Making a splash: Why drilling your own water well can pay for itself within two years
Water charges were introduced in Ireland back in January 2015, but as we know, they didn't last long. After countless protests and political bargaining, the charges were eventually suspended in July 2016.
The situation now is that ongoing domestic charges for 'normal' use of water have ceased, but any household using amounts of water over a specified threshold will be charged.
That threshold figure is 213,000 litres per year - the equivalent of 583 litres (or 128 gallons) per day.
Household water usage figures from the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) show that the average water usage for a four-person household in Ireland is 125,000 litres a year, so the threshold is approximately 1.7 times that.
The monitoring of water usage under the new charging regime began on January 1 this year. Usage will be monitored for a full year to the end of 2018.
Those households identified as using water above this threshold will be notified at the beginning of 2019. They will be given a six-month period during which they can reduce their water usage - if they don't do so, they will be charged for any usage above the threshold for that period.
What will the water charges be? The cost isn't set yet, but a figure being used in some sample calculations by the CER is €3.70 per 1,000 litres. At that rate, a household using 50,000 litres of water over the annual threshold would be billed €185 in water charges for the year.
Sinking a well
One way of bypassing whatever charge system eventually comes into being is through the use of a private well that isn't connected to the public supply. Traditionally, a lot of farmers and other rural dwellers have gone down this route.
It makes sense if you use a large amount of water, if your home is far from a public or group water scheme or the quality of water coming from either of those schemes isn't up to scratch.
On paper, it's a no-brainer - sink your own well and to hell with whatever water charges are coming.
However, a close look at the costs is advised before going down this route. There can be high initial costs involved as well as ongoing charges for things like pump maintenance and well repair.
The total cost of sinking a well depends on the volume of water you need to get out of it. Industry experts I spoke to estimated it usually costs a minimum of €3,000 to €3,500 to build and kit out your own well.
You first need to drill and line the well, and farmers generally need to have a wider bore well because water demand will be higher than for domestic use (a domestic well usually has a six-inch bore diameter while a farming or commercial-use well may need an eight-inch bore). As bore size increases, the cost of drilling the well rises.
Let's take two scenarios common in the farming sector.
100-cow dairy operator
The first case, Farmer A, is a 100-cow dairy operator in Cork who needs an average supply of 2,500 gallons of water per day (a typical dairy cow will drink an incredible 20 gallons of water on a warm day when milking).
The cost of the actual drilling and installation of the pump would be in the region of €4,500. You then must add the cost of the pump itself which, for this range of output, would be around €1,500.
If you are in a hard water area you may then also need to consider installing a water softener so as not to damage the milk cooling unit.
This can add another €1,500 to the price, taking the total cost to €7,500.
Dry stock farmer with 80 head of cattle
The second scenario is Farmer B, a dry stock farmer in Leitrim with 80 head of cattle who needs an average supply of 1,200 gallons per day (the average dry cow will drink 10-12 gallons of water per day).
The pump cost will not change, again coming in at €1,500.
However, the cost of drilling the well and pump installation will be less as a smaller bore might be possible and potentially less depth needed - let's say €2,500.
Assuming the same treatment is required for impurities and hard water etc, add on another €1,500 and it takes you to €5,500 for our dry stock farmer.
Using these examples, it is easy to see how cost will vary for differing demands and farm types.
Regardless of the farm type, there is no getting away from a minimum price if sinking your own farm well of around €3,500 all in.
Remember, too, that both systems will need to factor in things like pump maintenance. Most pumps these days have a life span of about 15 years.
What do these figures mean in terms of the payback? The cost of using 2,500 gallons of water per day if on the mains system works out at around €15 per day at current commercial rates.
The dairy farmer obviously won't use this much water every day of the year, but even if he used the maximum demand for 200 days of the year, that equates to a total water charge of €3,000 per annum.
This would give an impressive two-year payback period. Meanwhile, our dry stock man's payback period would be marginally longer - but not by much - at around three years.
From these figures, it is clear that the payback looks attractive for farm and commercial wells where usage is high.
However, for a domestic application, where usage is usually not higher than 200 gallons per day, the figures in terms of payback aren't as convincing.
Even at the cheapest scenario possible, with total installation costs of €3,000 for a small well and pump, paying water charge rates (particularly now that they only kick in over a certain threshold) looks more palatable.
Planning permission and grants
You don’t have to get planning permission for a private well provided the quantity that will be pumped is less than five million litres per day.
Few domestic or farm applications would exceed that quantity.
However, one caveat on the planning permission rules is that if building the likes of a new dairy unit where you intend to sink a well, you must outline on the plan where you intend to sink the well.
There are no grants available to farmers for sinking wells as it is deemed to be commercial use.
Domestic applicants may be able to get a grant from their local authority if they’re upgrading an existing well or building a new one.
The maximum grant available is €2,031.58, or three quarters of the cost of the work — whichever is less. To be eligible for a grant, your house must be more than seven years old and not already connected to either a public or group water scheme.
If building your own well, be sure you follow the very useful guidelines on water well construction drawn up by the Institute of Geologists of Ireland (these can be found at www.igi.ie).
This is a really helpful resource and it has been drawn up with input from experts in the field including respected drilling contractors, geologists and engineers.
Approximately 130,000 households in Ireland depend on their own private water supply, usually a borehole, and yet Ireland currently has no statutory regulations concerning water well drilling and groundwater abstraction.
Consequently, there are inconsistent standards of construction of boreholes, so caution is urged for anyone looking to sink a well. Be sure to choose a reputable contractor from whom you can get references for previous jobs done.
A google search will show that well drilling contractors can be found throughout the country and are competitively priced.
Many private water wells in Ireland are polluted, at least intermittently, due to poor planning or drilling too close to a septic tank with obvious serious implications for public health.
It is important that water wells are only drilled in locations which minimise the likelihood that the well will be polluted by, for example, septic tanks, farmyard run-off or slurry spreading. Some of the key specifications include the fact that well heads should be constructed so as to ensure that surface water and shallow groundwater, which are likely to be polluted, cannot enter the well.
Another is that wells must be cased and grouted to an adequate depth, the casing and grout must meet certain minimum standards and the placing of the casing and grout must meet a certain specification.
Getting the equipment safely on to and off your farm in order to drill the well must be planned in advance. These are impressive machines in operation — they can weigh up to 40 tonnes and be over 8ft wide so access is an important consideration.
They are also tall vehicles when the drilling process begins, so due care must be given to things like overhead power lines or low hanging trees on the farm, low bridges en route to the drilling site and any soft ground where the rig could potentially get stuck.
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