Water

Is there anything more wondrous than turning on the tap and having pure mountain water gush out, especially when you know exactly from whence it comes?

Building a house is remarkable process of creation, but it’s not particularly mysterious.  You choose a site based on the practicality of its topography, you create a design due to needs and wants and budget, and then follow its blueprint.

The search for water is much more serendipitous.  You can plan and budget and hire the most competent of well drillers, but it is mostly an exercise in blind faith and hope.

Some people rely on dowsing, otherwise known as water witching.  While the act of walking around with a forked stick and waiting till it quivers downwards to indicate the presence of water may sound like quackery, dowsing has been practiced since ancient times and many people swear by it, although scientists do not consider the practice legitimate.

I try to approach these things with an open mind – – who am I to say something doesn’t work just because it sounds weird?  So I did a little research as to whether it might be a good idea to hire a dowser to locate the best location for our well.  I’m sure there are dowsers who would disagree with my conclusion, but we opted out.  It seems that dowsing may locate water, but mostly for water that lies close to the surface.  If we had wanted to dig a well, I might have gone for it.  But dug wells have their own disadvantages: since they tap water close to the surface, they are more susceptible to contamination and going dry.  We decided to go with a drilled (bored) well, which is a considerably more complex operation, but in the long term, a better choice.

If we were very, very lucky, we might find water as little as 25 feet underground.  The average in my area, however, seemed to be around 350 feet underground.  There was no rhyme or reason – you could pick a place to drill and you’d find nothing, and then pick another place five feet away from the first and find water at 100 feet.  If you found nothing, it didn’t mean there wasn’t water – it just meant you had to keep drilling. Eventually water would be found, but the flow might be meager (we were looking for a minimal flow of 3 gallons per minute).  A meager flow required further, deeper  drilling.

The other issue was budget.  At $10 – $14 per downward foot (depending on the contractor), a very deep well was an expensive proposition, and it also meant that the motor for the well pump to bring the water to the surface had to be more powerful.  Residential pumps ranged from 1/2 horsepower to 1 horsepower, and obviously the larger pumps not only cost more, they used more electricity – something we wanted to avoid with our smallish solar array providing all our electric power.

We contracted with an old-timer to drill our well, whose initials, ironically and perhaps ominously, are BP.  Our first difficulty was in communicating with one another.  His Maine accent was so thick, I had to request that he repeat himself several times before I could make out exactly what he was saying.  It was small comfort that he found me equally difficult to understand.  BP’s son and grandson are well drillers who work under him; his father was a well-digger, as was his father before him.

He asked us where we wanted the well drilled but we decided to leave the location up to him.  He told us that finding a location with water not too deep under the ground is basically “a crap shoot” and wished us luck.  Besides considering the geology and topography of our property, the optimal location of the well would be determined by proximity to the house’s future water intake line, and the distance (as far as possible) from the underground propane tank and septic system.

My husband, standing to the right, is dwarfed by the monster size of the well-drilling truck and its huge bore drill (click to enlarge)

BP’s well-drilling “truck” makes a commercial semi-trailer look like a  mini Cooper.  What a beast this monster is!  Its size dwarfs any man standing next to it.

At this point the dirt driveway was excavated and packed, but unfinished.   We had held off laying the final layer of gravel, because we knew that the sheer weight of the monster drill truck would tear up our driveway.  There was no point in finishing the driveway until after the well could be drilled.

Amazingly, “BP” backed the truck up hundreds of feet of our roughed-in, steep and rocky driveway.  Once the rig was secured with massive stabilizing jacks, the drill began its work.  The noise was deafening!

Seven hours and 500 feet later, there was still no sign of water.

At this point we had three options:  to give up and start over again at a different location on the property; to continue drilling; or to “hydrofrac.” Explained as simply as possible, hydrofracturing involves bringing the bore drill back up to the surface, lowering hundreds of feet of pipe, and under extremely high pressure, bombarding the hole with water.   Fissures are created under the ground, loosening up and increasing the underground flow of water.

With the money already spent on the 500’ cavity, it seemed foolish to try drilling elsewhere on the property, since another site might yield equally dismal results.  The cost of hydrofracturing was in the hundreds of dollars.  We decided to call it a day, and have “BP” resume drilling the next day.

Alas, the next day was equally disheartening.  After four solid hours of excruciatingly noisy drilling, there was a trickle of water at 750’, but nowhere near the minimum 3-gallon-a-minute flow we were looking for.  “BP” suggested we hydrofrac.  Although we were apprehensive, we nevertheless did not really have a choice, so we agreed.   I was both discouraged and dismayed, due to the expense.  Our construction loan left a 15% “contingency amount” for unexpected building costs that ran over budget.  The well drilling certainly qualified!

At 650 feet the hole was hydrofrac’d and the water began to flow at 4 gallons per minute, which is more than adequate to meet the needs of our household.

Unfortunately due to the depth of the well, we would have to use a 3/4 horsepower well pump to bring the water to the surface, which was more than we anticipated when calculating our needs for the solar array that would provide our electricity.  We were unwilling at this stage of the game to add more solar collector panels before seeing if the current system would be adequate once the pump was in place, and simply hoped for the best.

Once the plumbing was hooked up and the water began to flow, I took a sample in a sterile container to a local lab for testing.  It was a clever way to make a living in these parts.  The woman who runs the lab from her home has small children, and it allows her to care for them while making a nice income and providing a valuable service.  She leaves a bin of sterile vials with an instruction packet outside.  You fill out a few forms, indicating how extensively you want the water tested (Arsenic? Lead?  Radon? Various types of bacteria?  Minerals? Odor? Hardness? Etc) and pay accordingly when you leave off the sample the next day.  I dropped off the vial along with a check for $60; I received a detailed report in the mail a week later.

B”H, our water got an “excellent” rating in all fields.  Indeed, the water is completely free of bacteria, and without the chemicals or treatment of city tap water or the plastic taste of bottled water.  The water is nice and soft, too – my hair comes out feeling silky after a shampoo, and the clothes get clean with much less laundry soap.

We take it for granted that when we turn on the tap, water will come pouring out.  Being so involved in the extraction process gave me an increased awareness of the preciousness of this resource, and an appreciation for the miracle of water that I would not have had otherwise.  I also learned a lot about geology and mechanical and hydraulic engineering along the way!

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