07 July 2011

Why Hand-Dug Wells Are Still Popular in Russia



Work gloves, short shovel, and a smile.  Missing?  A hard hat.


When summer comes to Zaloz’ye, our thoughts turn to wells!  Just last year we posted A Water Рассказ [hotlink] about the  ways we get water... off the roof, pumped from the lake, and from a well... and not always successfully.

News that Yuri would have a well dug got my brain splashing that may be we could get our shallow drilled well working again.  Why is it so hard to get a proper well drilled except nearer the  cities of Russia?  After all, it’s done by NGO charities in Haiti, Africa... even Tajikistan!

How Russians Think

Russians approach and think about things in a contrasting way to Westerners, especially Americans.  Their culture doesn’t like to anticipate possible negative results, as they feel this thinking is self fulfilling... asking for bad sud’ba (fate).  Because Americans don’t mind, and sometimes like, considering all possible results - good and bad - we are much more safety conscious.

Hand digging a well requires little expertise, not much money, just a lot of brawn.  It also can be dangerous work, especially for the digger.  Most hand dug wells are dug 20 to 60 feet down (6  to 18 meters) until water is found or the project is given up.

The Woodingdean Well in Brighton, England, was hand dug to 1285 feet (392 meters).  They had no water till after 1200 feet.  It’s as deep as the Empire State Building is high!

Yuri’s Well


Cranking up a paint can full of sandy soil.  That’s the third 1 meter caisson descending bit by bit.  The nearby banya bathhouse of Yuri’s neighbor indicates bad well siting.

I saw Yuri, my neighbor further up the road from the lake, once or twice a day hefting water jugs as he walked by.  He was getting water from his friend Volody.

Yuri and his family come to Zaloz’ye to rest... with no gardening and little grass cutting.  Now he has taken the step to have his own well.  He has money and smarts and, typically, doesn’t worry about the possible contamination drawbacks of a hand-dug well.

One evening I was walking back from a stroll to the lake when I heard and saw a large flatbed maneuvering on the road up by Yuri’s.  Getting closer I saw they were off loading seven large caissons, hooking and swinging them to the ground with a truck mounted derrick. 

The Digging Begins


Framework for the winch laid out in a way Archimedes would approve of... but just one nail at each juncture is a little shaky!  Caissons sealed with insulating bubble plastic instead of mortar.

Sasha, the contractor boss, and his crew had previously drilled some test holes and found water in a part of the large backyard. Ten days after delivering the caissons they arrived for two days of digging.

Precast caissons, concrete cylinders a meter deep and a meter in diameter, make the digging efficient and relatively safe from cave-in.  Our area has a lot of sand and clay, particular dangerous for a wall collapse.  I knew of a young contractor back in New Jersey who died when an unprotected ditch he was digging collapsed.

Once the first caisson is in place, the digger gets inside it, digs down all below him, including the soil under the rim.  Slowly, gradually, it sinks down until it’s time to add the second ring.  Mortar is often used to seal the joints, but this crew used a plastic bubble mixture. 

Earth Lifted Out, Caissons Slide Down


That’s the sociable boss Sasha on the left turninstrg the winch. 

The man below digs with attention to removing the dirt below the bottom caisson rim till it settles with the accumulated weight.   Soon it’s necessary to use the bucket, which is pulled out by winchmen topside.

One man turns the winch while the other pulls on the rope to make it easier to bring up the bucket (they used a large old paint can) full of sandy soil and small rock.

When I  touched the caisson rim on the top while it was settling lower, it slid slowly down at times... a strange feeling !

Russian has no positive word for Safety.


Side wall resistance was slowing the downward gravity... so boss and crew jumped on the rim.

Workers took turns for two caisson each. The man digging is the one at risk of a cave-in, asphyxiation, or an explosion of earth borne gases (such as methane) or a dropped bucket or tool on the head.  The work is hard and it can get hot down there.  The entrance/exit rope or ladder might break, or he can fall off.

It is typical of rural Russia that workers build ladders for each project.  Here though, they brought a long aluminum ladder, but did build the winch support structure specially for this project. The frame had one nail at each joint, seemed geometrically correct but wobbly, the steel rod holding the winch cylinder held in place with tamped down nails.

Century old technology now inappropriate except for Wild West Russia...



They gave up after six caissons, sealed the top, and will return to check the results and add both an electric and auxiliary hand pump if there’s enough water.

Using concrete caissons to build a well was new in 1908.  G. E. P. Smith in Arizona wrote an article explaining how it was done, and how wood plank built wells were unreliable after 10 years.  There’s been a lot of innovation since then, but still some homesteader types dig wells this way in the United States. 

Dug wells are cheaper by far, but unsafe and illegal in much of the USA because of surface and groundwater contamination.  Wells shouldn’t be located within 50 to 100 meters of an area where people wash.  In Yuri’s case this rule was ignored, (typical of Russia and Russians) even though his neighbor’s banya (bathhouse and  washroom) are just around ten meters away.

There are apparently no well construction codes or inspection requirements in Tverskaya oblast.  We have many wells in Zaloz’ye but I know of no one that has any well testing done or maintains their well with bleach treatments.   You are free to do whatever you want... including get sick... or poison the aquifer for everyone else.

We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.


Yuri saw his opportunity to write his way into history.

Russia always has had a paternalistic, authoritarian, government which doesn’t result in encouraging independent organization or thinking.  You do for yourself or not at all.  If people could adopt more of a group mentality it would be simple to arrange for some good wells to be  drilled here.

Great additional reading!  [hotlinks]

*** These forums I found fascinating and entertaining...  It’s astounding how deep and with what skill these wells were built a century ago in America!

     Breaktime forum about hand dug wells Fine Home Building

     Well digging early 1900s? in Ag Talk

*** Here’s a modern day account of a well dug way out in Montana... and other  worthwhile articles.

      How to Dig a Hand Dug Well by Ghost 32, Hubpages

      Understanding Water Wells  William A. Ashe, VITA volunteer.  Appears in Autonopedia... a wonderful resource.

      Hand Dug Wells in Inspectapedia.com, a good compendium of building information.

      Concrete Caisson Well by G. E. P. Smith, 1908.  No  hotlink... Just type ‘Concrete Caisson Well’  in Google Search and click Quick View. 

      Grandpappy... How to make water safe to drink.  Robert Wayne Atkins.

      Woodingdean Well  My Brighton and Hove, Deepest hand dug well in the world, Roy Grant


What’s been your experience with wells?  We’d  be happy to hear from you!  Just click comments on the next to last line of this post.



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