What kind of pump do I want?
August 10, 2020 4:51 AM   Subscribe

In case of a power outage, we wouldn't have running water because we're on a well. We live next to a brook. I'd like a good way to get water from the brook, to use for flushing toilets if a power outage lasts for days.

I'm thinking probably some kind of a hand pump or a battery-operated one. I'd like to be able to stand on the bank of the brook and feed one end in to where water is flowing, which in winter could be several feet away. I'd like the other end to come into a bucket, and to quickly fill it with a few gallons.

It might be even better if I could leave the setup in place by the brook (if it's not freezing out), and have the other end come all the way up to the house, and control it from there... but that's >50' and somewhat uphill, so I'm guessing that'd require something much more elaborate?

Alternatives that I'm pretty sure I don't want:
- "Just dip a bucket." (The brook gets low in summer, and much of it freezes in winter, so I'd be clambering over slippery rocks or snow & ice to get to a deep enough spot.)
- "Use a siphon." (The brook is lower than the destination would be.)
- "Just fill the bathtub if a big storm is predicted." (We will, but may not keep our bathtub long-term, and anyway, we want this option, too.)
- "Buy a generator." (We might, at some point, but until then...)

Recommendations needed for the general type of pump to look for, as well as for specs or a particular model if there's one you like.
posted by daisyace to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I live in rural Vermont and frequently lose power. I read your comment but still highly suggest a generator. Ideally one which can connect to the house’s power as opposed to running extension cords. We chose the circuits we wanted to be connected for outages — water, fridge, modem, etc.
posted by terrapin at 5:34 AM on August 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

Sorry for another non-pump answer but definitely check the legality of what you want. In many places you can’t just take water from streams. It looks like some of the relevant MA regulations are here.
posted by hydrobatidae at 5:49 AM on August 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

You can rig something that pulls water from your brook, but you'd be far better off with a hand pump mounted on your actual water well. Mother Earth how-to. They can be installed alongside your existing electric submersible pump in the same well head. Bison pumps have a great reputation, but will run you around $1250 plus plumbing parts. Google "water well hand pump" for alternatives, many of them in the range of a few hundred bucks. (For diversion, here's a gorgeously retro prepper-oriented website selling hand pumps.)
posted by beagle at 6:33 AM on August 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

If you're just looking to fill an occasional bucket with water and you own a cordless drill you can get a pump that attaches to your drill. They're not fast, but they're cheap and portable. I use them to clear toilet traps if I need to fix a toilet.

It would be as fast as a siphon. I'm not sure how much hose you could attach to it before it bogged it down too much but it might be worth trying.

Unless you have three arms you'll want a clamp to hold the outflow hose to the bucket while you use the drill. You'll also want to make sure your drill battery is fully charged.

As others have said, this sort of thing may be frowned upon by your local board of health but if all you're doing is flushing toilets I think you'll be fine.

I would also seriously consider a generator.
posted by bondcliff at 6:33 AM on August 10, 2020 [4 favorites]

I used to use this in the winter when the line from the well to the house froze. It's just a tall skinny bucket, skinny enough to fit down your well pipe, with a flap valve on the bottom. Worked great in a 75' well.
posted by bricoleur at 6:41 AM on August 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hand pumps for wells: Great thought! But our well is >500' deep, and the water is often ww-aaaa-yyyyyyy down there. I'm looking for cheap and easy, for now.

Generators: Yes, an AskMe about them is likely in my future. We've got a couple of considerations that are making us hold off on one for now, though. (If you're curious or something, I'm happy to explain via MeMail, but it's not worth cluttering up the thread.)

Drill attachments: Cool, I do have a cordless drill, though it needs a new battery. It's an almost 20-year-old Black and Decker, and I've been meaning to decide whether to get it a new battery or to ditch it for something newer. (Side question: have cordless drills improved enough in ~20 years that I should upgrade, or is it still worth buying it a new battery?)
posted by daisyace at 7:03 AM on August 10, 2020

A low volume, intermittent use pump like this will probably be made primarily for boating or RV use, by companies like ShurFlo and others. If you have a marine or RV shop near you, they should be helpful people to deal with. If you're in a rural area, you may even have a pump shop.

As a starting point, you could look at something like this or even this one, which pumps more slowly - 1 gallon per minute - but might be ok for filling a bucket occasionally. A 1 GPM pump would take over 2 minutes to fill a bucket. The pumps in the 1st link are faster.

If this is to work reliably, i.e. when you actually need it, you will almost certainly have to create a way of anchoring the feed pipe in the creek and ensuring it stays under water. This is not always as easy as it sounds, and anything you do will almost certainly be subject to some sort of regulatory authority.
posted by mewsic at 7:09 AM on August 10, 2020

Drill attachments: Cool, I do have a cordless drill, though it needs a new battery. It's an almost 20-year-old Black and Decker, and I've been meaning to decide whether to get it a new battery or to ditch it for something newer. (Side question: have cordless drills improved enough in ~20 years that I should upgrade, or is it still worth buying it a new battery?)

I have a submersible Bosch irrigation pump that might do the trick, the handy thing is uses the same standard Bosch battery system as all their power tools. Might be worth picking something that fits in with your other tools if applicable so that you can have multiple batteries in chargers.

I would probably advise against any kind of permanent fixing. By the time you've found a place in the brook that's permanently got flowing water and installed fixed piping, you might have spent quite a lot of money and you're looking for a quick and easy fix.

Also, the difference in permitting both in terms of what is technically required and what you pragmatically can get away with is likely to be pretty substantial between a fixed pump and a portable pump that only comes out for emergencies. If you got a pump like this and mounted it on some PVC pipe or a length of wood, maybe with a counterweight on the back and the hose running along it, you could reach out and dip it into a likely bit of water.
posted by atrazine at 7:27 AM on August 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

We are also on a well. I don't have a pump, but I would suggest you look for a battery powered sump pump. Many people have an issue with basement flooding when the power goes out so this is probably your best bet for high flow and battery powered or hand powered.

Just a couple more comments.

1) For those suggesting a generator, your well pump is likely 240 V and may require a hefty generator to start pumping. It is possible to successfully use a portable gas powered generator but it's not a simple fix and the downside might be burning out your well pump. Certainly whole house generators can fix this problem but that's a significant expense.

2) One path that some people take is a 55 Gal rain storage barrel. They are often attached to your downspout and are meant to be kept always full of rain water. This doesn't have the environmental impact of siphoning stream water.
posted by NoDef at 7:41 AM on August 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

On the side question, I like the variety of attachments that cordless tool systems have these days, including things like work lights, radios, and power inverters. Bosch is mentioned above for the pump. I went with Ryobi and I've been happy with everything. It probably depends on how expensive the batteries are getting for the Black & Decker, but it might also be a worthwhile upgrade.
posted by cabingirl at 8:16 AM on August 10, 2020

One other addendum to my above suggestion: If your principal concern is flushing toilets, hauling water uphill from the brook feels like doing it the hard way. Keep in mind: (a) usually no need to flush for number 1; (b) you get one free flush in every toilet for #2, and (c) the residual pressure supplied by your system will probable fill each toilet once or twice more before the pressure is gone. Beyond that, I suggest acquiring 3-4 buckets with lids (Home Depot storage buckets), and keeping them filled with water in the basement. And finally, with a short hose you can drain the water out of your hot water tank (which will be cooling all the while anyway and holds 80-120 gallons), and use that. In my own case, I've done all of those things and gotten through three days without power.
posted by beagle at 8:53 AM on August 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

There are pumps designed for ponds and water features. If you go with a generator, that's what you want to look for. Be careful about whether the pump can tolerate freezing. I suspect most pumps would be destroyed in a freeze. IF you go for an electric pump, the smallest (1/4 hp?) is big enough for the use you describe.

For a portable hand pump, a diaphragm pump is what you want. Mount in on a board or sturdy piece of plywood so you can stand or kneel on it to get some leverage. Some pumps may not be self-priming so check on that before you make a decision.

If your hot water tank is gas-fired, it may not need electricity to function, so you'll be able to have hot showers throughout your ordeal.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:52 AM on August 10, 2020

Planning for emergencies is a great idea. You could deepen a small area of the stream , making a small pool, and line it with stones so you'd have a place from which to draw water in an emergency. Water stores well. Clean water in a clean (not even sterile) container keeps just fine. Save 1 and 2 liter bottles, wash, fill with water, store. To make this water reliably drinkable, add a couple drops of bleach, shake well, let sit for a couple hours. For washing dishes or flushing, no problem. Some places sell drinking water in 3 or 5 gallon containers, if you can scrounge some of those.

I have an inverter that takes power from the car's cig. battery and lets me charge my laptop, phone, etc., might be handy.

There are solar 'generators' which are solar panels with a small controller that feed a battery. You can't run much off them, though they're great for off-grid use.

A good emergency preparedness exercise it to cut power at the panel to really understand how much of your home needs electricity. Gotta say, I hate the sound of generators starting up that immediately follows even a slight power bump, but a summer outage over 24 hours means I need to worry about the contents of the freezer. In winter, I freeze water bottles outside.
posted by theora55 at 10:24 AM on August 10, 2020

This may have been mentioned above but I didn't spot it .. if you're thinking of water from your well, whatever pump you use will have to be down by the water. It's not possible to "pull" water up from more than around 25 feet (see here for discussion).

So it's either your stream or a generator.
posted by anadem at 1:43 PM on August 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

I was thinking if you had an air compressor that could keep an air tank charged all the time, then when the power went out you'd still have pneumatic power for an air-driven pump for a while. A little sandpiper could pump you up some water, but then eventually you'd have to figure out how to recharge your air supply.

Or you could consider a ram pump that doesn't use any motive force but gravity.
posted by ctmf at 4:27 PM on August 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Any $50 submersible 1/4hp pump will do the job. I use one to clear standing water regularly. I can’t kill it.
posted by spitbull at 4:02 AM on August 11, 2020

Also assuming you have a rainwater collection barrel or two?
posted by spitbull at 4:04 AM on August 11, 2020

This might be a job for a hydraulic ram pump?
posted by misterbrandt at 4:31 AM on August 11, 2020

Thanks all! I do like the idea of a couple of the alternative answers, including rain barrels and draining water from the hot water heater. Thanks for the heads-up on the legality issue. If I did try to draw a bit from the brook, the minimalist kind of pump that atrazine linked looks as unobjectionable as possible. Much appreciated!
posted by daisyace at 7:06 AM on August 11, 2020

To answer your follow-up question, yes, cordless tools have improved a lot in 20 years. Find a brand you like and stick with it so you can swap the batteries between tools. I prefer the Makita 18v brand but everyone seems to have a different brand they like. Be careful buying them on-line because they often come without batteries so check the description. Buy an extra battery so you always have one charged and of course you won't be able to charge them when the power is out but they keep a charge for a long time when they're not being used.
posted by bondcliff at 7:47 AM on August 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

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