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September 24, 2006

Cameron washes dishes with actual running water (yes, his sweatshirt says "Don't Eat Ducks")

Our quest for water on our mountaintop has been just as long, laborious, and challenging as our quest for electricity.

Given our remote location, we were pleased to learn that we would be eligible for city water. Unfortunately, the city’s connection was at the main road, more than a half mile from our building site. We would have to bring the water from the main road to our house ourselves.

For our initial camping trips to the property, we simply brought our own water. But as we got ready for our big house-raising party in April 2005 – when we would have more than a dozen people here for more than a week – we knew that we would need to have access to water.

We hired our neighbor Scott to dig a trench and install a water meter and plumbing up to the building site. He did excellent work, following the access road with his trench and installing phone line cable at the same time. (Phone and water lines are allowed to be installed in the same trench. Electrical lines must be in their own trench.) Scott also installed several spigots along the way: one halfway up the hill, one near the top, and one at the top.

In the spring of 2005, we excitedly turned on the spigot at the top of the hill for the first time. Nothing came out.

When we had purchased the property, we had been warned by the previous owner that this might happen. There is a 200-foot change in elevation from the main road to the home site. The owner wasn’t sure if Calaveras’ water pressure would be enough to drive water all the way to the top of the mountain, and he warned us that we might need a step-up pump.

Unfortunately, a step-up pump would require electricity, which we did not have. Fortunately, we were able to get water out of the spigot halfway up the hill.

Since March 2005, we've had water spigots very close to the house. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to use them.

So, for our house-raising party – and, in fact, for the next year and a half – we dutifully carried water jugs 500 feet down the hill to the working spigot to fill, then carried them back up. Gail and Russell used a solar camping shower to clean up on working weekends; Steve preferred to hose himself off right at the spigot.

Gail uses a solar shower

Over the next several months, we noticed something odd. On our monthly water bill, the Calaveras Public Utilities Department showed us using an average of 500 gallons a month. At first, we attributed it to Scott using water to smooth out the road during his trenching work. But the same usage continued month after month. Finally, our July 2005 water bill showed a whopping usage of 60,000 gallons in one month. We knew that there was something wrong.

The consensus was that there was a leak somewhere in the line. Unfortunately, we were talking about 2,000 feet of water pipe buried more than a foot underground.

Our first thought was that the water line had been damaged at “Ryan’s Curve,” named after the spot where a delivery truck had gone off the access road in March 2005 when the house was first delivered. We tried looking for a “wet spot” on the ground, but it was difficult to tell due to the shade and ground color. Gail and Russell tried digging at the spot with shovels, but the flagstone ground was too hard. We got Scott to dig up the spot with his backhoe, but he couldn’t find a leak either.

We unsuccessfully brainstormed many ideas over the next several months. Dig up the entire 2,000 feet of water line? Put food coloring in the water and look for discoloration on the ground? Cut and cap the pipe at various intervals, until we could isolate which section of the pipe had a leak? For the next year, our fix-gap solution was to turn off the main water whenever we weren’t on the property.

Fortunately, Scott always maintained that he owned the problem. However, it wasn’t until the summer of 2006 that he saw an opportunity – and a method – to address it. With the installation of electricity in May 2006, we decided to simultaneously proceed with the installation of a step-up water pump to bring the water the rest of the way up the hill. We hired Scott’s brother Daryl to do the installation. With the hill spigot being dug up anyway to install the pump, Daryl agreed to help his brother find the leak.

In order to get electricity to the step-up pump, an electrical trench had to be dug from the upper road (the transformer) to the lower road (the water line)

Isolating the leak
Daryl capped the water line at the hill spigot
Scott used his backhoe to dig up the water line

(The research into step-up water pumps is a story all on its own. Gail investigated solar vs. electric pumps. She got bids from various vendors indicating that we would need a push-pump halfway up the hill, a pull-pump at the top of the hill, a 2,500-gallon water tank at the home site, a 1,100-gallon water tank at the hill spigot, water tanks at both sites. Daryl’s winning bid required only a 3/4 horsepower pump and a single 250-gallon tank at the house. Gail has spent a lot of time doing research and getting bids.)

Daryl claimed that he was the only plumber in Calaveras County who had the specialized equipment that would be needed: a pressure pump that would force extra water pressure into the water line. Ultimately, Daryl and Scott discovered not one, but two hairline leaks in the water line – one almost at the hill spigot, the other a few hundred feet down the hill.

500 feet down the hill from the house, our only working spigot.
The step-up pump being installed.

Finally, on September 23, 2006, the same day that we had electricity for the first time, we were able to turn on a water spigot at the outside of the house.

The weekend of May 17, 2006, was an incredible sight. While Russell and Steve installed decks on the house, we simultaneously had electrical, excavation, plumbing, and telephone crews all digging up the ground below us.

The front yard being dug up
The front yard being smoothed back over

We still don’t have running water in the house yet. We still have to walk outside the house to fill water and to dump water. We still have to use a self-contained camping toilet. But we no longer have to lug water jugs several hundred feet up and down a hill. So what we have now feels absolutely decadent.

The northeast wall, now with electrical switchbox and water tank


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