Richard Trethewey
Q: Like many rural New Englanders, I get my water from a well. And the pressure is such that you can either take a shower, flush a toilet, or run the dishwasher, but never two at once because the water slows to a trickle. Is this a problem with the pump or my water supply?

— Susan, North Hampton, New Hampshire

A: Richard Trethewey replies: You could use the "12-step program" invented by a thrifty Yankee to cope with this problem: Walk 12 steps to the next fixture. By the time you get there, there'll be enough pressure to use it.

Seriously, you probably have a combination of factors working against you. First, hire a plumber or water-well contractor to make sure your pump and pressure tank are performing up to spec — usually 60 psi — and that your supply pipes aren't clogged with sediment or corrosion. (You can find this out by unscrewing the aerator screen on your kitchen faucet and looking for bits of debris.) If neither of these is the problem, the well itself is running short of water. You've got some options to fix it, but none of them produces a predictable result.

The key measure of well capacity is flow rate. According to the National Groundwater Association, the average American household needs 100 to 120 gallons per person per day, and a flow rate of 6 to 12 gallons per minute. (A great many people make do with less, however.) Even if your well originally delivered in this range, flow rates fluctuate with the seasons and the number of other wells drawing from the same water-bearing formation. Sometimes flow rates can be improved by hydrofracking, a process in which water is pumped down the well at high volume and at pressures of up to about 5,000 psi. This is supposed to clear sediment from the surrounding fissures so that additional water can seep into the well. But, as with drilling a deeper well, there's no guarantee it will work. You might have better luck with some aboveground strategies. Try conserving water with low-flow showerheads and faucets and water-stingy appliances and fixtures. You can also add a water storage tank to help you through droughts. Or supplement your supply with a rainwater collection system (see "Harvesting the Rain," July/August 2002, page 48). Of course, if you have teenagers, you'll probably run out of water no matter what — but that's a different story.

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