Saturday, December 8, 2007

The blocked weep hole

And what the heck is a weep hole?

Something quite real, and critically important to me right now- and a metaphor too, for larger difficulties facing us all.

We've got winter this year; kind of a surprise.  According to the Minnesota weather people, we've got the earliest, heaviest, and most widely distributed snow cover in over 10 years.  We had a white Thanksgiving, which the oldtimers here say used to be far more common than the rare brown Christmas.  I can remember 5 brown Christmases out of the last 10- and a couple that were borderline.

It's cold.  Down to -8°F last night; 8 below zero.  We get our water for the Little House from a good ol' Aermotor windmill.  It's frozen.  Because the weep hole is blocked.

This is a windmill I put in, shortly before Beelar was born, 30 years ago.  I watched the whole process avidly, the entire well-drilling process, installation of pipe, erection of the used windmill - and I kind of freaked out when our well-guy took out his file and - cut a hole in the pump pipe.

"What in the heck are you doing!?" I asked quite proprietorially.  "You're making a LEAK in my pipe??"

The well-guy was quite calm about it- he'd obviously been here before- "That's the weep hole."

He explained.  "You have to have one, to keep the well from freezing.  Most guys around here put the weep hole about 6 feet underground- I put it 8 feet.  I've seen it freeze 8' deep here, once every 15-20 years.  It's just a little hole- you don't lose much water; and it lets the water drop back down below the frost level when you're not actually pumping.  If you don't have a weep hole, the water will stay right up at the top of the pump- and freeze solid in any kind of cold weather."

Ah.  Ok.  So, my well has to leak a little, in order to work all winter.

I'd had no idea, of course.  Mostly, these days, water systems in northern locations just keep everything down below the frost.  Mostly.  Here was a totally simple bit of old technology- that almost everyone had forgotten.  Luckily for me, I found someone who still remembered.

My weep hole functioned perfectly for 20 years.  Then clogged, froze- and in a particularly bad way; the well was pumping slowly in very cold weather; then the wind came up.  After it had frozen.  The wind ripped the immovable sucker-rod (I love the old names) right off the power head, where it had been specifically BRAZED on, not welded.  The braze broke- and a good thing, too- if it had been welded, it probably would have destroyed the power head.  I'm pretty sure the guy who brazed the rod on knew that.  (My rod repair man wanted to weld it. It's brazed.)

What a mess.  All this was not something I could fix on my own, had to pay folks to do it.  Found a different well-guy this time, a local Amish man who did regular work on windmills for his community.  Should know what he's doing, I figured.

Alas- he'd recently moved here from southern Ohio.

They don't use weep holes- don't need to, where he had grown up.  He kind of knew about weep holes; but it wasn't something on the top of his mind- so after servicing the well, replacing the pump leathers after 25 years, he put it all back together- with the weep hole still blocked.  This time, at least I was watching for problems- so was able to prevent the windmill from ripping out the sucker rods again- but we spent a lot of time hauling water from the greenhouse well (pumped by solar power, with a modern "pitless adapter" below frost).  Far more work than just having a house well that worked.

Next year- found a different well-guy; got the weep hole cleared out, and slightly enlarged- since something seemed to be blocking it these days.  Worked fine for a whole winter- and now, it's blocked again.

And frozen.  Sigh.  Hauling water from the greenhouse again.  The most likely cause of the blockage is an increasing presence of "iron bacteria" in the well, slowing building biofilms on everything.  Possibly it just took 20 years for the iron bacteria to become a problem.

Cleaning out a tiny hole 8' down a 1" pipe with a half-inch steel sucker rod in it is a problem.  There's 140" of steel pipe to pull up- not trivial.  At the moment, we're just living with it- along with the daily need for firewood, to keep us warm in zero weather.  So far, the well pipe hasn't ruptured from the freezing, though I'm not sure why.  We'll just have to wait for it to thaw, right now.  Then try all the remedies being recommended (bleach, first of all.)

The metaphor part- our world is built on technology.  Our lives depend on it.  And a huge proportion of critical processes are increasingly understood by fewer and fewer people.

Going back to Rome- at the peak of their civilization, they had incredible roads, incredible city/province wide water systems, sewers, passive solar heated housing, floors with built in radiant heating- and on, and on.

But as their world aged, with fewer and fewer "spare" resources for anything beyond immediate survival needs- the technology failed, and disappeared; for centuries.  Eventually, no one understood how it had been done- no one remembered how to do it.

Our own world is orders of magnitude more complex.  It worries me.

Had a CAT scan recently?  10 years ago I was privy to a situation you never heard about.  My brother was working on a project to design a computer program that could diagnose CAT scan machines that were broken.  It was urgent.  Because, at the time; there were a total of FIVE people, in the world, who were fully trained and competent to fix CAT scan machines.  Five.  And thousands of machines to keep running.  Those 5 repair men were about to collapse of exhaustion, flying from Dallas to Hong Kong to Paris to LA to...

Just my cheerful thoughts for the day.  Spice is doing better, as am I- but we're not quite back to full speed yet.  

Keep warm.


Susan Och said...

Ha! I read "iron bacteria", something I'd never heard of, and immediately thought of bleach. Does it work? Around here we sometimes have to bleach wells to kill populations of earwigs that end up clogging the pipes.

barefoot gardener said...

I love your blog, I love to hear what you have to say. But sometimes, man, you freak me right out. I would rather be a thinking gal and scared than a complacent sheep, but I wish it could be a little more comfortable.

Greenpa said...

Susan- bleach "sort of" works for iron bacteria. They are REALLY hard to get rid of, once established- hiding in cracks in the rock, etc. The experts want you to "shock" the well with bleach periodically- hit it with a really high dose of bleach, let it sit, then pump it out until you can't smell or taste it. But. They're bacteria. They'll be back.

Barefoot - :-) sorry about that. I'm a reality junky, I'm afraid, and while reality can often be scary- basing decisions on fantasy and blind hope is not a great strategy. "Hey, we're out of oil!" "ok, we'll burn corn!" "ok, that doesn't work; let's burn grass!" ... Guinea fowl on ice. :-)

Susan Och said...

The talk over at my blog has centered around frozen wells. In our area it doesn't freeze as deep and there are more vacation homes converted to year-round so we see more under-engineered systems.

Despite the hassles, it's been nice to see winter come closer to on time.

Christy said...

Glad to see you back, I've missed your voice. A lot of things worry me, now you've given me another thing to worry about. Hope things are looking up for you guys.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Well, I'm glad to hear it's something with the windmill and not a medical condition.

Hopefully you'll get it straightened out soon.

BoysMom said...

You'll love this:
We live in a small western town where the water mains are ABOVE the freeze level. If you don't leave a tap running all winter the main-to-house line will freeze. In every house. In all of the town. Because, during the few months of the year when they can dig, the water table is so high they couldn't lay the lines below the feeze leval. (Let's just say that we've been in the single digits at night for over a month now, and everyone's saying 'What a warm winter!')
Our town uses something like a hundred times the average water use per capita in a year.

Theresa said...

Glad to be reading posts from you again Greenpa. We're thinking of having a well dug and this is really relevant info for us up here in central Alberta. I hope things look up soon.

Laura said...

Good to hear you and yours are on the mend. :)
barefoot gardner and I are floating, worriedly, in the same boat.

Anonymous said...

Oh, here we call that stuff ferrobacteria and we have to lay down heavy plastic under concrete pours to keep it away from the rebar.
Anytime you get into regular chlorine use remember a few things. Chlorine in liquid or gas form {the liquid quickly turns to gas} is an extreme oxidizer and will eat up all the metal around it very rapidly and, don't breathe the stuff, it is eating your lungs very quickly too.

Sal Bro said...

The WI DNR has some "mechanical" tips for controlling iron bacteria (as well as a general description of iron bacteria for those interested). Dunno how easy it would be to pump warm or hot water into your well, but I'm guessing with your location and weather that that would be a "not". :) But given that it might be a bit more friendly than a shock-treatment, maybe it's something worth considering.

Growing up, my best friend's well was so overrun with iron that it turned her hair (and all white clothes) orange. Me, I just got the rotten egg smell.

Hank Roberts said...

> hot water, steam

The pressure required to deliver a serious flow of steam to the bottom of a water well is probably high enough that you don't want to try building your own. I was thinking copper coil in a bonfire but it'd probably blow up with that amount of back pressure.

Greenpa said...

Thanks guys- for still being here; and for the thoughtful inputs-

Hank- nope, no roots; the well is a 4" pipe, then cement grout, then a 2" pipe, with the 1" pump pipe inside that- made that way to seal off the polluted fractured karst that's above the clean sandstone aquifer. Expensive, but safe.

boysmom- yike! one thing we do in Minnesota that might help- if you can't get your pipe deep enough, you CAN put insulation on top of it- 4 inches of bury-able urethane foam can stop a lot of freezing. They tried that?

Sandra- thanks for that link- looks like they actually know what they're talking about, and the thing about hot water was new to me. Not easy to get much to my well- but it would probably help the chlorine to work better, too- I'll likely try heat when I can.

BoysMom said...

Thanks for the suggestion. If we're able to buy someday and buy in town we'll give it a shot. When the landlord dug down to the pipes to check on them after he bought the place, he said he was standing in two feet of mud. He's not the sort to do anything about it. The water supply for the town is a lake 22 miles long and 700 feet deep, for a town of now about 2000, so only the town water treatment department complains about the usage.
You mentioned in one of your archived posts a 'thingy' that contained clothespins and could be attached to the clotheslines for ease in hanging. Would you describe it please? I want one, you see, and I'm reasonably handy with a needle. (My boys' jeans make sure of that!)

Patty said...

what a find for me to discover your blog. We are not off grid, but not dependant on it either. Nice way to live