Considering that most disasters can cause serious disruptions in the water supply and the importance of water for survival, putting in a well is a great idea. Of all the possible sources for water, having a well on your own property is the most secure source you can have. Even so, if the grid goes down, that water could be out of your reach, if you don’t take the right precautions.
There are two basic types of wells — shallow wells and deep wells. Shallow wells are usually limited to about 25 feet or so. Many “homemade” wells fall into this category. While they might not provide water that is as good as what you can get from a deep well, they are much easier to install. They also have the advantage that the water can be drawn out of them from a pump on the surface, which draws the water out by suction.
Deep wells can’t use a suction pump to draw the water, simply because nobody can build a pump with enough suction to draw the water that far up a tube. Instead, the well has a waterproof pump at the bottom of the well casing. This type of pump can work with pumps that are quite deep.
Both of the types of pumps I just mentioned are electrically powered. Today, this is the most basic type of well pump there is. However, those electric pumps won’t do much good without electricity. In order to get water out of your pumps in a grid down situation, you’ll either need some source of electricity or you’ll need a pump that is powered by some other means.
Of course, if you are producing your own electrical power from either wind turbines or solar panels, you will be able to operate your well’s pump, even if there is no other source of power available. All you would have to do is to disconnect the pump from its normal source of power and connect it to your own power in order to keep it going. This is even a case where the high cost of running a generator would be justified. However, if you don’t have any electrical power production, you’re back to square one, needing another way to draw the water from your well.
Check Your Water Level
Let me tell you a secret here; even if you have a deep well, with a pump at the bottom of it, the water level in your well may not be as deep as you would expect. Wells are often drilled much deeper than necessary to find water, because the water that can be found deeper is usually better water than what can be found up close to the surface. In other words, even if you have a well that’s 300 feet deep, the surface of the water might only be 25 feet below ground level.
It’s easy to check how close to the surface the water in your well is; all you need is an empty pill bottle and some string. Put a few pebbles or metal nuts in the pill bottle to give it some weight and tie the end of the string securely to it. Just don’t put enough weight into it to prevent the bottle from floating. Start letting the string out, lowering the pill bottle into your well. When the string goes slack, you’ve found the water.
Mark the point on your string where the pill bottle hit the water and pull it back out. Measuring how much string you had let out will let you know how far the water comes up in your well casing. Keep in mind that drawing water out of the well lowers the level of the water in it. So if you had just been running the water, your normal water level may be even higher.
The Old Standby – the Manual Well Pump
If your water level is 25 feet or less below the surface, then you can use a manual well pump to draw water out of it. You’ve probably seen these; the squeaky cast iron pump that was used in the Old West (and other places). You can still get them today for a fairly reasonable price.
The electric pump your well has in it won’t prevent you from using a manual pump of this type. If your well is a deep well, it will probably have a four inch well casing. Besides the water, the only thing that is taking up space in that well casing is the power cord and the hose that is carrying the water to the surface. There’s enough room for the suction hose for the manual pump. If your well has a two inch casing with a surface mounted pump, you’ll probably need to pull out the suction pipe in order to put the hose for the manual pump in it.
Build an Emergency Pump
There are a number of designs around for homemade well pumps, generally made out of PVC pipe. These all work either by positive displacement (the water in the well taking up the space of the piston) or vacuum (creating a vacuum source to draw the water up the hose or pipe). Of the two, a positive displacement pump will draw water from a deeper level than a vacuum pump will; however a vacuum pump is easier to build.
There are two keys to making any type of vacuum pump. The first is having a couple of check valves. These allow water to flow through in one direction, while blocking it from flowing in the opposite direction. The direction through which the water will flow is marked on the side of the valve. The purpose of the check valves is to ensure that water which is pulled up out of the well doesn’t go back down. The other important key is a good seal for the piston which creates the vacuum. If the piston doesn’t have a good seal, you’re going to waste a lot of energy pumping, for very little gain.
Thicker seals work better than thin ones, as they can’t fold out of the way from pressure. With deeper pumps, multiple seals are especially useful, as they will do a better job of ensuring that the pressure can’t make the seal fold, letting air slip by.
The easiest way to make a vacuum pump for a well is a “T” configuration, with the T lying on its side so that the vacuum section is offset to the side of the line of the well. This needs to be between the two check valves, so that the water can be drawn up the pump’s suction tube on the suction stroke and then pushed out the end of the pump on the return stroke.
Both check valves must be pointing in the same direction, that of moving the water up out of the well as indicated by the arrows in the drawing. The suction tube can either be plastic pipe or flexible tube. The thinner the tubing’s overall diameter, the easier it will be to use, but the bigger the diameter, the more water it will draw on each stroke; however, the pump will be harder to operate. For most people, 3/4 inch PVC pipe makes a good pump.
The main PVC pipe diameter, for the suction tube, check valves and outlet don’t have to be the same size as the plunger tube and rod. Since the plunger tube and rod determine the volume of water drawn per stroke, it would make sense to make them slightly larger than the suction tube.
The plunger rod pushes a rubber seal or piston in and out of the plunger tube. This needs to be a snug fit for the pump to work. While there are many different places you can cut the rubber for this seal from, I have found that the inner sole from an old rubber sandal works well. Likewise, the rubber from a flip-flop can be cut for a seal.
The plunger rod needs to be slightly smaller than the inner diameter of the plunger tube, so that it can move freely. However, it should not be much smaller, as it needs to support the seal. A hardwood dowel works well for this. Attach the seal to the end of the plunger with stainless steel screws so that they won’t rust. The excess plunger rod can function as a handle or you can attach a handle to it.
When the plunger rod is retracted, it creates a vacuum in the pump, drawing water out of the well. The upper check valve will ensure that none of the suction is wasted into the air, while the lower check valve will keep the water from returning back down into the well. Be sure not to fully retract the plunger rod from the pump, or the suction will be lost and the water will spill out the open end of the plunger tube.
Pushing the plunger rod back into the tube causes the water to be pushed up past the upper check valve. Since the lower check valve will be closed, none of the water will return back down the well.
This simple pump will allow you to get adequate water from your well, even without electrical power. You will want to be cautious with your water usage, as it will take time to draw enough water to fill a bucket. Nevertheless, you will have a pretty much limitless supply of water, as long as you take the time and energy to operate your pump.
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