Monday, January 24, 2011

Thoughts about water

Our little on-going water hassle has had me thinking about strengths and weaknesses in our prepping around here.

Water's really important. You can do without a lot of stuff, but not without water. So step one would be to have some, under all conceivable circumstances.

Things we've done right: We have redundancy. If one source fails, go to the next source while you're fixing the first one. Since the second source is remote from the Property, have a way to haul water. A variety of ways is better. If I were hauling water for more than one or two people, I'd do it a different way than I do: I haul it in 3- and 5-gallon bottles, just because that's all the water I need and they're convenient. If there were more people here, we've got a couple of barrels we could fill. We transport them on the Jeep trailer. I find them to be a big pain, and don't deal with them while I'm alone. But everything's relative. One way isn't better than the other under all conditions.

A disadvantage of being dependent on wells is that the water's way down there. The only way I know to get it up here where I can drink it - in any volume - is with electricity. Again, there are a couple of ways to approach this, and on our two wells we use them both. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The first is with a conventional 120-volt AC pump. This system's advantage is that the flow rate is quite high - about 400 GPH in our system. The disadvantage is that the pump pulls a lot of amps, and you need either a generator or a very robust off-grid electrical system to run it. People, accept the word of somebody who's been there - serious dependence on a gasoline generator is not a path to happiness. My life has become so much more hassle-free since we upgraded the electrical system.

The second way to use electricity for well pumping is with a 12-volt DC pump. This pump is powered by a single 200-watt solar panel, running through a very simple voltage controller. The pump is constant-flow - as long as the circuit is complete and the sun is shining, the pump runs. There are no batteries to maintain, no expensive inverter. It's great. The disadvantage - and the reason the pump really needs to run almost constantly if you have any use rate at all - is that the flow rate is quite low. In our case, that pump only moves about 60 GPH. That's one big gallon per minute, so it takes days to fill a cistern. If you're doing a lot of irrigation, it's not gonna be enough. I've heard about more expensive pumps with higher flow rates, so compromises are possible.

Now let's look at the way my water situation degenerated, and the alternatives that presented themselves. Normally I've got hot and cold running water, same as you. Our main system is prone to freezing - we never have trouble with it in the summer as long as there's electricity. So temporary outages in the winter are common, but this winter things got really bad because we've had multiple problems with the pressure pump. In my perfect world - and in the secondary system on M's place - there wouldn't even be a pressure pump. It's just a place where expensive failures can occur. Gravity, unlike technology, always works. So if you can get your cistern high enough over your use points to give you decent pressure, you're better off. In this case the pressure pump completely failed, and that was the ballgame. We're done - go to Plan B.

Plan B is that solar-powered pump feeding a cistern on top of a ridge, where all the taps are below the ridge. Lots of nice pressure. But! Again we screwed up. Why it didn't occur to either of us that putting the plumbing on the shady side of the cistern, which gets no sun at all ever in the winter, was a bad idea - well, I've got no excuse. When the outflow pipe froze, it took a week of decent afternoon temperatures before the ice plug finally dissolved. Fortunately there was always at least a drip from there, and since I'm here by myself that gave me enough for drinking. But I sure started to notice how much water dogs drink. During that period, washing was not something that happened.

Let's say that pipe had clogged completely. Now I'm hauling bottles and begging water from the neighbors, which while possible is not something I'm comfortable doing. I saved that for that real emergency, and - here's a surprise - when I was having big water problems, so were all my neighbors! Plan C might not even have worked.

Which brings us to Plan D - ditch the technology entirely. If I pop the cap off the well casing and pull up 200 feet of cable, water line and pump, I've got a 4-inch pipe in the ground leading directly to all that beautiful water. The problem is that the water is more than 150 feet down there, right? I'd call this a last-ditch defense against dehydration, but it can be done. When we get a well drilled, we need to draw up a sample for testing. We do this with a high-technology device known as a coffee can on a string. Find a can small enough to fit in the casing, poke a couple of holes in the walls at the open end, tie some 550 cord to the can, drop a rock in the can, and pitch the whole thing into the casing. Let the can fill and haul it up. That's how simple it can be, but it wouldn't work well if you really needed drinking water long-term. So if I were really depending on that as my drinking water supply, I'd ditch the coffee can and build something a little more elaborate from some 3-inch ABS pipe I've got laying around. Here's how it works:

Cut a piece of pipe, small enough in diameter that the cap you're gonna put on the pipe can easily slide down the well casing. The length of the pipe is up to you, but remember this pipe will be your bucket so I wouldn't go more than two feet long or so. If the cord is cutting your fingers off while you're hauling it up, your pipe is too long. Now: take your pipe cap and drill a hole in the center - probably not bigger than 1/2 inch or so. Cut a piece of bicycle inner tube that'll fit inside the cap and cover the hole, and screw that down on one side so that the rubber forms a flap over the hole. This makes a one-way valve - water can get into the pipe, but not back out. Glue the cap onto the pipe. Drill a couple of holes in the pipe walls on the open end and thread a loop of 550 cord through it. Tie your main cord to that loop and lower away. When the pipe cap hits the water, the weight of the pipe will push it down into the water, opening the one-way valve. Let it fill and pull it back up. The weight of the water inside the pipe will close the valve, and you've got water. It's gonna take effort to get water this way, but it does work.

Obviously this is way, way down the list of preferences. But if the technology magically died tomorrow all over the neighborhood, the dogs and I would not die of thirst.


desert fox said...

I can remember my grandparents had a well (no running water in the house) and they used a commercially available (back then) device just like what you describe.

It was about 3 feet long, attached to the rope / pulley system and was made of galvanized steel. No plastic back then.

Great minds sometimes reinvent old ideas when the need arises.


MamaLiberty said...

I stayed on a farm in S/E Texas for two weeks when I was 9 years old. They had a hand dug well in the back yard with a regular tin bucket and a winch on the well cover to pull it up. I wasn't strong or tall enough to turn the winch handle, and I could not even lift the filled bucket.

My sister and I had lived most of our lives on Marine Bases here and yonder, so the idea of getting water that way was certainly strange. So was living without electricity or a bathroom!

I think of those good farm folk whenever I see a kerosene lamp...

Anonymous said...

I have a hand pump backup on my well, the static level is 220 feet. You can pump it into the existing pressure tank, I think anyway, but have never tried it. Hand pumping the water is fairly intensive work though. I'm eventually going to look into a solar set up.