Waterline Project Full of Surprises

My girls have an amazing pioneer spirit! The ranch property came with a well-share agreement (common in Arizona). Four properties share one well that is located two properties away from the ranch. The girls wanted to haul all our water from the well on foot, which they did for the first few months!

Once we had everything ready to start superadobe building and realized how much water was going to be required for the adobe mix, the girls relented and we decided to run a waterline to the ranch. It's mostly downhill from the well and the waterline would follow the road bordering everyone's property, but we did have to cross a wash that runs under the road. We needed to dig about a 1000 foot trench for the line. Around here you only need to bury it about 18 inches, if that, to prevent freezing. We got a couple of quotes saying it would cost close to $10,000 to have it done for us. We don't have an extra $10K laying around, so we decided to do it ourselves. 

A considerable amount of research was needed to find the least toxic pipe for potable water. PVC is what is mostly used around here, but you buy it in 10 or 20 foot sticks and then put them all together with horribly toxic glue. That's a lot of toxic joints the ranch water would have to flow through - no way! I settled on HDPE as the best option. The biggest drawback to HDPE is it's softer and more susceptible to crushing. The only other material in the running was copper and that would have cost something like $16K just for the tubing!

You would think that the existing well users would point me to my access stub (the well-share agreement says there are four stubs) and mark any underground lines in my trench path like the power and cable companies did when I called 811. If you thought that, you'd be wrong. None of the neighbors knew exactly how the well plumbing was designed so I spent many hours digging with hand tools and then a neighbor let me use his water pick, which sped things up some. What I found surprised me. 

There were two lines departing from the two pressure tanks - one north and one south. The south one provides water for the two northern properties and the north one headed straight for the road and then south down the road. I plumbed a tee into that one (the ranch is the southern-most property of the four) and installed a shutoff valve for each line. In the process of doing that I got stung by a bark scorpion. This is the only scorpion in Arizona that can be fatal. For generally healthy adults it isn't terribly dangerous - more like a wasp sting. That's about all I experienced so I must be healthy!
Arizona Bark Scorpion
Next step was to rent a trencher, which was a little intimidating because I'd never even considered using one before. It looked like a giant chainsaw on wheels that you stand behind and walk backwards. I reserved one for 24 hours hoping I could get it all done except the two driveways I had to trench through. They said I wouldn't need a gas can for the amount I had to do. I kept the neighbors in the loop throughout the process, but one was causing problems and apparently wanted to get everyone together for a meeting. That would be fine except aligning everyone's schedule could take weeks and I couldn't wait around for that. 

When rental day came I hauled the trencher home at noon and got to work, starting in our courtyard. I dug about 400 feet of two feet deep trenching on our property but I saved trenching through the wash that comes down from the neighbors. I figured I'd do that last in case heavy rains might cause significant erosion before finishing the job. But the 1100 pound trencher got stuck in the bottom of the wash while crossing it! That was challenging digging and prying it out. Once I got trenching again I was quickly running out of gas so my wife ran to town and bought a gas can (I wasn't supposed to need) and gas. It's about a 15-minute drive to town each way.
First Trencher
The next morning the trencher broke after a short while. I had shut it off for something and it wouldn't restart. This was a couple hours before the rental place opened, but they eventually sent a technician out and he got it running. Apparently it had been overfilled with oil. They let me have it for another day without charge. That was nice because I had a long way to go. But once I got going again parts and pieces started falling off. The last piece fell off the next day 10 feet before I was going to stop and return it - making it impossible to continue. I also still needed to do the driveways and a few other small stretches. 

Amazingly, the rental place wouldn't charge me for even 24 hours even though I had it for 48 hours. Another trencher wasn't available for a week, but it was a much bigger one. They assured me I could handle it and offered free delivery since it exceeded the towing capacity of my truck. 

Soon I found out there was a global shortage of HDPE waterline because of supply line disruptions so it took an enormous amount of searching to find enough of the right size. A hardware store 25 miles away was able to special order 1000 feet - although not as strong as I wanted - and it was supposed to arrive the week after the trencher. 

When the big trencher finally arrived I went to work on the driveways. It dug three feet deep and handled the hard, packed, rocky driveways much quicker than the smaller one would have. This was a big deal because a trench cuts off driveway access. So I had 4" ABS pipe all ready to bury - 40' for one driveway and 50' for the other. That way I could immediately back-fill it so our neighbors could use their driveways and I would later be able to run our waterline through the 4" protective pipe.

You won't believe this but when I had about 10 feet left on the second driveway (leaving it impassable) the other trencher broke. It started blowing smoke and then fluid poured out all over the ground. I called the rental place and then started hand-digging so we could finish the driveway and make it usable again. They came and literally picked up the trencher with a backhoe and chains, set it on the trailer, and then finished trenching the driveway for me with the backhoe. Later they brought back the newly-repaired, first trencher and left it for the weekend. 

Now came the biggest surprise of all. Late Saturday afternoon I had finished every last stretch except the wash where the trencher had gotten stuck. I had about 10 feet to go on either side and as I was happily digging, my trench suddenly filled with water! Then it found a gopher hole and started running into the wash. My first thought was that I'd hit a spring. I could see the water swirling from the gush below the surface. I reached down into the water and found that I had broken a waterline. It came from my neighbor's property right into the ranch! We shut the water off at the well and sure enough, the water quit flowing. 

Since it turned out that we already had a waterline and just didn't know it I called to cancel the 1000 feet of HDPE I had ordered. "Sorry, no cancellations on special orders." I re-explained the situation and they said they'd check Monday morning to see if there was any way to cancel it and let me know.
Trench Filling with Water
Another neighbor I know was in town so I called and asked him to pick up a cap for me. Once he arrived I capped the line and turned the water back on. And the trench started filling with water again! It didn't make any sense. It turns out the direction of flow was from the ranch toward the neighbor's! We're the furthest from the well, downhill of everyone else, and it's a good 200 feet through a horse pasture and driveway on the neighbor's property before you'd reach their house. I thought it must go to the pasture, but it sure seemed strange. So we shut the water off again and I ran to town, got a shutoff valve, brought it back, installed it and turned the water back on. But our neighbor still had no water. By this point it was dark so we told the neighbor we'd get their water back on the next day.

The problem is that the properties on the well agreement had been bought and sold multiple times since the well and plumbing had been installed. No one knew - including the one we bought the property from - that a waterline apparently comes all the way down the road, then turns and goes 200 feet into our property, and then 200 feet uphill to the neighbor's house. Our property had no buildings on it and there was no reason to expect this scenario. I spent hundreds of dollars on trenching, driveway pipe casing, and fittings at the well including two shutoff valves, one of which is now just a stub. Before I buried all that I offered my neighbors the opportunity to take advantage of any of it.
Courtyard Waterline Trench
On Monday the hardware store called and said the pipe was on back-order. So since it hadn't already been loaded on the truck, they were able to cancel the order. That's nice because that was the most expensive piece of this whole puzzle. 

We still needed 500 feet of HDPE to run it around the ranch and I was able to find some - but again, not as strong as I wanted. The trick to laying it is creating a bed with a few inches of sand below it and several more above it so rocks don't crush it. This we did with great care (we screened our own sand in place from the back-fill) as well as back-filling the other 500+ feet of trenches we ended up not needing. 

There were more surprises such as the geyser that erupted when we turned the water on the first time (lesson: use two gear clamps with screws on opposite sides on every connection), but this post is already too long. When all was said and done it cost us about $1500 plus labor - just the girls and I. Knowing where the waterline was ahead of time would've saved about $300 and lots of labor.
Courtyard Faucet Install
All in all we had an incredible experience with multiple moments where all I could do is laugh. It was worth it to get running water to the ranch. And now you know the whole dramatic story!

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