Drilling a well by hand is a lot of work, but it can be done with the right equipment. Whether you’re looking to drill a shallow or deep well, this skill is perfect for those seeking self-reliance.
Wells are normally drilled on private land where city or rural water isn’t available. It’s possible to hire a licensed professional to provide this service but you can expect to spend several thousand dollars. If you want to save money, you can do it yourself, but prior to getting started you need to research local regulations.
Each state or county will have its own list of requirements and regulations. These can be found online or at your county courthouse. When asking about these regulations, make sure you explain that you will be drilling the well yourself and on your own land.
Once you receive a green light to move forward, it’s time to learn more about your land. Go to the county agriculture extension office to find out what soil type you have. This could include sand, clay, rock, or a combination.
The local courthouse may also have well drilling logs from professional well drillers. These will include things like when they hit first water, what type of soil condition they encountered, and how deep they drilled the well. This could be helpful information, but do remember that every property is different. The very first step might be determining how deep you need to drill.
Where to drill
On most North American homesteads, water is typically present about anywhere you would dig, though in some areas that depth will be deeper than others.
Things to consider when choosing a well location are: convenience, a power source, and location. It’s very important the well be uphill from any septic system or barn runoff.
The final thing to do before drilling is to contact utility companies to make sure you don’t hit any underground pipes or lines. Sometimes this information can be found on your original land plot, but it’s always good to double-check.
Drilling a shallow well is a pretty simple task, going down about 25 feet or so when you hit first water (at least in my location). This type of well could be drilled in a weekend by hand using a general purpose, extendable post-hole auger.
This type of well can be cased off with a manual pump and used for irrigation. This would be more of an emergency setup that could also provide water needs at a weekend cabin in the countryside.
Shallow wells have a difficult time keeping up with average water usage. It’s estimated each person uses between 80 and 100 gallons of water a day. Imagine storing 20, 5-gallon jugs a day per person.
The majority of our water usage comes from flushing toilets and bathing. If you multiply that by a family of four, it’s easy to understand you would need a deeper well to keep up with demand.
Professional well diggers will often recommend a depth of 200 feet or more, but remember, for hundreds of years every well in this country was hand-dug and that’s how people survived.
Also remember, licensed well diggers get paid by the foot, so sometimes they drill further than they have to. So, if you decide to hire this out, do your research and make sure to write down where first water is normally hit in your area. And keep in mind that first water may not be the best, can dry up in some years, or may not be able to keep up with demand; all of these things need to be considered.
Drilling deep with a pneumatic drill
A pneumatic drill is like a giant eggbeater driven by compressed air. This tool can drill a 200-foot well in a matter of days or weeks, depending on the soil type, and can be purchased online.
In addition to the drill, you’ll also need a very powerful air compressor to run the equipment. These can easily cost two or three times as much as the drill. A couple of ways to keep costs down include purchasing a used compressor, or purchasing a new one and then after the project is completed, selling the almost-new equipment for a few hundred dollars less than what you paid.
You can choose between, gas, diesel or electric-powered compressors. An electric compressor will cost you less to run and be more dependable. We chose a compressor powered by gas because our well project was several miles away from the homesite.
Wait to schedule time off work for drilling until all the equipment has arrived and everything is set up and working correctly.
Supply list for a 100-foot well
• Pneumatic drill set
• Air compressor
• 150 to 200 feet of 3/8-inch air hose and connectors (attach together with threaded connectors not quick disconnects)
• Automatic inline oiler or lubricator
• 1 quart of air tool oil
• 160 feet of 1-inch PVC pipe, schedule 40
• 300 feet of rope
• 55-gallon drum with open end
• 2 rolls of high-quality duct tape
• 700 pounds of small pea gravel
• Magic marker
• Measuring tape
• 100 feet of SDR 35 pipe, schedule 20, 4-inch diameter
• 5 feet of 8-inch PVC pipe
• 10 feet of 2-inch PVC pipe
• 80 pounds of concrete mix
This brings us to the drill setup. This will require a day of planning before drilling begins. Most home improvement stores will carry almost everything you need.
Step 1: After purchasing the necessary supplies and choosing the drill location, begin digging the main drill hole with an auger or post-hole digger. Dig about 4 or 5 feet. Then, if necessary, cut the 8-inch PVC to fit the hole, allowing 4 inches to stick above ground. In the side of the PVC pipe aligned with the settling pond (see Step 2), drill a hole large enough to insert the 2-inch connecting PVC pipe.
Step 2: Dig a shallow settling pond 10 feet behind the well, no less than 4 feet across. Then dig a shallow 8-inch ditch connecting the pond to the well hole. Connect these spaces with 2-inch PVC pipe and cover. This pipe will transfer clean water from the pond to the drill hole. The pipe opening in the pond will need covering with netting so debris doesn’t flow back into the well.
Step 3: Insert the 55-gallon drum at the edge of the pond, secure with stakes, and face the opening toward the well. The drum catches water from the well and empties into the pond where clean water will flow from the pipe back into the well.
Step 4: Attach 1-inch PVC pipe to the pneumatic drill using PVC glue and secure with duct tape to prevent leaks. Use a marker every 5 to 10 feet so you can keep track of how far down you have drilled. Rest the other end of attached PVC pipe in the 55-gallon drum. While the drill is running, mud and water will enter the pipe through small holes above the drill and be pushed up by the compressed air, traveling through the pipe into the drum and settling pond to be cycled back into the well hole.
Step 5: The air compressor will need to be set up and connected to the drill. Use duct tape to secure the air hose to the PVC pipe to keep it out of the way while drilling.
Note: Depending on your soil type, you may not need the 8-inch PVC. Our soil, for example, is hard clay and stable enough to keep the hole from collapsing without the pipe.
Drilling a well with this tool can take anywhere from 15 hours to weeks depending on the soil type, so make sure a chair is handy and you’re working with at least three people. One to operate the compressor, another to drill, and a third for breaks.
The air supply to the drill should never be turned off while the drill is underwater. If this happens, you’ll have to stop drilling and clean the motor before starting back up. This can take time and delay progress, which means it’s important that your drill team understands the process from start to finish.
Begin by filling the well hole with water. Turn the drill on before inserting, and then begin drilling. The bit will drill through all soil types, but when it hits clay or rock the process will slow down. Don’t get frustrated, just keep drilling and, before you know it, first water will be hit.
Move the drill in an up, down, and side-to-side motion as this will help the drill drive through the soil. The motion should be constant but not forceful; the drill will do the work. When you reach the point of needing to add more pipe, pull the running drill from the hole and, once it’s out of the water, turn the air pressure off. As you add pipe, secure each addition with PVC glue.
Add the next several feet of pipe and start again. Once the desired depth is reached, it’s time to case off the well. Casing is a matter of inserting SDR 35 pipe and securing in place with pea gravel and concrete. To do so, drill a hole through both sidewalls of the first piece of pipe, 2 or 3 inches from the bottom so you can attach the rope to lower the pipe into the well. When the top of the pipe is even with the ground, apply PVC glue and attach the next piece of pipe. Let dry for 15 minutes and then continue to lower down and add pieces as you go to meet the depth of the well. The last piece of pipe will be cut about 3 feet above ground level and capped off.
Pour pea gravel between the casing and the dirt. Next, mix the concrete and pour between the ground and casing. This will prevent the well from becoming contaminated from runoff. Once this is complete and you’ve added a well pump, you’ll need to run the well for a couple of days until the water is clear, and it’s always a good idea to get the water tested before using it for drinking.
Drilling a well can be a long process, but if you can save money and learn a new skill at the same time, why not give it a try? It’s a matter of getting back to basics and doing more for yourself.
Carole West is a freelance writer, photographer, author, and founder of the blog Garden Up Green. She lives in the north Texas countryside with her husband, Robert. They live a peaceful life where they spend most of their time establishing Quail Grove, a tiny homestead community.