For those of us wanting to live "off the grid," having a fresh water supply free of chemical treatments can be very important. One of the very best ways to address this issue is by driving or drilling your well to tap into groundwater supplies. In most areas, groundwater is considerably more pure than any other source, since it has been thoroughly filtered by the earth as rainwater slowly drains down into the water table. And even if you are not an "off-the-grid" enthusiast, a groundwater well may be the only practical way to obtain fresh water in a rural area.
But there are important considerations that will help determine if driving or drilling your own well is feasible, and how complex (and expensive) the process will be.
Before You Start
If you are just getting started in an off-the-grid or rural lifestyle, before you even choose a location for your homestead, check with your local geological survey office to identify locations where soil conditions are suitable for installing a well. This may determine if you will be able to create the well yourself, or will need to hire a professional well-drilling firm to do the work. Once you know a well is feasible on your building site, consider the following:
- Determine the nature of the groundwater supply. Wells are fairly easy to drill or drive when the groundwater forms underground reservoirs, but this is a fairly rare situation. More often, groundwater supplies exist in layers of porous sands and silts, and here the process of creating a well can be more difficult, though by no means impossible.
- Determine the depth of the groundwater supply. This can vary greatly from region to region. In some areas, the groundwater may be just a few feet below the surface; in other areas, it can be hundreds of feet deep. The depth of the groundwater supply may dictate how, and if, you can drive or drill your well. For good potable water, you will have to go deep enough. Acceptable water will usually require going at least 30 feet down, but better water will usually be even deeper. Never drive or drill a well in a marshy, wet area.
- Decide if the well will be driven or drilled. These are quite different processes that will depend on the depth of the underground water supply and the nature of the soil.
- Check with your local building department to see if a permit is required—in most locales, a permit is required since the quality of drinking water is a matter of public health.
- If a local utility company provides service to properties in the vicinity, check with them and make sure no underground service lines cross your property. If they do, determine their location before you start boring a well.
- Determine if there are any sewer lines, old cisterns, or septic systems on the land. Find out what your local building code requires as far as distance or setbacks for a well. If your local code doesn’t address this specifically, you should dig at least 50 feet away from them to avoid contaminating your water supply.
Driving a Well: An Overview
The less expensive, but more physically demanding, way to create a freshwater well is to drive it. Driving is a process of boring the well by literally pounding lengths of pipe straight down through the earth until the column of piping reaches the water supply. Some soil types make driving difficult or impossible. If the soil in your area is high in clay content, for example, you may find it difficult to impossible to drive your well. Likewise, in areas heavy with glacial stone or shallow bedrock, driving a well may be impossible. In such locations, drilling will be the only option, and it will usually require a professional drilling team.
The tools and materials required to drive a well include:
- A post hole digger to dig a 2-foot deep pilot hole for your well
- A well point—a system of galvanized pipe, threaded together, with a well screen and hardened point on the end
- A post driver—the same tool used to install metal fence posts
- Galvanized steel riser pipe in 5-foot sections
- A pump
- A drive cap
- Pipe-thread compound
- Pipe wrenches
- At least 30 feet of string with a weight attached to the end
The process for driving a well looks like this:
- Dig a two-foot pilot hole with a post hole digger.
- With the post driver, drive the first section of the well point into the hole until about 10 inches remain above ground.
- Add another section of pipe by removing the cap and installing an internally threaded coupling. Replace the cap to protect the threads and continue driving, adding pipe sections as each section has about 10 inches showing above ground.
- Continue adding sections of pipe as you drive the pipe. You will know you have reached water when you hear a hollow sound when you strike the pipe.
- To determine how deep you are into the water table, remove the cap on the pipe and drop the weighted string down the pipe. When it hits the bottom, pull it back up to see how much of the string is wet. Continue driving the well point until you are sure the entire screen is underwater.
- Connect your pump to your well to see how fast it pumps water. Driven wells do not produce as much water as drilled wells but you should get at least five gallons of water per minute from your driven well. If not, removed the pump, reattach the cap on the end of the pipe, and continue driving the pipe.
- Continue to reattach the pump and test the flow as you drive your well in 5-foot increments. Once you have reached a flow rate of at least five gallons of water per minute, you are ready to leave your pump attached and start collecting water.
Drilling a Well: An Overview
If soil conditions in your area (or physical strength limitations) prohibit you from driving a well on your own, you can either pay a professional to drill the well (fairly expensive) or you can purchase a kit and rent the tools required to drill the well yourself. This may be a difficult process, and unless you are truly dedicated to complete self-sufficiency, most people hire professionals to do this work.
When the soil conditions are exactly right, you can use a DIY well-drilling kit. A variety of well-drilling kits are available for sale, such as the one offered by Drill a Well, which includes most of the tools and materials except for the PVC piping that will form the permanent well tube. This particular kit sells for about $700. This process uses an air-powered motor to drive a rotating bit that loosens soil, which is mixed with water and sucked up through the hollow tubing as a slurry as the bit proceeds down through the earth. The kit comes with a video and complete instructions that take you through the process step by step.
Along with the PVC piping, you will need a permanent well pump. If you go deeper than 50 feet or so, you will need a submersible, in-ground pump to move the water to the surface. Make sure you include that cost in your estimate.
Regardless of whether your drive or drill your well, the first 100 gallons of water will be muddy. The muddiness should clear once you get past the 100-gallon mark. And never use your well water for consumption until you have it tested to ensure that it is not contaminated with any type of chemicals, bacteria, or other foreign substances.
Creating your own well by driving or drilling is possible when soil conditions are right and when the water table is at a suitable level, between 30 and about 50 feet in depth. But when soil conditions are more difficult, or when the water table is very deep, professional drilling is the best answer.