Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Unless you know where to dig! Much of the drinkable water in rural areas is pumped out of the ground.
In our modern society, we use electricity to draw it up to the surface without a second thought. But what do we do when the power goes out?
In older times and for those who live off-grid, the answer is a hand water pump, also called a pitcher pump. So, let’s get a closer look at pitcher pumps, their use, and more importantly, how to keep them running!
Pitcher Pumps And Their Use
A pitcher pump is a simple tool used to raise water from a shallow well or cistern. People have used pitcher pumps for more than a century to provide fresh, potable water at a communal well, or within a home.
My experience with a pitcher pump has been at our off-grid cabin for the past 5 years. It’s amazing that when you don’t have perfect water out of the tap, how much energy you expend.
When we first arrived at that cabin for a weekend, we started by priming the pump. This includes pouring a few ounces of water into the top of the pump to saturate and swell the leathers. A few minutes later, we pump to pull water up from the cistern.
The rest of the weekend is partially consumed with pumping water for drinking, washing dishes, and washing ourselves.
Our water source is a cistern that is about 50 yards away from the cabin, and about 15 feet lower than the kitchen. A pitcher pump is the only convenient way that we can bring water into the cabin without either electricity or a bit of walking and carrying.
A hand operated pitcher pump is a fairly simple machine. It quickly and efficiently draws water from depths of up to 25 feet. In our case, we have a cistern.
The water from this shallow well is non-potable groundwater that we boil and filter before use. The plunger and leather cup of the pitcher pump form a suction that draws the water up while the leather valve prevents the water from going back down into the well.
Pumping the handle repeatedly draws water into the pump, and out of the spout. We can usually fill a 5-gallon bucket within 3-5 minutes.
Pitcher Pump Parts
There are only a few parts to a pitcher pump. The pump body contains all parts except for the handle. The handle moves the plunger up and down within the pump body.
The plunger terminates at the leather cup, which, in turn, contains the cup valve. The leather cup forms a seal against the inside of the pump body, and creates the vacuum that pulls water into the pump on the upstroke.
During this movement, the cup valve closes completing the seal, and forms the vacuum. All water above the cup flows out the pump spout.
The down stroke opens the cup valve, forcing water into the pump’s bottom body into the space above the cup valve. At the base of the pump body, is the leather valve.
This opens when you lift the plunger, allowing water to be drawn into the pump body. When the plunger is forced down, the leather valve closes, helping force water above the cup through the cup valve.
The up and down motion of the handle pulls water into the pump, and then out of the spout. The critical parts are the leather cup, cup valve, and leather valve.
As with any machine with moving parts, there is eventual wear and tear on several parts. A pitcher pump is no different. The three critical parts eventually wear out and therefore require maintenance.
The leather cup rides against the walls of the pump body and eventually wears down. Once it is worn, it fails to provide a positive seal.
Likewise, the water will eventually cause deterioration of the cup. As this happens, the pump will become less and less efficient. The leather cup is relatively inexpensive, and widely available.
The leather valve is a simple flap. Use and time will weaken the flap, and also the seal it forms against the bottom of the pump.
The primary issue with this wear and tear is the slow leakage of water back down the water pipe. This process causes the pump to lose its prime. Once the pump body is dry, the leathers shrink, and it will need to be primed again. The leather valve, just like the cup, is also widely available.
The leather valve, as seen in my pictures, can be homemade, with no need to purchase one. You only need a thin piece of leather. Simply trace the old valve on to the blank piece, then cut it out with a sharp utility knife.
Finally, the cup valve is a small metal wedge that sits in the cup housing. While this isn’t necessarily a wear part, it needs to be maintained to ensure that it doesn’t freeze into position or that its movement is restricted.
Disclosure: if you visit an external link in this post and make a purchase, I may earn a commission. Read my full earnings disclosure here.
The entire plunger assembly can be purchased if yours is too rusted or the cup valve no longer holds a seal.
Refurbishing a Pitcher Pump
Wear items require maintenance. This is a universal truth. The amount of wear also highly depends on use. If your pump gets a daily workout, you may need to swap out the leathers once or twice a year…
At our camp, we spend just about 75 days per year there, and I finally replaced the leathers after 5 years. I keep a few sets on hand and materials to make the leather valve. See the above links to purchase the individual components.
The first maintenance step is the disassembly of the pump. Move the pump handle to its lowest position. This will raise the plunger to its highest position.
Remove the two pins connecting the handle to the plunger and the handle to the pump cap. This will allow you to separate the handle completely from the pump. Set it and the pins aside.
The bolt on the pump cap that must be removed to get at the rest of the pump parts
Next, remove the top cap of the pump by loosening the bolt at the back of the cap. Set the cap aside. At this point, the plunger should still rest high in the pump body.
If you forgot to raise the plunger, re-assemble the pump, and raise it then. If the leathers are saturated, it will be extremely difficult to move the plunger without the leverage of the handle. Once removed, set the plunger aside with the other parts.
Unscrew the plunger rod from the metal plunger cage, and then unscrew the cage. This may take a little effort if there is any corrosion. When the two parts of the cage separate, you will free up both the leather cup and the valve.
Finally, remove the two bolts holding the pump body to the pump base. Pressed between the pump body and the pump base will be the leather valve and valve weight. Remove the valve and set aside.
The valve weight is bolted to the leather valve. Unbolt the weight, and remove it from the valve. This is the one part that I’ve had the most trouble with.
After 5 years of being compressed between the base and pump body, the leather valve was stuck to the base, and I could not remove it without damaging it.
While this was not an issue, as I was replacing it anyway, it may become an issue during routine maintenance. Likewise, there was a bit of rust and I had to work at the bolt.
At this point, the pump is fully disassembled, and ready for cleaning. Wipe out the pump body, giving it a good scrub removing any lime scale, rust, or other loose bits.
Then focus on the mating surfaces of the base and the body. Scrub these to remove any bits of the leather valve that have stuck on them.
You may, if you wish, strip the inside of the pump body. Only do this if there is severe rust or buildup of lime scale.
While this is beyond the scope of this article, this requires the complete stripping of the inside of the pump body.
You can do this with a circular wire brush and an electric drill or with some emery cloth and some elbow grease.
Don’t overdo the cleaning. Get it down to bare metal and stop. You don’t want to change the diameter, or the cup will no longer form a seal.
Once down to bare metal, coat it with any food-safe paint. If your pump gets constant use, you can leave it at bare metal.
Ours has significantly chipped paint, however, even after leaving the pump for a week, we have little to no rust stain in the water. Any that is present is gone within a few gallons of pumping as the leather cup brushes against the side of the pump.
Replacing the Leathers
If your leathers show signs of wear, then it’s time to replace them. In my case, the cup was worn, and no longer formed a tight seal with the body of the pump.
The leather valve was worn and the break in the outer ring allowed leaking at the base of the pump. The wear of both parts caused the pump to lose prime in just a few hours.
First, bolt the valve weight onto the leather valve. Then, center the leather valve on the pump base.
Place the outer ring of the valve so that it covers the edge of the pump body when it is bolted to the base.
This may take a few minor adjustments, but you need to ensure that the leather forms a seal between the two pump parts. Improper alignment will cause leaks.
Once you have placed the leather valve, bolt down the pump body to the base. Do not over tighten the bolts. Cast iron is strong but brittle. Too much torque will shatter the bolt holes.
Next, assemble the cup. Stack the cup base, leather, then weight, then screw on the top of the housing. A snug fit is all that is needed here. If you have an older pump, don’t over-tighten, the housing may break. Finally, screw the eyebolt into the housing.
As you are assembling the parts, avoid the use of any oils or other anti-seize lubricants. Most are not food safe, and those that are will taint the taste of your water. It’s best to perform periodic maintenance to ensure the bolts don’t seize up.
Place the plunger assembly into the pump body, then place the pump top cap in place and bolt it to the pump body.
Next, affix the pump handle by re-installing the two pins. Double check every bolt is tight and that the cotter pins are in place.
Prime the pump with a pint or two of water, and let the leathers soak for 10 -20 minutes. After a good soak, the leathers are swollen and ready to hold a good prime.
Run the pump until you get clear, cool water, and then you are set until it’s time to complete another round of pump maintenance!
Every machine requires maintenance. Your pitcher pump is no different. Wear, corrosion, and leaks creep up on us.
Prevention is always easier than reacting to a broken pump. At least you get to pick the timing! Luckily, pitcher pump maintenance is easy and only takes a few minutes.
Start with the handle in the lowest position and remove the two pins that hold it in place. Pull out the plunger. Check the water level (we will get back to this in a few minutes).
Check the leather cup. Discoloration is fine as the leather will darken and blacken with exposure to water. Look for gashes and cuts as well as worn spots. Then make sure that the cup assembly is still snug and that the metal valve moves freely.
Finally, ensure that the plunger rod is tightly attached to the plunger assembly. A common issue I have is that the cup slowly unscrews from the plunger rod. Maintenance is my chance to tighten this up.
Next, recheck the water level in the pump. Over the few minutes it takes to review the plunger, the water should not drop. If it does, the leather pump valve may have to be replaced.
If the water level has held, just shine a light into the pump body to make sure the leather valve and weight are in good order (no visible tears or corrosion).
Finally, re-assemble the plunger and handle, then pump out a few gallons of water. Check the seam between the pump body and base for leaks. If you have a leak, then it’s time to replace the leather valve.
Final Words on Pitcher Pumps
Water is critical in a survival situation. Even one day without water can limit your performance at times of critical need. Your pitcher pump may be your first and best option for bringing it into your home.
As with most homesteading tools, take care of your tools and they will take care of you. Pitcher pumps are no different, however, their maintenance is simple, and accomplished with few tools and easy to get parts as well as one you can make yourself.
Our small off-grid camp came with a pump as the sole source of water. At first, it was a novelty, but slowly we learned the ins and outs of the pump’s use and maintenance.
As the years progressed, we started a maintenance cycle and, more recently, completed the rebuild.
Gone is the cycle of re-priming several times a day, and the leak at the bottom of the pump. All it took was an hour of TLC, and we were back in the water business.
Give your pitcher the attention it deserves, and stock up the supplies to keep it running!
M. I. Grey is an expert in food processing and preservation (including canning), but also an avid forager. He’s also passionate about anything preparedness, and used to work as a security expert.