Making Good Use of the Hissing Well, by R.J.

When shopping for our retreat property a few years ago our family was looking for something that could sustain several families besides our own and have as many features common to a retreat that most readers would recognize as desirable for TEOTWAWKI.  Water, security, location, population, soil, and local wildlife (four and two legged) were all things we were concerned with.  When we came across our current retreat property we were shown what was supposed to be a 400 foot deep, 10 Gallon Per Minute (GPM) well.  Luckily we were serious and bought a new pump and had a well test done before we purchased the property.  The well test was done and it turned out to be 1 GPH! (Gallon Per Hour) We used the fact that the well did not produce as advertised to great advantage in bargaining the price down!   One thing we noticed right away about our “no water well” is the constant hissing noise that came from it. After asking questions from the well company we were informed that it was the well was producing methane, and not just a little. After doing some research we found that in our state it is perfectly legal if to use methane out of a private water well as long as it does not serve any commercial purposes. Needless to say we bought the property.

Let’s start off with some disclaimers and warnings on safety before we get started on our hissing well. Natural gas is primarily methane.  It is extremely flammable and explosive. The greater the pressure, the greater the risk. It is also the cleanest burning of the fossil fuels.  Great care needs to be taken while working around methane.  Any combustion source can set off a gas well.  Fire extinguishers and wet blankets need to be on hand and safety procedures need to be planned and in place if and possibly when the well catches fire. Also first aid for burn treatment should be covered before attempting anything described below.  Our family is above average when it comes to technical skills such as welding, construction, machining, fabrication and industrial arts.  Also we are blessed with medical training of both my mother and father.  Even then we still had two very close calls when harnessing the earth’s natural gas for use at our retreat, both of which could have been deadly had we not been prepared and were able to think under extreme, life threatening circumstances.

The first incident happened while removing our new pump that we bought for the flow test from the well.  Since the crane had to be fairly close to the well to lift the pump out, the well company truck had to back fairly close to the well.  Since this was a very deep well this was quite the job.  Unfortunately we forgot about the methane.  Since the truck used a regular gasoline engine for powering the crane while lifting the pump, methane was ingested into the motor and ignited.  When this happened the motor produced a backfire that lit the well.  We had a 30-50 foot flame coming out of the ground quite unexpectedly.  Removing the oxygen from the fire will put the flame out.  Luckily this was surprisingly accomplished quite easily with a CO2 fire extinguisher.

While building our retreat property we built it from the underground up.  Using the opportunity while we were laying out our septic, cisterns and fresh water system we also laid gas piping to the old well along with pipe to a propane tank.  This was an important first step as all liquid lines need to be at least four feet down to prevent freezing. Some forethought and planning went into this because digging four foot trenches all over the property was quite the chore, even with the backhoe. Our State law says that we had to cap the old well permanently when we drilled the new water well.  Because of this law we removed all well components except the outer case from the old well.   Since our well was producing hundreds of cubic yards per minute of gas we had to be extremely careful of how to permanently cap the well.  We had many long discussions about how best to not kill ourselves nor draw attention to what we were attempting.

One of the problems we had to overcome is blocking the flow of gas so we could effectively work on the well.  After much thought we used a Cherne inflatable rubber plug lowered into the 7” case and inflated with compressed air, we were able to block all flow of gas and hold the gas pressure.  Next, we used a pipe bung fitting and drilled a hole above the rubber plug and welded the bung in place. (Note, any welding should be done by a professional welder that respects the nature of what they are welding and the danger in it).  During this welding process we had our second incident that caused some excitement.  While welding, a small leak was created in the inflatable plug that was placed in the well casing and it started to creep up the case to the area of the hot weld.  This then caused a gas leak that ignited and the welder found himself in a ball of flame.  Thankfully, being a professional he did not panic and we were there to put the flames out in a matter of seconds.  Even then he had a small 2nd degree burns and some facial hair missing.  One saving grace was that he was wearing a proper welding attire of heavy leather and 90% of his body was covered.  lease learn from our mistakes and respect what you are working on!

Next we removed the rubber inflatable plug and put a 1” fitting and Gastite tube venting the methane about 50 feet away from the well.  Since we were trying to cap the well we used a large wooden plug (think: wine cork) coated with Liquid Nails for additional sealing, this wooden cork was driven into the well casing with a sledge hammer until all flow was stopped from the well case.  Testing with a small lighter to make sure no gas was seeping around the well head we were then ready to cap.  With a pre-made plate cut to the diameter of the well case and with all rust and corrosion removed from the well casing and cap, we welded the cap onto the well without incident.

After successfully capping our well and proving to the state that it was a sealed water well, we constructed our condenser system and regulators in a six foot pit around the well head.  After the gas leaves the well case we use a older American made air compressor tank for condensing any moister in the gas from 400 feet down.  We mounted this tank vertically.  The pipe from the well casing comes into the upper side of the tank. On the bottom of the condenser tank we installed a Midwest Control Automatic Float Drain (AFD-50).  What this piece does is purge water that is built up in a chamber.  When the water height reaches a point it has a float that opens the valve automatically draining the water.  This unit was chosen because there is no AC electricity or batteries required.  It is also made of stainless steel.  The final addition to our pit was 1/2” steel walls on the sides and rocks on the bottom for drainage.  The pit was then covered with a sheet of steel and a vent with a layer of dirt covering the steel.  We then added some “junk” on top so that nobody would accidentally drive over our well.  The “junk” also made some good camouflage!

The next item to tackle was pressure.  After talking with local gas well workers in the area and asking seemly innocent questions we found that for the area the pressures can range from 10 PSI to 200 PSI on wells in the region.  This is pressure is found in most shop air compressors and regulators in this range are extremely easy to come by.  A word of caution though is that the regulators are something you do not want to skimp on.  Buy quality!  After much thought we chose to use multiple pressure regulators and regulate the pressure down to what most homes use; between ¼ PSI and 2 PSI.  We chose to regulate the gas out of our condenser tank to 10 PSI and then drop to the operating pressure of 1 PSI next to the main building.  Use a high quality gas regulator such as those sold by Midwest Gas Equipment Inc. The final item in dealing with pressure is a safety pop off valve. Much like an automotive fuse that opens when there is too much electrical current, a safety pressure pop off valve is something you need to install if considering a gas well to vent pressure in case of overpressure of the system.  These are fairly simple pieces that are readily available for most air compressors.

On plumbing our retreat for gas we used propane.  This is because on all outward appearances our retreat blends with the local area norms.  This mainly was an OPSEC concern as we did not want to be the only place in the area with no propane and have questions asked.  We have a 1,000 gallon propane tank that was purchased and filled when we need to. But if and when the SHTF, we have a tested plan in place on not only running refrigerators and freezers on natural gas but also a Generac 5875 [20 kilowatt] natural gas-fired generator for producing electricity for the main building and shop at our retreat.  This is done by closing and then opening ball valves to switch over the propane to natural gas.  Our appliances also require using different gas jets for natural gas versus propane.   This is an important feature in gas powered appliances that should be researched before you buy a gas powered appliance.

A very important consideration you need to keep in mind when dealing with natural gas or methane is that you cannot smell it.  Since natural gas is lighter than air and is odorless we felt natural gas detectors were a must indoors.  These were placed very high in our main building as this will be the first place the gas will accumulate if there is a leak. Getting gas from a gas company, an odorant is put into the gas to make it “smell like gas”. This it is not the case when it is coming straight from the ground. The Natural Gas detectors are wired to the electrical grid but we have backup ones that use batteries for the occasion when the electrical grid goes down. We felt that redundancy was important for safety reasons.

In looking back at the project it could have gone smoother but as with some plans nothing goes the way you think it will. Education and Knowledge about what you are working on is a key component of undertaking a project like this. Harnessing the resources God as provided us with has been a challenge.  WTSHTF we realize our natural gas system may fail, our retreat overrun or any number of disasters may make it impossible to use.  Educating ourselves while resources and parts are available we feel is the key to having a better chance of surviving whatever may come. In closing if you ever decide to undertake this type of project when working on something like this safety should be your top priority.