In the waning days of the Great Depression, a simple, cheap and effective water system was installed at my farm. It has worked so well that I have no intention to change it even today. My farmhouse is on a projection at the foot of a mountain and behind it is a spring that was developed for drinking water. Originally it was a wet spot at the foot of the hill behind the house. This was dug out and a rock wall built up with two forward-facing rock wings to hold back water and dirt. A 2-inch iron pipe was placed in the base of the rock wall and cemented in. In the front it overhangs a sunken concrete box that held water for quickly dipping out. Behind the wall, the excavated area was filled with rocks around the iron pipe, giving an area for quantities of water to be retained in a reservoir. The top was then covered with dirt. Total materials required were a few bags of cement and mortar and a length of 2-inch iron pipe. Scrap lumber sufficed for the concrete forms.
Go With The Flow
Nowadays, I hang a kettle from the pipe to fill with water, to then pour into a bucket. I then take both up to the house for a day’s supply. Since there was no well point on the end of the iron pipe, it sometimes gets a bit clogged up with sand. I just insert a 1-inch iron pipe into it, and drive it in with a 20-pound sledgehammer (swung like a golf putter). Twisting the pipe while pulling back breaks it free, allowing me to get it out again. Always leave plenty of pipe sticking out so you can do this. This frees up the water flow but only needs doing every couple of years or so.
The house has running water from a gravity water system. Leaving the house, 0.75-inch black pipe goes 720 feet up a steep mountain slope beside the house, to a pair of water barrels located in a narrow, densely wooded draw by a stream. These were always wooden whiskey barrels in the past, but the last time they rotted out and had to be replaced the price of wooden barrels was too high, so I opted for a pair of plastic barrels obtained free from a car wash station. The tops are cut out and covered with boards and a piece of corrugated aluminum roofing to keep out leaves. Rocks keep this from blowing off.
Water is supplied to the barrels by a 22-foot-long iron pipe. One end is wrapped in hardware cloth and stuck in a fast-moving mountain stream; the other end is laid over the top of the black barrel between the boards and under the piece of aluminum roofing covering the tops of the barrels. The first barrel is for mud and sand to settle out in. It must be cleaned out every few years. The second barrel is the water reservoir barrel. The two barrels are connected by a length of 0.75-inch black pipe near their tops. The pipe is forced over a black pipe fitting and secured with a hose clamp at each barrel. The other end of the fitting is threaded into the barrels. A thread cutting tap is used on the barrels for both wood and plastic barrels.
Near the base of the blue barrel that serves as a water reservoir is another threaded fitting, where the black pipe leading down to the house slips over and is secured with another hose clamp. Regardless of the material used for the barrels they always have a wood board or two in them to prevent them from bursting in freezing weather. It gets down to single-digit temperatures in these mountains during some winters.
Black pipe comes in 100-foot lengths, but a number of the connections have a white screw-off cap at the top. This is so that you can bleed any air pockets out of the pipe that can prevent the water from flowing. A leak in a pipe or a period of disuse can easily let air in, as can adding water for the first time. Being able to bleed any air out is a necessity.
Black pipe has an important advantage over PVC. It doesn’t bust when it freezes. The pipe is laid a couple of inches underground to prevent this, but not so far as to prevent you to hear the hissing that accompanies any leaks. This pipe is only supposed to last for a couple of decades, but I still have a stretch of the original 1930s pipe near the top where the land is flatter and the water pressure less.
In recent years, I had a cheap cord-wrapped water filter added to the line in the basement to strain out the mud. They will tell you that these filters can’t be reused when you buy them. They lie. Just swish them around in the stream to get off the serious mud and throw them in the washing machine with the clothes. They come out as good as new, and you can keep alternating a pair for years this way.
The water from the mountain streams in my area is drinkable and so is this water. I just prefer the taste of the spring water from below the house.
Maintenance consists of keeping the leaves, sand and gravel from blocking the screened intake. This may need more attention during the fall rains when leaves are going everywhere. If you let the intake get blocked and the barrels run dry, you will have to bleed the air out of the pipes after you clear the intake and let the barrels refill. Wait until they are both full so you will have all that water pressure working for you before you start bleeding the air off. Every couple of years you may have to disconnect the barrels and turn them over to get the accumulated mud out of them. A shovel and a bucket to splash water up in them, along with a big floor scrubbing brush, are the tools you’ll need.
This system was built on a Depression-era budget and can be cheaply duplicated today by anyone who has a suitable water source available. This sort of gravity water supply is very common in my part of the mountains because it works so well. It is not dependent on electricity for well pumps and there is no monthly water bill from anyone. If the electrical grid goes down, this water supply is totally unaffected.
This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN® Issue #191. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN® magazine are available here.