Hand Water Pumps: A Guide

Wren Everett / Insteading

“So let me get this straight. You want me to pull the electric pump out so you can put in a manual pump?”

My husband and I nodded at the man who had come to remove our broken electric pump. He scratched the back of his head, a funny sort of half-smile creasing his cheeks. “You know, most folks are goin’ the other way.”

The idea of hand pumping water in the 21st century must seem a little backward at first glance, but we (like many other homesteaders, farmers, and preppers), knew that having a system that allowed us to fetch water with nothing other than two arms and some time could have serious benefits.

water pump
Fikri Rasyid / Unsplash

Manual water pumps should be a consideration for anyone who has a well run by an electric pump, and should even be considered by those on city water. Though water towers create water pressure with gravity, the only way water gets up into the tower in the first place is by being mechanically pumped.

And when you realize that all it takes is a long power outage to cut off your water supply, I bet most of you would like to be able to access it no matter what the circumstances. Manual water pumps are one way to build a little resilience into your homestead, whatever the size. Read on to learn more about the basics of what it takes to use a little hand power to draw your own water.

Manual Hand Pump Options

The world has changed quite a bit since the Laura Ingalls days of drawing water with a bucket on a pulley. When we decided to make the switch to manually-pumped water, we found that that there were two companies that really dominated our searches.

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Single drop 💧 of water out of this pump🌵 #droplet #manualwaterpump #farmlifestyle #summerheat

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Both Simple Pump and Bison Pump are well-established (pardon the pun) hand-operated pump businesses with a solid customer base and lots of experience. Though there are other companies that offer manual pumps, we liked that Bison Pump and Simple Pump were both made in the USA and seemed relatively easy to incorporate into our existing well.

How Hand Pumps Work

Though the design has been modernized, all wells pretty much function the same way. Drill a hole deep enough into the earth that you reach an aquifer, and then find some way to bring water to the surface. A manual pump really isn’t that much different than an electric save the very obvious fact that your arms, not the grid, are drawing the water.

When you pump the handle up and down, you are moving a rod and piston within a long PVC pipe that has been lowered below your water line. Every time you pull the handle down, water is raised up, and every time you allow the handle to go up, the pump is lowered into the water, loading itself for the next push.

For those curious, Simple Pump has a good explanation of each part and piece of their system. The nice thing about both of these modern pump designs is that there is no priming needed and very little maintenance. As in, you’ll need to give the entire system a once-over probably every five years or so.

All-Weather Manual Pumps

Manual pumps should work in all seasons, as long as they have something called a “weep hole” installed. This simple hack is just a hole drilled into the PVC pipe below frost level. After you’re done pumping, water will slowly leak out until it reaches equilibrium, ensuring that the pipe itself will never freeze solid.

As someone who has personally pumped water on a 1-degree morning, I can guarantee that this makes it possible to use a hand pump in temperatures well below freezing. To be clear, my pump is operating in Ozark winters, not Alaskan winters. If you’re in an area with deep permafrost, make sure you do your research before installation!

How to Incorporate a Manual Pump With a Modern Home

When you install a manual pump, it’s up to you how off-grid you want it to be. You may choose to have it be your main source of water, or you can use it as a backup. It may give you peace of mind to know that it’s completely possible to install a hand pump side-by-side with an electric pump which gives you both convenience and water security. If you do decide to have a manual pump only as a backup, however, you’ll need to make a point to pump some water every other day or so, just to make sure the system is in good working order.

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Snowstorms and power outages: One of the many advantages of living off-grid is that even when the power goes off for the whole town, it doesn’t affect you at all. Your water supply is intact, the house is warm, and food is on the table. Your routine is completely undisturbed. The disadvantage, is that this is your routine. (Just kidding, 3 winters in and still loving it.) . . . . . Want to hear my terrible joke? I often tell people we don’t have running water in the house. We have walking water. . . . . . . #homesteadinglife #winterwonderland #offgridliving #offgrid #vermontwinter #vermont #snowstorms #bisonpump #wellwateristhebest #handpumps #vermontlife #homesteading #poweroutage #vermontbyvermonters @iamcountryside

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If the idea of lugging buckets for your daily water use is not for you, it is also possible to use a manual pump to pressurize the water inside a house. Not every manual pump is capable of inside use, so be sure to do your research! Using this system, you can manually pump water from your well, through a hose, and into a pressure tank.

The tank can then allow water to flow from faucets and into toilets so much of your house functions as “normal.” Pumping water into the pressure tank will become just another one of the daily chores.

Hand Pump Costs

It is hard to give an exact figure on how much a hand pump will cost you. The overall cost depends on how deep your well is and what model you want.

The deeper the well, the more expensive it will be, as you will need a larger number of sucker rod and pipe segments. Additionally, if you have no well drilled already, the price will rise exponentially. On our homestead, we opted for using the well that had already been dug, and added the manual pump to the system.

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Installed a #simplepump with the help of good buddy Kevin Grant. And built a lil pump deck from #campfircom scraps. Thx campfircom! #recycle #screwhomedepot

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Our well was fairly deep, so the final price for our entire system was a little over $2,000. Keep in mind that this doesn’t include the price of getting the original well pulled out. Also, we saved money by choosing to do the installation ourselves.

In our minds, this is a small price to pay for having consistent, weather-proof access to our water. Additionally, we liked that we got to handle and understand every piece of the unit as we did our installation. It certainly gave us confidence that we could fix the pump ourselves if trouble struck.

Hand Pump Water Depth

So, how deep can you hand pump water? The answer to this question is entirely dependent on the type of pump you decide to install. We chose to install the Simple Pump because it is capable of working from a depth of 325 feet static water level. Our well is almost 200 feet deep to the static water level, so this seemed the best choice for us.

Before you get any pump installed on your property, take the time to find out all of your personal well’s specifications so you can make the best choice. Finding our well’s information was only possible by having a service come out and pull the old well for us, so you may have to do quite a bit of work if the information is not on record.

Is Hand Pump Water Safe to Drink?

This is a complicated question, because it is totally dependent on your personal well, how deep it was dug, what’s in the surrounding area, and what method is used to transport the water. Once upon a far-off time, well water could probably be drunk directly without fear of contamination, but now you need to be a little less trusting and a lot more proactive when it comes to managing your water.

In general, the deeper the well has been dug, the safer the water, but I would still recommend having your personal well water tested once you have access to it. Personal wells are not monitored and protected by agencies like the EPA, so the responsibility falls into your hands. Thankfully, there are relatively cheap kits you can order to test the water yourself, and there are plenty of services you can find online who can give you a “report card” of what’s in your water.

On our homestead, all of the water that we use for drinking and cooking goes through a Berkey Water Filtration system first. These filtering systems get my highest recommendations, and if you are looking for a way to make any water safe, I think you could find no better option.

I’m not sponsored by them or paid by them — I have just depended on our Berkey system for many years, and the faithful thing has worked without a hitch. The filtration system is expensive, admittedly, but when it comes to something as vital as this for my family, we were more than willing to forgo some nights out to eat and department store clothes in favor of having decades of safe water.

Tips From a Manual-Pump Homestead

If you are doing research on manual pumps to see if you could switch your home or small farm over to hand-pumped water, then you’re just as passionate about self-reliance as we are. As such, I have some tips and tales for those of you who are willing to forgo modernity in favor of some sloshy, hand-pumped goodness.

First off, nothing will make you more aware of your water use than pumping it yourself. In order to depend on a manual pump, you must change your mindset when it comes to water use.

The average American uses an astounding 80-100 gallons of water a day. That wasteful, thoughtless manner of living is just not possible with a manual pump.

We see that as a good thing.

Now that we’ve made the switch, there are times where our entire family of four only uses 15 gallons a day. What would happen to the world if people were actually responsible for their own water?

water pump
Paul Sableman / Flickr (Creative Commons)

But what about laundry day, you may ask? Or watering animals? Here’s our tip — there’s no need to have your hand pump be the sole source of water for the homestead. If you pair your manual pump with a rain catchment system, then you will have more water than you know what to do with. On our homestead, rainwater goes to animals, laundry, bathing, and washing dishes. Hand-pumped water is usually just for drinking and cooking.

Another thing that will benefit the manual pump user are some really good buckets. We use food-grade 5-gallon buckets for pretty much anything water-related on our homestead. You can order them new, or check out your local Craigslist to breathe some new use into old, food-industry buckets. I do laundry in a former jalapeño bucket (delighted that it didn’t end up in a landfill)!

You may think that the effort of pumping water may be too much for you, but like anything, you can get used to it. The first week we used our manual pump for daily use, I admit I got pretty tired. But now that I have months of pumping and bucket-hauling under my belt, I’m much stronger, more grateful, and much, much less wasteful. Best of all, no power outage can take my water from me again.

Do any of you hand pump your own water? Or, if you’re considering installing a hand pump, what questions drove you to make the switch? Let me know in the comments below!

Written by Wren Everett

Wren and her husband escaped from the confines of city life and its dependence and moved their family to 12 acres in the Ozarks. They are currently in middle of establishing their dream of a self-sufficient, permaculture-based, off-grid homestead, one step at a time. She can be typically found armpit-deep in brush foraging, cooking on cast iron, talking to her ducks and chickens, sporadically waving her arms to emphasize a point, pumping yet another bucket of water from the well, and, in quiet moments, sketching.

4 Comments

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  1. We had a hand pump on the farm in Wheatfield Indian. No elec, no phone: builds muscles, about 20 feet deep in glacial sand and silt. Best water I ever tasted.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ray! I’m so glad that someone else out there knows the joy…because it IS a joy…of doing thing the “hard” way. A hard-working life is a good life. Hope you have a lovely spring!

  2. I’m moving off grid to a cabin in Montana. Rain catchment will be the primary source of water. My design is to pump water from the 2,000 gallon ferrocement catch tank up the hill behind the cabin to two connected 2,500 gallon ferrocement tanks to create a gravity feed system. I’m researching a simple type pump that I can power with a windmill. The property is in escrow and the water system in on the drawing table. I’ll start building the water system sometime this summer (2019).

    • Rain Catchment is the way to go! We are working on getting our systems in place so that it can, one day, become our primary source of water. The Simple Pump system that we’re using for well water isn’t the best for windmill power, but the website recommends that you can hook the windmill to a generator, and then use that generator to power the Simple Pump. http://www.simplepump.com/support/questions/windmills/ Hope you find a good plan that works for you!

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