Sunday, February 19, 2012

Water, Water, Everywhere? Options for a secondary water source

This was my entry for the Safecastle Freedom Award. 

You don’t need to be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to know that clean water is a basic necessity for healthy human life.

Many of us depend on our municipality or rural water district to provide water to our homes. Where these are not available, each home may have its own water well.

But what if municipal service was interrupted? What if the electricity to run the pump in your well was suddenly cut off? How would you meet your basic water needs if your primary water source was eliminated?

The oft-repeated rule of thumb is that each person needs one gallon of water per day to survive. Most people adhere to this rule when preparing a 72-hour kit or stocking a storm shelter for their families. But what if water service was disrupted for longer? There’s no way to store enough water to sustain a typical family for an indefinite amount of time. And that one-gallon-per-day rule only accounts for drinking water. If a real, large-scale emergency happened (think national) and basic services such as water and power were offline, you would need a backup water source.

If you live near a lake, river, or even a small creek or stream, that is one option. The water will need to be filtered before drinking, cooking, or washing dishes. Depending on what you suspect might be in the water (for instance, chemicals from an industrial facility upstream), you may even want to filter water before use in a garden. There are many options for filtering water, and I leave it to the reader to do his own research. 

If you live in a highly populated area, consider that most of the people near you will utilize that same lake, river or creek. How long will that water source last? Are there people farther upstream (or downstream) that will be counting on that water, too? And without services like sewer and garbage pickup, what will get thrown into that water?

If you’re confident that you can adequately filter any water collected from a surface source, you can also augment it with captured rainwater (filtered for consumption, of course). Cut off the bottom portion of your gutter and set a barrel or other collection container underneath it. You’ll be surprised at how much water a roof sheds during a good thunderstorm. And you’ll be happy for the reprieve from hauling water up from the creek!

If you live in an area where groundwater is accessible, another option is a well with an electricity-free pump.  Both hand-operated pumps and solar pumps are available. Solar pumps are the more expensive option, of course. Dedicated solar panels can be set up for the pump, or in some cases, you may be able to wire the pump to solar panels on your house. However, most solar-operated pump packages do not include a battery, which means you’ll only be able to operate the pump when the sun is shining or the solar panels have not yet lost their charge. Furthermore, solar panels must be kept clean (and in good repair) in order to maintain high performance.

Hand pumps are more economically priced, for obvious reasons. But they are not necessarily the lesser of the two options. Water is available from a hand-pumped well any time, day or night. Some pumps have the option to adjust the “stroke,” or how much pressure is needed to operate the pump. A smaller stroke means less physical force is necessary, so children or elderly people would be able to operate it. A larger stroke means more force is needed, but it also produces more water per stroke. Hand pumps typically come in two sizes: shallow-well and deep-well. If the depth to groundwater from the surface is less than 25 feet, you may be able to use a shallow-well pump, at a significant cost savings compared to a deep-well pump.

In many areas, a permit is necessary to drill a well. You will need to make inquiries with municipal as well as state authorities where you live to see what is required. Typically, though, less regulation is placed on wells designated for landscape, cattle or irrigation use than on wells designated as a primary drinking water source.

Groundwater may appear to be “clean” at first glance. But contaminants at the surface can leach through the soil and enter the groundwater. Additionally, some naturally occurring minerals and metals—arsenic, for example—can be harmful to humans as well. A good idea, after installing a well, is to collect a water sample and take it to a certified lab for testing. Before doing this, you might want to do some research on the geology in your area. Pay attention to what elements are naturally occurring. Also, look for scientific research conducted locally by the USGS or area colleges and universities. You may find information on naturally occurring contaminants, as well as any man-made debacle that might have affected the groundwater where you live. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about what to have the lab test for. 

As you might expect, it’s not cheap to have a well drilled. (It’s possible to drill your own well, but not easy). Depending on the local geology and the depth to groundwater, expect to spend $4,000 or more. Also, consider if there is access to your property for the drilling equipment (is your back yard surrounded on all sides by other homes?), as well as whether you want a drilling rig driving across your manicured yard. Even the concrete in your driveway is probably not rated to support a 20-ton (or heavier) truck. But then, yards can be repaired or re-landscaped. Even concrete driveways can be replaced. In a world without basic infrastructure services, a secondary water source is better than money in the bank.


  1. Good post, I am always looking for ways to get good clean water. In Florida the water table is high and the soil sandy but other places is a different story. I especially like the hand pump's for shallow wells.

    1. Yeah Duke, you shouldn't have as much trouble as people in other places with finding water. Even if you had to hand-drill a well, it wouldn't have to be very deep! You'd definitely want to filter it before you drink it though, because it's my understanding that parts of Florida have high arsenic concentrations in the groundwater.

  2. Nicely written and informative. I currently have two wells, one with electric pump and one with an antique hand pump. Neither supply an over abundance of water but are adequate. Still, rain capture and filtration is one of the projects we have in the early stages (currently capturing most of what the goats need), and it is a good option in areas where it rains. And it doesn't have to rain as much as one would think. My research revealed a few surprises which I posted on our site, Thanks for the information, there is always something I missed elsewhere.

    1. Thanks Dave. That's a great idea having two wells. We also have a plan for capturing rainwater, and there's a creek very close to us that hopefully could be another option.

  3. Excellent post! I really enjoyed reading it. I especially enjoyed reading all the information about the hand pump wells. I have a good, spring fed well. But at the time I purchased my house, all of the electrical pump parts had been pulled out of it. I want to save up and put a hand pump on it, but until then, I am in search of a well bucket to fit it.

  4. I want to thank you for this post. This information was very helpful.Please keep up the good work and I look forward to more of your great posts! legal weed

  5. Thanks for the post! I am hoping to have a well started either this fall or spring. I have heard that my town is quite a pain when asking for a permit. Any advice?
    Our driveway needs repairs anyway so it is just fine to wait until the well is finished. Great info

  6. Kris - Found your blog via DFW :)

    I would seriously recommend that ALL water is boiled before use - a rolling boil for 2 minutes should kill any bacteria harbouring in it.

    With the contamination of our ground water by many industries / drillers, and even the rain water from the roof could contain bird droppings (which are full of bacteria) rather be safe than sorry :)