Digging Your Own Well: An Introductory Guide

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I don’t think it is any sweeping assumption to say that everybody reading this article, right now, understands just how important water is to survival, and only a fool would not prioritize it as a resource in a survival situation.

A short-term emergency or a long-term catastrophe makes no difference: You can only go without water for a couple of days, tops, and drinking suspect water out of desperation is bound to lead to disaster sooner or later.

well

This means you need a source of water that you can rely on, one that is resistant to outside contamination, disasters, and going dry at the drop of a hat. I’m referring to, of course, a well to call your very own.

Humans have depended upon wells for millennia as the cornerstone of any permanent settlement that was removed from a natural body of drinkable water.

For all of our advancements in the skills of locating them and the technology for digging them, the principles of installing and maintaining a well are very much the same today as they were way back when.

In today’s article I will offer you an easy to understand beginner’s guide for locating and digging your own well.

The Importance of Well Water for Human Settlement

The importance of a reliable, bountiful well cannot be overstated. It is no exaggeration to assert that human settlements far away from naturally occurring bodies of freshwater would be greatly curtailed, or even made impossible without the advent of wells.

We aren’t so far removed from our ancestors as to be exempt from this lesson; just ask anyone you know who lives quite a ways outside the city limits. They won’t be able to connect the public water resources if they want to get clean, drinkable water when they throw open a tap.

Instead, a well must be dug on their property and a pump installed to bring the water trapped deep in the earth up to the surface and into the plumbing of their home.

Aside from the method of retrieval- an electric pump versus a rope and bucket- not so different, eh?

And beyond merely being a source of water wells may produce higher quality water than can typically be had from above ground sources, be they rivers, streams, ponds or something else.

This is because the typical well draws its water from underground aquifers, which are simply water-retaining fractures in the rock of the Earth or a conglomeration of some other matter that is water permeable.

Aquifers may occur near the surface or many tens of thousands of meters down in the bowels of the Earth. Chances are a well will not be going that deep, but they can go thousands of feet in questing toward water.

Most wells created via primitive or austere construction methods often only go as deep as a hundred feet or so at most.

No matter how deep the well goes and no matter how it was dug, the end result is the same: a consistent source of water that is generally resistant to outside contamination, and is unlikely to go dry.

The importance of a well goes far beyond keeping a human body hydrated, as its water can be used to provide for livestock, irrigate crops, cleaning, bathing and so much more.

How Low Will You Go? Shallow Wells and Deep Wells

To an outsider, any well will probably seem like a pretty deep hole in the ground. After all, a well that terminates 30 feet underground will probably look like a black hole or a bottomless pit from the surface!

All joking aside, the basic category of well you are dealing with is determined by how deep the well goes in quest of water. Wells are classified as either shallow or deep.

Most wells are deep wells, which is any well that goes beyond 50 ft. into the Earth’s surface, but modern ones might average several hundred or even thousand feet deep!

Wells of this type will usually go beyond the first layer of impervious soil strata into aquifers that are full of water that is pure and clean by “surface” standards, but is likely to be impregnated with a variety of minerals, leading to odd or bad taste, and considerable “hardness”.

Modern deep wells in advanced societies will often be connected to high-tech filtration and water softening systems to make this water more palatable and useful in domestic environments.

Contrast these far-reaching wells with shallow wells, which is the classifier given to any well that is 50 feet deep or less.

These wells draw from water that is well above the first impervious strata and the quality of the water in these aquifers is a trade-off, also; it is much less likely to contain significant amounts of heavy minerals, but it is more likely to be contaminated with bacteria or viruses.

It is also significantly more vulnerable to contamination from above ground and in-ground hazards.

Determining or selecting the required depth of the well is not just a matter of picking what water source you will have an easier time living with.

Other important factors must be considered, namely the fact that for all of their expenses and difficulty in accessing them, deep wells will rarely dry up during droughts or other hot weather while shallow wells, though much easier to install and operate, can be vulnerable to contamination as mentioned above, and even dry up completely in hot seasons, especially in arid regions.

Neither of these problems is any reason to fret; where there is a will, there is a way! When it comes to striking water so long as you have a little bit of time to plan and prepare you will easily find out which well is best for you.

Assuming, of course, that you have a choice! Sometimes the choice is made for you, a result of your regional terrain, soil conditions technology or workers on hand and many other variables.

A deep well might be the only choice where you live, whereas somewhere else it is shallow wells all the way. You might be fortunate enough to be afforded a choice so long as you have funds enough to roll the dice and see which you can pull off.

Taking all of this into consideration makes it easy to understand why a thorough working knowledge of all the variables involved in locating, planning and digging a well is so important to ensure success.

Well Types and Variations

There is more than one way to skin a cat, and there is too more than one way to dig a well. Far from only being privileged to employ a multitude of digging methods in our modern era, a variety of techniques have been used to dig wells going all the way back to antiquity.

Some rely on ingenuity, while others rely only on brute force contraptions or even humble, backbreaking labor with simple tools.

It is wise to not put all of your eggs in one basket with a single method, since not all methods are suitable for digging every type of well, and the calculus changes even more when you consider the great variety of soil and terrain you might have to dig for it.

Any good homesteader will have alternate and contingency plans for unexpected problems. Make it a problem to become passingly familiar at the very least with even a single alternate method of digging a well beyond your primary technique. See the list below for additional information.

Dug Well

The oldest and indeed the first type of proper well, dug wells are not just artifacts of the past, they are still employed today in third world countries, and even in first world countries where technology or resources are scarce but manpower is plentiful.

A dug well can be installed with nothing more than a strong back, shovels and buckets but more advanced and ingenious devices consisting of human-turned drills and a variety of augers are also entirely viable.

Probably the single biggest shortcoming to a dug well is that they will only be able to go so deep, almost as a rule being used for shallow wells and only occasionally through great effort, toil and a little bit of luck achieving deep well depth.

Also the very nature of a dug well makes them more vulnerable to the ingress of contaminants than other sealed or semi sealed types of wells.

Driven Well

Driven wells are a type that is commonly used today for the installation of private wells. A driven well is little more than a pipe driven into the ground (as you might expect) until it reaches the water source below.

The bottom of the pipe has a filter or screen on it in order to prevent large contaminants and other obstructions from entering the water source that is drawn through the interior diameter.

The physics of driving great lengths of pipe into soil grow pretty perilous very quickly, as the density of soil rapidly increases the deeper you go invariably leading to a bent, cracked or otherwise badly bungled pipe.

For this reason, driven wells are typically only used in relatively soft soils or sandy terrain and almost always only for establishing a shallow well. Shallow wells and in particular shallow driven wells are highly vulnerable to contamination.

Drilled Wells

The most popular method for the installation of any modern well, drilled wells are also a surprisingly ancient technique pioneered by advanced cultures with access to quality metal works.

Drilling is as you might expect an extremely efficient method of installing a well, and will help the well hole remain concentric and hopefully plumb.

Drilling is also highly adaptable, with only different drill heads or bits being required to defeat soft soil, hard soil, rock or any combination of the aforementioned. The hardest substrates can be defeated with a device known as a percussion drill head. Drilling is definitely the method of choice, and indeed the only choice, when you need to go really, really deep.

Structure of a Well

There are many variations on even the well designs we just covered, but no matter what kind of design and what kind of local or national variant it might be, it will have a few things in common with all wells.

The vast majority of wells operate using just a couple of simple principles and the same basic components. The list below will help to familiarize you with the most common and important parts of a well.

  • Well Hole: The well hole is the shaft of the well itself, be it dug, drilled or driven. It is through this passage that water will be brought to the surface.
  • Well Curb: This is a rim for raised structure around the opening of the well hole at the surface. This helps to protect the well from contamination, as well as prevent people and animals from inadvertently stumbling into and falling down the well. This also serves as a foundation for any superstructure that will be built above the well, such as the steining, the well cap and any mechanism for raising and lowering the vessel.
  • Well Casing: The well casing lines the well hole or indeed might be the well hole itself in case of a driven well or prefabricated casing. This gives the well hole structure, prevents cave-ins, and also helps prevent contamination seeping into the ground and contaminating the well water source. Today, typically made from metal or plastic. Primitive wells or ones built in austere conditions could be made from brick, wood or stone.
  • Steining: The steining is the solid structure or wall extending above the well hole and built atop the well curb. This could be a freely built construct or a prefabricated piece. The steining must be sturdy enough to support people leaning against it as well as any superstructure that allows the installation of the well cap and any mechanism for hauling the vessel.
  • Well Cap: A device or installation that is placed over the uppermost opening of the well in order to prevent people and animals from falling in as well as contamination from other sources. Essential for safety and for preserving water quality!
  • Well Screen: Another essential component to help ensure water quality, this is a part that attaches to the very bottom of the well casing in a modern well in order to prevent debris like rocks, sediment, insect corpses and other detritus for being drawn up with the water via the pump. Often made from metal or plastic and more advanced models that offer better filtration can be very complex.
  • Pump: A typical installation for modern wells, and even for some austere wells they can make use of plentiful natural or remote power sources. A pump is used to pull or push water up to the surface. Submersible pumps are often employed for deep wells where they are lowered all the way to the water source and submerged. Jet pumps are most commonly found in use with shallow wells and typically mounted above ground.
  • Container/Vessel: This is the part of a primitive well that actually retrieves the water. Classically, this is a bucket or leather sack on the end of a rope that is raised and lowered either by hand or by a simple winch. Far more laborious than using a pump, and also introduces a greater risk of contamination as the vessel should be kept scrupulously clean; not always easy to do when it is kept outside 24/7.

There are other components found in most wells and specialized components found in specialized wells, but these are the basics you should become familiar with. Soon, you’ll know your way around wells of all kinds.

Strike Water: Considerations for Digging Your Own Well

Digging any well, whether you do it yourself or not, is a serious undertaking and should only be approached when an understanding of all the many variables needed for success and safety is attained.

Even if you are digging on your own property in the middle of nowhere there will be much to consider, everything from permitting and surveying to locating the well hole and choosing what kind of whale is best for your needs.

You can double the effort and advanced work you’ll need to put in if you plan on doing it yourself. In some areas no licensing or permitting may be required, but in other areas you could be up for some fairly odious hoop jumping.

Some places even only allow specially licensed and trained contractors to dig or repair wells, and will punish violators with substantial fines or even jail time.

The following subsections will help you keep in mind everything you need to consider in order to successfully plan and install your well.

After we go through these considerations you will take a look at some DIY methods that have been around for a long time and are suitable for the installation of a primitive well or a more advanced one in an austere environment.

Before You Begin, Consider Hiring a Pro!

I know most folks reading this are all about self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and DIY extravaganzas for the ages. But consider that digging a well, though conceptually simple, has an awful lot going on and is a fairly dangerous undertaking.

Also, consider how much your time is worth. It is true that you might not have an option if you are living in the aftermath of a major SHTF event (well digging professionals don’t grow on trees!) and in that case if you were going to rebuild society brick by brick you might have to dig your own well first.

But assuming that isn’t the case and society is still humming along more or less recognizably then investing in the experience, skills and services of an expert is a wise move. Before you decide to go it alone, ask yourself the following questions:

So you know if your property can even support a well? If it can, where is the best place to sight it nominally? Is it far enough away from any potential source of contamination or other hazards?

Do you know what those hazards are? If you are uncertain do you know how to conduct a survey or read a survey that was done previously?

Do you know what the laws are in your burrow, city, county and state? Are you aware that if you botch the digging or drilling you might destroy or contaminate the aquifer itself?

These are all factors that must be considered before you embark on digging a well yourself.

Site Selection, or Locating

The single most crucial element of installing any well is locating the site of the well itself. This is a multi-faceted task but you have to get right for all your labor, effort and expense will be for nothing, a literal dry hole.

Now, in actuality that is only half true because in most places you can go deep enough where you will eventually reach water, but every foot you travel is a serious investment as we will learn later and also increases the chances that things can go terribly wrong.

The two key elements of site selection are making sure you are atop a proper aquifer that will serve as a go-to water source, both in quality and quantity, and reading the terrain and the soil substrate layers so you know you can actually penetrate the ground and reach that water in good order.

There is a certain calculus between the two.

Do you go for a water source that is closer to the surface, and perhaps more vulnerable to contamination but in exchange make the digging exponentially easier, perhaps easy enough that you can have your well installed in one or two days?

Or do you try to go deep, a more laborious process and perhaps along a path that means you encounter harder strata that will make for troublesome and difficult digging?

The reward in that case might be water that is extremely resistant to contamination but it might also require substantial softening to be used. Everything is a trade-off when it comes to locating a well!

You might have a location that is atop easily dug soil and not too awfully far down to an aquifer containing high-quality water but perhaps it is located just a little too close to a potential source of contamination for comfort. Dare you risk it?

These concerns and many more will confront you in the process of allocating your well, and you had better make sure you get it right.

Failing to do so could mean squandered resources, backbreaking labor with no return on investment and an awful lot of wasted time. In a worst-case scenario you might actually ruin or contaminate the water source you were trying to reach in the first place!

If you are determined to dig your well yourself, don’t let that sway you as humans have been digging wells for millennia. Just make sure you perform your due diligence!

Hazards, Contamination Vectors and Other Mishaps

Just as important as knowing where to dig to reach the best water for the least possible effort with the most certainty is knowing where not to dig and where not to locate your well in order to avoid every possible source or vector of contamination that you can.

Contamination is an issue for any well, and no water source, no matter how deep and how far under impermeable layers it resides is truly immune to contamination in one form or another. That being said, some wells are more vulnerable than others as we have discussed in detail above.

Shallow wells are highly vulnerable to in-ground contamination and any contaminants that leach through the soil above.

Deep wells, especially ones with a water source residing through several impermeable layers, don’t have much to fear from above ground contaminants unless they penetrate the well and seep down directly. Regardless, it is the summit of idiocy to cite your well in the path of probable contaminants or next to a source of them.

What are contaminants? Common ones include natural hazards like swamps and marshes full of water that is practically alive on its own it is so full of bacteria, viruses and other biological nastiness, while man-made hazards could be anything from a septic tank or refuse pit to an in ground oil tank, a dump site, or the location of a substantial chemical spill.

You must also take pains to locate your well out of the typical path of flowing water that invariably occurs during rain and flood events. Your well could be located far away from any direct source of contamination but square in the middle on the path of water that could sweep contaminants to your well’s location. That is just as bad!

The general rule for locating a well away from hazards and contamination vectors is to maintain a minimum (minimum!) standoff distance of 50 ft. and more is always better.

Serious potential sources of contamination like sewers and septic tanks should be treated like they are radioactive, and avoided as far as practicable.

Also, don’t forget to check for the presence of any buried utility or power lines and any other kind of an underground installation like fallout shelters, severe weather bunkers and others before you dig. Use your head and dig smart!

Testing

No matter how you choose to install your well, no matter where it is located and no matter what kind of well it is you must take the essential step of having your water laboratory tested for safety.

You might be getting your water out of an ancient and protected aquifer, quite literally some of the purest available water in nature, and it could still be questionable or totally unsuitable for human consumption depending on what kind of contaminants are in it.

Minerals, metals, viruses, bacteria and who knows what else could all be lurking in your water. Do not rely on the taste test, sniff test, or color test. Only a lab that is set up for the analysis and discernment of water quality is able to make that call reliably.

But we must also consider that you might be digging and drawing water from a well completely and totally on your own in the aftermath of some society-toppling disaster. In that case, it definitely pays to know how to test your water for the most common as well as the most dangerous contaminants.

You probably should not expect to be drinking artisanal spring water from a hand-dug well, but you might be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire if you dig a well to defeat dehydration only to wind up poisoned from its water!

If at all possible, get your well water laboratory tested for certainty. If that is not possible, you must conduct such testing yourself and have the equipment and other resources necessary to make an informed call.

The Old Fashioned Way: Well Digging Techniques

The time has come: you have read the charts, poured over the data, assessed the various hazards around the site and finally arrived upon the point at which you will put tool to Earth and begin to dig your well. Humorously, the final question in many ways is how you will dig it.

The most laborious and back-breaking of these methods is to employ a selection of shovels, buckets, picks and ropes to start excavating your way down into the Earth.

More advanced methods rely on some simple but comparatively primitive apparatus that can greatly multiply the amount of effort that any worker puts into digging.

Each of the methods you will see below has been around a startlingly long time, and employed by cultures around the world. Many are still employed today in environments where heavy machinery and other modern tools are not available, or impractical.

You might be lucky enough to own a truck with a drill rig, and if you do that is quite the ace in the hole to have for your well digging survival plan, but if you don’t, it is in your best interest to brush up on one or more of these primitive methods since they can be made from common and simple materials using nothing more than a little ingenuity and know-how.

Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of each below.

By Shovel, Pick and Bucket

This is it, we are really going old school now! This is the method by which most wells have been dug most often for millennia. Human laborers using hand tools boring a hole into the Earth until they strike water, and after that constructing the well casing and all of the other components of the well to protect their newly revealed water source.

Any tool that is useful for moving Earth, breaking rock, and cutting through roots and other obstructions will be useful here, along with tools for moving the detritus up and out of the hole.

There is not much else to it; anybody who can operate these simple hand tools can contribute to the digging of this well though it is not work for the weak or puny.

Hand digging a well hole entails a few assumptions. The well must be wider than more modern arrangements in order to accommodate a worker or workers at the bottom who need room to swing their tools and load the soil for removal from the hole.

Additionally, these wells will only ever go as deep as the water source itself rarely deeper than 50 feet. They will go no further than the water since unassisted people cannot work hand tools and keep on digging while underwater! This wider well hole structure will typically produce more water than a narrow one, but they are more vulnerable to contamination overall.

Auguring

By using a long shaft attached to a turnstile and tipped with an auger head, a team of men can rapidly excavate softer soils and obstructions from the well hole and make it nice and concentric at the same time.

A typical manual auger head for the drilling of a well hole is shaped somewhat like a bucket with a serrated bottom that will hold the soil it breaks through. After it fills up, it is retrieved from the whole and emptied before being reattached to the shaft and lowered to continue boring.

Auguring is ideal if you are locating your well in an area with soft soil and minimal hard matter, but large rocks or dense, heavy soil will defeat you.

And even though these augers are efficient in ideal circumstances it will get harder and harder the deeper you go, eventually reaching a point where you will need more men to even turn it slowly and then risk breaking your shaft for every foot gained.

Percussion Drilling

Percussion drilling is an impressively effective technique that has been used around the world, and consists as one might imagine of a heavy, specialized drill head that is designed to cut once it makes impact at speed with soil or rock, and is typically employed by being attached to a rope or a solid shaft that has been raised and lowered by a team working in unison to actuate it.

This lifting and dropping might be accomplished by using a rope and pulley or more ingeniously a flexible rod that can impart even more energy to the drill head.

Out of all the primitive methods you might use, this is the one that gives you the best chance of getting through the hardest soil and obstructions.

Perhaps its only disadvantage is that it requires access to a suitably hard and tough drill head that can be used over and over. This is a high-impact technique that will make short work of a soft metal head.

Another advantage is that it can reliably create a clean and reasonably concentric well hole similar to auguring. One more thing: Practice makes perfect so make sure you get everyone on the team working off the same sheet of music before you begin or expect to become frustrated.

Drive Pointing

Drive pointing is a well-digging method whereby a sharpened metal head is affixed to a perforated pipe and hammered into the ground using a sledgehammer or similar device.

Think of a pile driver on a smaller scale and you have a good idea of how drive pointing works. The perforated pipe shaft serves as well casing and well screen all in one and once it is in place your well is basically ready to go!

You can think of drive pointing as a sort of feast-or-famine method of digging a well because it is truly easy for even a single person to install a well using this method. If soil conditions are ideal and a water source is assured in as little time as a few hours your well can be producing!

However, drive pointing only works for shallow wells as the deeper you go the more likely you are to bend or break the pipe, ruining both it and your day! Like all shallow wells it is more vulnerable to contamination than deeper ones.

Drive pointing is a method commonly employed in loose or sandy soil of the kind typically found near rivers and other large bodies of water. So long as you aren’t going deeper than 20 ft. or so you shouldn’t have any problems.

Sludging

Sludging is another odd and ancient method of well digging that relies on teamwork and physics to get the job done

Sludging is simple in principle if not in execution: An open-topped pipe is prepared and placed into the well hole while being connected to a lever on a fixture nearby that allows it to be raised and lowered using manpower.

The well hole, already full of water, then has the pipe lowered into it until it makes contact on the bottom, removing soil. This is where things get interesting. Using careful coordination, a crew member is standing by the pipe that covers the opening at the top with his hand before it is withdrawn to the surface.

The rest of the crew raise the pipe preparing to plunge it downward again but right before this happens the other crewmen uncovers the hole at the top allowing the cuttings and water picked up by the pipe to splash out of the top.

Sludging definitely requires a higher degree of coordination for success compared to the other primitive methods we have listed here, but it is handy because the chief component required for operation- a sturdy open pipe- can be found almost anywhere. It is also one of the few austere methods that can install a deep well reliably.

As you might be expecting, lacking any sort of serious cutting action it only works in softer soil substrates, with clay or partial clay being on the upper limit of what it can handle. Like all such methods it can be difficult to effectively seal a well that is installed via sludging.

Assessing Costs

Only the easiest and simplest of well installations will cost less than a small fortune, even if you do it yourself. The cost of any professional installation will naturally be much more expensive, but the chances of both striking water and maintaining a water source are higher.

Note that the deeper you go when digging a well the more expensive it gets to keep going further. It is a geometric progression of cost.

Consider just a few of the variables below that will be commonly encountered when installing a well, and then decide if professional or DIY installation is for you.

Also, just a reminder: None of the costs you see below are for extra labor, county or city fees, testing and any permits that might be required. This is just for basic equipment and services!

  • Professional Well installation Costs, United States, Averaged: $4,650.00 to $8,250, depending on location and complexity.
  • Professional Well installation Costs with Complications (terrain, difficulty, depth, etc.), United States, Averaged: $9,500.00 to $14,000.00+

Equipment and Component Expenses (Installation not included)

  • Casing Pipe: $600.00 to $3,000.00
  • Pump: $80.00 to $2,000.00+ depending on model and type (shallow or deep well)
  • Pressure Tank: $1,500.00 to $3,000.00 (for in-home plumbing)
  • Purification and Softening System: $1,000.00 to $3,500.00.
  • Wiring, Switching, Sensors, Etc.: $50.00 to $350.00

Professional Digging/Drilling Costs

Drilled: $8.00 to $32.00 per linear foot, cost increases as depth does!
Dug: $7.00 to $26.00 per cubic foot excavated. Excavation is only suitable for shallow wells!

As you can see this is not something that most people can stroke a check for painlessly. The costs associated with professional installation of a well might be reason enough to get most people on board with doing it themselves.

On the other hand, you should stop and look at the cost of the materials alone, and ask yourself how much worse off you will be if you botch the job and lose some or all of the materials and a likely ruin your well hole.

Sometimes it is better to bite the bullet and rely on professionals if you have the option.

Conclusion

Having a well is the only way to provide sustainable, reliable freshwater without a ton of extra labor and logistical strain when you are living far from an above ground water source.

Every culture around the world throughout history has relied on wells, and that means that at some point they had to dig them.

You can do the same thing with some grit, know-how and a thorough understanding of all the variables involved. It might be arduous, even grueling, but if you persist, you will strike water you can rely on for years to come.

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