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Hand dug wells: their properties, construction & sanitation. This article offers advice for hand dug water wells and the sanitation and maintenance concerns with this water supply type. We provide advice about what to do when things go wrong, how to inspect hand dug wells for safety, safe practices for actually digging a well, and how to address hand dug well sanitation. In our guide to hand dug wells we discuss how a hand dug well is constructed, maintained, and kept sanitary or "safe to drink".
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The world wide popularity of hand dug wells is accounted for by the ease of construction without specialized equipment, the simplicity of water raising equipment (a bucket on a rope has worked for thousands of years), and the ability of the Dug well to hold a large volume of water in storage for times of peak demand.
Hand Dug Wells are usually quite shallow - typically less than 25 feet deep.
Watch out: digging a well by hand is quite dangerous, risking collapse on and death to the excavators. Also in very deep wells there may be air quality safety hazards. 
Digging & Using Hand Dug Drinking Water Wells
Dug wells are usually constructed during dry weather when the water level is at its lowest, both for safety (less likely wet soils cause well collapse) and to determine the necessary depth of the Dug well to obtain adequate water supply.
Details about how to dig and construct a hand dug well such as the Oaxaca hand dug well shown at left, begin at Hand Dug Well Procedure. Basics are just below.
[Click to enlarge any image]
You might see an antique hand water pump shown at left of this article, or even a rope and bucket for removing water from the well.
But don't assume this is the only way that water is being delivered from the well.
Often we find a hand dug well whose water is delivered to the building by a One Line Jet Pump.
Readers should see our article on how to dig a well, beginning at Hand Dug Well Procedure where we present a case study of the process of digging a well and assuring that its water supply is sanitary. Readers of this document should also see Water Tank Types and before assuming that a water problem is due to the well itself, see WATER PUMP REPAIR GUIDE an specific case which offers an example of diagnosis of loss of water pressure, loss of water, and analyzes the actual repair cost.
As we show in this sketch at left, courtesy of Carson Dunlop, Usually a hand dug well is less than 20 feet deep.
Dug wells have the same sanitation difficulties as springs and cisterns: they are easily contaminated by surface runoff and in some cases may have limited ability to deliver water at modern quantity and flow rates.
Hand dug wells range in depth from a few feet to as much as three meters and are used worldwide. Often the Dug-well was lined with dry-laid stone.
Dug or excavated wells are the picturesque wells we see on postcards, with an above-ground wall and a bucket lowered by rope into the well.
But dug wells continue into modern use, often with the installation of either an in-building jet pump draw water from the well into the building. We weren't sure what the little cover in our photo above was hiding - a dug well, a cistern, or a modern well casing extending above ground.
Sources for repair parts and installation instructions for hand pumps on dug wells and shallow wells are provided at our reviewers list below.
The hazards of hand dug wells include poor sanitation (ground water and surface runoff easily enter the drinking water supply), and cave-ins during construction or injuries to tools dropped into the well during construction. We are particularly concerned about the safety hazards to children when a dug well does not have a child proof wall and/or cover.
At Hand Dug Well Procedure we describe the procedure for constructing a hand-dug well with concrete well rings in Mexico. But do not begin a well digging project without advice from an expert and do not try digging a well without following these and any other recommended safety measures for well excavation:
Hand Dug Well Construction Safety Advice
The following advice is adapted from The Hand Dug Well [instruction manual, by Henk Holtslag & John deWolf, Foundation Connect International. Links to a copy of that free manual are at our references section .
Additional Dug Well Safety Advice [Opinion of InspectAPedia]
Photo at left: this looks like a hand dug well that has an above-ground protecting wall and a cover over the actual well opening (you can just see the red edges of the cover (click to enlarge). The cover should be secure against entry by children.
At left our photo illustrates a hand dug well that was later converted to a drilled well with a steel casing. The old well pit is functioning now as a well pit (WELL PITS). We notice that there is no protection against surface runoff entering the top of the well casing - a sanitary or water potability concern. This rural well is being used for crop watering in San Miguel de Allende.
A dug well that gave sanitary drinking water a hundred years ago may be at greater risk of contamination today as more chemicals contaminate both surface runoff and groundwater. And it's hard to keep contaminants out of a dug well.
OPINION: While 100 years ago or more surface water found in dug wells and springs was often of high quality and potable - at least in some areas of the world.
But today it is very difficult to find sanitary drinking water where surface runoff and shallow subsurface water enter the water supply such as that provided by a dug well. This is also true for other types shallow wells such as Driven Point Wells, and even drilled wells protected by a well casing in some cases.
Shocking a hand dug well (WELL CHLORINATION & SHOCKING) to "fix" a bacteria problem in its drinking water is probably pointless.
It is almost impossible to keep a dug well sanitary - the Dug well is completely open to both surface runoff and ground water runoff.
You can shock the Dug well, but if you are not going to drill a modern sanitary well (costly), in order to assure safe potable drinking water you will probably need to install water treatment equipment to sanitize the water - after testing to see what contaminants besides bacteria (Interpreting the Level of Bacteria) are present.
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Frequently Asked Questions & Answers about hand dug water wells, construction, inspection, safety, sanitation, and well collapses
Question: Our Old Water Well is Collapsing - What Should We Do?
Do you know of a geotechnical engineer near Screven County Georgia that can assist me in determining what to do with my situation? From what I have been told in the past, there was an old well in my front yard; Very old.
In about 1970 my father walked past it, heard rushing water and the dirt that had been used to "fill it in" fell out the bottom. You could see down about 20-30 feet in the earth. So my father filled in this well with a brick chimney and for years it was fine.
In the last 6 months, the earth has begun to fall again in that area. We added some more soil. That soil is falling lower and lower.
I don't know who to contact in this area that has any expertise in this area. Do you know who to contact? - D.L., Georgia
Reply: Put Immediate Safety First where a Collapsing Well is Found
A competent onsite inspection by an expert usually finds additional clues that help accurately diagnose a problem around the well or at your site, including possible subsidence due to a sink hole or other similarly dangerous events.
If there are sinkhole or soil collapse risks the hazards are greater than just a problem with the well or with local groundwater contamination. It wasn't clear if you are asking about a drilled well or a hand dug well.
Watch out: First: rope off or cover or otherwise prevent anyone from walking anywhere close to the present collapsing well. The safety hazards of soil collapse around a dug well are still more worrisome and dangerous as they could result in someone falling into the opening - risking a fatality.
That said, you will want to
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