Last month Jerelyn and I enjoyed a four-day vacation in Maine—a combined trip to visit family, explore Acadia National Park, and go to the Common Ground Fair—my first visit there in two or three decades!
The highlight of the Common Ground fair for me was coming across a little company, Bison Pumps, based up near Fort Kent, Maine (in WAY northern Maine) that makes really slick hand pumps. These pumps are sort-of like the ones our grandparents used, but they’re built with much greater precision and work much better.
Why hand pumps are important
Here in rural Vermont—like rural areas everywhere—the biggest challenge when power is lost is often access to water. Living beyond the reach of municipal water systems, we have drilled wells with deep-well submersible pumps to pump water into pressure tanks in our basements. Without power there’s no water. If those wells aren’t too deep, hand pumps can be used as a back-up pumping option.
After returning from Maine I learned that my colleague at BuildingGreen, Tristan Roberts, who lives off-grid, has used a Bison Pump for several years (see photo).
He also told me about another company, Simple Pump, that’s been making hand pumps since 1999—the same year Bison Pump was founded—and their pumps can work with greater static head are highly rated in various reviews I read.
With either of these deep-well pumps, the same well can house both a standard electric submersible pump and the in-well components of the hand pump. With a 6” well casing (the most common size) there’s plenty of room for the two pumps, and the portion of the Bison or Simple pump that is above-ground fits right onto the well casing, replacing the standard sanitary cap.
These hand pumps are popular for people living off-grid, but they also make sense for those of us connected to the power grid who want to achieve greater resilience—who want access to clean, potable water (albeit with a little work) during power outages.
Using a Bison or Simple Pump
With a Bison or Simple pump in the same well as your conventional deep-well pump, you would use the electric pump in normal operation, but have a backup available whenever the grid is down. They can bring water up from pretty deep: functioning to about 200 feet of static head with the Bison Pump and 350 feet of static head with the Simple Pump.
The deeper the pump is installed, the more expensive the installation and the more work pumping the water. Note that a well that’s 350 feet deep often has a static head that’s not nearly as deep. In other words, while the well may be drilled to a depth of 350 feet, the water table may be significantly above that—say 150 feet down. The static head is the depth to the standing water in the well.
In cold climates, freeze protection is provided by a drain hole located eight or ten feet below ground level. After use, the water in the top of the pipe trickles back into the well, while the rest of the pipe—down 150 feet or whatever—remains filled with water. This means that once you start pumping, you get water after just a few strokes of the pump handle. A big difference between these two pumps and the ones our grandparents used is precision milling of the parts, which maintains the prime for many months. (With those older pumps there were often leather bushings that leaked water, so they had to be primed—filled with water—prior to use.)
Both the Bison and Simple pumps have standard-size hose fittings, so you can attach a potable-water hose to deliver water to your house. You can buy potable-water hoses from recreational vehicle suppliers; they have a protective plastic lining on the inside of the hose to protect the potable water from the (usually PVC) hose material—which often includes heavy-metal stabilizers and plasticizers along with the PVC itself. (Don’t drive over those hoses, though, as that will crack the protective lining.)
Adding solar power to a hand pump
Simple pump has a nice option for using a small, solar-powered DC motor that can be powered with solar-generated electricity. Most deep-well electric pumps have high power draw; Simple Pump developed an option that uses a much smaller (1/5 horsepower) pump that produces a much smaller flow of water, but is much more affordable.
Limitations and pricing
Hand pumps won’t work in every application—for example, in places where the water table is 500 feet deep—but they can be a great option for many rural homes that do not have access to municipal water. With relatively moderate depth (less than 150 feet), the pump cost will likely be $1,600 to $2,000 range. Cost information is available on the company websites.
Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.