Restoring an old cistern

February 15, 2016

If you're reading this, chances are you just discovered an old brick or stone cistern in your yard. Perhaps you hit a cast iron cap? Or maybe you were out in the yard and noticed a small hole and, as you dug around, noticed that hole got deeper and deeper, and that there were bricks lining the hole? 

 

Cisterns were a huge part of early infrastructure. It was commonplace – especially in the north – to incorporate a cistern when a new home was constructed pre-1920. In fact, I can almost guarantee that homes built here in Columbus, Ohio by or before 1920 had a cistern or a hand-dug well on-site, and the cistern was probably made from brick, was hand-dug, and was made into a sphere (typically proportional in size to the roof from which it was harvesting rain). We ourselves have come across and/or been inside more than 50 old cisterns within Columbus city limits alone. 

 

So what are your options if you discover an old cistern? 

 

 

Old cisterns can be relatively easy to restore if the following are true:

   1) It is not full of debris;

   2) The downspouts are still connected to the existing downspout drains; and

   3) The cistern is still water tight.

 

 

 

Typically, though, none of those three things are true with old cisterns we come across, in which case it can be a very labor intensive process to get the cistern back up-and-running.

 

If none of the above three items are true for your tank, then it is most likely going to be less expensive to fill in your existing cistern and replace it with a new tank. However, if the cistern does not have much debris in it, then the most labor-intensive process can be crossed off the list (whew!). 

 

 

 

 

If you can see inside the tank, then the next thing to check is whether or not downspouts are still running into it. The easiest way to do this is to simply bring a garden hose to the downspout that is closest to your cistern, and, if the downspout runs into a pipe that leads underground, run the water and let it drain straight into that pipe. Let it run for a few minutes, then go to the cistern and listen for incoming water. If nothing, then try another downspout. If nothing again, then chances are good that your downspout drains no longer tie into your cistern, in which case new drainage will have to be run.

 

If you do have water draining in, then the third and final thing to check is whether the tank is holding water. To do this, fill the tank to a visible water level. Measure, then measure again, and write down the confirmed measurement. Wait a day and take a new measurement. If the two measurements are the same, you're in luck again! If they are not, then your tank walls need to be re-sealed or lined. Re-sealing or lining your cistern is a somewhat DIY-friendly project, and we carry several product lines that help with this process, including our own customized cistern liners made from flexible potable-grade PVC or PE fabric. 

 

Once the tank is sealed and the downspouts are draining to it, the last step will be establishing a way to draw the water out of the tank. Typically, our customers use electric pumps for this, but we also have helped a lot of folks restore that old-fashioned look by installing our line of manual hand pumps

 

For more information, please contact us today and we can help guide you through the process and get you the products you need to make your job easy, safe, and cost-effective. And, as always, thanks for reading!

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