Saturday, August 17, 2013

On running water and wells

Tuesday, July 23, 2013
By Michael
 One of the most shocking things that we tell people about our living situation here is the absence of plumbing in our house. Having never been in a place without running water, most Americans, I think, have trouble imagining what life is like without indoor plumbing. I was one of these Americans before coming to Ukraine. Urban Ukrainians, on the other hand, want to forget that living without water on tap is even a possibility. For many of them, such a way of life was a reality at some point in their lives, and they want to put that all behind them on their march to a more “civilized” lifestyle. I am, of course, generalizing. My opinions on these points of view are extrapolated from observation, and I am in no way picking on any one person in particular. As I have said, these are sentiments shared by many people.
There are positives and negatives to each method of getting water. Let us address them. Contrary to belief, living without indoor plumbing is not a dirty lifestyle. Yulia and I do not live like the half monkey, half humans and drink from mud puddles while screeching unintelligibly at our neighbors as depicted in the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are actually very clean people. As I mentioned before, we bathe daily, in the evening before going to sleep. In that way we think we bring less dirt into our bed. We do not even let our cats, whom we adore, sleep on top of our blankets (Despite this, Levko has still managed to leave a few paw prints on our sheets.).
Well water is also of better quality than most municipal tap water that we have used in the past. With her longer hair, Yulia has noticed that city tap water dries out her hair very quickly whenever she washes it in the city. We have both noticed that our skin dries out fast in the city. It makes us wonder why pay for the service of an inferior product when one can have a higher quality one for free.
The cost of installing and fixing indoor plumbing is also much higher. Two winters ago Yulia and I were living at Yulia’s parents’ house in Lviv. The hot water heater broke for some reason and we not only did not have hot water, but cold water as well. We are not trained plumbers, so fixing this machine was out of the question. We had to call for a plumber, who could not come for a day or two, leaving us with a bunch of fancy equipment that could not provide us with any water at all for the duration of that time. When he finally came to fix it, it cost an arm and a leg, of course. Simple systems require simple fixes. Right now we get our water by lowering a bucket attached to a string into some water. A couple of days ago, actually, the bucket detached from the string. This would have effectively cut off our water supply had we not been able to attach a hook onto the string and fish out the bucket.
Yulia’s grandparents have the same kind of well we do (with a bucket and rope), but they had running water installed last year, which used the well as the source. Using tap water very quickly depleted their water. After a few months the bucket no longer reached the water. Yulia’s grandparents said they had never seen the water level so low. While running water is very convenient (and, remember, we are not completely anti-tap water), it is also very wasteful. There is no reason that one needs to pee into a few gallons of potable tap water only to flush it. Most people do not understand, to be blunt, the insanity of such behavior. It is hard to comprehend how much water one actually wastes living this lifestyle. Having a traditional well and watching the level drop so suddenly was a visceral reminder of this wastefulness.
As I mentioned before, tap water is convenient. It is easy to turn a valve and have water flow into the home and then exit through the drain. In the winter it is obviously a nuisance to go outside to fetch water and dump the waste water. Having a hot water heater only makes this more convenient. We like to take the occasional bath, and water on tap is very helpful for this. Although it is possible to fill up a bath tub bucket by bucket, I would not say that this is practical (though I do think washing dishes and bathing the way we do is). We have yet to see about laundry. Right now in July washing our laundry by hand has been OK. Maybe it’ll be different in January. What I want to stress here is that Yulia and I are not completely dismissive of either method of using water. When we say to people that we are using a well, however, they typically assume we are completely against tap water. We do not hold this position at all. We see the best of both worlds, so to speak (and also understand that the use of well and spring water needs to be defended—it has few supporters.). We should also mention that this little homily about water use is specific to our particular context. It would be very near impossible to prescribe that dwellers of high rise apartment buildings or hospitals throw a rope and bucket down a well.
Let me share what our water situation is actually like and what we plan to do about in the future. Right now we have a well on our property. It is basically a cylindrical tube, made out of concrete. It is not completely finished right now. It still needs a covering and a hand crank to lower and raise the bucket. Right now it is covered by a piece of plywood and we lower the bucket into the water without the assistance of a pulley. 

Our well
The well does need to be cleaned out. I’ve never observed this process before, but, from what I understand, someone would come over, pump out all the water, scoop out any muck and debris from the bottom, lay down some fresh gravel, and we would then add some effective microorganisms (to deter the growth of mold, bad bacteria) to the water once it starts to filter through the clay subsoil back into the well.
            Right now we do not drink the water from the well, but use it for doing laundry, washing dishes, and washing ourselves. We get our drinking water from the local spring, which is about 200 meters down the road.

Our spring
I usually get 24 liters of it at a time. I carry four 6 liter bottles with me—two bottles in a back pack and one bottle in each of my hands. It is not a struggle for me to carry this amount of water from the spring to our house. Plus, it is a pleasant little walk and a serene place to visit. I made a makeshift sink in our kitchen. We have a ceramic cistern with a water spout at the bottom. It holds about 10 liters of water. When we open the valve on the water spout it flows out (very much like a conventional tap) over a sink that drains into a bucket. When the bucket fills up I take it outside and dump the water. We wash our hands and brush our teeth here. And last, but not least, we water our garden with a hose. So we do actually have running water of sorts! Our hose is a simple and nifty contraption. It consists of a hose attached to a water pump that we lower into the well. The pump has a cord with a plug that we insert into an outlet and, voila! (Pardon my French.) We have running water!
            After we get our well cleaned out, we plan to cover it with a little gabled roof and fetch the water with a wooden bucket. I think it will look very quaint under the grape vines. We’ve decided to put plumbing into our house and guest area sometime in the future. We really do hope that our friends and family visit (and stay for longer than a few hours), and indoor running water seems to be a prerequisite for many of them. It is also more practical for drawing a bath, for example. So hopefully this addition to our home will both benefit Yulia and I…and draw guests to come visit us and our new home.
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One of the final things I’d like to share about the use of wells is that wells have determined, to an extent, where people have chosen to live here in Ukraine. When riding the bus, and traveling in general, I enjoy “reading the landscape.” I like to understand why things are where they are. That goes for the natural, as well as the built environment. I’ve noticed here in Ukraine that people have chosen to settle in relatively low lying areas. One rarely finds old houses on hill tops. At first I was confused by this building pattern. Why build in the valley (which is more susceptible to frosts—cold air runs downhill, after all) when one could build on a more scenic hill? The answer is quite practical. When one has to dig a well by hand, it makes sense to locate one’s house where the water table is lower.


  1. Hello Michael and Yulia! This is Pamela from Runnymede.

    I've moved into my trailer on a piece of property behind the farm, so I can walk to work now.
    I also do not have "normal" running water. I do have a water tank in my RV (that I fill with a hose, from a well) and a water pump, but it's not powerful enough to use the shower so I have to bathe a lot like you guys do. It is also incredibly noisy so I do not like to run it. There is a drain pipe on the bottom of the water tank which I am going to attach a faucet to so I can fill larger quantities of water more easily, since I cannot use the shower to do this very well and the sink is incredibly small.

    Some people I have talked to think I am downright crazy to live in a trailer like this, with limited water abilities (and four, soon to be five dogs), but I find it to be a lot like camping and that is how I like to live. Each person's idea of how things should be done is different, and a lot of people out there can't grasp that someone else might not think their way or what is viewed as normal is best for them.

    Anyways, my spot is still a big work in progress, but I'll have to cleaned up and running smoothly soon enough.

    1. Hi there, Pam! Good to hear from you!
      Yes, we've come across a lot of people who think their way of doing things is normal and, therefore, best. People often feel that they need to tell us how to do things. Instead, we'd prefer that people listen to how we want to do things and then (and only then) should they respond with their perspective. That is part of the purpose of this blog--for us to get our thoughts out there so that people can better understand us and what we are trying to do.
      It's great to hear that you are living with four dogs! We have two cats and they leave us a dead mouse present or two a day. We've been having a lot of mouse and mole funerals at our house since moving in.