For Residential Use, Rainwater Cisterns Were Once Common
Since I was a small child, I have enjoyed movies. I used to go to a lot of them with my parents and, later, my girlfriend (to whom I have now been married for 59 years). We don’t go to the theater much at all anymore, as many of the movies playing don’t sound attractive to us. We do watch a lot of movies on TV though. We enjoy presentations on TCM (Turner Classic Movies), AMC (American Movie Classics), the Sony Movie channel and several others. The other evening, we watched a 1960s romantic comedy that starred Rock Hudson and Doris Day. The title of the movie was “Pillow Talk,” and the main idea was the difficulty these two had sharing a party telephone line. They went through a lot of trials and tribulations but, like many movies in the ’60s, things ended up well and they got married in the end.
Younger readers may be wondering what a party line was. I can assure you it was not a 1-800-talk-to-hot-chicks phone line. It was a single line that served several homes. Each home had its own coded ring. For example, a home’s ring might be one long ring, or it might be a long and a short ring, or perhaps two long rings and a short one. When you heard your coded ring, you picked up and talked just like we do today. If you were a bit nosey and not afraid of anyone, you could pick up the receiver and listen in on the conversation of other persons on the party line. You’re probably saying, “What has this got to do with wells, pumps and water supply?” It’s rather simple: In this day and age of multiple private lines, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter and other electronic features people are used to, they would never, ever in 2018 accept a party line.
Another thing people would never, ever accept anymore is water pumped straight from the ground — at least the vast majority wouldn’t. A now retired regulator from our Michigan Department of Public Health once said to me, “John, virtually all the groundwater in Michigan is safe to drink straight from the well, but much of it is not acceptable in that manner as it contains iron, other minerals and is hard.” This fellow was absolutely right. So this begins a series of columns on water conditioning and problems of water quality — not safety — I have encountered in my career in southeast Michigan. First, I want to write a little bit about a stopgap method of getting soft water that carried on for many, many years. This method was the use of cistern water.
If you’re young, you may have never seen a cistern. It is basically a tank of some sort, usually in the ground. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but they’re usually built of brick and mortar or stone. There were even some made from using the corner of a basement wall and building two other sides to make a rectangular tank, oftentimes with an open top. Whatever the type of tank, these systems stored rainwater. Homes that had a cistern had eavestroughs that were equipped with downspouts with a two-way valve. If the cistern was low, the valves were set to conduct rainwater through pipes and tubes into the cistern. If a lot of rain came, the valve could move to an open position and the rainwater would fall onto the ground instead of collecting in the cistern.
My parents built a brand new house that we moved into in late February 1941. This was a Cape Cod-style house of brick construction with a full basement, one bathroom, three bedrooms, living room, dining room and kitchen. Water was supplied by a good 2-inch well that was 53 feet deep. A short time after we moved in, my father built a cistern. He borrowed his boss’ 2-ton Ford truck, and he and I went to where a building had been demolished and bought a load of used bricks. These bricks had been cleaned of mortar by hard-working persons who badly needed to make some money. The cleaning was done with a pick hammer not unlike a welder’s hammer of today. I believe the deal my dad made was a certain amount of money for an entire truckload.
We proceeded to overload this 2-ton truck severely and head home. On the outskirts of Ann Arbor on a busy street during rush hour, we hit a bump and dumped about 100 bricks out onto the street — the truck having no tailgate. At the age of 6-years-old, I got the job of handing the bricks to my father up on the truck, and we reloaded them and proceeded on our way. He used these bricks to make a good-sized cistern, round in shape and tapering to a small opening at the top. It was covered with a cast iron manhole cover. It must have been big enough, because I never remember running out of cistern water. My father then hooked up a shallow well pump to a pipe leading from near the bottom of the cistern into the basement. My mother now had soft cistern water, or rainwater as it should correctly be called, to use for washing. The fact that the rainwater probably contained some dissolved bird droppings never occurred to us. This system was typical of many thousands of installations in our area. In fact, a house in the country without a cistern was a rarity.
So the water piping system of a typical home consisted of a hard water line from the well, which was used for getting drinking and cooking water, and hot and cold soft water lines both fed from the cistern pump. Most systems — and I think ours was like this — had a cross connection between the hard water from the well and the soft water from the cistern. This connection had a valve in it. Using this arrangement and several valves, hard water could be run into the soft water lines or soft water into the hard water lines. If the well pump quit and the cistern had water in it, the homeowner could run cistern water throughout the house. Likewise, if the cistern was dry, hard water could run through the entire system. The fact that contaminated rainwater was being fed to the entire water system didn’t seem to occur to anyone. My wife grew up two counties over from where I grew up, in a farm house with a cistern. She was warned to never drink the cistern water — good advice from her parents. These so-called bypasses or cross connections are now illegal in Michigan, as they should be.
As I wrote earlier, I doubt many people would put up with a cistern water system in their house in 2018. I do understand that our environmental friends recommend catching rainwater in a barrel and using it to water flowers and garden plants. That is a good use for it. The search for good, clean, iron-free soft water led to the use of what we now call water conditioning equipment. My next few columns will be about my experience with these “machines.”
As of this writing, my wife Shirley and I will be leaving for the 2018 Michigan Ground Water Association Conference in five days. I will probably do a report on that event, as the schedule for it is far, far different from years past.
We have had an almost weird winter in southern Michigan. We get some snow that is deep enough to be plowed, and then a few days later, it has melted off except in piles. This has happened three or four times. The temps have been very low, with figures at or near 0 degrees Fahrenheit. About 10 days ago, we got a 9-inch snowfall, which was not too hard to handle with tractors and snowplows. It has pretty much all melted off and, as I look out the window while I write this, only about 30 percent of the ground has any snow on it at all. And what’s left is only a half-inch deep. Until next time — as always, work hard, work safely and please don’t drink any cistern water.