The recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, showed how vulnerable and unstable our industrial water system really is. Once it was determined that the public water in Flint, Michigan was indeed contaminated with lead and other dangerous substances, thousands of people were literally relegated to standing in lines to wait for bottled water from the government or other aid agencies. People had no idea how to get clean, potable water for themselves.
Living outside of urban areas obviously brings with it a greater access to more sources of fresh water. Springs, rivers, and lakes are more likely to be found in the woods of Wisconsin than in the barrios of Brooklyn. However, the energy cost of getting that water into your homes, and the greenhouse gas emissions that are usually associated with the energetic cost of moving water, usually come with an ecological cost.
Water and Gravity
If you live in a rural area, or a place where a source of water is readily available, the first thing you should be thinking about is how to get water to the top of your site so that you can use gravity to feed your home and the rest of your land or farm. If you have ever tried to carry buckets of water uphill, you can testify to the fact that gravity is by far the best way to move water without depending on any sort of external energy source.
When using permaculture design principles to design your landscape, one of the most important things to consider is related to how you can use gravity to feed water to different parts of your land. Where you site your home, where you plan to build a small pond, where your main field crops will be placed: all of these considerations are intricately tied to the availability of water and how it can move from one place on the farm to the next.
Unfortunately, not every site is blessed with a plentiful source of water running through the highest part of the land that can be stored and subsequently moved to other parts of the land. More frequently, water tends to find its way to the lower parts of the land as streams and creeks carve out ravines and rifts that tend to be lower than our ideal house site. While many people settle for using pumps to move that water to higher parts of the land where can more easily be distributed and used, the hydraulic ram pump might offer a more “permacultural” solution to getting water to where you need it without relying on fossil fuel energy.
What is the Hydraulic Ram Pump?
The hydraulic ram pump is a way to move water uphill without relying on electricity, gasoline, or any other sort of polluting energy. The hydraulic ram is an automatic pumping device that uses the energy contained in the flow of water running through it to lift a small volume of water to a higher elevation. In order to get the “lift”, you´ll need to have a reliable source of water that drops at least 3 to 5 feet in height as it crosses your land.
The ram pump works by creating a pressure surge that develops when moving water is suddenly stopped through the use of capped PVC pipes and check valves. Water is heavy and is it rushes downhill through a piping system, it is suddenly stopped by a capped PVC vertical tube. The check valve slams shut, essentially pushing the up a smaller pipe that comes off of the main pipe. This smaller pipe is what carries the water uphill against gravity with nothing more than the energy created by the flowing water.
While there are several differing opinions regarding how far and how high you will be able to pump water with the hydraulic ram pump, a conservative estimate is that there is a 1 to 7 ratio. For every 1 foot of drop (or head) that you have, you will be able to raise water around seven feet. For example, let´s say that you build a small reservoir or small dammed pond at the highest point of where a stream enters your land. The drive pipe of your ram pump exits this small reservoir and drops around 10 feet from one part of your land to another. This ten-foot drop would allow you to pump water close to 70 feet in height towards a higher area of your land.
The Possibilities for Ram Pumps
While hydraulic ram pumps may not work for every situation, if you do have a reliable source of water that you need to move from a low point to a high point, there is no better technology that doesn´t depend on any sort of fossil fuel energy. While hydraulic ram pumps may seem to achieve the impossible by working as the mythical perpetual motion machine, they are incredibly useful tools to use the energy of nature to move water to where it can be most useful for your overall permaculture design.