A series of home infrastructure projects have finally concluded after many months and I’m looking back at what worked, what didn’t, and how various compromises were made. As usual there was an initial ideal that was put through the meat grinder of external reality. In the end I learned a few things and slowly came around to being pretty satisfied with the results. Mostly. But the domino effect made for a wild ride.
Nine years ago I bought a run down little house in the country. It’s part eventual retirement home, part weekend get away, and part rental property. But the water well was north of seventy years old and was going to fail sooner or later. The casing was beginning to crumble. And the old well wasn’t very deep which was something that might become a problem as droughts in California intensify. Last year I decided to preemptively drill a new well rather than wait for the old one to collapse first.
Turns out, it took eleven months for the county to process the required documents. I spoke with some of the neighbors who had drilled wells in years past and it had only taken a few weeks to get their county approvals. The general trend for decades has been for everything to become increasingly more complex and drag on longer and longer year after year. Scheduling the drillers also took some time since there aren’t that many people who do this sort of specialized work and they had a waiting list. Then there were complications.
The county authorities wouldn’t allow the new well to be drilled in the same location as the old well. Back in the 1980s the property had converted from an old septic system to the (then) newly expanded county sewer service. A sewer pipe had been installed from the house out to the street and it passed relatively close to the existing well. In recent years the county changed the rules about the minimum distance a well can be from a sewer pipe in order to prevent sewerage from a cracked pipe from leaking in to the clean well water. Fair enough.
But there were all sorts of other set back requirements: X distance from the side property lines, X distance from the front property line, X distance from the underground gas pipe… And there were physical limitations. The drilling equipment is huge and there was no way to get such big machines in to the back yard where most of the open land is. So the only legal spot where we could drill was precisely where a huge tree happened to be.
Reluctantly I had the tree removed. I didn’t want to, but it was the only viable option. Professional tree removal isn’t cheap and this is absolutely not a do-it-yourself type job. But there was another complication. The mature tree had grown intertwined with some high power electrical wires. I never noticed before, but there are two sets of wires stretched from pole to pole along the street. The ones closer to the ground are relatively low voltage and branch off to serve individual homes. But there’s another set much higher up that carry 12,000 volts. Transformers located up on the poles step the power down to domestic levels. The professional tree people wouldn’t go anywhere near the power lines. So I contacted the power company.
Here’s what I discovered. When a regular customer calls and asks the power company to trim the tree branches near their high voltage wires the power company says it’s not their job. But when you pay professional tree people $4,000 and they talk to the power company on your behalf suddenly there’s a different response. The utility folks came out and removed the top part of the tree so the tree experts could do the rest safely. Evidently people who can’t afford to hire experts are ignored – along with the risk. I suppose the power company would go bankrupt trimming every tree in the county. Except the power company just did file for bankruptcy a couple of months ago as a result of the liability associated with massive forest fires. I would prefer a solvent public utility, but that’s how it goes. Anyway, while they were around I had a younger tree removed as well since it was making its way up the utility pole toward the transformers and high voltage lines.
Once the tree was removed and all the county paperwork was squared away the drilling was done in a couple of days. As is so often the case the actual thing that needs to get done in simple. All the associated complexity is not. I thought a great deal about what might have happened if the well had collapsed and I had to start this entire year long process with no running water. Ouch. I also scratched my head over the fact that the new well is only ten feet from the old well, which didn’t seem like enough distance to help if raw sewerage was oozing into the ground and working its way to the bottom of the fresh water supply 165 feet down. But you can’t argue with the county…
While I was waiting for the county paperwork to be processed I did a lot of research and decided I wanted a solar powered well pump. Since the fir tree was going away the pump house would receive full southern sun all day. Ranchers and off grid properties use solar pumps all the time. One huge advantage of a DC solar pump is there’s no need for inverters or batteries which are not only the most expensive part of a solar power system, but they also need ongoing maintenance and periodic replacement. But with a basic DC solar pump the sun hits the solar panels, the pump kicks in, and water is brought to the surface. Super simple.
Of course, the system only works during daylight hours so if you want running water at night there’s a problem. The solution was to install a surface tank that gradually fills all day and then supplies water whenever it’s needed. My well produces eight gallons per minute. Let’s assume the pump only runs for the four peak hours a day from 11 AM to 3 PM which is a conservative estimate in this part of California. That’s 2,000 gallons a day which is wildly more than the property has ever used. I chose a 5,000 gallon tank because that’s the largest size available without a permit. I wasn’t going to risk another eleven month Franz Kafka experience with the county bureaucracy.
Once I read up on the system I realized there were water tanks all over the neighborhood. Most of these were powered by the regular electric grid, but the concept was the same. Pump water gradually and have a reserve on hand for when you need it. This is especially useful during droughts when wells produce fewer gallons per minute and can’t keep up with demand for showers, dish washing, toilets, and irrigation.
I’ve had a 5,000 gallon rainwater storage tank in the back yard for several years so the new well tank brought me up to 10,000 gallons and two separate water sources. A lot could go wrong and there’d still be plenty of water on hand. I find that very reassuring in a location that’s routinely afflicted by floods, droughts, forest fires, earthquakes, and financial shenanigans.
But the tank created a problem for my neighbors across the street who hated the look of it from their kitchen window. I understood their concern. It was the dead of winter, the entire front yard had been denuded by the tree removal, and all the heavy equipment had devastated whatever landscaping remained. The place really did look rough. And it’s critical for me to get along with the people around me if at all possible.
My plan had always been to install the tank farther back and to the side rather than right up near the road. I walked the property with the contractors and we agreed on a less conspicuous spot. But when I returned the tank was exactly where I told them it shouldn’t go. People in the building trades have a logic of their own and it made more sense to the plumber, electrician, filter man, and tank installer to put it directly next to the pump house. I understand their decision. But they didn’t appreciate the need to keep the neighbors happy – especially since I’m the “evil absentee slumlord” on the block.
For the record, no slumlord would ever spend this kind of effort or money on a rental property. This project consumed all the rent I collected this past year. But that’s also part of my plan. I offer the house to fantastic people at a below market rent and they effectively finance the incremental improvements. This works because there’s no mortgage. My accountant hates everything about the arrangement. He doesn’t understand my fear of debt or my long term strategy for multiple forms of resilience. But I digress.
The solution was a fence to camouflage the tank. It’s the equivalent of a quilted chicken-shaped cozy for the kitchen toaster. My tenants call it the bistro dumpster shield. I honestly think the tank would have been less conspicuous if I had landscaped with shrubbery and dwarf fruit trees as I had originally planned. But that would have taken time to mature while the fence was done in a single day. The neighbors begrudgingly backed off.
On to the next struggle… The well guy and the electrician were on the same page and got the DC pump and solar panels synced up beautifully. But the filter man’s equipment is all AC since almost everyone runs these machines on ordinary grid power. That was another drama which I can’t really describe in detail here because the engineering is all over my head. But after a couple of months it got resolved and the water is clean and clear now.
But wait! There’s more! I was informed by the county authorities that my property taxes were about to increase because I had made an improvement to the place. Having two wells rather than one was going to bump me up in their eyes. Of course the old well was useless and had no value. In order to prove my assertion the county has a decommissioning process where the well is filled and capped to their standard. Okay. Great. Where do I sign up? But there’s a substantial county fee for this operation…
I asked some retired government official friends and they confirmed my assumption – off the record. There was a tax revolt in 1978 that resulted in Prop 13 which capped local property taxes. There are people (including my retirement age neighbors across the street who didn’t like the look of my new water tank) who have been paying tax based on the 1978 value of their home. To add to the economic dilemma they’re retired county workers who are drawing nice pensions since their careers predate the superannuation 401(k) privatized retirement era. Multiply that dynamic by millions of Californians and the authorities have gotten creative with new forms of revenue enhancement. Shrug. I paid the well capping fee and moved on. I could say that I’m looking forward to many future decades of Prop 13 myself, but the handwriting is on the wall. Prop 13 will persist while property taxes become increasingly replaced by a pay-per-view revenue model.
So here’s the finished product – give or take some paint and what will be many months of landscaping to heal the front yard. My goals have been met. The ride was longer and bumpier than I would have preferred and the initial budget proved to be a complete fantasy. But it’s done and the house is that much closer to being complete.