Hand Pumps: An Option for Back-Up Water Pumping

Posted by on Oct 25, 2012

A Bison hand pump at my colleague’s home in Halifax, Vermont. Photo: Alex Wilson

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.

A hand pump from the Simple Pump Company in Nevada. Photo: Simple Pump

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.

Simple’s affordable DC motor that can be easily powered by a moderate-sized solar-electric system. Photo: Simple Pump.

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.


  1. Another idea for an article is root cellars. There’s a technology and art in designing the walls and floor to maintain the right humidity. Storage of large quantities of perishable food can help.

  2. Those living in rural areas where power outages are common might also consider keeping a food-grade plastic barrel of water on the upper floor to provide some short-term gravity-fed water to the lower floor(s). If this barrel is connected to the cold water plumbing with a ball valve, it can be filled when the well pump is operating, closed for storage, and then reopened during outages to create a reservoir for the house water supply.

  3. If you have about 70 feet elevation above your house within a few hundred feet you can place a tank at that location, and fill it with your normal well pump. Tap your house off of that tank. You will then have that water available for several days if the pump fails. At my location in Scotts Valley CA. we lose power at least 4 times a year, sometimes for over a week at a time. One of my neighbor put a 100 gallon polly tank 45 feet up a redwood tree above his house that gives him two or three days for PG&E, (Pacific Gas & Electric), to get his power back.

  4. John Robb describes another interesting hand pump (well, it’s foot-powered) in his recent blog: http://www.resilientcommunities.com/a-human-powered-water-pump-you-have-to-see/

  5. @Alex Flojak is also a good hand well pump. You can find more informaton about Flojack pumps here – http://flojak.com/faq/

  6. Alex, have you heard about the new WaterBuck Pump? The WaterBuck Pump has the ability to exceed the lift and capacity in gallons per minute of a 12’ diameter windmill. The first model is made for one or two operators, has a capacity up to 55 gallons a minute under human power depending on static level, the size of cylinder and fitness of one operator. Capacity can be doubled and practical for large communities and irrigation from shallow wells with available manpower. http://waterbuckpump.com/main/

    • I hadn’t heard of this. Thanks for the link! -Alex

  7. Alex, what do you think of Flowjack’s stainless steel pump? I’m trying to compare to simple pump for use in Maine. It’s less $ but otherwise do you have an opinion?

    • Sheila,
      I don’t have any personal experience with the FloJack pump. From the limited time I spent digging into it, I believe that it works fairly well, though it may not be as easy to use as the Bison and Simple pumps. The standard FloJack doesn’t have the leverage that the other two pumps I described have, though you can apparently add a lever-arm to the pump to make pumping easier. For occasional, emergency use this should be a very good pump. And I believe it’s significantly less expensive than the other two.

      • Thanks.

  8. Probably the most basic alternative plan when the power is lost and you can’t access your water. Thanks for writing this; sometimes you need to stick to the basics!

  9. Good article, you describe and share the best information for well pump reviews. We also provide well pump repair services through Monticello pump repair services Inc

  10. I just want to be prepared for a power outage. I hit water at 35′ and it is 170′ deep.I should have no problem with a hand pump. However, my casing is only 4″ in diameter
    Thanks for all this information

    • Chuck, I think that should still work, but check with the hand pump manufacturers. With 6″ casings there’s more room for the cylinder, but smaller-diameter cylinders are used with smaller-diameter well casings.

      • Thanks Alex.I will research the manufacturers. There just might be one that will fit in a 4″ casing.Thanks , also for the rapid response. Chuck

  11. Good article, you describe and share the best information for well pump reviews. We also provide well pump repair services. http://www.mbexports.com/

  12. Hi Alex,

    Thank you for the information!

    One thing I am trying to find out about installing a manual pump alongside the already installed submersible pump on our deep well is whether the hand pump needs a separate hole drilled into the well or it can somehow be installed in line/connected to the the submersible pump. As much as all these manual pumps are awesome and relatively doable in price, if a separate hole is needed it would cost over 10k to drill, so that would be prohibitive in my case.

    Do you know anything about this?

    Thank you,

    • Yam, these pumps are installed in the same well as the submersible pump. So both pumps fit into the same well. They do have a separate pipe, however. The pump unit replaces the sanitary cap that should be on your existing well. A 6″ well casing is most common and is optimal for this application, but I believe that these hand pumps can also work (along with a submersible pump) in a 4″ well.
      If you’re asking about the connection from the well casing to the house, that isn’t really an issue, since the outlet from the hand pump is usually out the top of the well, not out the side, underground.

    • Check out Simple Pump. I am a Mainer and would love to buy Bison because it is a Maine product. However, I did allot of research and concluded Simple Pimp is a better choice. It goes in the same hole as your existing drilled well. it fits with a typical submersible.


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