Well from Hell
by By Warren & Diane
The following is a description of our well drilling experience on our property in Eastern Ontario. I post it here because, in the middle of the stress and anxiety of it, we had occasion to speak with Colleen who answered our many questions and put a lot of it in perspective for us. I wish we had found her earlier. If I had to do it again, God forbid, I would be calling Colleen first.
~ Warren and Diane ~
We agonized over the issue of water for two years before we finally decided to have a well drilled. Water is a big issue when it comes to life beyond the grid. We take water for granted but we also take water infrastructure for granted.
One way of looking at adopting a life beyond the grid is that you have to become your own municipal utility, including your own waterworks department.
You have to decide where your water is going to come from, how to move it from one place to another, how to make sure it is potable...all the things a municipal utility normally does for you and that you take for granted when you turn the tap. When you become your own utility, you no longer take these things for granted.
If you have never had a well drilled, here's what it is like:
First of all, you have to sign a contract. This was enough to scare us off the whole idea for over a year during which we looked at every other alternative we might have. We could have taken water from the small lake at the back of the property, and that seemed like a no-brainer at the time, but the devil is in the details and you can double that when it comes to waterworks. To take water from the lake meant putting a pump in the lake to pump water up 100 feet and 500 feet in total to get it to the cottage.
Relying on solar power, we were limited in the kind of pump we could use. We needed a slow start pump. Ok, we found one of those but now how to get power to it? Do we run 500 feet of electric wire from the cottage or use a DC pump with a solar panel and battery installed down at the lake? And what about winter? How do you keep the line from freezing when the temperature drops? We solved that one as well.
We traveled to Mississauga to speak with a man at Cottage Water Systems who has developed a system using valves and a pressure tank to drain the water back to the lake below the surface where it could freeze. Now, this guy knows his stuff and he was very straight with us by giving us enough information about how this would all work and the costs associated for us to determine that, in our case, drilling a well would not be appreciably more expensive.
If we were a bit closer to the lake or the head was not so great, his system would have been ideal and I would recommend it for those applications. Unfortunately, it was too costly in our case so we opted, finally, to do the well.
The only thing close to an appointment to have a well drilled is an appointment with the dentist. Like a visit to the dentist, you are having a hole drilled. In both cases you approach the day with great anxiety. In both cases the more drilling that happens the more of a hole it leaves in your bank account. In both cases there is pain involved.
Watching helplessly as a well driller goes deeper and deeper into the ground and deeper and deeper into your savings is an excruciating experience. One hundred feet goes by, then two hundred feet...no water. You think, any minute now they must hit water...but they don't. Three hundred feet and still dry and they quit for the day leaving that hulking monster of a wallet sucking machine crouched on the front yard. By the end of the day our nerves are shattered and our tempers shortened. It feels like we are in some kind of suspended animation from which we can be released only by the sight of water.
At the end of the second day, we are the proud owners of a $6000. dry hole 400 feet into the bedrock. We decide to stop the insanity. The well guys feel bad and we feel worse. So this is what 'worse case scenario' feels like.
So, what did we learn?
1. First of all, some worn-out phrases you've heard before: read the fine print, get three estimates. We didn't and we didn't. I don't know if this would have made any difference but it might have provided the opportunity to ask more informed questions.
2. Drill a well as a last resort only. At the end of the day, this well will cost us more than the pumping and filtering water from the lake and we still don't have water. You know...a bird in the hand...
3. Find a professional water dowser. We found one after the fact and she was a wealth of information about water sourcing and well drilling. Whether you believe in witching or not, give it a try. The cost is nothing compared to a dry well!
4. Analyze the cost of contract items carefully. Our well cost $23./foot but there is an additional cost for casing at $15./foot. We only had 20 feet of casing because the drill was into bedrock immediately but, if you are sitting on a mile of gravel, the casing will have to extend the depth of the well almost doubling the cost of the well.
5. We don't have any neighbors anywhere near us but, if you do, ask around to see how deep their wells are.
6. If your well goes to a certain depth without hitting water, you may be able to get some concessions from the driller. Ours drilled the last 100 feet at his cost if he didn't hit water.
7. A last resort awaits those of us who come up dry. It is called 'fracturing' or 'hydro-fracturing' which amounts to introducing water under high pressure into the well to open up any fractures that exist in the rock to allow more water to enter the well. Things to remember about this is there are two kinds: single and double bladder. We had single bladder fracturing done to no avail.
With single bladder they try to pressurize the whole well. With double-bladder they can isolate sections of the well and apply much more pressure. The catch of course is that double-bladder fracturing is more expensive...around $3200. where we live, but it has a good success rate. In fact, they will normally guarantee a certain amount of water in gallons per minute and deduct 50% if unsuccessful. Beware 'frackers' who ask for their money up front, however. They may require that you prove they didn't produce the flow rate they guaranteed and you will have to chase them to get your money back if they are unsuccessful.
*(just read that some states are thinking about banning fracturing due to the possibility of damage to aquifers or allowing pollutants into wells. Just something else to consider here)
8. They leave big ruts in your yard.
Finally, an update. At the time of writing we actually have a flow of water into the well at about 4 gallons/hour. This is about 100 gallons/day which is technically a dry well but sounds like Niagara to us so we'll take it.