How To Dig A Water Well
Dug, Driven And Drilled Wells

Dug Wells
Dug wells are basically holes in the ground which are dug using a shovel and pickaxe, usually with an inside diameter of 3 1/2 to 5 feet: large enough to accommodate one or two people digging. (See the video at right)

Historically, the hole was dug until the water table was reached, and the water rose faster than the bail-out rate. Dug wells usually penetrate only about 3 feet into the dry season(late summer-fall) water table.

*Note that once the water bearing layer is reached, it should be penetrated as far as possible.

Since it's so hard to dig beneath the water table, hand dug wells are usually only about 10 to 30 feet deep. Problems that can occur relating to the shallowness of a dug well is that it may go dry during a drought when the ground water table drops, and precautions should be taken to prevent contamination.

The well is lined or "cased" with stones, brick, cement or other material to prevent the walls from collapsing. It's then covered with a cap of stone, concrete or wood.

These wells may be equipped with a pump or left open to have water drawn with a rope and bucket.

There are several methods of supporting the sides of the excavation while digging a hand dug well:

Pre-cast concrete rings -
The safest well-digging method is to excavate within pre-cast concrete rings which later become the permanent lining to the sides of the well. A well may be entirely constructed by the caisson sinking system starting at ground level. As material is excavated within the ring, it sinks progressively under its own weight and that of the rings on top of it. This is the preferred method  when digging in unstable ground.

This is the only practical method for excavating below the water table, since the sides of the excavation do not generally have enough strength to support themselves when saturated. If a greater depth than the water table is desired, a second caisson which telescopes inside the first may be used. Conventionally, the part of the caisson which is below the water table is either perforated or made porous to allow the entry of water into the well. If caissons are made of masonry construction, reinforcing rod can help prevent cracking when handling, during sinking and when in place.

When construction has finished, the joints between the rings which are above the water table should be sealed with cement mortar.

"In situ" lining -
In suitable ground, excavation may proceed for a short distance without support to the sides; these are then supported by means of concrete poured in situ from the top, between the sides of the excavation and temporary formwork, which becomes the permanent lining to the well. This process is repeated until the water table is reached.

Types of concrete moulds -
  • Sheet metal mould - A 2 mm thick sheet metal facing can be used as a mould to hold the concrete against the side of the well as it dries. The sheet metal is tensioned around two wooden rings. After the concrete has set, the wooden rings can be collapsed and removed. The sheet metal can then be removed. This type of mould can be used for lining wells or for forming the interior surface of caissons.

  • Wooden mould - Moulds can be made entirely of wood. In this case the facing is usually made of narrow wooden strips running parallel to the axis of curvature. These facing strips are attached to wooden ribs to make up sections of a cylinder, either exterior or interior. These sections must be joined in such a way that they can be easily disassembled for removal. In order to get a good surface finish, a mould must be thoroughly cleaned and oiled before each pouring.

  • Earth mould - The simplest lowest cost mould is one formed by carefully digging the desired shape into the earth and filling it full of concrete. This, however, requires considerable time and skill to attain dimensional accuracy and good surface finish. Caissons can be produced by carefully making a cylindrical excavation to act as the mould for the external surface. A grid of vertical and annular reinforcing rod is set up in the mould. Concrete mortar is troweled into the reinforcing grid and is then hand smoothed. In this way the need for an internal mould is eliminated. Some means for attaching to the caissons must be provided, so that they can be lowered into the well.

Supported excavation (the ‘Chicago’ method) -
In suitably stable ground, excavation may proceed within the protection of vertical close-fitting timber boards, supported by horizontal steel rings (the Chicago method). The timbers are hammered down as excavation
proceeds and additional timbers are added progressively at ground level. The steel rings must be hinged, or in two parts bolted together, so that lower ones can be added as the excavation progresses.

The vertical spacing between the rings will depend on the instability of the ground. The well is lined with bricks or concrete blocks, from the water table upwards, within the timbers as they are withdrawn.
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How To Dig A Well
Overview
So you're ready to place a well on your homestead. It's easy to call up a well-drilling business, pay them to come to your property, dig the well with a machine, and install an electric pump and a holding tank using modern equipment. The problem is, you are now off-grid. There is no electricity, no running water or gasoline. What would you do? Good news! You can dig an off-grid well by hand, nearly anywhere you are, using simple tools and a fair amount of elbow grease. Digging a well by hand is still the way much of the rest of the world does it. "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime". On this page you'll learn how to "fish" for water by digging or driving your own well.

*Note that if you intend to dig a well in the United States, some counties do require a “Well Location Permit” before a well may be installed.

Wells that were dug by hand are found all over the world and are, or have been, used to supply potable water to households or even small villages. An exhaustive study revealed a total of 811 hand-dug wells in Ellis county, Texas alone! (Robert E. Mace,The Texas Journal of Science, 11/01/1994) The United States has more than 1.6 million hand-dug wells, which can often be located by their brick well crowns.

Greensburg, Kansas boasts "The World's Largest Hand Dug Well". Construction of the World's Largest Hand Dug Well began in 1887. A crew of twelve to fifteen men dug the well, while other crews quarried and hauled the native stone used for the casing(lining) of the well. When the well was completed in 1888, it was 109 feet deep and 32 feet in diameter.

Parts Of A Well
Every well has three sections: top, middle, and bottom. Each of these sections varies in construction, because each must function differently.

• Top section - That part of the well at or above the ground surface level. It should be designed to allow people to get water as easily as possible, and, at the same time, to prevent water, dirt, and other contaminants from entering.

• Middle section - That part of the well which is between the ground surface and the water, This section is usually a circular hole. It is reinforced with some kind of lining to prevent the walls from caving in.

• Bottom section - That part of the well that extends beneath the water table into the aquifer. It should be designed to allow as much water as possible to enter, and yet prevent the entrance of any soil from the aquifer. PVC or Galvanized pipe lining driven or augured wells will have holes, slots, or open spaces, allowing water to pass through.

Things To Consider Before Beginning
Where should you place your well? Unless you have the benefit of detailed geological information, it is best simply to look for the lowest spot nearby. Both surface and ground water are likely to collect here. In some cases, plants can be indicators of the presence of ground water. However, be careful not to build in a place so low that the well would be susceptible to flooding in heavy rain.(It might be helpful to read over the "How To Locate Water" page before you begin.)

Locating the site for a well should be based on the following guidelines:

  • The well should be located so that rainwater flows away from it. Rainwater can carry harmful bacteria and chemicals to your well where it can seep into the ground and contaminate your drinking water.

  • To keep your well safe, keep possible sources of contamination as far away as possible. Experts suggest the minimum following distances for protection:

Septic Tanks - 50 feet
Livestock yards, Silos, Septic Leach Fields - 50 feet
Petroleum Tanks, Liquid-Tight Manure Storage and Fertilizer Storage and Handling - 100 feet
Manure Stacks - 250 feet

The well should be located at a site that is:

  • water bearing

  • suitable to the sinking methods available
Featured Video -
Hand Digging A Well In Mexico
Featured Video -
Hand Made Water Well Hand Pump
Repairing An Old Brick-Lined
Well
Side View Of A Well Dug To A Depth Below The Water Table Using Pre-cast Concrete Rings
Possible Well Sites - Weighing Your Options
The illustration above gives you an idea where better well locations are. You could consider using a "ram pump" to pump water up a hill under it's own power if you're accommodating an already established residence on a hill. If you haven't established your homestead yet, this information can help you determine where to put it in relationship to the most likely water bearing locations.

(1) Limited water would be available at this site, because the impermeable rock layer is close to the ground surface, allowing slight fluctuations in the water table to drastically affect water availability.

2) Closest site to village and therefore the best site if it is possible to dig down far enough to reach water.

3) At this site, there would be a better chance of reaching more water than at 2. but the site is further from the village.

4) This is the site where water is most likely to be reached by a well although it is some distance from the village. Because it is in the absolute bottom of the valley, it may be subject to flooding.
The Top Of A Completed Well Should Provide Easy Access To The Water And Be Sealed To Keep Out Contaminants
Featured Video -
Sand Point Well Assembly
A safe way to lift dirt and rocks out of a well in progress is to make a secure windlass over the well and use a break post to secure the rope that holds the bucket.
Featured Video -
Installing Concrete Rings In A Well
A Hand Auger With Extensions Can Be Used To Dig Out The Hole For Your Well
Featured Video -
Installing A Well Casing
Featured Video -
Installing A "Sand-Point" Well
Driven Wells
Like dug wells, driven("driven point" or "sand point") wells pull water from the water-saturated zone above the bedrock. If properly located and constructed, and taking into consideration the land use in the immediate area, driven-point wells can offer protection from most types of contaminants, especially biological contaminants like bacteria.

Sandy soils alone will not guarantee successful installation of a driven-point well. If the water table is deep, it may not be physically possible to drive the well point deep enough to reach it. Large boulders or layers of tightly compacted soil like clay or “hardpan” may be encountered that effectively stop the driving process. Further, though clay can hold a lot of water, the clay particles are too closely packed to allow water to flow through it into a well. Depth to the water table is another very important consideration when installing a driven-point well.

Driven wells can be deeper than dug wells. They are typically 30 to 50 feet deep and are usually located in areas with thick sand and gravel deposits where the ground water table is within 15 feet of the ground’s surface. In the proper geologic setting, driven wells can be easy and relatively inexpensive to install. Although deeper than dug wells, driven wells are still relatively shallow and have a moderate-to-high risk of contamination from nearby land activities.

Usually, lengths of two to three inches diameter metal pipes(sometimes smaller) are assembled using threaded couplings. The pipes are then driven into the ground. A screened “well" or "drive"  point located at the end of the pipe helps drive the pipe through the sand and gravel. The screen is usually 2 to 3 feet long with the hardened steel tip or “drive-point” at the bottom. The screen allows water to enter the well and filters out sediment. Water can then be pumped up through the pipe to the surface.

The pipe and drive-point resemble a long spear. Installation of a driven-point well begins by driving the point and a single length of pipe into the ground. A special fitting called a drive cap is threaded onto the top of the initial pipe to protect the pipe threads while driving and to prevent contaminants from entering the pipe. Sometimes a shallow “starter hole” is dug or augured at the ground surface to accommodate the pipe lengths and facilitate the starting of the driving process. Sections of steel pipe are added as the pipe is driven deeper into the ground. This is continued until a sufficient depth below the water table is reached.

Dig A Well Using A Hand Auger
An auger is a metal "bit" similar to a drill bit, that's attached to a rod that's attached to a handle. A hand auger is used to manually dig holes in the ground. The auger is turned back and forth while soil collects in the middle. It is then lifted out of the hole and emptied. The process is repeated, and extensions can be added, until the hole reaches the desired depth.

With the right ground conditions this method can be a good choice for tapping into groundwater. On the other hand, if you run into rocks or clay, it can cause a lot of headaches. One problem with using an auger to dig a well is that once you hit the watertable, lifting it up through the water tends to wash away the load of dirt you've accumulated before you can get it top-side again. Since your aim is to get as deep below the water table as possible, this method of well-digging can require some ingenuity and patience.

Installing Pipe(or "Casing") Into The Well
Once you've dug your well, in most soil conditions you will need to line the hole to prevent the sides of the well from collapsing. Schedule 40 PVC pipe is perfect for lining a driven well or a well dug with an auger. Cap the bottom end of the pipe, and cut slits or drill holes four feet up from the bottom. The slits allow water to pass into the pipe, where it will be pumped up a smaller pipe to the surface. Once you have lowered the pipe into the well, pea gravel should be poured around the outside of the casing to help keep the holes clear of debris and to filter out larger particles.

Installing A Pump
Different pumps and pumping equipment  are available and they vary in their ability to draw water from various depths. A shallow well pump or pitcher pump can only draw water from a maximum depth of about 20’ - 25', and for these shallow water table depths, 1-1/4” diameter well pipe is generally sufficient. These pumps can be installed in any of the three well types above. 

*Note - When you consider how you will be accessing your well water, consider this. Pumps will eventually fail. If you're handy you might be able to construct a home-made pump out of spare parts. (see the video at top of page for an example) If you found yourself in a position where pump replacement or repair isn't possible, then you might want to consider constructing the larger dug well so that when necessary, water could easily be accessed with the old, "rope and bucket".

Finishing Your Well
Create an apron or install a concrete slab and drain to prevent ponding of
water at the top of your well. This will not only help to keep water from penetrating the well from above, but it will also help protect the earth around the well from washing away.


Credit For Content:
Department of Geosciences,Texas A & M University
Chapters.redcross.org
Texas Academy of Science
Water.EPA.gov
wateraid.org
www.peacecorps.gov
A Simple Windlass Constructed At The Top Of The Well Provides Easy Access To The Water With A Bucket And Rope
Featured Video -
How To Install A Pitcher Pump
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