In This Article
Siting a Well
Dug Wells
Driven Wells
Drilled Wells                  View all WATER WELL articles

Wells can vary a great deal in depth required, flow rate, and water quality. Before buying a lot with a well in place, you should get the reported flow rate in writing and an up-to-date water quality report, readily available from most municipal health departments. Ask the local health inspector about their water testing procedures, which are usually inexpensive and well worth the cost and effort. If problems are detected with the water quality, these need to be identified and resolved before proceeding.

Also pay attention to the flow rate. While a good flow rate today does not guarantee a good flow rate in other seasons, an experienced local well driller should be able to give you a good idea about the flow characteristics of wells in your vicinity and alert you to any potential problems.

If there is no well in place, you should talk to at least two well drillers in the area, as well as neighbors, about well depths, flow rates, and water quality in the area. The local water management office may also be able to assist you with information about local groundwater. This will provide a good indication of whether and how you will be able to meet your expected water needs.

For example, if you need a lot more water than your nearest neighbors, you may need to drill deeper or drill more than one well. If a very deep well is needed, you will need to budget accordingly. However, well drilling is based on an educated guess of underground conditions — there are no guarantees.

If you do not yet own the land, and the availability of adequate water is in question, you may want to make your bid contingent upon drilling a test well of sufficient flow rate and water quality. This will cost you few thousand dollars, but could save you many thousands more.

Aquifers are natural areas of water storage under the ground. While many people think of aquifers as underground pools, they typically consist of areas of permeable sand

 The water table forms the top of an unconfined aquifer where the water must be pumped to the surface. Where the water is confined between impermeable layers, the water may rise to surface under natural pressure, creating and artesian well. CLICK TO ELARGE Courtesy of USGS

The water table forms the top of an unconfined aquifer where the water must be pumped to the surface. Where the water is confined between impermeable layers, the water may rise to surface under natural pressure, creating and artesian well. CLICK TO ELARGE Courtesy of USGS

and gravel , and cracks in solid rock where water is able to slowly flow. How much water the rock and granular soil can hold depends on how much open space exists between the particles, called its porosity. This ranges from 0 in solid rock to about 30 or 40 percent in gravel and sand.

Aquifers have a bottom, where the soil or rock is impermeable, and a top, called the water table. The water table may rise to the surface of the earth at a natural spring, or at a pond or lake, but usually it is well below the surface. Water tables can be a few feet thick or hundreds of feet from top to bottom and can range in area from the size of a pond to hundreds of miles across. Aquifers are replenished primarily by rainwater that percolates though the soil.

Unconfined vs. Confined Aquifers. In an unconfined aquifer, the top of the aquifer is the water table and the water must be pumped upward (see Illustration). If an aquifer is confined between bedrock and another layer of impermeable material, such as clay, the water may be under pressure and rise above the aquifer when drilled into. In some cases, the water will rise all the way to surface without a pump, creating an artesian well.

To reach the aquifer, you may need to drill 30 feet or 500 feet. Aquifers tend to follow the slope of the land above and water tends to move slowly through the aquifer following the slope. The rate of flow depends largely on the permeability of the rock and other material in the aquifer. When water is pumped from the aquifer by a well, it is drawn down in a area around the well. The more permeable the material in the aquifer around the well, the faster the well area will be replenished and the greater the well’s flow rate.

Depending on the geology, there may be and adequate supply of pure water relatively near the surface, or you may need to drill into deep water-bearing rock to get adequate flow and flow. Based on their knowledge of local conditions, an experienced well driller or hydrologist can help determine the best strategy.

A knowledgeable well driller, or if necessary, a hydrogeologist or hydrologist, should be consulted to help site your well. Where to drill for water is an important decision.  In some cases, with a well-mapped aquifer and many wells nearby, it is highly probably that you will hit good water at a certain depth. In arid regions with few wells nearby, it may be less clear.  In this business,  however, there are no guaranties that you will find water of sufficient yield and quality — or find it at all. So take you time in choosing a well site.

Your goal is to determine what location, depth, and well diameter is most likely to provide the best flow rate and water quality for the least money. It is important to maintain adequate clearance from septic tanks, leach field, roadways, and agricultural uses such as pastures and silos. In some cases, the building code will specify a minimum depth, setback from the property line, and distance from septic systems and other sources of contamination. Some require the well to be uphill from the septic system, a commonsense idea, but not always feasible on small lots where you will inevitably be downhill from someone else’s septic system if not your own. Regardless of code requirements, you will want to follow industry standards and a professional’s recommendations for a safe and dependable water source.

There are also practical concerns about distance from the house and access of drilling equipment and for maintenance. A site far from the house will increase the costs of wiring and plumbing from well to house. In addition, you may have preferences, such as not wanting the well in your front yard or in the middle of your future garden – so make sure you approve of the well site before drilling begins.

In some rural areas, homeowners still get their water from shallow, dug wells. Historically, these were dug by hand to just below the water table and lined with fieldstone, brick, or interlocking concrete tile (in newer wells), and capped with wood, stone, or concrete cover. They were typically 3 or 4 feet in diameter and typically from 10 to 30 or so feet deep, but in some cases were over 50 ft. deep. In the old days, a bucket or hand pump was commonly used, but most now use an electric pump.
Dug wells typically penetrate into just the top layer of the aquifer or into a small perched water table, which is separated from the larger aquifer below by an impermeable layer of soil. Water levels in these wells tend to fluctuate with seasonal variations in the water table and may dry up during extended dry spells. Modern shallow wells are typically excavated or bored with power equipment and lined with concrete tile. Because these can go deeper into the water table, they can produce a more reliable water supply than hand-dug wells.

Because traditional dug wells typically draw on shallow groundwater and lack a continuous casing, they are highly susceptible to contamination from nearby septic systems and from surface sources such as agricultural runoff, lawn chemicals, and other pollutants. However, dug wells can produce high-quality water they are designed and located properly. They should have a sealed casing and be located away from ponds or streams, and uphill from septic systems, livestock, and fuel tanks (see illustration).

 If used for drinking water, a dug well should have a watertight case and concrete cap. The space between the well casing and borehole should be sealed with cement grout or benonite clay. Source: US EPA CLICK TO ENLARGE

If used for drinking water, a dug well should have a watertight case and concrete cap. The space between the well casing and borehole should be sealed with cement grout or benonite clay. Source: US EPA         CLICK TO ENLARGE

For safety and good performance, dug wells used for drinking water should

• be dug during the dry season to reach deep enough into the water table
• have a watertight casing, such as large-diameter precast-concrete pipe, which sits on a sand or gravel base at the well bottom
• be located on high ground, not subject to flooding, and sloped away in all directions from the well
• have a tight-fitting cover at the top of the casing, about one foot above the ground
• have a pump in the inside your house or in a pump house to protect equipment, storage tank, and piping
• use a pitless adapter in cold regions to provide a frost-proof, sanitary seal to the water line
• be 100 feet away from farm animals, cesspools, or leach fields
• be 75 feet away from property you do not control
• be 25 to 50 feet away from drainage ditches or culverts


Where conditions are right, driven wells are an economical alternative. These are often used for cabins or vacation cottages where there is groundwater within about 15 feet of the surface. They are made by driving a small-diameter pipe, by hand or power tools, into water-bearing sand or gravel that lies above the bedrock. A screened well point, designed to filter out sediment, is typically attached to the bottom of the pipe before driving. Under favorable conditions, the pipe can be driven up to about 30 feet by hand, and 50 or more feet with a power driver.

There are a variety of ways to complete a driven well. Often the connection to the discharge pipe is made underground using a pitless adaptor. The access pit must be dug around the well to below the frost line in cold climates. Depending on local codes the pit can later be backfilled or can be lined with concrete tile and cap, similar to a dug well. The pump may be located inside the home or on top of the well within the concrete tile or a pump house.

Because these wells are simple and inexpensive, some people drill two and plumb them together for a better yield. However, like dug wells, they reach only shallow water, making them susceptible to contamination from surface sources.

Most modern wells are drilled by rotary drills to a depth of 100 to 500 feet to reach the water table. The bottom of the well may be in granular material or fractured rock. Courtesy of American Groundwater Trust

Over 15 million homes in the US draw their water from private wells and millions more use water drawn from municipal wells. Nearly all of these are drilled wells (see illustration). Most modern wells are drilled by rotary drill machines, which can easily drill though solid rock. In some cases, a cable-tool drilling rig is used, also referred to as a percussion or “pounder” machine. In this technique, a heavy bit attached to the bottom of a wire cable is repeatedly raised and dropped, pounding its way down through the earth. Most private wells range from 100 to 500 feet deep, but in rare cases can exceed 1,000 feet.

The well design will depend on the specific geological conditions at the site. Most wells are drilled an inch or two wider than the casing diameter, which is commonly 6 inches. In the upper portion of the well, unless it is solid rock, the space between the casing and the drilled hole is later “grouted” with cement or bentonite (a special expansive clay). This seals the drilling hole to prevent contaminated surface water from migrating down the well casing to the aquifer. Depending on conditions, the bottom of the well may be drilled into solid rock, drawing its water from cracks in the rock.

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  1. Ezekiel E.A. says:

    I unsuccessfully drilled for water on my property. I drilled over 300ft, but a neighbor whose property is located about 350 ft. away from mine succeeded to get good water. A key problem, in my view, is that local drillers in my area are not that knowledgable, but rather “learn by doing”. My question: Is there a way to really find out whether there is water on a particular piece of land? Many thanks

    • buildingadvisor says:

      Knowing where to drill for water is a matter of both art and science. An experienced well driller is usually a good resource, but maybe not so in your case. However, even the most experienced well driller can strike out from time to time, as water flow underground is never 100% predictable. No one can guarantee that a drilled well will produce water – or the depth you will need to drill to find a suitable yield. However, with a good well so nearby, it is highly unlikely that your property is without water.

      An understanding of the hydrogeology of the area is a good starting point. Excess rainwater that percolates though the soil collects in porous soils or in cracks in the rocks. These collection zones are called aquifers, which can extend for great distances. Many factors affect the size and shape of aquifers and how quickly they refill when water is pumped out. The amount of rainfall, the types of soil and rock, and surface topography are the main factors that determine the depth and characteristics of the local aquifer. The upper surface of the aquifer, or “water table” usually more-or-less follows the contour of the land surface but not always.

      Some general principles for finding a good water source at a reasonable depth are:

      • The more rain an area has, the more likely you are to find a healthy aquifer.
      • Nearby wells are a good indication of the depth and yield of a well on your property. A well drilled between two nearby wells will probably hit the same aquifer. With data on multiple wells in the area, you can draw a rough map of the local aquifer. Aquifers range from hundreds of meters to hundreds of kilometers in length and width.
      • Lower areas are generally better than hilltops for drilling. Well drillers often look for the low points, valleys, or “draws” on the land where water naturally collects to recharge the aquifer.
      • Underground layers of porous sand and gravel, and soft rock such as limestone or sandstone, are better than hard rock such as granite.
      • Nearby surface water in rivers, lakes, ponds, or wetlands, as well as wet areas such as springs and seeps can help indicate the elevation of nearby groundwater.
      • In arid areas, large trees such as willows and cottonwoods can indicate the presence of underground water. Other water-loving plants can provide clues.

      Experienced well drillers are usually a good source of this information from a practical perspective. They know local drilling conditions and well yields. Most keep logs of the depth and yield of wells they have drilled, giving them a good sense of what to expect. A more scientific approach is taken by hydrogeologists, who study and map the flow and quality of underground water along with the geology. Some local governments, typically the department of health, environmental quality, or geological services, can provide water availability maps or other data to help in locating water. A state or county hydrologist or hydrogeologist may be available to assist as well.

      You can also hire a hydrogeologist for a consult. In some cases, they will use aerial photography or high-tech methods to gauge underground conditions. However, neither well drillers or geologists can say with 100% accuracy what you will find when drilling. In the US, some well drillers will guarantee success for a fixed price, but that may not be an option where you are located.

      Once you find someone you trust – whether another driller or a hydrogeologist – they can advise you on whether you will be better off drilling deeper or trying a new location. Best of luck with your drilling efforts!

  2. Melanie says:

    We are considering purchasing a home in poor condition on a beautiful rural lot, next to a stream. We would want to renovate the existing property or tear it down and build a new home. The county health official told us, “… a replacement well was apparently attempted to be drilled in 2002. They were dry holes, so I believe there still is only the OLD well on this property, which may be unacceptable.”

    From the information on this site, I believe this is a traditional well and that it would not be acceptable. Do “dry holes” mean that a well cannot be dug or could it mean that the driller was incompetent?

    • buildingadvisor says:

      Based on your inquiry, it sounds like the original well was an older “dug well”, which may not meet current standards for domestic wells in your area. Your county health official should be able to tell you what you would need to do to bring the well into compliance, as an alternative to a deep drilled well.

      Dug wells are typically no more than 10 to 30 feet deep and often lined with stone or brick. Because their lining is rarely watertight, and the space around the well (between the casing and surrounding soil) is not sealed, most dug wells are highly vulnerable to contamination from surface water. And since they only reach just a little below the water table, they can run dry during dry weather. Today, dug wells are used more for livestock or irrigation than for domestic water supply.

      Older dug wells can be made more sanitary by installing a water-tight casing with a concrete cap, and sealing the area outside the well casing with cement grout or bentonite clay. The casing should extend at least a foot above grade and the land immediately around the well should be sloped to prevent water from collecting by the well pit. The pump is best located in the home or in a pump house away from the well. However, the money required to rehabilitate a dug well is usually better spent on a new deep well.

      Well drilling is both art and science, and success is never guaranteed 100%. The fact that the last driller came up with dry holes does not mean that the driller was incompetent or that another hole will be successful. Perhaps he needed to drill deeper or try another location on the site. An experienced local well driller should have a good idea of the local geology and aquifer characteristics. In areas of the country with normal rainfall, drillers rarely have to go more than 200 feet deep

      I would suggest that you talk to a couple of local well drillers (including the one that came up dry) to get their perspective. Neighbors may also be able to provide you with useful information about well depth, flow rates, and water quality on their land – a good indicator of what to expect on your land.

      You may also be able to find a well driller who will guarantee a well with a minimum, acceptable flow rate for a fixed price. Also, you could make your offer contingent on drilling a successful well. You would put some money at risk, but less than if you buy a lot without potable water. Also, the initial drilling costs a lot less than a completed well system, so the cost to look for water may be less than you think.



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