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I know there’s water down there somewhere!

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Back when we lived in southeastern Arizona, a well driller showed up one day in a vacant lot near a trail where I used to go for walks.  Always fascinated by things mechanical, I watched the operation for a while, and chatted with the driller. The equipment consisted of a large truck with a rotary drill rig mounted on the back.  As I recall, the driller was only there for a couple of days — that’s all it takes for one of these rigs to knock out a two or three hundred foot hole.

We’re now in the process of building a house on Samal Island — a long, very slow process, it seems — in a location where city water isn’t available. Catching rainwater is one option, but the rain doesn’t always cooperate, so we figured that a well would be a good investment.  I mean, how hard can it be to drill for water in a place where it rains all the time?

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So, we asked around, and hired a well driller. One with a good reputation and lots of experience drilling on Samal.

That was in December.

In due course, the driller came out to the site to look around and suggest where to drill. His recommended location turned out to be at the extreme rear of the property, 500 feet or so from the shore. It was necessary, we were told, to get as far from the shoreline as possible, in the hope of getting water that is not salty.

That advice seemed reasonable. One of our neighbors drilled next to his house, near the shore. This turned out to be basically an expensive way of filling a tank with sea water.

Coincidentally, our recommended drilling site happened to be at the top of a steep hill. I was trying to figure out how they were going to get a drilling rig up that hill through fairly dense native vegetation, with no road.

Answer: they carried it up in pieces.  The driller showed up with a crew of several laborers, who proceeded to lug  everything up the hill a piece at a time and assemble it in place.

Needless to say, the rig in question was not anything like the truck mounted rig I saw back in Arizona. This one consisted of a tripod made of three pieces of pipe, used to suspend a pulley over the chosen spot.  A thick rope runs over the pulley and is clamped to a steel cable, and the other end of the cable is attached to a heavy metal rod, which acts as a ram.  The drilling — really more a case of pounding — consists of pulling the ram up ten feet or so with the rope, and then dropping it. Over and over.

There is a small gasoline engine, used to turn a drum at a constant slow speed.  The loose end of the rope is wrapped several times around the drum.  The drum is smooth, so it doesn’t pull on the rope as long as the rope is held loosely.  To raise the ram, the operator pulls the end of the rope tight, and the friction on the drum is sufficient to pull the rope.  Once the ram has risen sufficiently, the operator quickly releases the rope, and the ram drops, hitting the bottom of the hole with considerable force.

Most of the drilling is through solid limestone.  After the ram has been raised and dropped a few hundred times, if everything has worked right, a few inches of limestone in the bottom of the hole have been pounded into powder.  To get the powder out of the hole, the ram has to be pulled out, and a pipe with a spring-loaded door on the bottom end is attached to the cable and dropped into the hole repeatedly.  This pushes the powder up into the pipe.  The pipe is then pulled up and emptied, the ram is reattached, and the endless raising and dropping resumes.

You have to admire the stamina of these guys. Even though the engine is doing most of the heavy lifting, it’s still physically demanding to raise that heavy ram over and over, a few hundred times an hour. You also have to respect the ingenuity — it’s kind of amazing, when you think about it, that a few guys with a rig cobbled together from simple parts can manage to drill a 200 foot hole at the top of a hill in a place that you can barely get to on foot.

It’s a slow operation. A few feet per day at best.  Of course, it’s even slower when the crew doesn’t show up, or the equipment breaks down, or the rope breaks, or the gasoline runs out, all of which seem to happen with some frequency.  We had one hiatus of several weeks when the cable broke, leaving the ram in the bottom of the hole with no way to pull it out. Each of these mishaps seems to involve an additional advance payment to get things moving again.

Not exactly a model of efficiency. But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. As Nassim Taleb (author of the recent best-selling book on risk management, The Black Swan) points out, the more efficient you make a system, the more fragile it becomes.  A $200,000 truck-mounted rotary rig is very efficient, but when it breaks down you need specialized parts and highly trained technicians to repair it, and if a recession hits and business slows down, the payments on that $200,000 will bankrupt you in short order.  With the rig our guys are using, pretty much any conceivable breakdown can be fixed on the spot by local mechanics using whatever parts are available.  The entire world supply chain could grind to a standstill, and the well drilling industry on Samal would continue without a hiccup.

My wife has handled all the negotiations with the drillers. The cost of this well is supposed to be 600 pesos per foot — perhaps about a quarter of what a similar well would cost in Arizona.  My wife is very adamant that this price includes actually finding water, but since there is, as far as I know, no written contract, I assume that this will become a matter of further negotiation if the well turns out to be dry.

The drilling has been underway now for four months. At last report, the hole was slightly more than 100 feet deep.  No sign of any water yet, but it’s early days. With luck, we might have a working well by the end of the year.

And if not – well, it does rain a lot here.

(Any suggestions / advice from those who have done this would be welcome in the comments.)

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Jack Emery

Jack Emery is a guest writer participating on the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine.

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Dan
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Dan

Jack..fun read and by the looks of the story…if You have to drill 400 feet…then no need to hurry on the building part of the new house…Maybe just enjoy life and let things proceed they proceed. I think this is a great example of Fillipino time…This could get expensive at 600 pesos a foot or around $13.81 USA dollars a foot…100 feet so far and around $1381.00 USA so far…It looks like the well crew will have a full time employment for some time in to the future…so that is nice…..Lets see..after you do, ( if you do ) hit… Read more »

Jack
Guest

Dan, thanks. Guess it won’t be 400 feet, I’m told 200 is about the limit. You’re right, the pipe down to the house, and also getting electricity up to the pump, are some additional issues that the skeptics among us (that would be me) wonder about, but those in charge of making the actual decisions (that would be my wife) assure us that these things can be handled. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from knocking around in other countries, it’s that the locals usually know more about how to get these things done than I do. So you hit… Read more »

Bob New York
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Bob New York

Hi Jack, Thanks for a most informative and interesting article and for those pics showing the portable ” go anywhere ” well drilling rig. Never saw anything like that although I can see its usefullness for places a vehicle can not go. I hope you will be able to get water without having to go to much more depth that you already are. I have always had my own well, pump etc . My well is 80 Ft deep with a recovery rate of at least 10 gallons per minute. For many years I alwasy had Jet Pumps but when… Read more »

Jack
Guest

Bob, sounds like you’re an expert. You’re right, they use the rope as a slip clutch, it’s really something to watch. I was thinking it would actually be pretty easy to build a rig with an actual clutch, just get an engine and transmission from a multicab (a very small japanese truck that’s popular here) or whatever.
Jack

queeniebee
Guest
queeniebee

Hi Jack, That’s a slow process but at least it’s mechanised albeit in a limited way. I showed your article to my husband and he recounted that as a young child he would watch about 15 laborers pull a heavy rope over and over all day manually dropping a heavy boom to dig a well hole. They used a very rudimentary scooper to go back and lift the ground up pieces. I guess that’s why at that time most barangays had one common well and outdoor pump that was shared by many neighbors. This driller seems quite experienced as you… Read more »

Jack
Guest

Thanks, Queenie. You’re right, I recall people doing that in New Mexico when I was a kid (I think sometimes they’d use a pickup truck to do the pulling). Another thing they used to do there — don’t know if it’s done here — is when a well would eventually get clogged up and stop flowing as well, they’d fire a shotgun down the hole a few times to loosen things up. (I have no idea if this did any good, but that was the claim.)
Jack

Biz Doc
Guest
Biz Doc

hi jack,

ever wondered what you’d do if your drill crew brings up bits of rock with gold veins in them? ” )

anything can happen in the philippines! hehe

cheers,

Ricardo Sumilang
Guest
Ricardo Sumilang

Dars gold in dem dar hills, Jack, so keep plugging away! Jokes aside, your article is another excellent illustration of Filiino resourcefulness and ingenuity as a consequence of being poor, a reeinforcement of John Miele’s most recent article on the resourcefulness of the Filipino. As regards advice you seek, GenSan Chris may be able to offer a few tips as he has some experience in well-drilling in Nigeria as a British military engineer, so I understand.

Jack
Guest

Ricardo, I stand in awe of the cleverness of the mechanics and craftsmen here, it is amazing the results that they get, often with rudimentary tools and jury-rigged parts.
Jack

Jack
Guest

BizDoc, just don’t tell the crew that, they’ll probably slow down even more while they sift through all the tailings looking for riches.
Jack

Allan Kelly
Guest
Allan Kelly

$600 pesos a ft? Count your blessing, no matter how long it takes. I want to have a well put on a Rec property I have here. They are going to charge me $100 a foot and think it will be about 300 feet. I am still thinking it over

Jack
Guest

Hi Allan, I guess “here” must not be in the Philippines? I’m pretty sure our guys would happily dig down 300 feet with their bare hands for 100 bucks a foot. Why so expensive, I wonder?
Jack

Allan Kelly
Guest
Allan Kelly

Here in British Columbia, Canada. Expensive because not that many companies invest the money to buy a drill rig and the ones who have set the price. They got you and they know it. Same with a septic system. They are running about $35,000.00 here.

Jack Emery
Guest
Jack Emery

Allan, seems like for that kind of money you could build a rig like the one our guys are using, hire a few high school kids to do the heavy lifting, and save yourself about $25K. Of course, this is one of the big attractions of the Philippines, especially outside Manila — it would be hard to find anywhere with more affordable construction costs than here. I’m not in a hurry, and for the difference between 600P a foot and $100, they are welcome to take all the time they need!
Jack

John in Austria
Guest
John in Austria

Hi Jack, I am very interested in how you know there is water down there-besides sea water. Do they do any divining or water witching down there? Are there neighbouring wells nearby? Just curious, as I worked with a diviner in Canada, and he relied not only on the tools of the trade, but also local knowledge of water-producing wells in the locality. Sure hope you get water soon – keep us informed.

Jack
Guest

John, I asked about that, and no one seemed to know of anyone like that, which kind of surprised me — a lot of things here are widely accepted that some Westerners might regard as unscientific (albularyos, for example, John Miele has written some very interesting stuff on that, see https://liveinthephilippines.com/2010/10/introducing-the-albularyo-com-our-new-web-site/). I figured there would be diviners on every street corner, but apparently not, and our site was chosen because that’s where the driller said to drill. The only nearby well that I’m aware of is the one I mentioned that is close to the shore and produces salty water.… Read more »

Sheldon Rice
Guest
Sheldon Rice

Jack, I am a professional driller from Canada. i have drilled everything from 60′ deep water wells to 4000 METER gas wells, and I can tell you this. Hind sight is always 20-20 (especially living in the Philippines), and in hindsight, you should have got a second opinion from an expert/expat. You can drill a well anywhere over 350 feet from shore and the water will DEFINITELY be salt free, and in most places 100 feet is enough, (as long as your well location is on higher ground then the shoreline.You can drill ANYWHERE on an island, and you will… Read more »

Lea
Guest
Lea

Jack, Your article reminded me of a well that that we have in a barangay, an outskirt of Gensan. MY father decided to have this done in the mid-90s since water was so scarce in that area. We (they) only planted corn since that was the only crop that can survive. Anyway, I believe they ended up drilling about 200 ft. It was ok then, I’m not sure what the status is now. I wish that it will work out “well” for you, just be patient. I know it took a long time and a lot of patience for my… Read more »

Jack
Guest

Thanks, Lea. Kind of amazing that water can be scarce here in the tropics, but it’s a growing problem, and also you have to worry about what’s in the water — one of the main motivations for a well, I think, is that the water is usually fairly pure if you go down far enough.
Jack

David B Katague
Guest

Jack, I enjoyed the article. It reminded me of our last week activity at Chateau Du Mer in Marinduque. I have 3 existing wells in the property. Last week the well in the beach house dried up? We consulted a professional well digger in the area. He suggested we dig another well nearby and much deeper. It turned out the water pump was the problem. I purchase a 1HP water pump(made in Italy) for only 4000 pesos. The best model was a Gould, but cost 15,000 for 1HP. With the labor and new pump my total cost was 8000 pesos,… Read more »

Jack
Guest

David, sounds like you had a good success. I’m curious, when you say ‘beach house’, I’m assuming that it’s, like, on a beach — ? Is the water salty? If not, how deep did you have to go? I really don’t understand the geology of these things, it’s kind of a mystery to me why there would be any non-salty water near the beach . . .
Jack

David B Katague
Guest

Jack, the water is not salty, the well is about 120 meters from the beach front and the well was about 200 ft deep. Anyway, the well water is not for drinking water, just for washing and watering plants and household needs etc….

Paul Thompson
Member

Jack; I can relate to your article, in March 2010 here on LiP I wrote a well drilling story called “An Honorable Man”. So I understand what you’re your experiencing. It’s amazing to watch how they use that hodge podge of equipment and yet get the job done. Since I’m on a mountain, we had to drill though limestone and other rock for approx. 380 feet before they found a underground stream of cool mountain water. That was my second well, so I kinda’, a little bit understood what was going on. Good luck on your well, and may the… Read more »

Jack
Guest

Paul, I had to go back and read your article, that would have been just before I started reading this site. Sounds like you were really fortunate. One lesson I feel I’ve learned in my six months living here so far (and 20 years of coming here before that) is that there really are some tradespeople here whose work is just outstanding, and when you run across one, make sure to get their contact info and not lose it. You having been here a lot longer, I imagine you’ve got a pretty decent rolodex going by now.
Jack

ian
Guest
ian

They just drilled 3 wells on our subdivision in Toril . Each cost 26,000 pesos for 160 feet. Potable water was available earlier but the depth was needed to get sufficient pressure.

Jack Emery
Guest
Jack Emery

Ian, so that would be 162.5P per foot? I’d say you got a smokin’ deal. Also illustrates something that surprised me here, although I suppose it shouldn’t have — how hard it is to comparison shop. I’m used to being able to jump online and easily find the best deal, but here, when we buy construction materials, my wife has to make the rounds of all the different suppliers, and the prices are all over the place. We did talk to several drillers, but sure didn’t hear any prices in that range.
Jack

Papa Duck
Guest
Papa Duck

Jack,

Probably due to the large about of labor and difficulty getting to the drill site is what made your price alot more than Ian’s. Good article. Looking forward to future ones.

Jack
Guest
Jack

Thanks. You’re right, difficulty getting things out there is an issue. Everything from this side has to go across on the ferry, which can be expensive. Samal probably isn’t the same market as Toril.
Jack

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