My Green Home Gets Water:
We're Drilling A Water Well!


There is no municipal water supply in my little village. Our water comes from water wells – the private kind. When I bought this house, I knew that it came without any sort of water supply because the relative next door no longer wished to share the water from the common well. As it turned out, the neighbour's well went dry shortly afterwards.

I had contacted the two local well drillers, and asked them for estimates, but in the end I took my handyman's advice (see the story further down) and got a better deal.

And a much more interesting story!

DRILLING A WATER WELL, STEP-BY-STEP

Monday

10 AM: The big rig arrives.

It came accompanied by a truck for the pipes and accessories, as well as a supply of water to be used in the drilling.



I was pleased to see that the water well casing was made in Canada.

I believe that part of living green is to buy locally as much as possible, to cut down on energy use. Encouraging the local or national economy is a positive side-effect of this principle.

Setting up the equipment was fairly quick; it consisted of settling the rig on top of some wooden blocks and raising the mast. This is twice as high as the house, as you can see in the nightscape, further down.

Soon, the roar of the engine could be heard in the whole neighborhood. Luckily, I had a pair of ear plugs with me.

Several minutes of pounding with the drill bar created a hole wide and deep enough to receive a temporary sleeve. I guessed that this must be to keep the drill straight as it goes up and down, digging ever deeper.

It also provides a reservoir for the water that must be poured in almost continuously to keep the drill lubricated, at least until it hits some natural moisture.

Around 11.15 A.M., the drill was replaced by the baler, which is a hollow tube that is used for bringing up substrate, water, etc. from the depths. This tube has a clapper at the end, which opens some kind of sluice when it strikes a hard surface like the bottom of the water well or the trough, and closes when it's lifted into the air, imprisoning whatever material it has gathered.

A first, meagre sample of substrate ("mud", according to the driller's log) was taken. This was a reddish-brown color and reminded me of the clay I used to make pots with. (Not surprising, since this village used to be famous for its brick industry.)

Then it was back to thump! thump! thump! The neighborhood felt like an earthquake was happening. I went around apologizing to the neighbors, who were very nice about the whole thing.

Meanwhile, the assistant was busy soldering a "shoe" at the end of the first length of casing. That part would rest on the bottom of the water well, preventing the casing from getting down any further.

Soon, it was time to slip that in and pound it into place, replacing the temporary sleeve, which was then lifted away.

The thumping resumed, inside the permanent casing now.

At 12 noon, with the machine on autopilot, everyone broke for lunch. Poor neighbors, they didn't even get a break then!

Around 2 o'clock, having reached 43 feet, a new sample was taken.

This is described in the log as "grey sandstone", though to me it looked more green than grey - like the green clay I used to put on my face.

Shortly after that, a second length of casing was added, soldered to the first one, and pounded down to within a couple of feet of the ground.

I admired the way those two men worked together without ever exchanging a word. The noise made communication impossible for them, and for me as well. I found that very frustrating, because I'm used to asking questions about everything and it wasn't every day that I drilled a water well!

More thump! thumping! More samplings. Still no vein.

My head was spinning. I excused myself and went home to take something for the pain. I decided to turn in for the day. They weren't going to finish till the next day anyway.

I did sneak back later, and took this picture:



Tuesday

I went over early to see what had come up the previous afternoon. It didn't look too promising.

The crew arrived around 2 o'clock. The water well, they said, was now 70 feet deep, and had produced a bit of water, but nowhere near enough.

Mr. Mercer was confident that I would have a good flow before the end of the day, before 5 o'clock.

The day was very cold and windy; no good for my old bones. I told them I'd go home and come back later. They could phone me if anything exciting happened.

When I returned, at 4 o'clock, I could see that a lot of water had been brought up. Mr. Mercer said that they had dug to 75 feet and found a satisfactory vein, but that he wanted to drill the water well another five feet deeper to allow for the sediment to settle.

I asked that they measure it in front of me (this was in the contract). Easier said than done! The flow was so generous that they couldn't empty the water well with their simple baler, but a test with a spool of string and a plastic bottle showed a flow of at least 10 gallons per minute, or so he said.

By 5 o'clock the extra five feet had been drilled (note the white mark on the cable - that's how they measure), and the well had been cleaned out - that's grey sandstone in the next picture.

I now had an 80-foot well. That's a better depth than the average for the area -- 92.7 feet -- and a lot better than the deepest, which is 145 feet.


My water was clear and odor-free, for which I was very grateful.

I know from my permaculture training that the problem with deep wells is that the further down you go, the worse the water quality. Dissolved minerals can reach a concentration that makes the water toxic. That's generally true everywhere, and they tell me it's especially critical around here.


The well of my present house has a terrible well water odor problem -- a foul rotten egg smell. My water treatment specialist installed birm filtration equipment, and added an air injection system right into the water supply line. Iron in well water was another problem I had and both were solved by this approach.

As for the yield, even though Mr. Mercer said we were getting 10 gallons per minute, on his report he wrote 2 igpm (imperial gallons per minute). I guess that was to protect himself! That's rather on the low side, but should it turn out to be the case, it's more than enough for a small household like mine.

It was time to cap the well, affix its official ID plaque, pay the bill (just under $2,500) and for everyone to go home and enjoy a well-earned rest in peace and quiet.

Water well covers are designed to keep even the smallest spider out of the water supply, but at the same time they have to be removable for the well chlorination ritual -- once or twice a year is the frequency they recommend around here.

PLANNING FOR THE WELL DRILLING

A lot of thought and work had preceded the actual drilling, going back to when I first saw the house, before even making an offer on it.

At the time, I had phoned the two local well drillers, and asked them about drilling a water well there.

The figures I got varied wildly: from $17 to $30 per foot for drilling; from 6 inches to 10 inches for the casing (the steel pipe that holds the water and prevents the walls from caving in), from 80 feet to 200 feet for the depth.

It could add up to a lot of money, but since I could get the house for $10,000, I decided to buy it anyway, and to investigate the possibility of collecting rainwater instead.

A few months later, I phoned the New Brunswick Department of the Environment, to get more information about water depth and quality in that area. The next day, the groundwater planning technician faxed me the following information:

I ran a 500m search around [my lot number] and managed to retrieve 10 well logs. For confidentiality reasons I cannot send you the well logs or water chemistries. I did however compile some information for you from the well logs.

--Average well depth: 92.7 ft (deepest is 145 ft, shallowest is 60 ft)
--Average estimated safe yield of wells: 10.8 imperial gallons per minute (igpm) (largest yield 50 igpm, lowest yield 0.5 igpm)

For water quality, 7 results for 10 wells:

--1 out of the 7 wells exceeded fluorine (affects your teeth)
--2 out of the 7 wells exceeded turbidity (which is the cloudiness of the water)

I phoned to get further information and was referred to the department's website for details on water well construction and water testing, and was assured that both of the potential water quality problems had simple solutions and that I should proceed with drilling my water well.

HANDYMAN TO THE RESCUE!

A year and a half passed. The house was coming along, and it looked like I might be able to move in before the end of the year. Better get something done about water before five feet of snow cover the frozen ground!

I phoned one of the local well drillers again. After going on at length about the problems of finding good water at any depth in that area, he suggested I call his competitor -- too busy, too much trouble!

Meanwhile, Gilbert, my favorite handyman, comes by to carry out a small repair, and I explain my water well problem. "Don't worry", he says. "X had a similar problem last year, and he called Y to "switch" for water on his property. Y told him to call Z, who drills for wells the old-fashioned way, by "pounding". Z came and found plenty of good water in the exact spot and at a mere 40 feet."

What my handyman, and other people have told me since, is that the new fancy drilling equipment somehow drills right past - or even blocks up - the more superficial veins. Some say this is deliberate, since the deeper they go the more money they get from you - but I'm willing to give the drillers the benefit of the doubt.

This drilling method - "pounding" - is also known as "thumping" or "the cable method". I was curious as to why they would call it "drilling", and I found the answer in Wikipedia:

The oldest form of drilling machinery is the Cable Tool, still used today. Specifically designed to raise & lower a bit into the bore hole, the 'spudding' of the drill cause the bit to be raised & dropped onto the bottom of the hole, and the design of the cable causes the bit to twist at approximately 1/4 revolution per drop, thereby creating a drilling action.

Why would anyone want to use the cable method to drill a water well? Simply because the shock of the heavy tool bit can open fissures in the rock, freeing up any water-bearing veins ...which effectively means that a cable-drilled well may not need to be quite as deep as a rotary-bored one to yield a satisfactory water flow.

Around here, they say a good old-fashioned well man using the pounding technique will take his time to check out every vein he comes across, and carefully measure the flow, and will stop drilling as soon as you are both satisfied with the amount of water.

And a contractor I know has all his wells drilled this way.

Here is a diagram of a typical drilled well and its water well equipment:

Gilbert gives me the name of the driller, but first, he says, we have to find water, and that's the job of the water witch, or water diviner, and he happens to know of a very good one.

But that's the subject of another article...

I MEET THE WELL DRILLER

The well driller's name is Clinton Mercer. He and the Mrs. came on the Saturday, to have a look and sign the contract.

Mr. Mercer was a bit worried about the location of the marker. "Where's the septic tank?", he asked. I told him that I had discussed that with Michael (the water diviner), that I had asked him if the presence of an old septic tank - the village had had a municipal sewage system for 20 years - might affect his reading, and that Michael had said it wouldn't.


We scheduled the work to start on the following Monday.

BACK TO OUR FINISHED WELL...

Water! An immense weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

The stress of the last few days - what if we didn't hit water? - had emphasized how much we depend on that essential liquid.

Around here, water well problems are common and stories abound of homeowners hiring a well driller for drilling a water well and ending up paying four, five thousand dollars for nothing because the precious liquid was not found!

Now I could put that behind me and move on to other phases of my Green Home Project.

HOW MUCH DID THE WELL DRILLING COST?

(As mentioned above, I had first contacted the two local well drillers, and the figures I got varied wildly: from $17 to $30 per foot for drilling; from 6 inches to 10 inches for the casing (that's the steel pipe that holds the water and prevents the walls from caving in), and from 80 feet to 200 feet for the depth.)

The contract with Mr. Mercer was straightforward enough; it specified the cost of drilling a water well ($20 per linear foot) and an additional $19 per linear foot for the 6-inch casing, with a minimum of $1,900. Additionally, a payment of $137.86 was required for the water well permit, and an additional $130 for accessories (drive shoe and well cap).

The final bill was just under $2,500. That did not include...

THE SUBMERSIBLE WELL PUMP

Separately, I had to arrange for the plumber to install a submersible well pump and connect the water supply to the distribution system inside the house. You can read all about that project on my submersible well pump page.

WHAT'S NEXT? An Update

Clean well water flowing at last

Yes, that abundant, clear water came out of my own well!

But clean as it seems, government lab tests later showed an unacceptable bacterial count, and we had to install an ultra-violet system; that phase will be documented separately.


GREEN NOTES

WHAT ABOUT HARVESTING RAINWATER?

Very early on, I had looked into collecting rainwater for domestic use, and, just in case, I even planned to have the new roof done in steel to prevent any sort of contamination leading to complicated water treatment systems. (The new steel roof was installed in the Summer of '08.)

However, rainwater storage turned out to be a very expensive proposition - $3,000 just for a tank and shipping (see this estimate. (PDF file) -- plus labor, plus more equipment. A $10,000 investment vs. $2,500 for a drilled well.

And so, ironically, if I were rich I'd be collecting rainwater instead of depending on a well.

This situation is typical of the contradictions that we have to live with right now: in order to be really green, a person like me (single, female, not-so-young) has to have piles of money.

(Of course, there are folks without portfolios who are living a self-sufficient, off-the-grid life, but they are younger and handier than I am!)

When I lived in Mexico, I harvested rainwater because it fitted in with the permaculture principles that I wanted to apply in my life, but it was also cheaper than drilling a water well. I built a 24,000-litre (6,000-gallon) concrete cistern and rigged up a system of pipes to collect water from the flat concrete roof. That amount of water lasted me from rainy season to rainy season. I learned to live with very little water, yet I never felt deprived. I even ran a small bakery business.

Back in Canada, I can't afford to buy or build the rainwater storage. Just the shipping on a 3,000-gallon plastic tank costs more than drilling a well - $3,000 vs $2,500. Here's the proof. (PDF file)

I have yet to hear of any Canadian federal, provincial, or municipal government rebate plans for water harvesting - something similar to the home energy efficiency program could be implemented if our governments had the right attitude about the environment. (On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if there were subsidies for drilling water wells! I should check.)

MADE-IN-CANADA CASING & MY ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT

I wish it were second nature to always ask contractors the origin of their products or materials, or to request local ones whenever possible. I suppose it's too much to ask that they be more conscious of those issues themselves.

NAFTA has really complicated matters because they tell us we're supposed to buy imported materials because that's good for the global economy.

But suppose it came from British Columbia, still in Canada, but thousands of miles away? Did it travel by rail? By a smelly old diesel truck? In other words, how much energy was spent in its transportation? I will probably never know.

Sometimes it's just not possible to calculate your ecological footprint.

Regardless, I feel a lot better knowing that all that steel is going to remain buried in this Earth long after I have left it and that eventually it will return to its original state because steel is nothing more than iron and iron comes from the earth.

REFERENCES AND RESOURCES

Water Well Drilling

Witching For Water (An article from Mother Earth News) (PDF file)


Permaculture

permacultureprinciples.com

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture


Water Well Information for New Brunswickers

The NB Dept. of the Environment also has this web page, supposedly for kids, but it's worth checking out: http://www.gnb.ca/0009/0371/0012/0003-e.asp

Facts on Water (about well water-testing) (PDF document)

How To Chlorinate Your Well Water



Related Page



SUBMERSIBLE WELL PUMP INSTALLATION

How to get the water from the well to the faucet? I chose a submersible pump, and documented the whole process for you.



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COMMENTS

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Dean
Prague, Czech Republic

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Steve
United States

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Unites States

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United States

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United States

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Canada

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Canada

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Spain

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United States


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United States

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Minnesota

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                  Australia

BACKGROUND

A few years ago, I bought this fixer-upper for $10,000.

It had been vacant for six years, had no water supply, needed a new roof, and was likely to conceal an unsuspected number of nasty flaws.

Don't believe me? See these "Before" pictures.

My intention was to turn it into as "green" as home as I could, within my physical, financial, and geographical limits – and to share this adventure with you, step-by-step and dollar-by-dollar.

I'm not quite finished, but I do have a few "After" pictures to show.

If you want to follow me on this exciting adventure, you can subscribe to this site by RSS feed -- see the box below the navigation bar on the left.