In Groundwater Facts, The National Ground Water Association, headquartered in Westerville, Ohio, states that more than 15.9 million water wells serve all purposes in the United States. A portion of these wells, according to the U.S. Geological Society, provides about 15 percent of the country’s population with drinking water.
Indeed, many home and farm owners up and down Tennessee’s Sequatchie Valley rely on water wells to supply water for our homes, livestock and more. On my farm, I also make use of wells to supply fresh drinking water to my livestock.
For the past 20 years, electrician Jarvis Wooten of Jasper, Tennessee, has helped my family and other area families with repairing their wells. A friend who serviced wells provided Wooten with his start when he asked for his help in pulling and troubleshooting well pumps. Wooten progressed from there.
From this vantage point, he offers advice on installing, maintaining and troubleshooting a farm well.
Installing a Well
“The first thing people need to think about is what the well will be used for,” Wooten says. “Will it be used for people, animals, irrigation or some combination of these?”
Once you have determined your needs, the next step is deciding on where the well will be located. For example, some farmers with livestock will use a gravity-fed system with a large reservoir located at the highest elevation on their farm.
Wooten advises talking to your neighbors to see what they are doing as a good place to start. This can help you to determine where to locate your well in addition to providing you with a rough estimate as to the depth of the well you can expect to dig.
Based on their experiences in your area, professional well-drilling companies can also help.
If you have several to choose from in your area—which isn’t always the case—shop around and get estimates to compare costs and availability before deciding which company to hire.
Water dowsing, also known as water witching or water divining, remains a popular local method that Wooten still sees being frequently used. Water witchers first consider the terrain of the property to determine where an underground water source might lie. Next, they make use of dowsing rods or may cut a branch from a tree such that two forks from it can be held in each hand to point to the water source.
Wooten also advises being mindful of how far the water will need to be pumped. For example, how far will the well be from your home, barn, chicken coop, etc.? The power source you’ll use for your well factors in here, too, as you’ll need to locate your well near one.
Consider how your well, and potentially a heat lamp for it in the winter, will be powered. Will this come from solar energy or be powered by a generator or from electricity from your home or barn?
Finally, water quality is another area in which your neighbors with wells can help advise you. “Usually, the shallow wells are good water,” Wooten says. “With deeper wells, you may run into a coal seam. That’s where you get sulfur water [which you’ll know] because it smells like rotten eggs.”
An expensive filtering system would have to be employed to make use of sulfur water. But you can also have iron water.
“Using iron water can cause a rusty-looking appearance to your laundry,” he says.
Taking water samples and asking your neighbors about the depth of their wells and the quality of the water from those wells can be extremely helpful information to have on the front end.
Air Pressure Tank Size
The size of the constant air pressure tank that you ultimately choose is another important factor that plays heavily into well location, as does the well’s intended use.
“For a house with two people, you are going to use a 30-gallon tank,” Wooten says. “If you have six people, then you will use a 40- or 50-gallon tank.” A professional well installer can also help you to determine the appropriate size tank for your needs and farming operation.
Well location also affects the size of the well pump you’ll need to use. “The depth of the well is the biggest factor here,” Wooten says.
Pumps range in size from half horsepower to a horse and a half. The deeper the well is, the larger the well pump will need to be.
Digging a Well
After considerable thought into your initial needs, it’s now time to dig your well. While it’s of course possible to dig a well by hand, most will make use of a well-drilling company.
“There are two types of well digging,” Wooten says. “You can drill, and then there’s a churn. The churn drills don’t spin, and people like it because it opens up streams and you have a better water flow.”
However, the churn type has now become almost obsolete in favor of the drill.
Well House Design
If a well house is to be used, its construction is your next consideration. Traditionally, well houses were small and constructed over the well pump. The design allowed for the use of a heat lamp to prevent freezing during the winter season.
While this type of well house is still in use today, it’s becoming increasingly common to have the well dug 20 to 30 feet from the house and locate the tank somewhere in the house. This type of design makes it easier to make repairs on the well should a problem arise.
Though they add to the overall expense of well-house construction, the installation of a concrete floor, light fixtures and electrical outlets contribute to the ease of use of your well house. They make it easier to heat in the winter season as well as for maintenance and any repairs needs that may occur.
Finally, as their requirements differ, the type of well pump used will also play a role in your well house design. “There are two types of pumps,” Wooten says. “There’s a jet pump, and there’s a submergible pump.”
Jet pumps are on top of the ground connecting to the pipes down below, and are more commonly used for a shallow well. Wooten prefers the submergible pump because they don’t have to be primed.
“Most people are moving away from the jet pump,” he says.
Once you have your well installed and your well house built, start thinking about how you’ll maintain your well going forward. Freeze prevention is a large part of maintaining your well. Wooten advises wrapping your pipes and, depending upon the location of your well pump, making use of a heat lamp inside the well house.
Temperature control wraps can be used, and twice a year you should check the air pressure in your constant air tank and check for leaks. Wooten typically doesn’t flush the lines unless the water becomes muddy.
Installing and maintaining a farm well may seem like a daunting task. But with careful planning and research, it can prove to be a valuable long-term asset to your farm. City water, while convenient, can be an expensive venture, and while you may be fortunate enough to be located near a creek or stream, there is an increasing push to keep livestock out of these waterways to reduce erosion, contamination and more.
If you have an interest in installing a well on your farm, advice and sometimes also financial assistance is available through your local U.S. Department of Agriculture office to help with well installation, the purchasing of livestock and irrigation watering systems and more.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.