In our latest Backstory series, Seattleite Lou Maxon recounts the thrills and trials of ditching the suburbs, buying property, and designing and building a modern house with Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects. Week 17: Drilling a Well.
Because we are in a rural setting, we had to set aside additional financial resources to drill a well and support a septic system for sewage. The ability to locate ground water may be equal part skill and luck, but ultimately you don't know what you've got until you start barreling down into the earth. Luckily we heard positive stories about a couple local contractors and ultimately selected JKA Well Drilling to do our well work. Our site location and geology had some extreme challenges and there were no guarantees, even after we sunk tens of thousands into the ground, that we'd hit enough of a viable water source to support our residence. That was the terrifying part.
Step One: Find a reliable and trustworthy well contractor. This being my first-ever drilled well, I relied on referrals from neighbors, a quick Google search, and recommendations from a few of our existing contractors working on the project. JKA Well Drilling stepped up with great service, an experienced crew and an estimate and schedule that fit our needs. The process is expensive and the cost is out of pocket and based on an agreed-upon depth for drilling. Once you reach that depth there are added costs for dropping more steel in the ground.
Step Two: Prepare the site for the well drilling equipment. We had to secure a clearing and grading permit for the equipment to access the well site. This involved permitting, clearing trees, and creating a new road that we'd eventually have to build anyway to access our garage/carport area. The access road branches off the main driveway into the woods and is surfaced with gravel and recycled tile to support heavy-duty drilling equipment and support vehicles. Even on a large site like ours the developable area starts getting smaller and smaller as you add the setbacks and clearances for things like a 100-foot well radius, septic field setbacks, etc. It's important to always have a big-picture and long-term view on the site plan because septic and well installations are permanent.
Step Three: Pray for water. This is extremely dirty work. Everything that's inside the earth comes out during this process. The drill is lowered into the ground and a series of piping and tubing eventually snakes out of a tube and into a pool of debris. Hours are spent standing and watching everything but clear water shoot out the other end. The contractor will take samples and sift through the debris to get an indication of how far away water might be. For some wells it's pretty clear when you've hit the jackpot. Our well wasn't not that way. We drilled down 100 feet, 200 feet, 300 feet...
Step Five: Full speed ahead; tap harder. A series of steel pipe and tubing is added as we get deeper into the ground. Here, a closeup shot of the side of the drilling truck where the contractor controls the pace and severity of the drill. As we neared 300+ feet we started to get some indications that the we had hit onto something promising but still had no clear indication that we'd hit water in this spot.
Step Six: More steel tubing. More green dollars. A closeup shot off the back of a drilling support truck shows the steel tubing that goes into the ground. The more tubes we had to use, the more money it would cost us. When you start seeing fewer of them still on the truck, it's not a good sign.
Step Seven: Go deep. One of the crew members checks out the deposit from the drill. We are starting to see a mix of mud, rock and some liquid—and keeping our fingers crossed. The equipment is loud (notice ear plugs on the contractor) and the scene is a mess.
Step Eight: Greenlight the greenbacks. Once we hit our contracted limit we had to make the call to approve additional funds to go beyond our set depth. The crew set up the drilling machine with more steel tubing and down we went. The equipment starts looking like the world's biggest jackhammer amidst the forest setting. By this time a few neighbors from nearby parcels started popping over to wish us good luck on our ultimate search for water.
Step Nine: Release the water! We hit a good source of water days in but would it be enough to meet the requirements? A faucet is installed and a generator is purchased to help pump the water up to the surface and monitor quality. We'd have to run the generator day and night to clear the water enough to get a viable sample to submit for testing. Seeing the faucet was definitely a good sign and provided a great deal of relief and joy that we were on our way.
Step Ten: Officially recognize the well. A metal tag is added to the well to certify it through the department of ecology. Each well is tagged and coded with a unique number. An operable well is required in order to ultimately receive the building permit, so doing this work at this stage was critical because no water equals no house.
Step Eleven: Enjoy the steady stream of water instead of watching endless debris of clay, sand and rocks.
Step Twelve: Cap the well, stare at the pipe tubing coming out of the ground, and realize you have never been happier in your life to see this sight—because it means you are once step closer in this amazingly grueling journey of constructing a home. While friends and family are enjoying vacations, our summer splurge is epitomized in this photo. In the end there's something gratifying about knowing where your water is coming from and truly appreciating the effort that is required in order to simply turn a faucet and have water come out the end. I don't think I'll ever take that experience for granted again.