After a week of drilling, our well is in place. Like every part of this experience, it was more complicated than we anticipated, but we’re happy with the results. Here’s why we did what we did, with a list of “get started on your well” tips at the end.
This article covers the drilling process. Find out what our water tastes like here.
Digging a Well vs. Hooking to Public Works
When we bought our land, the Realtors mentioned repeatedly, as a selling point, that the County runs water nearby. Some neighbors hook to County water to save on drilling personal wells.
After living in the city for so long, with no power over how our water was treated, we barely gave County water a second thought. Fresh, non-chlorinated mountain water called to us from [very deep] below the rock we’re building on.
Plus, when you price excavating a 1/2 mile trench through rocky soil and running 1/2 mile of pipe through it, plus the setup to pump water a 1/2 mile and monthly water bills, a well doesn’t sound so expensive anymore.
We’ve also got our utilities narrowed down to one bill – electric – and we like it that way. When the pump is connected, running it to bring us water will become part of that bill.
The Well Gamble, Part I
Still, wells are expensive, and they can be an uncomfortable gamble. Don’t listen to any driller who tries to predict what you’re in for. In most areas, there’s no way to predict the depth of your well or quality of your water.
Wells are generally priced by depth. Depth is generally determined by where you find not only good water but good volume. None of us are Neptune, so it’s impossible to say where the best place to dig is: that’s gamble #1.
Actually, I kind of wanted to “water-witch” or “divine” before we decided on our well placement. That’s where people detect water with copper wire or dogwood branches. However, I didn’t press it, since we had narrowed our options to a specific location that was all of the following:
- More than the appropriate distance from the future septic drainfield.
- Next to the housepad, which will lower the cost of hooking water up to the dome.
- Near the driveway, so maintenance is possible even in winter when the surrounding ground is too squishy for big trucks. (One of their rigs weighs 56,000lb!)
- Away from where it would be hit by mowers or vehicles.
Even after the fact, I’m tempted to have someone witch for kicks. Our neighbor offered. If you have water-witching experiences good or bad, we’d love to hear your comments. Does it work? Does it only find surface water?
Remember how I said not to listen to a driller who tries to predict how expensive or deep your well will be? That doesn’t mean your driller shouldn’t provide documentation with the cost per foot, the costs for the pump setup, etc. Hopefully you know that already because you shopped around, right? But they should provide it on paper along with State-regulated documents that they take the time to explain to you clearly.
Our driller was knowledgeable and professional from the start, fully licensed, looked us in the eyes, didn’t rush us, and answered questions directly. The business is an established and highly recommended operation in our region. Our Spidey Senses said he was simply trying to will us luck when he said (no guarantees) that wells around us often produce at 250′. Our hopes, officially up, plunged later in the week as the well doubled that depth and kept going.
The Gamble, Part II
At 600′, volume was only 3 gallons a minute, while the overall cost was cusping triple our budget. (To be fair, I’d only budgeted for the drilling, not for the corresponding pump setup, which accounts for some of the budget shortfall.)
Enter, gamble #2: do we go deeper to find more water?
While there’s no guarantee a deeper well will provide more or better water, it is guaranteed to cost more. But is 3 gallons enough? On the WWW, the same number of sources say heck yes as, oh, no, 3 gallons is not enough. Friends at the gym shrugged when we asked what their volume was. Our General Contractor said, “Not enough,” but the driller was clearly trying to talk us into it.
It was dusk as we stood around the rig, the driller taking us through the numbers: volume per minute vs. daily usage and how much reserve we’ll have in 600′ of well pipe. He talked about cheaper alternatives to more drilling, like cisterns or rain gutters to capture water for animals and gardens.
Then he raised the stakes. He admitted he’d had wells go to 900′ on other parts of the mountain. Around 800′, he said, you could hit sulfur.
Once you hit it, getting rid of that stinky, hard-boiled-egg water takes chemicals and miracles. Of the 3 concerns – low volume, high cost, or sulfur – sulfur made our blood pressure the highest.
That night, gym friends said they’d heard of a well at 1,200′ near our land. Country-gym talk takes a grain of salt, but the story made us feel better about at least having 3 gallons at 600′ already.
We slept on it, woke up, and told the driller to keep going. To call us at 700′. While it would take work to run a 600′ well dry, we hated the possibility, especially since we were already at 3 x our budget. If we could get even a couple more gallons, the extra 100′ of drilling costs would be worth it.
We went over to Freestone watch him work before he called. The drill rig is mesmerizing.
He signaled that he’d hit 700′, and the sky opened up. He prepped the rig to let the flush water run out (drillers send water down as they drill, and it has to be cleared for an accurate read on the volume). We splashed back through the red mud to wait out the rain in our cars, texting friends and family to ask for luck. “I’d be happy with 5 gallons, you know?” Chris said.
Ten minutes later, the storm cleared and we gathered behind the rig to watch water gush out of the pipe, wondering if the parlay had paid off. It looked like the same amount as at 500′ (2 gallons/minute) and 600′ (3 gallons).
Timing the flow in gallons per minute.
Results Are In
At 700′, we’re getting over 5 gallons a minute of sulfur-free water.
Believe it or not, it took 15 minutes of discussion to decide not to go another 40′ to see if another gallon or 2 awaited. It’s gambling, after all. It’s hard to stop. But sulfur lurked, and our driller added that, after 700′, we’d have to upgrade to an even more expensive pump system.
So we stepped away from the table, a little worse for the wear. Unexpectedly gambling that much money knocked us down a peg. With better luck, this experience would have been more fun, the final decisions easier. But as Chris put it, it’s probably the biggest gamble we’ll have in the whole domestead adventure, and it turned out.
And more stress means more learning, which means we have well tips!
If you’re embarking on your own well journey, we send you good water vibes. Don’t let our stressful situation scare you, but do understand that well digging is serious business, so don’t even think of using someone who isn’t licensed, experienced, and recommended.
When most of the business is underground, work with someone you feel you can trust. Also:
• Start with the basics: It’s good to go into any process, especially a high-dollar one, with at least a basic understanding. Even if you’re not in Tennessee, the TN Division of Water Quality webpage is good for a thorough “wells 101” primer.
Do a Google Image search for “ground water.” It’s surprisingly helpful to understand where underground water comes from. Some part of me thought we’d be running the well pipe down to a Lord of the Rings style underground lake, next to our neighbors’ well pipes. In our geology, we actually tap into isolated channels running through fractures in super-duper hard shale, which hopefully makes our water impervious to surface pollution or drought.
• Shop around for a driller who sounds trustworthy, answers your questions directly, and gives you clear pricing for details like price per foot to drill. Chris found the average per foot at $15 in our region. Add on $14-$16/foot until hard rock is reached for casing and liner (the piping that runs through “softer” rock to keep it from crumbling down to gum up your pump or cave in the whole well).
A driller shouldn’t be afraid to give you a basic idea of pump cost, though your pump situation will ultimately depend on depth, terrain, and other factors. A seasoned vendor will know how to guide your decisions based on your household needs.
Lastly, they’ll have suggestions and large machinery to responsibly direct the copious amount of rock, dust, and water they bring up as they drill, which can be an erosion concern if you’re on a hill.
3. Contact the State. Drillers file data for the State to determine average well depths in each region. Google “find out well depths in [your state]” to find the agency to call. In Tennessee, it’s the Division of Water Quality in Nashville. They told Chris the average depth for us was around 450′ and that drillers hit hard rock around 65′. We overachieved.
4. As always, talk to neighbors. They can be a more reliable source than the State on how deep wells are around you.
We wish you well in your journey (har har har). Find out how our water looks and tastes here.