Pumping water from a creek

Mark Twain began his writing career in Nevada. Hitching a ride with his brother Orion who was appointed by Lincoln to be the Secretary of the Nevada Territories, Twain laid out his experiences in the would-be Battle Born state when he wrote Roughing It.

When I sailed through the Sea of Cortez I found myself reading John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Things that I might have glossed over before took on a deeper meaning because I was navigating the same water, seeing the same sites, and able to look through a lens similar to Steinbeck’s own.

Roughing It is not one of Twain’s more popular books. With Tom and Huck I barely put my Kindle down to eat a meal, as where it was a little rough to read Roughing It. Still, since I find myself in Nevada often, just like Steinbeck’s localized work I’m able to find more relevance than I otherwise would.

When driving over Montgomery Pass, it’s easy to see the cutaway from the old Carson and Colorado Railway. I’ve hiked sections of it myself just to indulge in a bit of Nevada nostalgia. The railway started operating roughly ten years after Twain published his book, servicing towns that he visited and worked in. Indeed, one of those early settlements was Virginia City (via the Virginia and Truckee Railway), where Twain got his first writing job at a pioneer newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise.

It’s not a stretch to say that without Nevada, and I mean the real-deal no-shit hardcore dust-and-thorns Nevada (and the Eastern Sierra, to a lesser degree), Mark Twain very well would have just stayed Samuel Clemens and his life could have taken a much less prolific path.

This is my very long way of introducing a quote from Twain that (I feel) needs all that backstory. When he said these words, he knew exactly what he was talking about:

Whiskey is for drinking – water is for fighting.

Mark Twain

For those of you in areas with sufficient rainfall, this, like the Sea of Cortez, might just be a fuzzy notion that while you can accept, you can’t really process the full depth of it until you’re in a parched and barren landscape like the American Southwest. But don’t get too full of yourself, Nevada used to have some of the largest lakes in the country up until about 12,000 years ago. So maybe if fortunes reverse, now is the time to buy up some soon-to-be lakefront property in the middle of a now barren desert.

Back to the Pumping Water Thing

We have a well coming some time in May, although it was originally scheduled for some time in April, but just in case you didn’t know this: construction schedules tend to scoot around a bit. So our real water will come from a well, likely hundreds of feet in the ground. Nevada’s residential well permits allow for 2 acre feet per year, which is just over 600,000 gallons annually, or 10x what we currently use in our home. It’s a lot of water.

But before the well can come in there are a few needs for water right now. Mixing small batches of concrete, drinking, washing off a dog, washing hands, filling up the solar shower bag, etc. Except for the concrete and solar shower, I bet Mark Twain probably had similar issues.

Option: Ram Pump

If you’ve never heard of a ram pump before, it sounds damn near magical. No electricity needed, no wiring, just put water into the thing and then it pumps it up higher somewhere else.

My ram pump, working for a few minutes there. You can see the water jetting out of the waste valve.

And I’m sure that some people out there have success with ram pumps. However, I did not have a good spin with them. For starters, you need to buy (or build) the pump, and then you also need to buy somewhere between 50-100 feet of PVC. Then, you need to lay that PVC up stream. For those not in the know, creeks and streams tend to be very overgrown. So you will be laying, gluing, and routing all of that pipe in a briar and pokey-stick creek side. If your pipes have any uphill progress, you’ll also need to suck on the pipe to create the siphon. Note: you’ll be sucking on a pipe with the off-gasses from the PVC glue. Fun!

The feed/supply line of the ram pump is part of the pump’s mechanics: it’s not just simple plumbing. The head pressure, and the shock wave from the ram pump all rely on the feed line. This is contrast to an electric pump whereby the the feed line is simply a pipe or tube that can transport water.

But more than anything, at least in my three days of futzing with it, a ram pump is delicate balance between the supply line, the air chamber’s pressure, the waste valve’s flapper, and the output pressure. In theory, and probably in plenty of practices, those do achieve an equilibrium and things just keep chugging along.

From a cost prospective, they’re not free. Even the simple PVC versions are about $175, plus another ~$100 in PVC fittings, glue, and pipe. So you’re knocking on ~$200, and you’re laying pipe all over the place. There are some layouts that cost more, but provide you with insight like a pressure gauge. There are also multi-thousand dollar versions made of steel and purpose built: I assume these will function much better.

Option: Electric Pump

I installed my ram pump, and watched it work. Then I watched it stop working. Then I went back and got it working again, futzing with the angle of the waste valve, getting my feet soaked and my hands frozen. I would re-climb my 50 foot cliff, then the water would stop again. I would drop down, start it, and repeat that process a few times. Two mornings later I saw that one of my PVC pipes had cracked, because the pump stopped, and the water froze inside of it.

Meanwhile, my whole reason for getting some water was so that I could mix concrete, which is a job still undone. I’m much more cautious with my time, and a task that detracts me from the project I actually am trying to tackle needs to be sorted out quickly and definitively.

I looked at some of the fancier pumps like the Dankoff line, but for the pump and the required filters it was around $700. I have no problem with pre-filtering, mind you, but Dankoff is absolute about using their filtering which seemed a little unnecessary and perhaps even substandard. Dankoff is adamant that their pumps cannot tolerate dirt. While I appreciate the precision in manufacturing, it just didn’t sound like what I needed.

My maritime experience though reminded me that most marine grade pumps are pretty durable, working in terrible environments with shifting voltage for years on end. Manufactured in Northern Ireland, each Whale pump is tested before it leaves the factory. I opted for the UF0815 which despite what Amazon may tell you, a closer look at Whale’s spec sheet lists out the primary factors I wanted to work with:

  • Self priming to 10 feet (the water source can be 10 feet below the pump).
  • Max head to 98 feet (it can pump water 98 vertical feet up).
  • 12 volts, consuming ~3.8 amps (recommended 5 amp fuse).
  • 2.2 GPM, although at 50 feet of head I see about 1.1 GPM.
Redneck engineered onto scrap wood (and a scrap piece of yard furniture), the Whale UF0815 is happily pumping along here.

I really only need a bit of water, it can be slow, and I only need it during the day time so hooking the pump directly up to a solar panel works fine for me. I plan on using a linear current booster as well, but it’s not wired in at the moment because I forgot it. The linear current booster’s job, basically, is to increase available amperage by taking away voltage but it also stabilizes that output voltage at the same time.

Solar panels see shade, clouds, haze, and different angles as the sun arcs across the sky. At maximum, my panel could produce 17 volts under load and the pump is really not designed for that. Or, the panel might only be producing 11 volts, but have more than enough amperage. That isn’t sufficient voltage to turn the pump on, however, which is waiting for that magical 12 volt electrical pressure.

Enter the linear current booster. It will do everything it can to provide dead-on (in my case) 12 volts either by converting amperage or shunting heat to its fins.

In theory, considering that (P) power = (E) voltage * (I) current, even if only generating 50 of the 100 watts that my panel could, 50 watts / 12 volts = 4.16 amps. Calculating in a bit of loss because of the booster itself, it should still be above the ~3.8 amp consumption level of the pump. In short, with half my panel shaded, the pump might/should still work.

While the pump comes with a strainer, I wanted to use a vertical one as well because too much coarse straining is rarely a bad thing and it provides me with more surface area to foul up before the flow gets restricted. I went with a Raritan because I’ve used them before.

A single 100 watt panel, laying in a bush, wired directly into the pump. I put it up in the bushes because random rocks can fly down the cliff and having anything at ground level makes it a potential bowling pin.

So right now, it works, and I couldn’t be happier. I don’t need much, and in fact I don’t want much. A few gallons to fill up a sprayer and mix concrete before the well gets here. I can use the 12v pump and the solar panel in the future for other tasks, and the whole thing is rather quiet with a small profile. I managed to use old screws, old lumber, broken furniture, and spare romex for the construction.

About 1.1 GPM when the sun is shining and the pump is on, 64 feet away from the pump, 50 vertical feet.

In Summary

The cost of drilling a well, trenching supply lines, powering a well pump, ensuring adequate pressure, and all the associated doo-dads can make one jealous, or at least appreciative, of municipal water supplies.

I’m looking forward to the adventure of doing the well work because while grabbing some gallons via redneck engineering is all well and good, it’s not a long term solution by any stretch.

If a ram pump works for you, cool, you’re in a good place. But if you don’t have the vertical drop or you’d rather have a more prescribed approach with less fiddling, consider using a pumping setup like the one that I discussed. Good luck, and may you enjoy your whiskey and water without trouble from either.