Residential Well Houses – A Step Forward from Well Pits – Maybe
In the early 1950s we did not yet have a statewide well code and, in fact, well drilling and pump installation was unregulated — at least at the residential level. Understanding the problems of well pits, local health department officials began urging, in some cases requiring, that residential and commercial wells be completed inside a well house. Larger wells for municipalities and factories had been completed like this for quite some time. I think the local HDs even had prepared suggested plans for such structures. These well houses were designed to be about 6 feet square inside with a ceiling high enough that a man could stand up in it. Also recommended in this cold climate was a so-called three-wall construction that is three layers of material that form the wall with two insulated spaces or air spaces in between. These were not unlike triple-paned windows, which are quite common today. As I recall, a concrete floor was recommended without a drain. However, I remember some floors being of coarse stone.
Now the advantages of such a house were somewhat limited but did include the absence of flooding and, as they all had a walk-in door, access was much easier and safer than into a well pit. This is another case, though, of the idea being good but the result being not so good. Unlike municipal well houses, most of these were built by the homeowner or a local carpenter. They generally used the cheapest wood or wood-type fiber board available on the inner two walls. The outside wall was often done in wooden clapboard siding. Sometimes everything was painted and sometimes not. Ventilation was somewhat of an afterthought and even with the three walls and double doors freezing could occur in severe weather here in the North. Much like the well pit, a properly constructed and maintained well house was a pretty good thing. Also like the well pit, very few met these requirements. These houses did indeed have some advantages over well pits.
However, these houses had several disadvantages also. As the ventilation was usually inadequate, moisture — especially on warm, humid days like it is in Michigan as I write this — formed on not only the pumping equipment, tanks and so forth, but also on the walls, leading to rapid deterioration. A number of these houses were built too small and of not a very good quality. A municipal or commercial well house probably had the local operating engineer or maintenance people checking the house on a regular basis and this kept them in usually good condition. Another drawback was just like the basement offset. These houses offered a great storage space and it seems that homeowners have always needed more storage space as evidenced by the for-rent storage facilities that are everywhere in 2015. Also, many home owners found an extra little house on their property to be unsightly, even if handy. Oh yes, we can’t forget our friendly rodents who found these a warm and cozy space in the wintertime.
One last difficulty these houses presented was that the roof had an inadequate access hatch. If the pump or drop pipe was very heavy, a well rig had to be used and tilted backwards to reach into the house with an operator outside on the controls and a helper inside loosening and tightening pipe — an unsafe situation at best. With the advent of the hydraulically operated pump hoists, most of which have remote control, service did become easier and safer.
As you can see, while the residential well house seemed like a good idea, the disadvantages heavily outweighed the advantages and these were only recommended for a short time, in fact only for a few years. They were a stopgap method of pump operation here in the frozen North but were quickly replaced by pitless adapters, which are in use today and a huge advantage in access and sanitary operation, and are inexpensive to boot compared to other means.
I must end this column on a sad note. Very recently Sherry Cameron, the wife of Michigan Ground Water Association Past President Dan Cameron, a well contractor from Free Soil, Mich., suffered a severe stroke and passed away a few days later. Sherry was in her late 50s and certainly left us at way too young in age. We saw both Sherrie and Dan at our recent MGWA Convention in Battle Creek. They did not look or act any different than they had in years. Dan, you have the deepest sympathy of both Shirley and myself.
Readers, I will forget the weather report for today and mention that Sherry’s death is a reminder of how fragile life itself is. Take a couple minutes today to call a colleague or friend and just shoot the breeze. You both will be better for it.
For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/schmitt.