How To Backfill a Water Line Trench

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The Poor Man’s Backhoe

If you have a contractor with a backhoe handy, backfilling any trench–water line or otherwise–is a piece of cake. Some of us, however, don’t have that option. As we began to develop our southern Arizona desert acreage, the only real choice boiled down to the poor man’s backhoe: The tried and true #2 shovel.

Admittedly, we did have the contractor who installed our septic system dig the trench system in the first place. This can be hard ground to break with hand tools, and Gary expertly managed to cut more then 600 feet of trenches (for water lines and for the leach fields) without seriously dinging a single native mesquite bush/tree. But we had two equally strong reasons for doing our own water line trench backfilling:

1. Gary gave us a great price, roughly half of what some other area contractors charge. We didn’t want to pay him extra for the backfill, nor did we feel right about the idea of asking him to do any extra work for no charge.

2. Slipping through hundreds of feet of terrain dotted with mesquite was possible when the backhoe only had to travel in (more or less) one direction. Backfilling with a backhoe means turning the tractor at right angles to the trench. It would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to backfill the whole thing without a mesquite getting a smackdown here and there.

So, with Gary and his equipment already gone and the one inch water pipe supply line in place and ready to bury, my goal for today was to “power up” the shovel. Pam nicknamed me “Shovel Man” in 1999 when we were homesteading off grid in Montana, yet even there I’d never had to tackle shovel-filling a two foot wide ditch (trench) some 320 feet long and two feet deep in a single shift. Fortunately for my peace of mind, it never occurred to me until after the fact that those numbers added up to moving 1,280 cubic feet of earth….

Of course, had we run the trench with a Ditch Witch instead of a backhoe, it would have been a very narrow slit in the Earth and no work at all to backfill. But Gary had the Case backhoe, he knocked the whole thing out in little more than an hour, the price was right, and that was that.

Where the water line comes up at our "water tower"--this short stretch of trench will stay open until a second line (from storage tank to homesite) is laid.

Where the water line comes up at our “water tower”–this short stretch of trench will stay open until a second line (from storage tank to homesite) is laid.

A lo-o-ong way to go!

A lo-o-ong way to go!

That water pipe is surely pretty, but it'll look a let better under dirt....

That water pipe is surely pretty, but it’ll look a let better under dirt….

Yeah! It's all covered now!

Yeah! It’s all covered now!

A row of extra dirt piles left over; no big.

A row of extra dirt piles left over; no big.

Lest It Sound Too Easy….

The dirt on our land is tough to dig but, once dug, it breaks down to a pretty nice, easy to handle material. Trouble was, easy or not, it was going to take a long time. This is southeastern Arizona near the Mexican border, which means it’s also rather toasty out there during daylight hours. With thirty-two ten foot sticks of pipe to cover, the results between breaks were telling: Twelve covered before taking the first break…but only four more covered until chickening out with “dry mouth”, plenty of good old fashioned sweat, and “wimp attitude” for the second break. No showing off for the ladies to keep the ego going; just (blech!) work.

Still, a 9:30 a.m. start and a 5:30 finish saw the job done, the garden hoses put away, and the final photo taken. (The garden hoses had been our only water line from the corner of our property to the five gallon jugs sitting behind our camp trailer for more than five months.) The 500 gallon water storage tank will arrive tomorrow, and we should have a full tank of gravity feed water within another two or three days after that.

Not that the job was quite yet done. The shovel demanded a shot.

“Dude, you’re a total tool,” I told it.

“Yeah? So what’s your point?” Came the immediate reply.

Can’t argue with a rejoinder like that.

None the worse for wear after a job well done, the #2 shovel stands proud and free.

None the worse for wear after a job well done, the #2 shovel stands proud and free.

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