You might have heard it if you’ve ever been on a farm – the soft and steady “thunk, thunk” can be mistaken for the beat of a drum. It might have been unsettling for you until someone explained that the sound’s source is a ram pump, sometimes and understandably referred to as the heartbeat of a farm. What exactly is this device that seems to defy gravity by moving water up hills with nothing more than the power of water?
The ram pump is, quite simply, an air-breathing invention that supplies water to your house, livestock and garden 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s done without the help of electricity and only a couple of moving parts. It’s ingenious, and it has saved the backs of humans for centuries.
Unlike many pumps, the ram pump is not immersed; it needs air and a water supply to operate. The water source can be a creek, river, spring or pond as long as the water intake is located upstream (at a higher elevation) from the collection point at the pump. Water (from the source) travels down the drive pipe to the pump, where, with the help of a flow-actuated check (clack) valve, the flow is intermittently stopped and started. Thanks to the physical laws relating to inertia, abruptly halting flow in the drive pipe causes the water column to behave a little like a hammer. That hydraulic hammering then forces about 15 percent of the water through a one-way check valve and into an air-filled pressure tank, which in turn feeds the delivery line. The remaining 85 percent of the water flows through the clack valve when it drops open (see illustrations, Page 49). Once the flow gets back up to speed, it slams shut once again, and the process repeats itself several times a minute to deliver a steady supply. As long as water flows, the ram pump won’t freeze.
The ram pump’s process is wonderfully perpetual, but small things can interrupt the rhythm. For example, a small clog in the source’s drive pipe can reduce flow enough that the clack valve won’t close, thus shutting the pump down. With a little care, you can keep the frequency of ram pump outages well below electric service outages, which will render most other water supply pumps idle.
English inventor John Whitehurst is credited with inventing the ram pump in 1772, although his invention’s valve was manually operated. Opening and closing the valve was easier than some other means of moving water, but his pump never really caught on. Twenty-four years later, French inventor Joseph Montgolfier modified the design and created the automatic ram. The ram pump made it to the United States in the 1840s and was immediately embraced by farmers and others with a need to move water more easily. The device was especially popular because its constant fresh water output prevented frozen water tanks.
When electric pumps were invented in the 1940s, the ram pump lost popularity, and many were abandoned. However, a need for dependable water supplies in areas where electricity was not available kept the ram alive. Today, ram pumps continue to supply water to farms and small communities all over the world.
In the 1970s, my father bought a century-old farm with a working ram pump, which delivered water to our livestock tank and into the house. Never concerned about bacteria or nitrates, Dad happily drank the spring water and encouraged every visitor to take a drink from our old-fashioned water dipper.
The family that settled the farm had installed a Rife Ram® pump below a free-flowing spring in the lower pasture, which sat behind the house. Often, I fell asleep to the steady beat of the pump. My father never had problems with that pump.
Thirty years later and back on the farm, my husband and I encountered some minor problems with the taken-for-granted ram. We temporarily fixed the problem by fiddling with the clack valve, which would get the water moving again, but only for a day or two. After a few weeks and with thirsty livestock in our barnyard, we knew that our beloved ram pump needed serious investigation. Only after going over the pump carefully, and replacing its air chamber’s gasket for good measure, did we discover that the problem was not with the pump, but up the hill, at the source. We found the spring running strong, but the pump’s drive pipe was partially clogged with stones and debris. It turns out that we didn’t need to work on the pump at all to get it back up to speed, but we will never take it for granted again.
Heidi Overson is a freelance writer and editor located in rural Coon Valley, Wisconsin. She enjoys reading, taking care of her family, tending her Angora goat herd and listening to her ram pump pumping.
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