The Water Ram on Our Farm

By Staff
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5731 Paradise Road Slatington, Pennsylvania 18080

In the spring of 1940 our family moved to a farm in rural Lehigh
County, Pennsylvania, on which a water ram was still in use,
probably the last remaining ram in operation for miles around. I
had never seen one in use before, and I know of no one who has used
one after ours was abandoned about 1965. The ram pumped water to
the farm buildings, which were located higher than the small
spring-fed pond, and at least three hundred feet away from the
buildings. The ram discharge pipe fed into the milkhouse cooling
reservoir, the overflow going into a stock tank in the barnyard,
with the overflow from there going into a shallow concrete trough
outside the fenced barnyard. There the chickens, cats, dogs, etc.
could drink, with the remainder of the water disappearing into the
meadow grass. Also, by closing a valve where the water entered the
milk0house, the water would be forced uphill another eight feet to
a reservoir in the wash house for doing the laundry on Monday
morning. The output was very feeble at that higher elevation and it
took overnight to fill the reservoir. If one forgot to start
filling the reservoir Sunday evening, then there would not be any
wash done on Monday! We uncovered pipes years later that suggested
an attempt had possibly been made to pump water to the house, but I
suspect it didn’t work due to the still higher elevation of the
house. All of the pipes were so small diameter, nothing larger than
five-eighths of an inch which of course gave a lot of friction loss
in a three-hundred foot run of pipe. All the pipes were of lead, a
definite no-no today.

Supposedly the water ram was cost free, as the weight and
velocity of running water provided the energy, but it definitely
was not trouble free, for I can sure attest to that part of using a
water ram. The ram had to be located lower than the water source,
so ours was

in a dog house type of building, three sides closed and one
open, with a door to close in winter for preventing freeze-up. It
would look like the inside of an igloo in winter, the masonry walls
covered with frost from all of the water and moisture inherent to
the ram operation. It took a tremendous amount of water running
through a two inch pipe to operate the ram and make it force a very
small amount of water into an air cushioned discharge chamber. It
was just like water hammer in your house when you close a faucet
very quickly. The running water wants to keep moving through your
faucet and the water in the ram feed pipe also wants to keep
moving. However, the moving water in the ram overcomes the weight
of the brass impetus valve, slamming it closed and forcing the
nearby flapper valve to open to let a small amount of that
interrupted water into the discharge chamber. It sounds
complicated, but it isn’t. After a short pause, the inertia is
dissipated, and the impetus valve drops open from its own weight,
the flow again starts downhill through the two inch feed pipe,
picking up speed sufficient to again slam the big impetus valve
closed. All of this happens at a rate of possibly one time for
every second, so there were fifty to sixty strokes, or cycles, per
minute. There were devices on some impetus valves to regulate how
far the valve would drop open, thus changing the number of strokes
per minute. There were devices on some impetus valves to regulate
how far the valve would drop open, thus changing the number of
strokes per minute. That decreased the speed of the flow in the two
inch feed pipe, probably reducing the slam reaction that forced
water into the discharge-chamber. Sometimes the impetus valve would
stay in a closed position and the ram would just plain stop, and
all that was needed was a slight push on the top of the valve and
it would start its continuous cycle. To overcome this we devised a
flat iron spring that would push down a bit on the valve stem when
it was closed. That spring had to be shaped just right, for too
much push on the valve stem would prevent it from closing
correctly.

We had a path, summer and winter, from the barn to the ram pit.
In hot, dry summers the pond would not fill fast enough from the
spring that fed it, so two or three trips daily were necessary to
start and stop the ram as for how long the water supply lasted to
keep it going. There were attempts to attach a flapper valve at the
two inch pipe inlet in the pond, the valve operated by a ball
float. We could get it to stop the flow, but the pressure against
the flapper became too great when the pond filled, and therefore
the ball float would not open it, necessitating a walk to the pond
to manually lift the shut-off flapper. Also, the air chamber would
become water filled, with no air cushion to allow the flapper valve
inside to work correctly. When this would happen, the ram would
run, but it didn’t push water and it created a noise that could
be heard at the discharge pipe in the milkhouse. It sounded like
water hammer in your household pipes, one hammer for each impetus
valve closing at the ram. That sound was so distinct that it was
possible to hear it and walk directly on top of the three hundred
feet of lead pipe, counting the ram valve strokes as you
walked.

The remedy for that problem was to get air into the chamber, and
it meant doing a real miserable task, especially in winter, as you
usually were very wet after the job was done. The air chamber had
to be unfastened, lifted a bit and let the discharge empty
completely, after which the chamber would fill with air. All this
while the gasket was probably moving out of place, and despite all
of your efforts, it probably wouldn’t be at the correct place
when you replaced and retightened the air chamber. The ram would
run and everything would look correct, but if you were alone and
had to check if water was running in the milkhouse, it meant maybe
another trip to try and retighten or readjust the gasket. We
learned to wait until pressure built up again in the discharge line
and then we ran our fingers along the base of the chamber and
checked for leaks. There were various devices, most of them called
‘snifters,’ or air inlet valves, that were intended to
somehow replenish the air supply in the chamber. Let me assure you
that they were not too successful, especially if the snifter device
was under water, as it was most of the time. All of this was
compounded by the very frugal way this particular ram was
installed, as it had no valves to stop the water flow through both
the two inch feed line and the five-eighths inch discharge line.
Also looking back, all of that lack of air in the chamber could
have been quickly remedied if we had drilled, tapped and threaded
an air valve stem into the dome of the chamber. A few pumps with a
hand tire pump would have saved a lot of time and a few cuss
words!

Since the dog house for the ram was mostly underground, a very
deep drainage ditch was necessary for the operating water to run to
a lower elevation. Shoveling by hand was necessary to keep the mud,
weeds, grass, etc. in check, and to make matters worse, in the
summer the animals grazed in and around this ditch, trampling it
into a muddy mess. Again this setup left much to be desired, and I
am sure a lot of the problems could have been avoided with both
forethought and afterthought.

The ram had very few moving parts, but they did wear. It was of
utmost importance that it be mounted and operated as nearly level
as possible. If not, the impetus valve stem, guide and seat would
wear very unevenly. Even if operated in the most perfect conditions
possible, a trip to the machine shop was occasionally necessary to
true up the stem, guide and seat. We had some spare parts but
eventually they were exhausted. Many people knew of this ram on our
farm and were fascinated by its, seemingly endless operation,
powered by water running from a pond, all due to gravity. I was
also fascinated, but I also knew of all the time spent taking care
of the problems.

By about 1965, changes in building layout on the farm, lack of
parts, and the cost of the hours of labor spent on keeping it
running, finally spelled the word END for the ram. Whether it was
dark, cold, snowing, hot, windy, raining or whatever, whenever the
first person got to the milkhouse at six a.m., or at six p.m. after
a hard day’s work in the fields, they took a look inside and
immediately called to anyone within hearing distance, ‘The
water isn’t running, someone go check the ram.’ I knew it
was time to grab a few tools and take a walk down the well worn
path winding through the pasture.

If I can be of any help to someone interested in water rams feel
free to contact me.

David Semmel, author of the above story about his family’s
water ram, serves as secretary-treasurer of the Antique Engine,
Tractor & Toy Club, Inc., in Slatington, Pennsylvania. He sent
along these pictures from the club’s 1993 show, held June 4, 5,
and 6 at the Kempton Community Center. They had 90 tractors, 150
engines, and 25 antique cars and trucks on exhibit, along with six
toy displays, 54 flea market stands, and five working craftsmen.
The Pennsylvania Tractor Pullers Association was in operation
between the rain showers (yes, they had rain on all three days of
the show), and they plan to be in attendance again for the 1994
show on June 3, 4, and 5. Last year’s show was the first time
the club held a three-day event, up from two days in previous
years. They found that, between the kiddie tractor pull,
teeter-totter, slow race, blindfold driving, barrel roll, slowest
running one-lunger engine contest, and other activities, there was
plenty to keep everyone busy and interested during all three days,
and they hope you can come enjoy it all this year!

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