Wells and Septics Systems: Water wells can be expensive

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Water wells can be money pits, but they don’t have to be. When constructing houses in rural areas, builders are often required to install wells as private water sources. This, in itself, is no big deal. But, if you don’t know what to look for, you can lose a lot of money installing wells and their pump systems.

If you have built houses that required wells, you have some experience with what goes on when bidding jobs with wells. A lot of builders never have to deal with well installers. First-time builders and contractors who are not accustomed to working with wells are at risk when it comes to wells.

How much do you already know about wells? Can you tell me what a driven well is? Do you know the difference between a drilled well and a bored well? Should you agree to a per-foot price when having a well installed? These are just some of the questions that are going to be answered in this section.

Three main types of wells are used in modern building practices: drilled wells, bored wells, and driven wells. Drilled wells and bored wells are the two most common types of residential wells.

Are there alternatives to a well when a private source of water is needed for a house? Sure there are. Natural springs are one type of alternative water source. There are many others.

Water that's safe to drink is called potable water. However, not all alternative sources produce water that's potable. Does this rule alternative water sources out of consideration altogether? No, because not all water must he safe for domestic use. Watering livestock, irrigating lawns and gardens, running water-based heat pumps, and other needs can he handled by non-potable water.

How much do I need to know?

Builders don’t need to know all the technical aspects related to the installation of a well or pump system. However, to bid jobs with confidence and to supervise the work of your subcontractors, you should have a better than average understanding of how wells are installed and used.

A well is much more than a hole in the ground that provides water. What you don’t know can hurt you. It can hurt you financially and damage your reputation. An ignorant builder is an easy mark for an unscrupulous well installer. You can lose a lot of money if you don’t know what to expect when having a well installed.

The fact that you are reading this section is a good sign. It indicates that you want to be a responsible, profitable builder. Not all builders share your willingness to learn. This is to your advantage. Once you know enough about wells and their pumping systems, you can talk with authority to potential customers. This can be your competitive edge in a tight bidding contest. Let’s consider this fact a little more closely.

Assume that you are a prospective home buyer. You want to have a custom home built on your rural land. A well is needed to supply the house with water. You’ve never built a house before and don’t have any friends in the area who have built recently, so you’re not sure how to find the best builder. Being an intelligent person, you go through the normal channels to screen potential builders. After checking many sources, you’ve narrowed the field down to four builders.

After selecting the four builders to bid your job, you go out and look over some houses they have built. One of the four builders doesn’t quite feel right to you. It’s nothing that you can really put your finger on, but the chemistry just isn’t right. You weed that builder out of contention. Now it’s down to three.

You can’t decide which of the three remaining builders you are the most comfortable with. All of them seem about equal, so you assume price is going be the main factor in your choice.

When the builders present their proposals, one of them is a disappointment. The presentation lacks professionalism and the builder seems too busy to offer a detailed bid or to answer your questions. A quick decision is made to eliminate this builder, who also happens to be the high bidder. Now you are left with two builders. Ironically, their prices are so close that money is hardly a worthy yardstick for measuring the two contractors. You are perplexed.

Which builder (contractor) to select?

Both builders present their proposals in person. You like this fact. Unlike the unprofessional builder, these contractors followed your bid ding instructions to the letter. The job could go to either one. Then you realize that there are still a few remaining questions and concerns. You call both builders and schedule appointments to talk with them further.

Having never lived in the country before, you are concerned about using a well for your drinking water. Is well water really safe to drink? What types of problems might arise from living with well water? For that matter, what type of wells do people in the country use? Many questions about wells race through your mind.

You meet with the first builder and present your questions. All the basic building questions are answered flawlessly. However, when you start asking questions about your new well, the builder stumbles and can’t answer many of them. You are able to find out that your house probably requires a drilled well and that it could be 200 feet deep or deeper. But, most of the more pointed questions are beyond the builder’s scope of knowledge. The best the builder can do is offer to let you talk to the well installer and plumber who are going to put your well system together. This isn’t a bad option, and you respect the builder for being honest.

Before leaving, the builder recommends the names of some lo cal authorities who might be able to help you with your well questions. The builder makes arrangements for you to meet with the well-system subcontractors. After the builder leaves, you make a few phone calls and talk with local authorities to establish some back ground information on wells. Fortunately, you get a number of your questions answered.

The next day, the second builder shows up to go over any questions and concerns you might have. Since you had prepared a list of questions for the first builder, you use this same list with the second builder. Just like the first contractor, this builder glides through the basic building questions with ease. The answers coincide with those from the first builder, so you feel confident that they are valid.

When you get to the bottom of your list and start asking questions about the well, you expect the builder to either bluff you with non-descriptive answers or to refer you to experts in the field of wells. It amazes you when the builder is able to answer your questions quickly and without referring to reference material.

The builder explains the various types of well options and con firms that you probably need a drilled well. But, the builder goes much further, even beyond the scope of your questions. You’re told the advantages of using a submersible pump instead of a two-pipe jet pump. The purpose and importance of pressure tanks is discussed. Alternative water sources are explained to you as an option for your horses.

This builder goes on and on about water quantity and quality. Installation methods are explained to you. The builder tells you how the well is disinfected and tested before you are allowed to use it. This puts your mind at ease. Many other aspects of well systems are explained, including the possible need for water treatment equipment. You are quickly seeing a builder who has a lot of experience with wells, and this makes you feel secure.

When the builder is done, you compare the answers with those that you got by telephone from local authorities. They jive. This builder obviously knows about well systems. No longer are you con fused about which builder should be awarded your job. Both builders made good impressions, but the second builder has instilled confidence in you that the other builder couldn’t. The simple fact that this particular builder had a depth of knowledge about wells is enough to help you make the choice.

Which of these builders would you rather be? Do you want to be the one who gets the job? If you do, keep reading this section. By the time you finish it, you are going to be in a position to separate yourself from much of the competition. The ability to answer customer questions about wells really can make a big difference in a bidding war.

What do you need to know?

What do you need to know about wells? There is not a lot that you absolutely must know in order to build houses that use wells. You can rely on subcontractors to get you through the process. But, if you want to be in control and see higher profits, there is much that you should know. Let me give you some examples.

When you walk a piece of land with a prospective home buyer, do you know what characteristics to look for in terms of well installation? Do you have any idea whether or not a shallow well can be used? You can’t determine everything you need to know about well selection by simply looking at a piece of land, hut the land can give you lots of signals, You need to know what to look for when you do a site inspection. For example, the presence of bedrock indicates that a drilled well is going to be needed. This is important information, since drilled wells cost much more than bored wells. Knowing the legal distance between a well and a septic system can tip you to problems with certain pieces of land. Walking a building lot might reveal that its size and layout is going to make a well and septic installation difficult. In order to make the lot buildable, some changes might be needed, either in the proposed house design or the house placement.

Buildable lots

Buildable lots are needed to build houses. A lot might consist of a one-acre parcel or acres of rolling land. You know that the land chosen must be buildable, but what is the definition of a buildable lot? Basically, it's one where a house can be built in compliance with lo cal codes and zoning requirements. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the specific house you or your customer wants to build can be constructed on the lot. This is important, so think about it.

Buying a lot that's deemed buildable doesn’t guarantee that you can build what you want to build. Neither does it assure you that your construction can take place in the location of your choice. Most houses that use well water also use septic systems. When wells and septic systems are both needed, certain regulations come into play. Every jurisdiction I know has rules pertaining to the proximity of wells to septic systems. These rules can ruin your plans. Let’s look at an example.

Assume that you are a spec builder. You’ve stumbled onto a great building lot. The location requires a septic system and a well. Soils tests have already been done, and the land is approved for a conventional septic system. You are excited about the find, so you move quickly to make the purchase.

Even though the land is along a rural road, it’s in a neighborhood of large homes. Surrounding properties display houses with three to four bedrooms and an average of 2200 square feet of living space. On tax maps, the lot size proves to be similar to other lots in the area. Everything looks good.

You plan to build a two-story Colonial home on the property. There is going to be a two-car, attached garage and an attached mud room connecting the garage to the kitchen. This won’t be a huge house, hut it's going to check in at more than 2000 square feet. You’ve run speculative numbers, and the deal looks like a real money-maker. Then it happens.

In your haste to secure the building lot, you neglected to do all of the preliminary site planning. Your broker covered the bases by making certain that the lot was buildable, but you didn’t take the time to lay the house out on the land, along with the proposed septic system, to see how everything fit. Now you’ve run into a problem as you prepare to apply for a construction loan.

When you laid out the septic system and well location, you noticed that there was not enough room to place the house of your choice on the lot in a position that's going to be appealing. In fact, you might not even be able to get the house on the lot without omit ting the garage. All of the surrounding properties have garages, so building a spec house without one would be very risky. You’ve got a mess on your hands.

You now own a building lot, but you can’t build the house you wanted or locate it as planned. Since you were planning a two-story home, there’s not much you can do to make the footprint of the foundation smaller without losing square footage. Maybe you can switch to a Cape Cod design with an ell wing, but that’s something you would prefer not to do. In any event, you have a building lot and don’t know what to do with it. Between zoning set-backs and the distance required between the well and septic system, you simply don’t have a lot of building room.

What created this problem? Other lots of the same size are not affected in this way. You have a problem because the back edge of the building lot does not have soil consistency to support a standard septic system. Therefore, the septic field has to be moved closer to the front of the lot. Perhaps this is why the price was so low. I made up this example, but it could turn out to be all too real.

Can you see why it’s important for a builder to take time to be come familiar with well and septic systems? Section 3 provides a lot more information regarding what to look for when doing site inspections for well locations.

Bidding jobs

Bidding jobs can be tedious work. The job is lost when the bid is too high. Low bids result either in lost jobs because the bid is far too low or lost profits because the work is underestimated. It’s not difficult to prepare a bid for a house that’s to be served by well water. But, this type of bidding has some risks that don’t affect builders who work with city water.

How would you bid a job for a house with a well? Are you going to seek quotes from well and pump installers, or are you simply going to factor in some amount for this work? You’d better get some firm prices. Guessing at the cost of a well system is a fast way to lose jobs and money.

The difference in cost between a shallow well and a deep well can be counted in thousands of dollars. That means, if you bid on the wrong type of well, it could cost you thousands of dollars. It is also conceivable that your bid price is going to be way too high if you bid on a deep well when your competitors bid on a shallow well. You must know the type of well you are bidding on before you commit to a price. Section 5 can help you understand the bidding process.

Water options

Water options are numerous. Wells are the most common source of private water, but they are not the only source. Springs serve a number of houses as a primary water source. Cisterns are sometimes used for water storage. Builders normally plan on using wells for rural homes, but even with that decision made, there is much more to consider. Dug wells, bored wells, drilled wells, driven wells, and other types of wells are all potential sources of drinking water. Knowing which type of well to use is important, and it can save you money. Sometimes the water requirements can best be met by some other type of water source. Sections 7, 8, and 9 delve into this issue.

Minimizing your costs

Minimizing your costs to build a house can mean more money in your pocket. What you know about wells can make a difference in the price you have to pay for water. Section 14 deals with this subject, but let’s talk about it here for a little while.

Assume that you are a spec builder. You’re building a nice con temporary home on five acres out in the country. The building lot re quires a well and septic system. Since this is a spec home, you’re calling the shots on what is and isn’t used in the construction. This means that it's up to you to pick a well and pump system.

You want to keep your well-related costs as low as possible. On the other hand, you can’t afford to make a decision that might make the house harder to sell. A friend of yours has suggested a driven well. You’re not familiar with this procedure, so you look into it. The process is cheap enough, but you’re concerned that a driven well might not produce enough water on a regular basis to keep residents of the home satisfied. You’re leaning towards a drilled well, because you’ve heard good things about them.

When you call four well installers to get prices on a drilled well, you are surprised that two of them recommend a shallow well. You’re told that the water table in the area is high and consistent. Of the four installers you talked with, half of them suggested a shallow well. Now you are really confused. A friend has recommended a driven well. Two professionals have suggested a shallow well. You feel that a drilled well is the way to go. What are you going to do?

Being confused, you call the two well installers who gave you prices on a drilled well, as you had requested. You ask them their opinion. Wanting to make as much money as possible, both installers tell you all the advantages a drilled well has to offer. What they tell you is the truth, but that truth doesn’t necessarily mean that you should install a drilled well. After a lot of research, you opt for a shallow well. This saves you a lot of money and gives you an adequate water source.

Is a drilled well better than a shallow well? Most professionals agree that it's . However, the added cost is not always justified. Under the right conditions, shallow wells can give very good service. Assuming that your well location can support a shallow well with a good recovery rate, there are not enough good reasons to justify spending all the extra money for a deep well. The savings allow you to price your spec house lower or to sell it for appraised value and pocket some extra money. Until you know the options that exist for wells, you can’t hope to consistently keep your water costs down.

Issues and Problems

Builders know that problems with a house can pop up at almost any time and for almost any reason. Wells are no exception. Wells and their pump systems sometimes fail. If they malfunction while under your warranty period, you’ve got to take some action. This might be as simple as calling the subcontractors who installed the systems. However, you are the one who must deal with the customers. People can be difficult to deal with when they find themselves without water shortly after moving into a new house. It helps if you can provide some assistance or, at the least, some understanding.

Some problems that attack pump systems are simple to fix. They are so simple, in fact, that homeowners can often fix them with a little guidance. For example, a circuit-breaker might be tripped. If you know the symptoms of this problem, you might be able to talk the customer through a repair right on the phone. This quickly restores water service to your customer and saves your subcontractors an unwanted call-back.

While it's unlikely that you are going to venture into the field with an electrical meter and a box of plumbing tools, you should bone up on the problems associated with wells and pumps. It doesn’t take long to get a cursory understanding of these systems, and the knowledge can come in very handy. Section 16 provides a host of troubleshooting tips. You can use this information to make repairs or simply to understand what your subcontractors are talking about when they report in to you.

You can lose a lot of money

You can lose a lot of money when you work with well systems. De pending upon your conditions, you could easily lose $1000 or more. This doesn’t have to be a problem for you. There are ways to avoid losing money on well systems. In fact, you can use well systems to help you make more money.

Knowledge is the key to avoiding financial losses with well systems. This section offers plenty of information that can help you stay out of financial trouble created by mistakes with wells. Most of the wells that you deal with are going to be either bored wells or drilled wells. We are going to spend most of our time discussing these two types of wells. However, we are going to also look at driven wells and alternative water sources.

Before we leave this section, I’d like to give you a quick overview of pump systems. These systems are used with nearly every well that's made. Although pump systems don’t carry as much financial risk as the well itself, pumps are very important.

Pump systems

When you install a well, you have to figure on installing a pump system. This type of system can be installed for less than $1000, but it can cost much more. Pump systems involve enough money to make them worth watching carefully.

Deciding on which type of pump system to use can get complicated. Not all pumps can work with all wells. For example, a one- pipe jet pump can’t be used to extract water from a deep well. In the case of a deep well, you could use a submersible pump or a two-pipe jet pump. How do you decide which system is best? Research is the best way to find solid answers.

As you progress into later sections, you are going to find plenty of advice on how to choose proper pump systems. Can you afford to rely on advice from the subcontractors who install pump systems for you? Most contractors are pretty honest. I’m both a builder and a plumbing contractor. If you called me as a plumber and asked my advice on pump systems, I’d give you straight answers. There is little reason for me to try to sell you one type of pump over another. Certainly, it's to my advantage to make sure you don’t buy an inadequate system. Would I benefit from selling you one type of pump over another? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t risk my reputation by taking advantage of you. However, some pump dealers might not feel the same way that I do.

In order for you to know that installers are making solid suggestions to you, it’s necessary for you to have a basic working under standing of pump systems. Pressure tanks are a good example. This is best illustrated with an example.

For our example, let’s assume that you are a builder who is not accustomed to working with wells. Let’s say that I’m a bad-guy plumber, looking to take advantage of you in any way that I can. You’ve asked me to give you an estimate for a pump system. The well where the pump is to be used is a deep one. Trying to protect your self, you’ve done some homework and know that you want a submersible pump. As we talk, I do some informal probing to find out just how much you really know about well systems. It’s my opinion that you are not much of an authority on the subject. This gives me a green light to set you up for a financial fall.

There are two ways for me to attempt to pick your pockets. I can pitch you on certain inferior products and offer you a price that I assume to be competitive with any other bidders who are supplying quality products. Or, I can try to sell you on a beefed-up system for a higher price. For the sake of our example, let me work you from the beefed-up angle.

If I sell you substandard materials for a high price and get caught, you can bring this back to me to create trouble. But, if I sell you a beefed-up system, you can’t complain that I sold you equipment that was not rated for your job. The most you can say is that I sold you better equipment than was required. Is this so bad? Not nearly as bad as selling you something that's substandard. There could be a case made that I charged you too much, but this is a subjective complaint. All in all, I’m safer if I take advantage of you by providing better equipment rather than cheap or undersized stuff. Can I convince you to spend more for better equipment? Probably. I can sell you on the fear factor. If you don’t know enough about pump systems, you can’t tell if I’m blowing smoke or protecting you. This is my edge.

When we sit down to discuss pump options, you insist on a submersible pump. This is fine with me. As it turns out, you already know what brand of pump you want. But you don’t know what size pump is needed. This is my first point of attack. I convince you to with a three-quarter-horsepower pump instead of a half-horsepower pump. The smaller pump would work fine, but there is nothing wrong with using a larger pump, and I’ll make more money by selling it to you.

The next step in my attack is the pressure tank. You have no idea of what size pressure tank is needed. To make the most money, I sell you on a large pressure tank. I do this by saying that while any pres sure tank could be used, a large tank is much better and allows pump to last longer. This is true, but a 40-gallon tank would do fine, and I’ve just sold you a 120-gallon tank.

How else can I get the price up? Well, I can pitch you on the use of gate or ball valves, instead of stop-and-waste valves. Maybe lean on you to buy an in-line filter or some other type of water treatment condition. We could play this scenario out for several more pages, but it isn’t necessary. By now, you have a good idea of what I’m trying to tell you. The only way to protect yourself is to learn you can about wells and pump systems.

Wells and pump systems are not the only areas of home building that can put you at risk. Septic systems can present a lot of challenges. Indeed, septic systems are riskier than well systems. It is possible to find yourself in some major messes when you’re involved with private sewage disposal. To expand on this, let’s turn to the next section.
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Updated: Sunday, February 21, 2010 3:39