Water Works- Part 2, by JSP

In part 1, I explained several things we did to take our water preps to the next level, which felt good but was still lacking in some areas. So, let’s start by looking at the potential problems of that system.

Problems of Our Water System At This Point

First, at this point, the poly tanks are not “plumbed” to anything; they are simply static, stand-alone storage vessels. Make no mistake that is way better than having no water on hand but not ideal either. Secondly, the primary grid down backup plan is a gas generator. Many people would argue that the flaw in that has to do with running out of gas for the generator. Remember that the well output is 23 GPM, so simple math tells us that in ten minutes I can pump 230 gallons, in 100 minutes I can pump 2300 gallons, and so forth. The point is that we don’t need to run the generator for many hours at a time to get a lot of water, and our well is tapped into an aquifer so it will likely never run dry. However, it is true that no matter how much fuel you store, it will run out eventually. I would say the flaw to the generator plan short term is not fuel but the following:

  • noise, which affects OPSEC,
  • the risk of the well pump getting fried from an EMP or otherwise, and
  • the risk of the generator having a mechanical failure.

Also have you ever hand pumped a Simple Pump that is down to any depth? It’s fun at first, knowing you have a backup, but it grows old fast. Also, while we now have several sources of water, we do not have running water or flush toilets in the house. Furthermore, our well head and Simple Pump at this time are out in the open with no structure around them in a very vulnerable location security wise. Lastly, it’s 12 degrees outside our home right now with a couple of inches of snow on the ground, In this condition, who wants to go hand pump me 20 gallons of water while I keep the fire going?

Where We Go From Here

I want to interject a concept that I had to think about for a while. There was a standing joke among some people I knew that went “all you need to know about water is that if flows down hill.” Unfortunately, it’s not true, and there is a lot more to know about water than that. Actually, water flows to the path of least resistance, which might be down hill. For example, water will flow uphill, if there is more pressure behind it than the pressure above it from gravity.

What this means is that you need to stop looking at places that water comes “in” and water comes “out” as your only option. This is important, and we will go back to it several times in this article and the next.

For example, many well heads have a frost-free hydrant (spigot) near by to get water for the yard and so forth. Everybody knows that when the grid is up and everything is fine, you open the spigot and water does what? It comes out, of course. What happens if the power is out and the well is not running but the pressure tank(s) has water in it and you open the spigot? Water still comes out. However, what happens if the pump is not running and the pressure tank is empty and you open the spigot? Right, nothing comes out.

Simple Pump (or its competitors) basic application #1

Build yourself a short section of garden hose with a female garden hose fitting on each end just a bit longer than the distance between your well head pump and your nearest spigot. Attach one end to the pump and one end to the spigot. Open the spigot valve and start pumping. You are now pumping water into the house system and can fill your pressure tank to give you running water in the house. No, this is not the easiest thing to do physically, so hopefully you have some teenagers around to do this a few times a day, but it’s a whole lot better than hauling 5-gallon buckets into the house.

At this point I had visions of a more elaborate system, but I needed a place for it to all come together. So, I built a pump house around the well head and nearby spigot. In our county at the time, you could build structures up to 120 square feet without a permit (now it’s 200 sq ft), so that is exactly what I did. The pump house is 10′ x 12′, and we poured a cement slab floor. The front third of the building (10′ x 4′) is the pump house proper, and the back two-thirds is storage.

Reducing Risk to Pump of EMP or CME

Once the pump house was built, it was time to add a few enhancements. Because the high voltage well pump delivers so much more water than slow pumps, keeping it operational even grid down for as long as possible makes things much easier. One possible problem is what might happen if there is an EMP or CME that renders that pump toast. Years ago I read an article on Survival Blog where a gentleman posted plans of an electric shut off switch to protect your well pump from an EMP. As I understood it, when the pressure switch turns on the pump simultaneously this “switch” opened and when the pressure switch shut off it would close. I don’t know the technical definition of this switch, but we did have an electrician install one, and he referred to it as a “Mag Starter”.

The problem with this protection device is that if it is “open” at the time of a surge, EMP, CME, et cetera, it doesn’t matter because the pump will be toast anyway. This started me thinking that in addition to that, well pumps don’t wear out from running; they wear out from starting and stopping. This is often times referred to as “cycling”. So, to reduce the chance of the well pump running in the event of a surge and to reduce “cycling”, I added a second pressure tank to the system. Originally, we had an 80-gallon pressure tank inside the house, and then I added a 120-gallon pressure tank (the largest I could find to purchase) in the pump house. The pump house tank and the in-house tank are about 90 feet apart, and our well people advised against having two pressure tanks that far apart, as it might wreak havoc with your pressure switch, but we have had no problems at all. At this point the spigot now inside the pump house was removed and in its place a galvanized “T” was placed in its place and the Simple Pump comes in one side of the “T”, and the pressure tank to the other side.

This project accomplished several things:

1) Reduce the cycling of the pump so it will last longer, which could save thousands of dollars in the long run,

2) Reduce the chance that your well pump will die at the worst possible time (because it will last longer),

3) Increase the pressurized, stored water for the house so that if you do lose power it’s that much longer that you have to mitigate things until you run out of water. Also if you’re grid down and need to run a generator or hand pump to “charge” the house water systems, you don’t have to do it as frequently, and

4) The pump will be running less frequently, which may reduce its vulnerability to power surges, EMP, et cetera.

Motor for Simple Pump and Solar Equipment

The next phase of the project was to purchase a 15-volt motor to run the Simple Pump and add some very basic solar equipment to power it. I spent about $800 for the pump directly from a Simple Pump distributor, which is not cheap but, boy, is it a good way to go, if you can afford it. I placed one 135-watt solar panel on the roof of the pump house and an inexpensive charge controller and small battery bank that easily runs the pump motor. For fun we placed a second 135-watt solar panel on the roof, and those two together run the pump “PV Direct”, which is very cool.

Gravity-fed Water and Pump House

The next phase was to add gravity-fed water. At this point I purchased our first buriable poly cistern (1500 gallons) and an above ground poly “Guido” tank (2600 gallons). We have a hill behind the house, so a friend brought over his excavator and we hauled the two tanks up the hill and placed them. The buried tank is for year round use, and the above ground tank for summer, when we are watering gardens, the orchard, and when the animals drink more. Then we rented a trencher and ran a trench from the tanks on the hill to the pump house.

Prior to pouring the cement slab floor for the pump house, I purchased a simple irrigation valve box and placed that at grade in the floor of the pump house as I knew we would need to bring piping into the pump house from under ground. We ran a two-inch PVC pipe from the tanks on the hill to the pump house. At this point it’s important to know the elevation of things. The pump house, main house, and house tank are all at the same grade. Using a GPS, we determined that the gravity flow tanks on the hill are 72 feet in elevation above the pump house.

This may sound like it’s getting complicated at this point, but trust me it will come together in a minute.

Connecting It All Together

Another trench was dug from the pump house to the house water storage tank and then a third from that tank up the hill to the gravity tanks. One inch PEX pipe was installed to connect those points, and a manifold was built in the pump house to connect everything together. If you followed all that, you may be thinking why was only one pipe run from the gravity tanks to the pump house? Don’t you need one to fill the tanks, and one pipe to gravity feed back down the hill? No; one pipe does both. That is if your standard well pump is working, meaning that when you run the pump you push the water up the hill and it fills the tank because it has sufficient force to do so. Then when the pump is off, gravity takes over and the water will flow back down the same pipe that filled the tank.

Now, here’s the fun part. When our house is on gravity feed, we can hardly tell the difference from the well pump. We have running water at all of the sinks, can take a shower, flush toilets, et cetera with no electricity whatsoever.

What if you can’t run your high-voltage pump system and you need to go to the Simple Pump as a back up? Your pump dealer can do the calculations for you, but just because your low voltage or hand pump can bring water to the surface of your well top does not mean it has much more “umph” to do anything else. In our case because we are not maxing out the vertical lift ability of the hand pump, it has a little “umph” left when it gets to the surface, but there is no way it will pump water up the hill to the gravity tanks. So, now what do you do?

Basically you do the following. The Simple Pump can bring the water to the surface of the well and pump it over to the house tank, as they are at the same elevation. I then installed a Dankoff Solar slow pump and another basic solar system to run it at the house tank. This pump does have enough “umph” at this point to pump water from the house tank to the gravity tanks on the hill. Make no mistake, these systems don’t run a lot of water. Depending on the circumstances, you can expect from 1/2 GPM to 2 GPM, but a pump like the Dankoff can run 24/7 for a long, long time. At 1 GPM though, that is over 1400 gallons of water per day. (The only flaw to a Dankoff pump is that it absolutely, positively needs the water to be filtered well before it gets to the pump.)

I do not want to delve deeply into rain water collection in this article, as it has been covered sufficiently on the Internet. However, I will say that our rain water collection goes into the house tank, thereby reducing wear on our well system, and that our main roof surface area used to collect rain water is of a good size but not huge. Just 1.25 inches of rain will fill the 1500 gallon tank.

On paper, these projects may seem a little complex, but they really are not. Once you start down the path, taking it one step at a time, and bring things like this online, it will take on its own energy and excitement.

In the next part of this series, I will address methods to obtain and manage hot water in a grid down or survival scenario.