Our account of digging a well in the Philippines. The first step of just about every residential construction project in the Philippines is digging a well. Even in urban places, where municipal water is available, most households have a dug well, the water from which is used for non-critical uses such as laundry and car washing and probably for the live-in help to use. Municipal water is considered to be expensive and not to be used for frivolous purposes.
In order to make concrete, the basic building material of the Philippines, water is a necessity. That’s why a well is the first order of business when building a house. Most of these wells are what we’d call dug wells but Filipinos usually call deep wells. Drilled wells are rare here but the Iloilo Municipal Water District does have some drilled wells in Oton. American colonial authorities and geologists gave up on wells to supply water to Iloilo City and instead built the reservoir on the Tigum River. It’s still in use today.
We had bought a lot in Tigbauan, Iloilo in the Philippines. Our plan is to eventually build a house there. The first step was to build a perimeter wall around the lot. This is usual in the Philippines and most developing countries. We hired an Iloilo architect to design and build the wall because we had never managed such a project in the Philippines on our own. We were a bit intimidated at the thought of hiring and supervising a crew, buying materials and so forth.
Philippine wells almost always use concrete well tiles. Since we wanted our well to be good and to have a big capacity we specified that big tiles be used. We shopped around and found good well tiles at Damasco in Pavia, Iloilo. More about that at /our-house-project-cement-blocks/
We ended up using tiles that were 36″ in diameter on the inside at 18″ high. These tiles are very heavy, perhaps 500 pounds each. They are much larger than the tiles most property owners use. Our theory was that the large tiles would give us a bigger reserve for peak water usage such as garden watering. Our architect-contractor brought in some workers to dig the well. Locals had told us that wells should be 25 feet deep to ensure a reliable supply of water.
Note that most well diggers in our area make their own well tiles on-site using metal forms.
The actual digging of the well was less drama that I had imagined. Basically, the first tile is set in place and then workers dig under the bottom tile causing it to settle into the well hole. When the tile has sunk to ground level another tile is rolled into place on lifted on top and the digging continues. Since we had a big crew in site for the building of the wall, there was plenty of manpower available to wrestle with the tiles.
Carol and I left for a few days and when we came back we were dismayed to find that the well had been dug so that ten tiles were in place below the surface with two tiles above ground. This meant that we had a fifteen foot deep well, not the twenty-five foot depth we had been told was necessary. The well-digging crew had disappeared. The well tile joints had been sealed with concrete mortar and the exterior of the well back filled. I was not happy but the architect assured me that the well would be made deeper “later”. This turned out to be wrong. The sealing of the joints, and especially the backfilling meant that the tiles were fixed in place and digging under the bottom tile to deepen the well would not work. Since this was in January, before the hot, dry weather set in, we had plenty of water for the time being — about six feet of water in the fifteen foot well. The question was would we have enough water for our wall building project as the water level dropped during the hot and dry months of February through May.
Fast forward through almost three months of hot, dry weather to April. The architect and his crew have been given walking papers and a new crew is on site and making good progress on the wall. There is only two or three feet of water in the well and we decide we have to take action. The father of one of our crew members, Juanito Trogani, is purportedly the ace well digger in the Tigbauan, Iloilo area. This proved to be true. Trogani came to the site to evaluate the well. He said all the tiles have to be removed and the well redug. He agreed to do the work for P800 pesos per tile. We had more tiles delivered and Trogani appeared with his crew and a few simple tools carried in rice sacks. We document the work below.
Bear in mind how much more difficult a job rebuilding the well was than was digging it in the first place. All of the 500 pound concrete tiles had to be hoisted out of the well using almost medieval technology. I was really appalled at the risks being taken. Young men were lowered into the well to tie a rope around the wet, slippery tiles which were then slowly hauled out of the well, mostly by brute force. I shuddered to think what would happen if a tile came loose while one of the men was in the well.
All the old tiles had been wrestled out of the well by the second day and the process of digging the well deeper started. The well was dug to about 16.5 or 17 feet deep and then two tiles were lowered in. Digging under the tiles continued. The crew had to constantly bail water out of the well. As work progressed the young diggers had to dive to the bottom of the well to continue the digging.
TIP: you’ll get a better well if you hire diggers with a high capacity water pump, or provide one yourself. This will allow the well diggers to pump the accumulating water out of the well and to put in an extra tile or two. That can make the difference between running out of water in dry weather or having water. It is essential to dig the well at the driest time of the year when the water table is at it’s lowest.
So far the digging had been through a very dense clay (probably a vertisol) but at 19 feet we came to a layer of pure gray sand. It appeared to be almost identical to the volcanic material deposited across Washington State when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980. We lived in Washington at the time and remember the snow plow trucks plowing this material off the highways. Certainly this layer must have been deposited from an ancient volcanic eruption. It was subsequently overlaid with twenty feet of clay, probably deposited when the area was a seabed. The sand layer was considered to be very auspicious and digging was ended and sealing of the joints and backfilling undertaken.
Total cost was P13,600 or about $285. Of course this did not include the well tiles which were P870 ($19) each nor does it account for the fact that I had previously paid for the original well digging. Still the redigging was a success. We ended up with almost nine feet of water in the well instead of two or three feet. We went on to add a concrete platform and Dragon hand pump.
Postscript. The well pad shown above had to be demolished after five years. Reason? It did not have an adequate foundation and so heaved and cracked. The clay soils found in many Philippine rice lands expand when wet and shrink when dry. This effect is strong enough to crack concrete.
For the first several months, the water is was slightly milky. This is pretty much unavoidable in a well dug in clay, which is the finest of soils. The particles are so small that they remain suspended in the water rather than settling out. The heat, the slightly stagnant and swampy nature of the surrounding rice fields promotes algae growth. Our solution is to treat the well with chlorine powder — or one can just use liquid laundry bleach. This is a standard well treatment practically everywhere. Small packets of chlorine powder are sold in grocery stores and given away by government to help residents keep their wells safe.
Now, two years after the digging of the well, we are blessed with a plentiful supply of good quality water. We still occasionally treat the well with chlorine, especially during the dry months when the level of the well falls, but otherwise we use it as is for bathing and cooking. We buy bottled water for drinking.
Read all about our Philippine House building Project at /building-our-philippine-house-index/