Greetings fellow frugal weirdos, Mr. Frugalwoods here! Welcome to Part 5 of our Frugal Homestead Series, which explores the finer points of how we’re going to reach our version of financial independence and move to a homestead in the woods in 2017 at age 33. Mrs. Frugalwoods and I plan to buy 20+ acres of wooded land, likely with an existing home and outbuildings, in rural southern Vermont. While this series isn’t your standard personal finance blog fodder, it’s a uniquely personal endeavor for us and, it’s essentially what makes us the Frugalwoods.
Part 4 of the series discussed how we conduct our searches for potential homestead properties. Now, I’ll be exploring the structural differences between rural and urban properties.
Today in Part 5, I’m digging deep on the topic of water sources on rural properties. This is but one factor that distinguishes a rural homestead search so dramatically from a standard city house hunt. I realize that wells might seem like a dry topic, but they’re too important not to discuss in depth!
When Mrs. Frugalwoods and I bought our house in Cambridge, MA three years ago, we felt extremely confident in our purchase because we’d been to literally hundreds of open houses. We’d seen it all and we knew what we wanted and what a good deal looked like.
One of our first shocks when investigating land for our eventual homestead was the discovery that there are no open houses for rural properties! Not many people are looking for land like we are and even nice places can stay on the market for years and go months between inquiries.
Thus began our education into the vast array of differences between typical city properties and the rural ones we’re looking for now. Turns out there are all sorts of things country properties have (or don’t have!) that aren’t an issue in the city.
One of the things we absolutely take for granted in the city is our water supply. Being lifelong urban dwellers, we don’t give much thought to exactly where our water originates. We just pay our water bill and open the tap.
While I had a vague notion that rural properties have wells, I had no idea of the tremendous amount of information needed to assess the quality and longevity of various types of wells. Turns out, there are multiple things that folks in Vermont even call a “well”! Who knew? Well, we do now. And lucky for you, I’m sharing my newfound spring of knowledge today.
Types of Wells
Standard drilled well
Common in newer construction, these wells are created by a truck with a giant drill on the back (think drilling for oil). The driller puts a metal casing in the well (to keep soil and other water out) until hitting bedrock, and then continues drilling through the rock until hitting water. A pump is inserted down into the hole and pumps water up a pipe inside the well casing. The water then enters the house and flows through a pressure tank.
What matters for a drilled well?
- Yield: This is expressed in gallons per minute (gpm). 30gpm is a normal household supply .
- Depth of well and depth of pump: It’s common to drill beyond the point where water is found. Say you hit water at 80 feet, you might continue drilling to 100 feet. You could then set the pump at 90 feet, and have 10 feet of water above the pump.
- Size of pressure tank: Tiny tanks mean the pump has to run more often which equals a shorter pump life.
- Location of well: The casing and well cap should protrude from the ground ideally in a spot that’s out of the way (and where Frugal Hound isn’t likely to trip over it).
- Water tests: Is the water potable? Have the owners ever needed to shock (add chlorine to) the well? Is it particularly hard/soft/stinky water such that it requires treatment or filtering?
We’ve seen several drilled wells that were dubious in nature. One was drilled 350 feet deep even though the depth to water was recorded as 230 feet. Why drill so much deeper? The well replenished very slowly, so they needed that extra column of water on top of the pump so that when they washed clothes and took a shower at the same time, for example, they wouldn’t run out of water.
Another had fine stats, but the well casing was located directly at the end of the driveway. Wouldn’t be such a problem except that was the perfect (and only) place to build a garage.
But all in all, a modern drilled well is the gold standard for rural water. In fact, when we began our property search it was the only water source I thought was common. Oh, I was so naive…
Hand Dug Well
Think hand dug wells are a relic of ye olde-timey pioneer days? So did I until we started running into them while looking at properties.
Dug wells operate on a somewhat similar basis to a drilled well–they’re a hole in the ground deep enough to hit water which you pump out for household use. But they’re significantly riskier than drilled wells since the water you’re procuring is much closer to the surface.
What matters for a dug well?
- How it’s capped: Thankfully, we haven’t come across a dug well that’s open to the air. However, capping methods vary dramatically. We’ve seen homebuilt wooden “well huts” that are clearly not animal proof. We’ve also seen tidy and secure concrete caps. If animals can get into your well, there could be all sorts of nasty things in your water.
Depth of well and water level: I’ve encountered dug wells that were only ~15 feet deep with a couple feet of water on the bottom. I’ve also seen dug wells so deep it was difficult to ascertain the overall depth. Deeper is generally better, as shallow wells can run low during dry summer weather.
- What surrounds the well? Since much of the water from a dug well will be surface water filtered through the ground, it matters what’s in close proximity. Is there an animal barn uphill from the well? If so, be on the lookout for contaminants.
- What type of filtration system is in place? Most dug wells we’ve seen have some sort of filter on the water supply coming into the house. A few considerations in these instances are the cost of the filter, how often it needs to be replaced, and how fine a filter it is.
- Water test results: Dug wells are more likely to have the occasional poor test result (hence the filter). I’m not worried about some bacteria (the well can be shocked with chlorine), but I would be concerned if the results showed a chemical contaminant.
Doesn’t that sound idyllic? Spring water, just like what unfrugal people buy in bottles! What could be more natural than pure, clean water bubbling out of the ground?
Well, at least for the springs that we’ve seen while looking at properties, that perception is the exact opposite of the reality.
A “spring” is a place where underground water naturally flows or seeps to the surface. All of the springs we’ve seen were more “seep” than “flow” and in their natural form, would likely be charitably described as puddles.
What do we look for in a spring?
- Containment: The two spring systems we’ve seen were dug out to increase the storage area for water. One had a wooden “spring box” built on top of it. It was nicely painted and looked quite quaint. But when I opened the door to look inside, I saw a dead bat floating in the water… ’nuff said. The other spring we encountered had a concrete spring box with a stout metal access panel. It was clean, I was happy!
- The surrounding area: It’s virtually certain that runoff will contaminate a spring from time to time. Therefore it’s vital that a spring isn’t positioned such that runoff from a pasture or other source of potential contamination has a clear path.
- Insulation: Since springs are sitting on the surface of the ground, they’re vulnerable to freezing in the winter. If they flow enough, it’s usually not a problem. In the “bat spring” mentioned above, the spring box was filled with moldy fiberglass insulation. I’m guessing freezing was a problem for them (and the bat too, apparently).
- Water tests: What’s in that spring, and what did the previous owners do to keep the water quality high? Every spring owner will swear that their water is “mountain pure”… but the proof is in the lab tests. Just because grandma drank that water for 90 years doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
The Frugalwoods Water Preference
In case you couldn’t already tell, we’re heavily biased towards a modern drilled well. It’s not a deal breaker, but good water is just about as essential a must-have as you can get! If we found the perfect property, but it had a filthy spring… we could have a well drilled.
But well drilling is like playing the lottery. You pay by the foot, and you have no guarantee at what depth water will be found. Maybe you hit water at 60 feet… Maybe not until 400 feet. Your neighbor’s well depths can give you an idea, but it’s not a real prediction. That sort of experience we’re happy to leave to the previous owners!
And with that, I conclude Part 5 of the Frugal Homestead Series. Next up in the series we’ll continue exploring the structural differences between rural and urban properties since wells are but one example! Want to make sure you’re among the first to receive Part 6 delivered hot and fresh to your email machine? Sign-up in the Frugal Hound email box below and she’ll send you a message.