Repairing Water Lines: Frost-Free And Flowing
Ensuring a Year-Round Water Supply is Essential
By Joseph D. Conwill, Maine
Everyone wants to hear about homesteading experiences, as the Jan/Feb 2015 issue says, and I sure enjoy reading them all, even if they don’t apply to me. So I thought readers might like to hear about our latest adventures in water supply.
The house dates from 1887 and the well was probably dug at the same time. It’s hand dug, 25-feet deep, lined with stone. It is fed by underground springs, stays around 42°F the year round, and never goes dry. Grandpa put electricity in the house in 1967, along with an electric pump just behind the kitchen, but he also kept the old pitcher pump at the well. It requires no maintenance other than to replace the leathers occasionally, which are still available locally, but we have several sets of extras, just in case. In winter, you can still get water, but you have to prime the pump with hot water. When you’re done, you lift the pump handle all the way up, which breaks the prime and sends the water back down in the well so the pump won’t freeze. This is highly important, since the temperature reaches -30°F here in Maine.
When Grandpa put in the electricity, he also had an apartment in town (five miles away) and he did not stay in the farmhouse over the winter. Therefore he did not put the water supply line underground. There are some good reasons not to do so. Digging too near the well with machinery might cause the stone lining to cave in. Also, the well is covered by an attractive hip-roofed well house, 10-feet by 10-feet, but this prevents getting near for digging, unless you move the well house somehow.
For many years I used only the pitcher pump year round, ignoring the electric pump. But about 10 years ago I had a serious foot injury and began to think hard about how to get water. Five years ago I got married, and Nancy does appreciate running water. But how to get it year round? The frost line is at least five feet underground here, and systems that are not below frost line can be used only from about May 15 to October 15.
After considering several possibilities, we decided to install an electric in-line heater cable. It’s possible to put a heat tape outside the pipe instead, but this is far less energy efficient. We found only one company that makes these, and the brand is EasyHeat. The heater cable had to be below frost line in the well itself, and it then had to travel over land, and through the tool shed to the pump room. This required a 70-foot cable costing about $50. These specialty cables are available by order only through official stocking dealers, but we wouldn’t have ordered over the internet even if it had been available that way and even if it had been much cheaper. We prefer talking with local people; the dealer offered some excellent and cost-saving advice on installation.
First we had to replace the water line itself. The old one was the usual one-inch, but the cable requires 1-1/2 inch. Before burying it, we threaded the heater cable through. First, we fished a string through the pipe by sucking it through with a vacuum cleaner (great advice from the hardware man). Gently pulling on this, we got the cable through as far as the wellhead, but then how to get it into the pipe that goes down in? You’re supposed to pull the pipe out of the well, but the old well house on top prevents this.
We had to push it down somehow, and Nancy suggested using those long poles for the roof snow rake, which came in so handy in many other jobs. This worked, but it was tricky; the bottom of the cable has a clip on it to prevent it from being pushed back up by the water flow, but if we had lost our grip on this as we were pushing the cable down it, we wouldn’t have been able to get it back out again. We put the new line about eight inches underground, and surrounded it with gray pipe insulation. On the advice of the hardware man, we used insulation for 1-1/2-inch pipes, because we were using 160-psi plastic line, whereas the insulation is mainly designed for the thinner-walled 100-psi kind. We also placed a slab of two-inch blue foam insulation, seven-inches wide, on top of the insulated line before replacing the soil. To minimize disturbance in the landscape, we first cut out square chunks of sod and then replaced them on top when the job was done.
Locating the thermostat probe required some thought. You’re supposed to put it at the coldest part of the line, but how do you know? And it’s only 10-feet long itself! We put it at the point where the line is just about to exit the unheated tool shed, and go underground. There’s another above ground portion in the well house, and that we boxed in with more two-inch blue foam insulation. The part below the well cover has only the round gray insulation, but this area receives some natural heat by the fact that the well water below never freezes, and we’re hoping that it won’t get colder than the spot where we put the thermostat.
I’m writing this in mid-December and we’ve had temperatures somewhat below zero, but it hasn’t yet been tested in extreme cold. It uses about $15 of electricity per month so far. If something does eventually freeze, we’ll go back to using the pitcher pump until we can make repairs in the summer.
So this is our latest adventure in the mountains of western Maine!
Note: If you want to order an EasyHeat, call 800-621-1506.