Digging Your Own Shallow Well

DIY Off-the-Grid Series

By Matt Valzania

Off the Grid – Digging Your Own Shallow Well

One of the biggest ticket items in developing your land is getting a reliable water supply. Whether you need to put in a well or connect to a municipal water system, the cost to get water onto your property can quickly get into five figures. Fortunately, if your location and soil type permit, a property owner can put in their own shallow well, using basic supplies that are available at just about any hardware store.

As mentioned, the soil type needs to be suitable for a shallow well, and its quality will determine what kind of shallow well can be dug. If your soil is rocky, and the bedrock is not too far below the surface, a pit style well will work best without requiring heavy machinery to get through the bedrock. If your soil is softer earth, such as sand, clay or dirt with minimal rocks present, then a hydraulically installed or jetted well is possible. We’ll explore both setups in this article. Of course, there are additional methods of installing a well that aren’t covered here.

Pit-Style, Shallow Wells

Pit-Style Shallow Wells

For a pit-style well, dig a sizable pit in the ground in the area of a natural spring or seep. The pit then will naturally fill with water so you can extract it. Of course, taking water from an open pit is neither sanitary nor recommended, so additional steps need to be taken.

The first step is identifying a suitable location on your property. Look for perpetually wet areas or where the ground seems soft. Obviously, if there is standing water in an area, that’s a dead giveaway. If no damp or soft ground can be located, an expert dowser (someone skilled the art of finding subsurface water) might be helpful. Note that the best time to install this type of well is late summer, when the water level will be its lowest. This will reduce the amount of bailing required throughout the excavation.

Once a source is identified, and you’ve FIRST called to have any and all underground utilities located, a pit can be dug. This is where your tolerance for pain may come into play. You want the pit to be as deep and large as possible. But at the same time, if you’re like many embarking on this path, you’ll be digging the well by hand with shovels and pick axes. It might take a couple days of solid digging to completely clear out a sizable pit for a well. So be careful as this can seriously strain your back unless you’re conditioned for this type of repetitive exhaustive work. John Henry working on the railroad comes to mind. Renting a small backhoe might be in order instead. Again, don’t forget to call for utility locates before you dig.

After the pit is dug, some form of filtration must be put in place. Materials such as pea gravel work great for basic sediment filtration. Line the bottom of the pit with 6- to 12-inches of this small gravel. Next, some type of containment device needs to be installed. You could use a preformed concrete, plastic or metal holding tank, but other, more innovative, ideas include reusing food-grade, 55-gallon drums, forming and pouring your own concrete tank, or laying brick to form a tank (covered with a steel plate or something else that can support the weight of the soil that will be on top of it). Place your tank of choice in the pit with holes or openings in it to allow the water to enter into the tank. Surround the tank with additional pea gravel, providing filtering around the entire tank. Once the tank is completely covered in gravel, place a layer of water-blocking clay soil or plastic over the top. This prevents surface water from entering the tank directly. It’s preferred to have the water enter the earth surrounding the tank and then having it seep into the well from the side so that more filtration takes place. Last, top off the pit with some of the excavated soil, which levels out the ground to its pre-excavation grade.

Prior to any backfill work, run a hose or pipe from inside the tank to the surface or have it run underground to your home, to hook up a pressure pump. If you’re off the grid and prefer a hand-operated pump, leave an opening in the top of the tank and drop in a hand pump that can then be sealed after the installation.

Once the well is in place, there first will be a considerable amount of silt and sediment. Depending on water flow, allow time for the well to fill back up with water. Once it’s full, pump out two to three times the capacity of the well to flush out the sediment. This should be enough for the water to start running clear.

It also is recommended that some form of anti-bacterial treatment be used. If you left an opening in the top for a hand pump, or an opening to check water levels, dump a gallon or so of chlorine bleach into the well. Pump out the water until you start smelling the chlorine at the tap and stop. Let this sit for the night to kill any latent bacteria in the system. The next day, pump out the water until the smell disappears. This maintenance should be performed periodically to prevent bacteria from growing within the well.

Hydraulically Installed, Shallow Well

Hydro Well

This method of drilling a well, sometimes called jetting, is extremely popular as it closely resembles the technique professional well drillers use when putting in a drilled well. It allows greater depths to be achieved, which usually lends itself to cleaner, safer water. It is only suitable in dirt and clay (soft or hard) soil types, as soils with a lot of rock will be difficult to hydraulically lift. Jetted wells have been known to drill wells to more than 100-feet deep, depending on the setup and soil type.

The basic premise behind this method is forcing pumped water down the center of a PVC pipe that is held perpendicular to the surface, and rotated back and forth. The pressurized water dislodges soil from around the base of the PVC pipe. As the pipe sinks, it brings the dislodged soil to the surface around the outside of the PVC in the small space that is created naturally during the drilling process. See the image for an example.

Let’s get to the nuts and bolts of how this is done: First the drill itself needs to be constructed. The most basic drills consist of a length(s) of PVC schedule 40 pipe, long enough to reach the depth that you anticipate drilling to. A fitting attaches your water supply hoses to the top of the pipe and, if you prefer, a metal fitting with teeth cut into it attaches to the bottom of the pipe. This simple, inexpensive setup is enough for basic water needs. Again, more advanced setups use pumps and sediment boxes, but for simplicity sake, we’ll stick with the basics.

Once the drill is assembled, water is supplied to the top while the operator rotates the pipe back and forth. It often is recommended that a handle is attached to provide leverage while the drill is rotated and light downward pressure is applied. Don’t forget to wear a pair of rubber boots as things are bound to get messy. After the pipe is in place, attach a pump so that the water cleared out in the same manner as the pit well.

One drawback to this method is that there needs to be water already on the site. There are ways to recirculate the water using a mud pump, sometimes called a trash pump, but this involves a larger financial investment. However, it’s still far less than hiring a professional to dig the well. The other consideration is water demand. In most cases it is best to start by installing a small, 2-inch-diameter well for irrigation and basic water uses. Once you gain experience excavating a well, you can step up to a larger and more-advanced type of well that can supply a home and its demands.

An excellent reference for jetted wells is the website drillyourownwell.com. It is a collection of techniques used by people around the world to put in their own wells. There are plans for the most basic to the most advanced drills, along with a great number of tips and tricks. If you are planning on putting in your own well, I highly recommend spending as much time as possible on this website, learning as much as possible before embarking on this journey.

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