Robin L. Barton is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Habitat.
As Thomas Fuller said, “We never know the worth of water ’til the well is dry.” And a drought is exactly what led two large co-ops – one in Brooklyn and one in Queens – to look for their own water sources. Their extensive (and expensive) landscaping was dying because of drought restrictions on watering. Faced with few alternatives, it’s no surprise that both co-ops turned to the same solution: they installed their own water wells.
Brigham Park Section IV consists of six buildings with a total of 324 units and is located between Sheepshead Bay and Marine Park in Brooklyn. Lewis Kobak, Brigham Park’s current general manager and former longtime board president, says the co-op had invested thousands of dollars in its landscaping. A few years ago, drought conditions forced the city to impose restrictions on water use in the spring and summer, which endangered their valuable landscaping, he says. Also, Kobak explains that the co-op was using a lot of city water on its landscaping and wanted to save money on its water bills.
Hilltop Village Co-op No. 4 in Holliswood, Queens, was in a similar position. The three-building, 296-unit co-op, which is part of a larger complex, had also spent “thousands of dollars on landscaping,” says Marc Haken, the board president for the last 27 years. Because of the water-use restrictions, some of its landscaping had died – and he vowed that he wouldn’t let it happen to the property again.
Both co-ops wanted an alternative to using city water, but there was only one option: installing water wells. So that’s what they did. Brigham Park installed six, one in the basement of each of its buildings, says Kobak. In contrast, Hilltop Village installed only two, and they were exterior wells. Both co-ops connected their wells to in-ground sprinkler systems they had installed at the same time and they use the well water for their landscaping. Hilltop Village also connected its wells to its laundry rooms and uses the well water in the washing machines.
Neither Kobak nor Haken had any hurdles to overcome when it came to installing the wells. It wasn’t hard to convince the board, says Kobak, who describes the project as “almost a no-brainer.” Haken says it took him about “a minute and a half” to convince the rest of the board to install wells. Both co-ops had money in their reserve funds to pay for installing the wells – a capital expense – so assessments and maintenance increases weren’t needed. Unsurprisingly, there was no reaction from either co-op’s shareholders when the plans were announced.
The installation of the wells didn’t take long or disrupt life at the co-ops. Kobak says that it took about three days to install each well. A landscaping company drilled small holes big enough for a pipe in the basement of each building. It had to dig deep enough to reach the water table, so the higher the table, the easier the job. The water was then tested to make sure it was suitable for landscaping. Kobak says that his well water is actually better for landscaping than city water because it still has minerals in it, which are good for plants. Pumps were also installed for each well to pump the water from the well and to the in-ground sprinkler system, he adds. It was easy to find space in each building’s basement for the wells, says Kobak, because they take up so little room. And there were no structural issues or concerns.
Hilltop Village’s well story is a little different. First, holes were drilled in the middle of grassy areas on the co-op’s property. Drilling was a challenge because, as its name suggests, the co-op is on a hill, so the well company had to drill down about 800 feet. Then, a pump was installed at the bottom of each well. Finally, says Haken, the wells were connected to the laundry rooms, to an in-ground sprinkler system, and to spigots throughout the property to which hoses can be attached. The process took about two weeks.
Be warned: installing water wells isn’t cheap. Kobak says it cost Brigham Park about $2,500 per well, and Haken believes it cost Hilltop Village about $10,000 each. The co-ops also had to pay for permits for each well. It cost $300 for each initial permit and $15 a year to renew them, says Kobak. (Water wells are permitted in all five boroughs, although the permit requirements vary slightly for wells in Brooklyn and Queens. For more information on the requirements for getting a Permit Type 33 for a water well, go to www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/pheng/php33.shtml.
There are also some maintenance costs. Kobak says that the wells need maintenance two to three times a year. At the start of the season, the pump filters are changed, which is probably the biggest issue. Because Hilltop Village’s wells are located outside, they’re only used from April through October. So the co-op pays its sprinkler company a fee to turn the wells on and off each year. The sprinkler company also switches the laundry rooms to city water when the wells are off (the sprinkler system isn’t used at all in that case). Haken isn’t sure about the exact fee, but says it’s less than $1,000.
Both Kobak and Haken agree that the savings from using well water outweigh the wells’ installation and maintenance costs. Kobak says the wells have paid for themselves already. When Brigham Park installed them, the co-op was told that it could expect to save an estimated 15 percent on its water bills. The co-op saw an overall drop of $20,000 in those bills the year after the wells were installed, says Robert A. Mellina, a certified public accountant with Zeidman, Lackowitz, Prisand & Co., which handles Brigham Park’s accounting. The accuracy of the co-op’s water bills was somewhat suspect, so the co-op had also hired a consultant to audit the water bills and usage. As a result, it’s hard to know exactly how much of a savings there was. But Mellina estimates that “about half was probably attributable to the wells.”
Haken doesn’t know exactly how much money Hilltop Village has saved, but he guesses that the number is “tremendous.” After all, its water bills for the summer months are now the same as those for the winter months. The co-op has also saved money by not having to replace landscaping that died from lack of water. So Haken believes the savings have “paid off the costs multiple times over.”
Haken asserts that there are “only positives and no negatives” to well installation. Well water hasn’t harmed shareholders’ clothes or their washing machines. In fact, he’d use it for all purposes if he could. But the city won’t allow the well water to be used for drinking or bathing and, in fact, the spigots on his property are labeled, “Well water: don’t drink.” Kobak says the only downside is that Brigham Park’s well water can leave rust-colored stains on the sidewalks because of the minerals in it. But these stains are easily removed with a power wash. (Hilltop Village doesn’t have this problem because its water, like the city water in Queens, comes from a Long Island aquifer.)
And what about the co-ops’ landscaping which was, after all, the main reason for installing the wells in the first place? Haken says Hilltop Village’s landscaping is doing just fine. And Kobak notes that Brigham Park’s is doing “unbelievably well” and has “never looked so good.”