay at least $50 a running foot for them. I gave up and was going to settle for regular concrete tiles, so I went to our local farm store owner and asked if he could sell me something like that. "In fact," he said "I have three of those ceramic tiles sitting in my cow pasture... you can have them for free. Tractor's in the barn next to the pasture. Key's in it." Score! Within 2 hours I had those tiles back on my farm next to my dug well. Each one is 4 feet long and I estimate they weigh 800 to 1000 pounds apiece.

The next steps in securing our water supply are to lower the liners into the well, install a pump, and bury a water line a pump wires up to the house (approximately 750 feet away). In the mean time, my kids are fascinated with the big hole in the ground. After spending a day myself in this hole, I felt it was safe enough to let the kids climb into it for a few seconds.


Anonymous Jim K in PA said...

Good work Tom. I used a 90lb hammer to break up a slab at the farm and man, that thing will eat you up! I rented it, and when I brought it back to the shop the guy said I was the first person in a long time to actually keep it the full 8 hours. Most give up after an hour or two!

We still have the original hand-dug well next to the house, but we do not use it for drinking. We have an artesian (drilled) well about 75 feet from the house. It is only about 140' deep. Be careful of bacterial contamination with the dug well (test it).

November 3, 2008 at 12:48 PM  
Anonymous Lisa said...

I am SO enjoying your blog! In 2001 my husband and I (well mostly him -- we had 2 year old twins at the time) built our own log home from self-felled trees. We still live in that home. I would love to tackle timber-frame next. Thanks for the inspiration!

November 5, 2008 at 6:24 PM  
Blogger brad_bb said...

Do you plan to filter the water, use a rust remover, or soften the water? Over the spring/summer I learned about the systems and installed 3 systems - mine, my mom's and a coworkers. I had a lot of iron/rust in my well and I used an iron remover that uses Pyrolox media(manganese dioxide). It is maintenance free and flushes itself at set intervals.

November 6, 2008 at 2:49 PM  
Blogger Chris, Nicole and Jace said...

Wow you guys have done phenomenal work!! The process it takes to build this masterpiece……Sounds like my dad was over for pizza’s the other day. He ranted and raved they were the best he has ever had! Can’t wait to come to KY to see this beautiful work in person, I can only imagine what it looks like because the pictures are wonderful. I love the Compass Rose what a beautiful touch! Take Care

Nicole Loehr
(Hussein’s Daughter)

November 11, 2008 at 2:35 PM  
Blogger oldmilwaukee said...


Wow, you lasted 8 hours. That's a funny story and I understand why folks would bring it back after an hour or two! Definitely going to have the water tested and plan on using UV light in our system to mitigate any risks of bacterial contamination.


That's ironic. I would like to tackle a log home next! Congratulations on using local trees and doing so much yourselves. I hope to know how it feels to live in a self built house some day. (we're still in our mobile home!)

Got iron? Yep. We got iron. I would be interested in hearing your experiences with the iron removal systems you put in. Do they require salt for the flush cycle? Are you happy with the systems?

Most definitely bring your family over next time you come in town to see "dad." He's threatening to help us with the cabinets and trim work. That would be nice! :) Some of the stones in his fireplace are from our farm.

November 12, 2008 at 10:14 AM  
Anonymous A and J said...

As you probably found out, the trick to using a jackhammer is that you just steady it and let it do the work - you don't try to manhandle it. ha. Nice having good neighbors and friends willing to share both equipment and advice huh? Another advantage of living in a small community. Great job!

November 23, 2008 at 6:19 PM  

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