What Is a Water Well? • Earth.com • Earthpedia
water well

What Is a Water Well?

Around the world, water availability is a growing concern. According to the United Nations, “water use has been growing globally at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century.” In simpler terms, there are now more people and less water than ever. Today, let’s better understand, what is a water well?

Water Well Vocabulary

In our discussions about water wells, we’ll need to understand a few vocabulary words. Let’s take a look at some of the basic terminology.

    • Well: Any hole that is drilled, dug, or excavated for access to liquids is defined as a well. We are specifically discussing water wells, but other kinds exist too, like oil wells.
    • Surface water: This is any water that exists on, rather than under, the ground. Streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds are all examples.
    • Groundwater: In contrast to surface water, this type of water is underground. Typically, it is trapped between holes and pores in the deep rock and soil.
    • Aquifer: These are more or less underground “lakes.” Aquifers are areas of highly concentrated groundwater
    • Water table: This is a slightly more complex term. The water table refers to the depth below the ground at which the soil or rock is completely saturated with H2O. When the level of the water table is above ground, we see a river, stream, lake, or other body of H2O. Depending on location, the water table can be at many different depths. The figure below visually explains.
water table diagram

Image by Jojko,sivek via Wikimedia Commons

Who Needs a Well?

The short answer to this question is simple: whoever needs water. For many Americans, their only necessary supply of H2O comes from their tap. This water is considered municipal water as it is provided by the city. There are a few different kinds of people that may need a well.

Rural America

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), roughly 43 million people in America rely on private wells as their source of drinking water. That totals approximately 15% of the US population. Often, these individuals live far enough away from a municipal water supply that running a pipe to the property isn’t feasible. 


Similar to rural Americans, farmers may need wells even if they also have a municipal water supply. This is due to the volume of H2O that is necessary to water even small numbers of livestock. Cattle generally require about 1 gallon of water for every 100 pounds of body mass. The average cow weighs about 1,400 pounds. This means that a farmer that only has 10 cattle will still need about 150 gallons of H2O, per day, just to water the cattle. That’s the equivalent of adding two additional people to your home! This also doesn’t include any other H2O needs that cattle have such as growing feed crops, washing barns, etc. 

water well

Image by 947051 via Pixabay.

How to Dig a Water Well

Now that we know what a well is and who may need one, let’s dig into how to create a well!

Site Selection

First, the decision of where the well should be placed needs to be made. Several things may influence where a well can or should go:

    • Other buried objects: Call before you dig! Most homes have buried electrical wires, gas pipes, and water mains. Digging before you have an expert check your property is reckless and dangerous. After the property is marked, you’ll know what spots the well absolutely cannot go.
    • Water table depth: As we discussed before, the water table is the level at which the soil is saturated with water. Practically, this is the minimum depth at which a well needs to be dug. A hydrologist can assist in estimating the water table on your property. On small properties, the depth is unlikely to differ by much. On large properties, though, the table could differ by 20 feet or more. A shallower table means less digging.
    • Intended use: Where the well is located also depends on its purpose. A well for personal drinking use should be located near the home. A well for cattle would logically be located closer to the cattle and possibly farther away from the house.

Digging a Well

Now that you’ve selected the site for your well, it’s time to dig! Broadly, there are two kinds of digging machines (augers) to choose from.

    • Manual (hand) auger: You’ll first have to, obviously, dig a hole. You (ideally) already have an idea of how deep the water table is, so you’ll need to decide which method of digging to utilize. A hand auger is relatively cheap and accessible. Estimations for the amount of time per vertical foot dug, but you can bet somewhere in the realm of 2-5 per hour. Thus, a 30-foot well could very well take two eight-hour days in tough soil.
    • Mechanical auger: For particularly dense soils or wells deeper than 30 feet, a mechanical auger is going to be necessary. These are giant, truck-mounted machines that do the digging hydraulically. 

Adding Casing and Pipe

Now that the hole is dug, it’s time for the actual piping. Wells usually consist of two pipes: a casing pipe and a well pipe. The pipe casing simply drops into the dug hole and helps provide support to the cavity. The well pipe is the actual pumping pipe. The well pipe goes inside of the casing pipe. The casing pipe will extend all the way to the bottom of the hole, and the well pipe will fall a few feet short of the bottom. Both will rise 3-4 feet above the ground.

Pumping Time

Industrial wells usually contain large, electric pumps. These are fantastic for pumping large amounts of water. For a smaller well, though, an electric pump will be expensive and unnecessary. Thankfully, pitcher pumps are cheap, easy to use, and reliable. Once the pump is added, water can be reliably produced from a home well. 

[Featured image by PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay]

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