Archive for May 9th, 2009

Water Pumping, Public and Private

Sharon May 9th, 2009

The very best thing about being invited to be a speaker at various environmental and energy events is that I get to meet the other speakers and hosts of interesting people.  One of the coolest people I sort of met (briefly) at the conference in New York’s north country was a middle school shop teacher by the name of Jim Juczak (and his seriously cool wife and daughter).  They have an intentional community and farm, and he’s a tinkerer and scavenger.  I got to see several panels that Jim was on, as well as his talk about creating a cheap homestead which he and Krista did together, and was thrilled by them all, but most impressed by the very first one, which offered a solution to a major problem for a lot of people.

You see, nearly everyone who relies on wells loses their water access during an extended power outage - and 17% of the US population has no access to a municipal water supply.  You can put a pump on a very shallow well cheaply, but most wells are more than 25 feet, and that’s a solution for only a very tiny number of people.  The cost of putting a manual deep well pump (only possible down to about 220 feet, so a better solution with higher water tables) in adds up to several thousand dollars unless you can do it yourself - that’s a tough sell for rural households, often low income, even when something as basic as water is at stake.

One project I’ve been working on for a while, with only middling degrees of success, is to get town centers to put in water pumping stations.  This is useful not only for rural towns without a municipal water supply, but also for towns with a municipal supply at some distance, where it is possible to imagine water contamination that left local supplies uncontaminated, or the disruption of local water transmission.  My rough estimate is that this includes about 1/3-1/2 of all the towns and cities in the US - they have water under the ground, but no way of getting at it, and no way of dealing with a major, extended power outage or widespread contamination of reservoirs or surface water. 

Now many individuals and towns assume that in such a case, they will simply wait for the water trucks to arrive, or will melt snow or use surface water.  But as we saw in New Orleans, the water trucks don’t always arrive quickly, dehydration is a serious problem, and without good filtration, surface water is not safe.  Now there are plenty of scenarios where well pumping isn’t a perfect solution - when people are housebound and get get to the local sites, when the wells are also potentially contaminated, say by heavy flooding.  But they are a measure of security on one of the most basic needs we have.

But the high cost of installation for towns and individuals means that many people simply choose to take their chances on the water front.  Frankly, this worries me - I think that our overall water infrastructure is one of the most vulnerable spots to a breakdown - but that’s another post.  What I got excited about is that Jim Juczak actually did something about this problem.

What he did was this - he built a manual deep well pump that can be made of off the shelf hardware parts, with minimal machining.  Because he’s a middle-school shop teacher, he actually taught his 7th graders to make these, in an attempt to make sure that it was something that nearly everyone could put together.  His estimate of the cost of parts is about $125, and handy folks may even have some of them lying around.  He’s tested the well pump for three years, to assure himself that the PVC version holds up to regular use, and includes in his plans a model for a brass and steel version that should last a long, long time.  He’s charging $20 for the plans, and will be offering kits - machined parts only, pvc or brass and steel.  Even the most expensive version shouldn’t cost more than $500, as opposed to 1500-2000 bucks.  I believe all of them can work around an existing well pump, but you’d want to double check that with Jim.

I find this tremendously exciting for a host of reasons.  There’s really no excuse for towns and small cities not to put in municipal pumping stations at schools, community centers and parks in this scenario, using existing wells.   The potential applications for the Global South are enormous - I can think of a number of anti-poverty groups that have been struggling to bring water access to many areas, and could potentially now put in more wells.  Moreover, all of us who realize that our water infrastructure cannot be allowed to depend on something as uncertain as an always-there electric supply have choices that we did not.

You can see pictures of the pump here, at Jim’s website:  You can contact him about the pumps at his email address [email protected].  He also has a really great book on scavenging - making use of things people have cast off or don’t know what to do with. 

Meanwhile, I’m just plain excited - I’m ordering plans for myself!


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