Border Fort Manual: Water Supply

Water supply is the number one issue for any homestead, be it the Border Fort in Arizona or a mountain valley acreage in Montana. When we first arrived on this land (in Arizona), we were only able to afford a four acre parcel, which meant we acquired a 1/5 well share in an already drilled well designed to supply five homes in a twenty-acre development.

We didn’t think much of that, HOA not being our favorite acronym, so we immediately told the seller we wanted to buy the other sixteen acres…despite the fact that we were close to dead broke at the time. Fortunately, our finances did improve later on, and we did in fact purchase those remaining acres a couple of years later, before anyone else could grab a bite of this very special bit of property. With that purchase came the rest of the well shares, so any buyer will now get full ownership of the well without restrictions.

The well is situated pretty close to dead center on the twenty acre property, pulling water from the aquifer 325 feet below the surface. Tanner Well Service installed the well originally and would be the first place to call if the pump went out.

To supply water for the home requires the following steps at the well end of the pipeline:

1. Unlock the padlock securing the designated Briggs & Stratton generator, which normally sits back in the brush about 30 feet from the well, and drag the machine over near the well.

2. After checking the engine oil level and topping off the gas tank, fire up the generator.

3. Plug in the long pump cable to the 250 volt outlet on the generator.

4. Watch the pipeline pressure gauge. If it slowly rises to around 30 psi and stays there, everything is working correctly.

The well, showing the piping that leads to (a) a totally unnecessary pressure tank (out of frame, to the right) and then (b) underground to begin its trek over to the Border Fort. Note the downward-pointing drain pipe, used to empty the line after filling the storage tank in winter months.

The Briggs & Stratton generator, dedicated to powering the well pump and nothing else.

The routing for the pipeline en route to the homestead area is a bit funky, simply because it was originally designed to supply five homes rather than one. As a result, the large diameter PVC runs (four feet deep) from the well west roughly 60 feet, thence south to near the southern property line, thence west to the southeast corner of our original four acre purpose, where it stops. That much was provided by the original developer. From there on in, it was up to me. A one inch line runs from that big main line north to supply the storage tanks.

Note: The green 325 gallon storage tank on top of the water tower is currently empty. However, it can be refilled at any time by simply opening the right in-ground valve (topped by a green “sprinkler valve” cover). In a pinch, this tank will supply the house and even the washing machine with enough water to function, using nothing but gravity feed. But it cannot be used at the same time as the big gray-brown tank because, being higher above the ground, it will drain back into that tank. It could of course be re-plumbed to overcome that limitation.

The green 325 storage tank atop the water tower. This was our first water supply, supplying slow-flow but crucial gravity feed water for the homestead.

That water tower served more than one purpose. Prior to getting the Border Fort built and plumbing installed, we took showers in under there. Had a painted wooden deck we could stand on. Which is why that north side wall starts well above the ground; we’d duck under there and be safe from prying eyes just in case. Even if a stranger did pull into the driveway unexpectedly, he wouldn’t see anything embarrassing. But was the water warm, even on a hot summer day? Um…not so much! Cool at best. But it was wet, and it would get you clean.

Eventually, the water storage was drastically upgraded, switching to a 2,825 gallon Bushman ribbed tank that looked strong enough to handle my hybrid idea. See those ribs in the photo below? Six of them are completely above ground, but three more are buried. This allowed the exit pipe for the home’s water supply to be buried also, almost two feet below the surface. In Arizona’s climate, that pipe will never freeze.

Which was an important consideration. In February of 2011, Cochise County experienced a week of frigid (for this area) weather that burst every above-ground pipe in the county. At least on this property, that can’t happen again–unless the elevated green tank is someday put back into winter use.

The 2,825 gallon Bushman water storage tank, partially buried in a “hybrid” installation.

A closer look at the fill pipe. The black ABS “cup” keeps dust and debris from entering the tank. To fill, open the view port in the front (3 screws). Then lift the loose “sleeve” on that fill pipe, slip the black “cup” out of the way, and let the sleeve down to rest against the bug screen built into the tank inlet. (The sleeve prevents splashing.)

From roughly April through October, the pipeline can be left full of water between fills. In colder weather, it’s best to partially drain the line. Since the storage tank is slightly downhill from the wellhead, it’s necessary to open an underground drain valve (under the green lid closest to the fill pipe) and also open the drain valve in the piping at the wellhead. Let everything drain for a few minutes, close both drain valves and the shutoff valve next to the tank-end drain valve so that no water can refill the fill pipe to surface level or above.

And then of course open that shutoff valve up again when it’s time to fill the storage tank once more.

The next-to-tank drain valve and shutoff valve.

It’s also a really good idea to drain the above-ground water from the laundry supply water line in cold weather…and shut the water off out back of the laundry shed every time after the washing machine is done for the day. There’s a very slow seep in that line where it runs through the shed wall, not enough to notice when in use, but enough to dampen the floor wood over time if the valve is left open permanently. A couple of feet of pipe replacement would eliminate that situation; I just never got around to it.

Above-ground drain valve and shutoff valve behind the laundry shed. To access the underground set of valves, lift the green lid (background).

The front loader washer and dryer, located inside the dedicated laundry shed, one of the tricky ways we make the Border Fort function “bigger” than its listed footprint of 1296 square feet (plus porches) would indicate.

The Booster Pump

The booster pump deserves a paragraph or two of its own, in part because the first pump I installed was a Cheapo Special that started acting up on us a couple of weeks ago. The new Grundfos 3/4 horsepower pump is a thing of beauty to behold–or to experience when running a bath, shower, or water for washing dishes. The old pump, which did work for us for 4 1/2 years, never did perform according to the manufacturer’s specifications. (Whoever the manufacturer might have actually been; the pump had no identifying markings on it whatsoever.) It was supposed to come on when the water pressure dropped to 23 psi and turn off at 55 psi. Instead, it wouldn’t come on until the pressure dropped to 17 psi and then didn’t shut off until it reached 62 psi. This left a “wide and ugly” variation in water pressure that irritated my wife no end.

But with the new Grundfos, all that is behind us. This pump keeps the water pressure between 30 psi and 51 psi. I took a bath in the big clawfoot bathtub today and timed the fill: Bottom to top, 14 inches deep of comfy-hot soaking water, in a few seconds under three minutes flat. Not bad at all. The pump, secure in its “little house,” as Pam refers to it–complete with a warming light bulb for winter weather–should last the new owner(s) for many years to come.

It served me right that I had to replace it, too. The old pump was the only less-than-quality appliance installed in the entire original Border Fort build. I took a shortcut that one time, and I paid the price willingly, hiring a top plumbing company to install its high-end replacement. (The Grundfos pump alone, not counting labor, cost nearly seven times the price of its inferior predecessor.)

The brand new Grundfos water pressure booster pump, a beautiful piece of equipment that should last for many years to come.

Pushed by the Grundfos pump, water finally makes its way over near the southeast corner of the home and then west to curl around the building, with a tee running pipe in under the center (more or less) of the south wall, rising up through the floor in the utility room and branching off from there to the utility room sink, bathroom toilets and bathtubs (including the whirlpool walk-in tub), and kitchen sinks.

The cold water nexus near the center of the house, rising up through the floor and branching off from there–in numerous directions, as the photo shows.

The hot water line continues (underground) around the back of the house, with one riser set terminating in an outside spigot that will be left winter-covered when we move out of the home. The cover is an old black polyethylene horse feed tub, turned upside down and stuffed full of fiberglass insulation.

This upside-down tub out back of the house protects a water spigot. The tub is stuffed with fiberglass insulation during winter months, with a dirt berm around the tub lip providing the finishing touch.

After the tub/spigot location, the water pipe continues past the solar hot water heater (an old compressor tank inside an enclosure with tempered glass walls), then turns toward the south wall of the back porch. It comes up through the porch floor and terminates at the 50 gallon, propane-fired hot water tank. The hot water line from the tank runs through the house wall to the home’s interior, and bingo! Hot and cold running water!

The “old” solar hot water heater. This is currently disconnected underground, but could be hooked up again in a matter of hours if needed. How well did it work? Hot showers on summer afternoons, lukewarm water in the winter. Not outstanding, but a lot better than nothing.

The propane powered 50 galloon hot water tank, a top of the line A.O. Smith model.

In summary, what does the homeowner need to consider with this water supply system? There are really only four crucial considerations:

1. Keep an eye on the water level in the big Bushman tank. If it gets down to approximately ground level, it’s definitely time to fire up the Briggs & Stratton generator and fill that puppy up again. No one wants the water to run out, mostly because re-priming the Grundfos pump and bleeding all the air out of the line is an unnecessary pain in the posterior.

2. Drain the water line from well to storage tank, and also the line running to the laundry shed, any time seriously cold weather threatens. If a line bursts from freezing, it can certainly be rebuilt–I speak from experience–but who needs the hassle?

3. Plug in the booster pump warning light and turn it on any time the temperature looks like it’s going to drop below freezing. A freeze-busted pump would be expensive to replace.

4. Also for cold weather, drain the washing machine’s spin pump after every day’s usage. This is really easy. As you’re looking at the front of the machine, there’s a little pop-off access door on the lower left corner. Remove that, unclip the little black hose that’s hiding there, pull the hose plug, and drain the beast. This does not involve a lot of water–maybe a pint or so–nor does it take a lot of time to drain. But not draining it in the winter could break down the entire washing machine.

The hose for draining the washing machine’s spin pump is hiding behind that little pop-out door, lower left corner.

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