Know Your Well… and it will Serve You Well!

February 26th, 2014

Know Your Well… and it will Serve You Well!

Written By: Jerry Alonzy
well pullyImage via Abhijeet Rane (Flickr)

It is said that a person can live for weeks without food, but only a matter of days without water. Indeed, civilizations flourish only where there is abundant, clean water. Without it, there are no crops, no livestock, decreased personal hygiene (bath, anyone?)… Essentially little hope for the long, healthy, comfortable life we desire for ourselves and our children.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 15% of Americans are “off the grid” when it comes to obtaining water for their homes, detached from public supplies. And, though there is some value in schemes, such as collecting rainwater in barrels or drawing water from nearby ponds or rivers, the most reliable source of non-public water available to most people is the underground well.

There are three types of drinking water wells: dug, driven, and drilled. Each type of well evolved over centuries to meet the local challenge of providing enough water for human needs given (1) the level of the local water table (how deep one must dig before finding water), (2) the depth of the bedrock, and (3) the abilities and tools available to the well-builders.

Dug Wells

Dug wells are, by far, the simplest and most ancient type of well, ideal for “do-it-yourselfers” without access to expensive equipment.  A well can be dug with little more than a shovel and a strong back, though to provide adequate water they may need to be as deep as 30 feet! To the point, the success of such a shallow well depends on a high enough water table and deep enough bedrock.

The earliest dug wells were lined with locally available stone to keep them from collapsing, allowing the water to flow into the well freely through the stone walls.  More modern wells may use concrete block, brick, or preformed concrete caissons to form more solid walls. The deeper the water enters the well, the cleaner it will be; as the subsurface soil provides some natural filtration.

All modern dug wells are raised above the ground level to prevent surface runoff from directly entering the well. They are also capped with a removable cover to prevent any surface contamination or animals from entering, while allowing access for maintenance. Though the water in dug wells can be accessed directly by lifting the cap and lowering a bucket or portable pump, most systems are designed to automatically pump the water into the home, with underground pipe and an electric pump located inside the home for easy maintenance.

In my research, I ran across an article about a well in England called the Woodingdean Well. Planning started in 1858 to construct a new fresh water well to supply two “workhouses” (as mentioned by Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”). Workhouses supplied food, clothing, and shelter to the indigent, but they were required to work for these benefits under often very harsh, inhumane conditions. The Woodingdean Well made good use of the workhouse labor, with laborers working around the clock. Many locals joked that they were really trying to reach the opposite side of the earth! After 4 years of digging and many twists and turns, they finally and dramatically found water at a depth of 1285 feet… 850 feet below sea level! For more on this remarkable story, click HERE.

Driven Wells

Driven wells consist of a special pipe pushed or “driven” into the ground using either hand or power equipment. The first section of pipe is perforated along the few feet to collect water from the deepest area of the well. As the first pipe is driven into the ground, a second solid pipe is attached to the first and driven further… a process repeated till the screened pipe provides sufficient water for the well. Driven wells often exceed 30 feet in depth and can access ground water at depths unheard of for dug wells. Because driven wells access water from deep in the ground, they tend to be more hygienic than dug wells since they draw water at greater depths, allowing for more natural filtration from the surrounding soil.

Obviously, a driven well would be an impossible endeavor in any area that has shallow bedrock! Each state has geological maps to indicate the feasibility of this type of well in a given location and do best in areas with deep gravel or sand, which makes driving the pipe easier and also allows for unrestricted permeability for maximal water flow as well as natural filtration. Like a dug well, driven wells use underground pipe attached to a pump within the home to supply water on-demand.

Drilled Wells

Drilled wells offer the most hygienic option by allowing water collection at depths impossible to obtain from either dug or driven wells. Modern drilling technology allows for wells of thousands of feet through bedrock! Of course, a deep drilled well is not a do-it-yourself project and requires specialized training and equipment. Even with the best well drilling team, getting water out of the ground at great depth is as much luck as science. For example, two neighbors with wells only a few hundred feet apart may find differences of hundreds of feet in the depth necessary to produce an acceptable amount of water. These differences are due to the way water flows underground, the contours of the bedrock and, well, good old Mother Nature!

If your area can accommodate a shallow drilled well (under a few hundred feet) and you feel adventurous, there will be local rental companies eager to loan you a small well drilling rig on a trailers that you can hook up to your pickup or SUV. I would suggest checking with your local home inspector or building department to be sure the final well will be approved for potable water!

Unlike dug and driven wells, drilled wells use submersible pumps to supply the water to your home. These pumps sit a number of feet above the bottom of the well, so any sediment can sink to the bottom and not clog up the pump. These pumps include backflow valves, so the water in the long supply pipe does not settle back into the well when the pump is not on. All electrical control of these systems is in inside the home, allowing you to set the high and low water pressure to suit your needs. The greater the volume of water your well can produce, the higher the pressure you can use. Since most fixtures and appliances use water saving technology, the standard settings recommended by the pump’s manufacturer are typically fine; however, kicking up the pressure a bit may result in better showers and faster bucket filling! Just realize that if you water your garden with your well water (or use any other “non-restricted” valve), higher pressure will mean your well may run dry more quickly!

Inside Plumbing for Wells…

Regardless of the well type you have, your interior plumbing will be similar. All wells need a pressure switch, pressure gauge, and pressure tank. The pressure switch turns the pump on and off as needed. It has settings for “high pressure” and “low pressure”. The manufacturer’s instructions give guidelines as to how many pounds of pressure these two setting should differ. If the settings are too close, the well pump will cycle on and off excessively. If they are too far apart, you’ll notice wide swings in pressure… most noticeable in the shower!

Now, if you had just the pressure switch you would notice the water pulse. This is because the pump would run continuously, whenever you turned on a faucet. Eliminating the pulse is the purpose of the pressure tank. The tank is partially filled with water and partially filled with air. Modern pressure tanks have an internal bladder or diaphragm that separate the water from the air. The tank keeps a balance between the pressure from the pump and the water exiting from the tank, smoothing the flow so that 1) the pump does not have to run constantly when water is needed and 2) when the pump does come on there is no pulsing or surging… just a smooth flow!

Some old pressure tanks did not have a diaphragm, so air and water mingled. The result was that, over time, the air in the tank would be absorbed by the water. The rule of thumb was when you could feel or hear the pulse of the well pump when using a fixture, it was time to recharge the tank. This was done by draining the tank of water and pressurizing the tank to a little below the desired water pressure. When you turned the water back on, the well pump would force water into the tank and compress the air.

Water Quality Considerations…

Although wells can produce the finest water available, that isn’t always the case. Chemical spills can pollute even the deepest wells. In my town, there is an entire area that has unusable wells… even for watering lawns… caused by a chemical plant that, decades before, did not exercise care, resulting in the pollution of the entire local water table.

Homeowners can also pollute their wells with over-application of fertilizers, ice melt or other chemicals. I’m not implying that you should not use any chemicals. Rather, be aware what you are using and keep a distance from your well… especially if you have a shallow well that may have some surface water leakage.

There are “natural” pollutants that may or may not have health effects. Though, as I mentioned earlier, groundwater tends to be pathogen-free due to the natural filtration effect of the earth, various minerals can be dissolved in the water. These various minerals can be harmless, such as those that make water “hard” or “soft”, or dangerous such as lead or arsenic.

I recommend testing your well water for quality and contaminants at least every 5 – 10 years, more often if there have been changes in your area such as earthquakes, heavy construction and/or use of explosives, which may affect the flow and quality of underground water. Solving well water quality problems requires an individual approach. For example, serious mineral issues may require whole-house water treatment since the integrity of your pipes could be at risk! Or if the problem is less severe and only affects drinking water, you might want to consider a less expensive solution such as a stand-alone Berkey water filtration unit!

In Conclusion…

Obviously, this is just an overview and there are lots of interesting well stories out there! I suggest visiting these websites or just doing a search to find many informative and educational resources


About the author: Jerry Alonzy, a.k.a. the Natural Handyman, has been an active handyman for over 30 years with experience in most areas of home repair and renovation. As a do-it-yourself author and web developer since 1995, he has been featured in USA Today, the Today Show and on radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites, including his own at

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