An Introduction to the Art of Developing a Spring Water Source
Being from rural Appalachia, I grew up around springs. On hot summer outings with my father, he used to show me secret roadside oases where an old pipe stuck out of the hillside, spouting the sweetest, most refreshing water I ever tasted. And I’ll never forget the feeling of reverence that comes from stepping into the cool, silent stillness of the old walk-in springhouses that used to serve as both water source and refrigerator before the days of indoor plumbing.
Nowadays, it’s far more common to drill a well than to develop a spring (often referred to as heading up or capping) for a home water source, and for good reason. Modern well drilling machinery and electric water pumps give us the flexibility to build and live anywhere there is any groundwater at all.
Still, in an off-grid setting, it can make sense to use spring water, which has some significant perks, like low cost and potential for gravity water.
Art, Not Science
Heading up a spring is a traditional skill. Corralling a hillside trickle or a wet spot in the ground into pipes is a pre-industrial practice that has been passed down from generation to generation within a community. The old-timers who know the most about heading up will tell you that it requires patience and finesse. Too much heavy machinery or rough treatment can make you lose a spring forever.
It is also a reality check. Modernity tends to insulate us from the icky realities of life. Just as we buy nicely packaged meat from the grocery store, heedless of slaughter houses and packing plants, we turn the tap without a second thought to where that water comes from. If you craft and maintain your own water system, you will have to get over any squeamishness about mud and maybe a salamander or two.
Why Springs Happen
Springs occur because some soils are more permeable than others. Rainwater seeps straight down through more permeable layers of soil, getting filtered and purified along the way. When the water encounters a less permeable layer, it tends to spread out horizontally, looking for a path downward. There are many types of springs. When the edge of an impermeable layer occurs along a hillside, the water “springs forth” and runs along the surface, hence, “spring.” This kind of spring, where the water emerges at a well defined point of discharge, is referred to as a concentrated spring. These tend to be associated with steeper hillsides and greater differences of elevation. You are lucky indeed if you have this kind of spring on your property.
The other kind of spring is a seepage spring. Seepage springs occur closer to a valley floor and filter up through the ground over a larger, less defined area. These springs can be more challenging to capture and keep isolated from surface water.
The most important consideration for developing a spring is keeping your water clean.
Groundwater is essentially filtered water, as mentioned before. Surface water is unfiltered, potentially contaminated, and not suitable for drinking. You are trying to create a sealed supply chain from the subterranean water to your plumbing system with no infiltration from surface water. This is easier with concentrated springs that flow out from a specific point than it is with seepage springs.
The other important factor is outflow. How much water will your spring produce? In parts of the country with a lot of variation in seasonal rainfall, this can fluctuate a lot. A spring that looks very productive in March may slow down to a tiny dribble in August, or disappear altogether. Before deciding to rely on a spring as your sole water source, it is best to observe its outflow in the driest conditions you can. Estimates for how much water you will need range from 50-75 gallons per person per day. This sounds like a lot, but spread out over 24 hours, a fairly modest flow will satisfy this kind of demand. For example, a family of four using 75 gallons a day would need 300 gallons. Spread over the 1,440 minutes in a day, this comes out to just over three cups per minute. We are not talking about Niagara Falls, here!
Can I Skip the Pump?
Finally, you want to know whether you have the potential for gravity water. Gravity water is a great benefit to anyone,but especially those who live off-grid, since no pumping will be required and maintenance is minimal.
To know whether you can have gravity water, you will have to determine how much head, or difference in elevation there is between your potential water reservoir and your house. There are inexpensive sight levels for this sort of measurement or you can make a kind of informal transit by sighting along a normal level. Starting at your house (or potential building site), sight along the level to a spot on the ground in the direction of the spring. Walk over to that spot and repeat until you reach the level of the potential reservoir and multiply the number of times you had to sight by the height of your eye.
For every foot of drop from reservoir to point of use, you will get 0.43 psi of water pressure. A web search of minimum required water pressure will give estimates from 20-40 psi. That amounts to 46-92 feet of head.
If you happen to have more than 46 feet of head between your house and your reservoir, great. Think no more about water pressure. If you have less, I wouldn’t necessarily declare gravity water a lost cause. You’ve got to look at minimum water pressure in the context of your own needs and priorities. How important is it to you to have gravity water? What might you be willing to give up for it? Do you have to satisfy your local building official? What kinds of appliances do you need to run?
Stated reasons I have seen for the water pressure minimums are that certain appliances require 20 psi to work and that there must be enough pressure to run different fixtures at the same time. For example, someone taking a shower shouldn’t notice a reduced flow because the toilet was flushed or the kitchen faucet was turned on.
This line of thinking is reasonable but it makes an assumption about the values of the homeowner. Do you mind if you have to wait until someone is done with a shower before you can water the Azaleas? Some people would gladly run one water source at a time if it meant saving $10,000 – $20,000, no drain on the electrical system, and never having the water go out.
Appliances like dishwashers and washing machines can run too low on water if they fill on a timer that assumes a certain pressure, hence a certain amount of water per second coming in. However, there are appliances that directly sense the water level itself. These can work just fine with “substandard” pressure. I myself have used a Frigidaire Affinity front loading washing machine for nearly ten years with water pressure of 7-8 psi.
If you travel to developing countries, you will see a lot of people living very contentedly with a water tank on the roof of a one story house or mounted on a tower 15-20 feet tall. It turns out that having enough pressure to cut a board in two with your garden hose just isn’t a basic requirement for human life.
Heading Up / Capping the Spring
Once you know you want to go through with developing the spring, you will have to capture the water into a pipe. This is where the art comes in. Your approach will have to vary depending on the character of your site, tools and materials available, and your skill level.
The idea is to get the water flowing into some kind of enclosure with a pipe coming out of it so that it can flow into a reservoir. The enclosure must then be covered and protected from infiltration by surface water.
The easiest springs to cap are those that emerge from bedrock on a steep hillside. These can be as easy as digging back a little, chiseling out a channel for setting a pipe into, then hand sculpting a small dam around the pipe with hydraulic cement. Put a removable cover over the dam, dig a diversion ditch, and you’re done.
Most springs will require a little more work. If you are nowhere near the bedrock, you will have to dig back a few feet into the hillside until you get something like a terrace with a trickle of water coming out just above it. You want your enclosure to rest on this little terrace with an opening at the back to let the water in and a pipe to let the water out. The outlet pipe should be fitted with a strainer to keep debris or (gasp) tiny animals out of your plumbing.
The enclosure or spring box shouldn’t be too deep, or the back pressure could cause the water flow to divert elsewhere. It should have a cover for inspection and to service to the screen on the outlet pipe.
You can cap a spring that amounts to little more than a soggy spot on the ground, but it should still be on enough of a slope that runoff water can be diverted around it. The tactics employed for this type of spring involve digging out the wet area and backfilling with gravel. A drain tile or perforated pipe in the gravel captures the water below the surface. The water is piped out through a trench running downhill and into a spring box as described above. The whole system is covered with plastic and/or packed clay to keep out surface water. Once again, there should be a diversion ditch to channel rainwater away from the spring.
After you finish heading up your spring, it’s a good idea to give the whole system an initial shock chlorination. This eliminates any biological contamination you might have inadvertently introduced in the process of heading up. After all the bleach has drained away, you should send off a water sample to be tested for chemical contaminants, bacteria, etc.
A water supply is seldom perfect. Whether you get your water from a well, a spring, or municipal source, there is often something not to like about it. If your water looks or tastes a little, “off” there are steps you can take to correct minor issues with your water quality.
To be clear, I am talking about relatively minor problems. If your test results come back showing high levels of things like heavy metals, chemical, or radiological contaminants, you have no business piping such water into your home. By all means, abandon the project.
If, on the other hand, you only have a small amount of grit or sediment coming through your plumbing, a simple point-of-entry filter can solve the problem. These filters are available in different mesh sizes for different target sediments. There are also carbon filters that will go some way towards absorbing tastes and smells.
Sometimes a spring water supply is very suitable for cleaning, bathing, and laundry, but doesn’t quite make good drinking water. This is especially true with surface water. In such cases, a gravity-fed filter is a popular and satisfying option. A gravity-fed solution like the Big Berkey water purifier doesn’t require electricity, is easily portable and will not strip out the beneficial minerals from your spring water. These two-chamber units sit on your kitchen countertop, or at the campsite. Pour water into the upper chamber, and out the tap on the lower chamber comes clean, delicious water for drinking and cooking.
If you are lucky enough to have this resource and you decide to go the route of developing it, you are in good company. In many parts of the country, using spring water is still a mainstay of rural life. Besides being a convenient source of water, heading up and using springwater is a time-honored link to the past and represents membership in a present day rustic fraternity.