Making a Hand Dug Well

Thanks for this blog post go to my mum, Sara Rolling, who insisted that I write this post about our newly completed hand dug well. She pointed out that in America, things are done quite a bit differently and folks would be interested in how we do things the Haitian way.

We are getting started on getting the new property ready for us to move the entire project there sometime in the next couple of years. We are short of funds at the moment, but we have enough to do a few of the preliminary things like fence the property and set up a well. With the fence up, I began to ponder the best way to set up our new well.  A water well drilled by a drilling rig in Haiti will typically cost $5000 USD or more, in some cases approaching $15,000. Expensive, but nice especially if you need to go down 100 feet or more.

In Camp Marie, I decided to bet that we would find water quickly, and decided to save money by hiring a crew to hand dig the well and case it with concrete culvert. The best time of year to hand dig a well is right now, at the end of the dry season when the water table is as low as it’s going to be. Besides saving money, another advantage to a hand-dug well is that if it goes dry for whatever reason, you can hire someone to dig it a few feet deeper and immediately you have a  good well again. Another is that with a wide well, you have the option to use many different kinds of pumps as opposed to the standard 4″ submersible pumps which tend to be expensive and low-flow.

I hired a crew that came recommended by a friend. It can be problematic to hire a crew – well drilling crews have a tendency to drill half way down and then demand a much higher pay for the work before continuing. One of my neighbors here in Pierre Payen had the well drilling project in his yard degrade into death threats before it was completed and I wanted to avoid a similar situation. I spent several hours with Boss Edma talking about the various details of the project and the details of the contract. They are roughly as follows (prices converted to USD):

1. 0-40 feet: $468

40-60 feet: $819

60-80 feet: $1170

80-100 feet: $1637

2. The well is finished digging when it cannot be pumped dry by our water pump. The pump will be run continuously for 8 hours to determine this.

3. The diggers will help install the concrete well casing.

4. If six weeks go by and one or the other parties wants out of the contract, either party can end it. For the sake of good will, a partial payment will be made at the rate of $12 per foot and the contract will be considered ended.

Boss Edma was pleased with the contract and signed it Monday morning when he and his fellow crew member started the work. I was surprised to see that his co-worker did the bulk of the work – an older gentleman, perhaps 55-60 and tough as nails. The ground was ridiculously hard, but they use a device called a pince (I don’t know the english word) which is essentially a heavy, sharpened iron rod used for breaking up earth right beneath you. They made good time and before the end of day 2 they were passing up bucket loads of earth on a rope. I asked if they had a helmet  to use in the hole in case of falling rock and they didn’t, so I lent a Haojin motorcycle helmet which they wore every day after that to my great relief. I heard a story some years ago about a well digger who died when a rock fell on his head and I didn’t want that to happen.

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After the hard, rocky earth on top they hit a layer of black earth without a stone in it. After the black earth they hit a layer of rocky soil again. Eventually they hit yellow clay, at which point I declared that the next layer would be gravel, and the gravel would be full of water. Boss Edma said that maybe it was true, or maybe they would hit rocks again, and then clay again, and then some other layer. It turned out that just because you want something to happen doesn’t make it happen. I wanted to reach water before 20 feet because when you go deeper than 25 feet, you can no longer use a cheap jet pump to pump your water. It’s because jet pumps can pump UP 100 feet or even more than 500 feet, but can’t suction more than 25 feet or in some cases 29 feet. A perfect vacuum will pull about 30 feet of water. I have a jet pump in the store room, ready to go, but it was not to be. The well diggers went right past 25 feet and the ground was just as dry as ever. I started researching submersible pumps.

The diggers went through more rock (the largest being about 10″ in diameter) and rock mixed with clay, until finally at 35 feet the clay turned to mud and standing water began to appear in the well. As they went deeper, the small gravel that indicates a flowing aquifer began to appear, but by the time we had 18″ of water in the hole the work had to stop until I arrived with the pump. That was last thursday, so on Friday I made a trip into Port au Prince and spent the day shopping. I bought a truckload of 30″ ID concrete culvert (6 sections), five 10′ sections of galvanized 2″ pipe, and a quality submersible pump with a 2″ outlet and a 90 gallon per minute capacity.

On Monday morning we showed up at the land with all the equipment plus a borrowed generator to run our pump. The pump was 50 pounds, and each length of pipe added another 30 pounds or so. It’s impossible to assemble 40 feet of pipe above the ground before lowering it in so we lower the pipe one length at a time and add lengths onto the top as we lower it.

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The pump can digest gravel up to 3/4″ in diameter, but not mud. The well digger placed a small piece of plywood under the pump and we turned it on. The well was dry in about 4 minutes, so we shut it off as they hauled up material. The next time around the pump ran for 5 minutes, then for 8 minutes, then for 10 minutes, and before we knew it the pump was running continuously and pumping out a very large stream of muddy water. We started running little irrigation canals all over the parched piece of land and got water to many of the trees and plantains that hadn’t gotten rain in 5 months. The land drank up the water very quickly though, and we only watered a fraction of the land.

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At the end of monday the well was 38 feet deep, 35 feet of air plus 3 feet of water and it flowed at least 90 gallons per minute, but I wanted to get deeper. The bosses were ready to declare victory and go home, but I reminded them that if they managed to get down to 40 feet they would jump up to the next level in pay when the job was over. The response: “We’re coming tomorrow and we’re going past 40 feet.”

On Tuesday, the well got deeper very slowly. Lots of gravel came up, but the pump clogged several times. Finally, at 39 feet, the digger came up out of the hole and said that without concrete culvert to keep the sides of the aquifer from collapsing in, he wouldn’t be able to go any deeper. That’s how deep the well is now: 39 feet, with a full 4 feet of water, and 2 feet of water covering the pump when it’s running full speed. That’s a high-flowing well!

For weeks now, I have been pondering and in some cases laying awake at night pondering how we are going to lower the concrete casing into the well. I knew it was heavy. I figured it weighed 600-800 pounds per section. I just looked it up on the internet though – each section of 30″ casing weighs 1250 pounds! Wow! My neighbor had 3 sections of casing left over from his problematic well dig which he sold to me. I told the workers to load the sections in the truck and then left on an errand. I found out later that it took 12 men to load each of the pieces into the truck and there were several mashed fingers and lots of groaning. Haitians can move ANYTHING.

First, we drilled 3 holes around the outside of the culvert so we could tie rope on, which was the first dilemma. Problem 1 solved. Next, I felt I needed a block and tackle. I was not able to find a block and tackle. Haiti might have one somewhere, but I didn’t find it. Beyond that, however, there was nothing to hang a block and tackle from. The casing sits more than 3 feet high, so I needed a fixed point higher than that to get leverage on. Ryan and I finally figured out we could secure a 4″ steel pipe across the back of the truck and get the height we needed.

Thursday, yesterday was well casing day. I still wasn’t completely sure how it would all go down. An American friend told me I needed some rednecks to help with the project. I did not have any rednecks. We managed to pick up the first piece of culvert with a ratchet strap. We then ran a piece of rope over the pipe with a couple of wraps, then wrapped the rope around a tree 20 feet away. I felt pretty proud of myself, but the well drillers said the rope would break as soon as I released the ratchet strap. I said we’re gonna try it. Well, I made everyone stand back and then I released that ratchet strap. In a fraction of a second, the rope snapped and all 1250 pounds of concrete culvert fell 39 feet! It was AWESOME. That’s 4 stories, folks.

I no longer felt proud of myself. Leslie videoed the event, so now it’s captured for posterity. I cringe every time I watch it. Leslie asked me why we didn’t tie webbing to the OTHER truck, and lower the casing down by backing the truck up. I immediately wondered why I hadn’t thought of that. Then I realized that Leslie’s dad and brother are both truckers and she has quite a bit of redneck blood flowing through her veins. We set up the webbing and rolled the culvert into place, I put the truck into 4WD low and VOILA! That culvert lowered into the well as smooth as could be. After that, we managed to lower a section about once every 15-20 minutes. Each time, one of the diggers would go down into the hole, align the culvert and then release the ropes before coming back up again. There were 12 sections of casing in total.

I took the bosses home and gave them a nice bonus and the safety helmet as a gift for them to use on their next job, wherever that may be. I also told them if they decide to come back and dig that extra foot now that the casing is in place they can still have that chance to earn that extra money.

In the end, we got the well finished for a relatively small amount of money. The biggest expense was the culvert, at $2453, then $588 to pay the diggers and about $600 for miscellaneous expenses, fuel, etcetera for a total of about $3640. It may have been more work than hiring a rig, but it was well worth it to save so much donor money.

Water is a big deal in Camp Marie, as it is all over Haiti. We had many spectators when the well started flowing water and many people filling buckets and other containers. Several different farmers asked if they could buy water for irrigating their fields – probably not practical for the community but it got my imagination going. Things are looking pretty brown right now just before the rainy season kicks in.

-Chris

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7 thoughts on “Making a Hand Dug Well

  1. I wish that everyone reading this could speak Creole, because the best part of the first video is at the end when the boss throws his hands in the air and says, “I told him the rope would break!” :)

  2. I am not sure, but I think you are very fortunate that the first casing down the well stayed true and did not catch and bind itself partially sideways 1/2 or 3/4 of the way down! God is good… all the time! Thanks for writing this, Chris! And thanks for getting the video, Leslie! If a picture is worth a 1000 words, then moving pictures are worth 10,000 words.

    1. I think you’re right! If it had been the second one that went crashing down and broken it would have been a big mess to try and fix. Glad we figured it out with the first one.

  3. Oh! A question: were you able to feel that concrete casing hit the bottom of the well through your feet? Did it shake the ground that you could feel it?

    1. Bob:

      Oddly, we didn’t feel it hit the bottom at all. I think it’s because it was cushioned by 4 feet of water. I thought there should have been water splashing up out of the well but I guess 40 feet was too far for the water to rise. The casing wasn’t straight, but we pulled up on one side of it afterwards and straightened it so the rest could be lowered down on top of it.

  4. Wow what a fantastic story! Very well written as well if I can add. These kinds of experiences are one of a kind, I’m almost jealous! Eventually, this is something I’d like to get into. I’m not sure how it’ll be but I want to try it! Glad everything went “well” after some work, pun intended. Thanks for the entertaining and heartwarming read!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Tom! Glad you enjoyed the recap. It’s always fun to share life here because it’s not what most people would define as “normal” and we have to get creative with certain things.

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