Water Works- Part 1, by JSP

Many years ago I became friends with an older gentleman who was a retired farmer. It seemed to me that there wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix or build, whether small engines, regular engines, diesel engines, electrical, electronics, welding, and so on. Not having been raised around people like this gentleman, he was a good role model for me, especially when it came to problem solving. He and his wife had retired, sold their farm, and moved to the “city” of 30,000 people. One day he told me that they were selling their home in the city to move to a small, rural comunity. I asked him why they were moving. He said, “Because the place we are buying has its own well”. I must of had this “Yeah, so?” look on my face, because he then said, “If you don’t control your water, you don’t control your life.” I wasn’t a survivalist back then, but that statement always stuck with me.

Fast forward a couple of decades to September 11th, 2001. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center, it was obvious to me that we were under attack. I started filling everything I could find with water, including the bath tub. On September 12th, 2001, my wife and I realized that we were woefully unprepared to weather much of a storm and so began our path to preparedness. One of the first things I did was purchase a 55-gallon, food-grade barrel and fill it with water in the garage. It didn’t take long to realize that we were in a bad location and 55 gallons of water could be consumed quickly by a family of four.

That was thirteen years ago. We sold that house and moved to the country. What follows is a description of an elaborate and expensive water system designed to provide water in a grid-down situation for a homestead with livestock, gardens, and orchards, but there will be some applications to those not on a well. I provide the background above so that nobody gets discouraged at the elaborateness of our current system. We started pretty humbly and built our current system one step at a time. Trust me, we made lots of mistakes along the way. My hope for this article is two fold: 1) that it encourages people to take their water “preps” to the next level, and 2) that the reader can learn from our ideas and mistakes.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an electrician or a plumber, but I do possess a pretty good basic understanding of both. While a good set of problem-solving skills goes a long way in this arena, so too does the common sense to know when you’re working with systems where you should get professional assistance. It should go without saying that anytime water and electricity are near each other, it should be treated with the utmost of care. Also when working with hot water systems, even without electricity, you need to be careful. Furthermore, in the course of this article, I will mention some products and distributors by name. I do not have any connection to any company mentioned, economic or otherwise; I am simply a retail customer.

Our First Three Enhancements To Our Water Systems

We began by enhancing the deep water well on our property. To be conversant about your well in dealing with others, you need to know the statistics of your well, including the following:

  • Well depth
  • Pump depth
  • Static water level
  • Water delivery from the well in Gallons Per Minute (GPM)

In our case:

  • Well depth = 187 feet
  • Pump depth = 167 feet
  • Static water level = 135 feet
  • Water provided = 23 GPM

The first thing we did was to install a system to help facilitate using a gas-powered generator to run the deep well pump grid down. Most of the projects listed in this article we installed ourselves, obviously to save money but often times since this is not “plain vanilla” electricians, plumbers, and pump specialist either weren’t interested in the work or had no idea what we were wanting them to do. In this first step though, we absolutely did hire an electrician, because you are working with 240 power, which is not for the inexperienced.

Step 1: First of all, it takes a lot more electricity to get a deep water well pump to “turn over” than most people realize. At first, we purchased a 2500 watt pump that turned out to not even be close to enough “juice” to run the pump. We then purchased a Generac 7500 watt gas generator with surge ability of 12,500 watts. What that means is that many things, such as well pumps, freezer motors, and so on take a lot more power to start them turning than to keep them running. So, this generator can get something started briefly up to 12,500 watts and keep things running long term up to 7500 watts or so.

If you have ever tried to interceed into the standard deep well pump system and connect a generator to the wiring, you really need to know what you’re doing electrically, and it is not for most people, myself included. So, we had an electrician install two things. First, is a three position wall switch in our laundry room where the charge control unit and pressure tank are located. This switch directs where electricity will come from, when it enters the well pump control box. When that switch is in the “up” position, the well gets its power from the grid. In the middle position it is off, and the down position means the power comes from another source. This switch does a variety of things, but most importantly it insures that if you use a generator to run your well no “juice” back feeds down the grid power lines where some unsuspecting lineman gets killed or seriously injured by your generator.

Step 2: The second part to this was to tie that switch to a waterproof junction box outside. You can put it in the location of your choice. I chose a location where the generator would be out of site and the noise signature would at least be somewhat muted. Then you or your electrician can build a simple cord with a waterproof inline shut off switch. (I did that part, and it was easy.) So, when the grid is down and you need to run your well with a generator, you simply put the three-way switch in the down position, plug the cord into the generator on one end and the junction box on the other, and fire up the generator. This is a very safe and easy way to run a well pump with a generator, and our electrician charged under $200 to install this.

The next step was to install a Simple Pump into the well, as a back up to the deep water pump. The Simple Pump (and its competitors) are a deep water hand pump for a well. I believe they advertise that they can pull water up to 300 feet of lift, as opposed to the typical well top “pitcher pump” that usually maxes out at 25 feet of lift. There are now other brands of pumps that accomplish the same thing, but to my knowledge there weren’t choices at the time, so I have not done a side-by-side comparison of different manufacturers. For this step, we also hired the work done and our “pump man” drug his feet on this project. He had all kinds of reasons why it wouldn’t work and how you are potentially jeopardizing the wiring down to your high voltage pump, et cetera. Well, he was wrong.

One of my philosophies about hiring work done that has helped improve my skill sets is that if you are on my property and on my “dime” then I get to watch and ask questions.

A year or so after having the Simple Pump installed, I went to try it. It didn’t work. I pumped and pumped and got nothing. This was not a good feeling, as this was a major part of the backup plan. Long story short is that our pump man, when assembling the sections of pipe that come with the Simple pump, used teflon tape. Pieces of the Teflon broke off and settled at the very bottom, blocking the foot valve. We had to pull the entire pump out and redo the sections with pipe dope. The Simple Pump folks had never encountered this problem previously, but when we disassembled the foot valve and base pump we could see how the Teflon tape had interfered with things. So, the lesson learned is to use pipe dope rather than Teflon tape in all well casing applications. Also you can purchase an extended pump handle and extra “O” rings for a Simple Pump, which I highly recommend. The longer handle makes the pumping much easier.

Step 3:The last step in our path to enhance our water system was to purchase some poly water storage tanks. We purchased a 1500-gallon tank, a 300 gallon vertical tank, and a 425-gallon tank designed to fit in the back of a pick up. The 1500-gallon tank that we refer to as our “house tank” was sunk about two feet into the ground on a bed of sand, and the rest of the tank is about four feet out of the ground. This was done in a storage “lien to” that I built on the back side of our house. It is closed in and well insulated and you can’t be seen coming and going from it from the county road. At first it gave a great deal of piece of mind to have that tank full, and later it became an integral part of our gravity feed system that I will speak of later.

The 300-gallon vertical tank has a lot of versatility and would be great for the homeowner with not a lot of room in a garage, as it has a very small foot print for that many gallons of stored water. The 425-gallon pickup tank is also very versatile, if you need to venture out and bring water back from another location, be it surface water or not. Later, we purchased a Honda High Pressure two-inch gas water pump, in case we needed to load surface water, and then we built a manifold with one-inch hoses to create our own fire truck with the tank, the pump, the manifold (that just steps things down in size and has shut off valves) and two fire hoses.

A Few Thoughts On Poly Water Tanks

Generally speaking there are two kinds– above ground and those that can be buried. As you might imagine, the buriable ones are much more expensive. For example, we have purchased three buriable tanks that I will discuss later, and they tend to run about a dollar a gallon, in our location. In other words, a 1500-gallon buriable tank costs about $1500. Our 1500-gallon house tank, which is an above ground tank, was a bit over $500. Yet, we had no problems burying it down a couple of feet. Buriable tanks have ridges to provide strength against having dirt around and on top of them, so they don’t collapse. Even still, our preferred method of installing a buriable tank is excavate the hole and level it. At a bare minimum insure there are no rocks or sharp objects in the hole but better yet put down a bed of sand. Place the tank in the hole, and check for level. If it is level, fill it with water at this point and let it sit ovenight. Then, backfill the hole.

Buriable poly tanks tend to come in two types– cisterns and septic tanks. Cisterns are often white, and septic tanks are often yellow. Either can be used for water storage, but the septic tanks are often two chambered. If I was going to use a poly septic tank for water storage, prior to installation I would send someone smaller than me down a manhole with a three-inch hole saw. I would have them drill four or five holes through the wall separating the chambers near the bottom of the tank to allow water to move easily back and forth between each chamber.

One differentiation on above ground poly water tanks is that some are designed to take direct sunlight and others are not. Our “house tank” is clear or nearly clear plastic, which means that direct sunlight would absorb heat and cause the inside of the tank to mold in not much time on hot summer days. We now have an above ground tank that is green (some are black) and is referred to by its manufacturer as a “Guido” tank, which just means that the dark color helps reduce the absorbed sunlight and retards the mold growth.

Where do you get poly tanks?

In our area, they are an agricultural product usually used to hold liquid chemical fertilizers and such; so start with farm supply or “ranch and home” type stores. Just because you don’t see them at said stores doesn’t mean they don’t have them or can’t get them, so ask. Unfortunately, special ordering them can be cost prohibitive, as the shipping can run as much as the tank itself, so it’s best to try to find them in stock some place in your area.

A couple of final words on poly water storage tanks

I personally would never buy a used tank for our water purposes. They make chemical “neutralizers” that are supposed to clear out chemical residues from used tanks, but again I would only get new tanks for our water system.

Most tanks come with a “man hole” cover opening at the top and a two-inch threaded opening at the bottom. Some tanks, though, do not come with any threaded openings (besides the man hole cover), so you have to install them yourself, which is not a big deal. The fittings themselves are called ***AMAZON***bulk head fittings and can be found online or our local hardware store stocks them. They are commonly used for many water-type applications, from aquariums to boats. You use a simple hole saw in a cordless drill to make the hole and then insert the fitting and tighten it down. Typically the outside fittings are reverse thread and the inside are standard threads. The trick to installing these is to be very carefull about the size of hole you drill. Use a hole saw that is exactly the same size as the outside threads of the bulk head fitting. If it won’t go in, then use a round file and take a tiny little bit of plastic out until it will. If you drill a hole too large, you may have just ruined that tank, or at worst you need to go up to another size (say from 2″ to 3″ bulk head fitting), but that is a challenging hole to drill and keep things straight.

Finally, to fill and drain a tank from the bottom fitting or a drop tube (more on this in part 2) as apposed to opening the man hole cover and working from the top, you need ventilation. When filling the tank, the water you insert will be displacing air inside the tank. Without ventilation, there will reach a point where the air pressure inside the tank will exceed the water pressure coming into the tank, and it will stop filling. Also, say you fill the tank from the man hole cover, seal it, and then start to drain it out the bottom, at some point a vacuum will occur and it will stop draining properly.

Venting these tanks is a simple project. What I do is purchase a 1/2” bulk head fitting and install it at the top of the tank near the man hole cover. Then use 1/2” schedule 80 (plastic) nipples to get up out of the ground and high enough to avoid any snow that may be on the ground in winter (or not so tall for an above ground tank). Then attach a 90-degree fitting, a short nipple, another 90-degree fitting, and short nipple, so that now your “vent” opening is pointing down. Then cover it with some window screen material and zip tie it on to keep out any bugs.

These few projects leapfrogged our water systems dramatically for not that much money. We went from a well that could be used when the grid was up only with a small amount of stored water to a safe and easy way to run the well pump grid down plus a hand pump backup and a couple of thousand gallons of water storage.

In part 2, we will take that system to the next level and talk about how best to implement the Simple Pump, some very basic solar water tools, and a gravity feed system.