How to Install an Off-Grid Water Well at Your Homestead or Cabin
by Sandra Ogden
Getting out of the city and choosing to live “out in the country” is a goal of many people nowadays. “Homesteading” sounds so idealistic; getting back to the basics and living the dream! What most don’t realize is homesteading is hard physical work and has a lot of unknowns.
It requires a lot of planning, prioritizing, setup money and manual labor. You need shelter, water and food and lots of common sense.
When I bought my homestead (see the previous article on buying a country property), it had the basics: a house, a water well, septic tank, shed and barn; however, except for the brand new septic, everything was old and poorly maintained. I had to prioritize the repair/replace list and after refurbing the house, the water well was next in line.
I did my research on the internet about water wells, the various types of pumps, hand pumps, stand-alone mechanical pumps, and solar pump options. I spoke with some of my neighbors about their wells, many who have had to recently replace pump motors and pipes.
One neighbor tried to do his own replacement and it turned out to be trial and error because he did not know what type of pump or how far down it was placed so it was a guessing game and he ended up calling a company to come to fix it after 3 days of failure.
Another neighbor started doing it himself, found his pipe was broken and ended up getting a well company to replace the broken pipes and replace the pump.
In both instances, it was 3 to 7 days to fix the problem, plus between $1500 and $2500. Another family down the road bought a place without an inspection and found the well didn’t work and $3000 and two weeks of repairs later they were pumping water.
The point is you never know when the pump will stop working or what caused it to stop. It just happens and usually not at a convenient time! If you don’t have water stored (300-500 gals) for your family and animals to get you through the repair/replacement, you are in deep yogurt!
Your location is everything! If you live in the deep south (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida etc.) and you are not in the hills, your drill depth may be shallow (less than 80 ft.). When I lived in Florida we could dig a well ourselves because the water level was so high.
But the further north and more hilly country you are in, the drill depth may be significant. The type of the soil also impacts the drilling. Rocky soil or compacted clay can cause you some anxiety as it affects the time to drill and the type of drill bits needed to get through the ground.
If your house is on a scenic hill, it may add hundreds of feet to the water level, which adds money to total cost of drilling and installation. These are just some of the things to think about before buying that country property.
Other things you need to know about your existing well are: when was it drilled, how deep was it drilled and what was the water depth when it was drilled. If the well was drilled over 25/30 years ago, there may be no county records of it.
You will have to depend on what the owner tells you (if the property is occupied) or try to ask neighbors about their wells if the property is vacant. Even if your closest neighbor is 10 miles down the road, the soil composition is similar and the water level is probably pretty close to what you would have.
The property I bought had a residence which was 40 years old and the original builder lived in the house. Since the well was drilled when the house was built there were no county records of the original drilling to give me the information I needed.
The house sits on the second highest elevation in the community but it is really only a small hill. The owner told me the well was 120 ft. deep but he didn’t remember what the water level was. The pump had been replaced 10 years prior. Since the owners were an elderly couple and did not use the well for irrigation or animals, I had a good chance the pump would last for a while.
You just don’t go out and replace a well pump because you’re worried it may break down on you! Since I had no idea what type or size of pipe was used (40 years ago) or what brand or size of pump was installed (10 years ago), the decision about the water well kept me up at night for weeks.
Even though I have 500 gallons of drinkable water, 600 gallons of household use water, and 1000 gallons of animal water stored around my homestead, I was worried about not having fresh water. The thought of having to go almost a half-mile downhill to the meadow where the spring is, fill water containers, transfer water uphill to the house and animal areas, filter and purify it for drinking was constantly on my mind. I made the decision to drill a backup well using an off-grid Simple (Hand) Pump.
The internet advertising leads you to think you can put in a Simple Pump in or next to your existing well piping. Not unless you had it planned prior to drilling your well and got the right width of pipe! My 40-year-old well was not a consideration for a Simple Pump, which meant I had to get a company to drill a new well in a new location.
A Simple Pump is a hand pump, which can be adapted to a mechanical pump either electric or solar… for an additional large fee.
Getting a well drilling company is not as simple as calling up and making an appointment. I called all three companies within 100 miles of my property. One just told me “no, we’re too busy with commercial work,” the other two agreed to come out and give me an estimate and explanation.
One company was willing to drill on appointment at a much higher price, while the other company offered a lower price if they could work me in over the next four months. “Working me in,” meant between commercial jobs and when another job in the area could be combined with mine so they could bring the heavy equipment to do two jobs, which is more economical for them; which translated to $1000 less cost to me.
I chose the latter, feeling my existing well would continue to function while I waited.
The ESTIMATED cost of drilling depends on lots of things. First, your location-how far out are you…what are your county road conditions; can large heavy equipment get to you and what are your farm road conditions…dirt, gravel, paved?
Second, what are the topographical issues with your property (mountains, hilly or flat)? Third, what is the geological makeup of your soil…clay, sand, rock, etc.? Fourth, what will the depth of drill to hit water be? The drilling company can pull the records for your area, but some county well records only go back 15 or 20 years.
Needless to say, if you are on top of a mountain or hill, the drill will most likely be deeper and thus more expensive. Drilling a 50 or 80 ft. well is way cheaper than drilling 100-120 ft. or 350-500 ft. or more. My house is on a small hill thus the drill went to 140 ft.
You need to ask all these questions up front to the drilling company and find out what their basic costs are and what their additional costs may be. Do they charge additional fees for drilling more difficult geological makeup, more for drilling over 100 ft., what other additional charges…a one-time service fee, an extra mileage fee, non-level ground set up fee?
The supervisor will come out earlier with a contract, want a 50% deposit and want to know the approximate spot where you want the well drilled. He/she may do a soil sample or just use his/her experience to gauge the ground.
When the drill trucks arrive there will usually be two or three trucks: a large drill truck, a water truck, a sand truck and/or a supervisor truck; just depends on the company. Your spot will need to be mostly flat and with enough space so the trucks can stabilize.
These trucks are heavy and the drill truck has extendable booms that go 100’ in the air over the drill site. Electrical/telephone wires cannot be nearby and tree branches may be a problem also. I had two sites picked out but one had too many oak tree branches and the boom could not be raised. The alternate site was mostly clear of branches but the boom still took out the end of a branch.
My drill took about four and a half hours. Once that was done then the piping was inserted and fitted piece by piece, which took another hour and a half. Lastly, they blew out the pipes and the water began to flow. The next day the supervisor was back to measure the water level.
In my situation, the drill was to 140 ft. and the water level was at 115 ft. Because I chose a Simple Pump to be installed, it was necessary to know the water level so the correct measurements could be given to the company to custom build the insert pipes for my property. This took about 2 weeks.
The Simple Pump was installed about three weeks later. The drilling company sent two men out to install it and while the supervisor said it would take “less than an hour” it really took almost three hours. The Simple Pump pipes fit inside the water pipes.
Once the pipes were connected they installed the hand pump housing to the pipes. Then the men pumped for about ten minutes to get the sand out of the new line before the water was clear. Since it was brand new I was told to expect some dirty or colored water for a bit.
I had my son standing by to be the physical labor part and he was able to pump easily after it was primed. It takes about six or seven pumps to get the prime to kick in before the water pours out if you pump once a day. It will tire an office worker out in a heartbeat but a good ole country boy won’t have a problem pumping 30 gallons of water.
The cost of the water well drilling, piping, and Simple Pump and installation came to just under $5000. Once on site, it took a day to set up, drill, and pipe and another half a day to install the Simple Pump and clean up the site. I am considering adding a solar unit to automate the pump but that would be an additional $2000-$3000 to purchase and install it, as that is not one of my talents.
I have laid a concrete pad around the well site and we’re in the process of building a pump house to secure the Simple Pump. I know if a worst case grid-down scenario were to occur this pump will be a lifesaver.