Still Going

Windmills, effective and efficient at providing water, aren’t going anywhere soon.

A windmill pumps water for a ranch in the High Plains of northern Nebraska.

By William Wagner

Windmills have been efficiently providing water to homeowners, ranchers, and farmers for more than a century, and don’t look for that to change anytime soon.

With the continued drive toward clean energy, their presence is assured for at least the foreseeable future.

“I feel the pendulum is kind of swinging back the other way toward windmills (from solar-powered pumps),” says Lance Sykes, operations manager for American West Windmill & Solar Co. in Abernathy, Texas, which produces both windmills and pumps primarily for ranchers. “There are times when you can’t run that solar pump all day and night like you can with windmills. That’s an advantage of windmills. They’re definitely a good form of alternative energy.”

Cary Harris, director of marketing for American West Windmill & Solar, isn’t quite as optimistic. Given the rise of solar-powered pumps, he doesn’t envision an indefinite lifespan for windmills.

“Solar pumps are becoming more competitive—they are becoming a lot more efficient in the water they pump,” he says. “And when you factor in the cost of the piping and all the fittings for a solar pump, as well as the pump (itself) and the panels, the total expense is pretty close to what installing a new windmill would be.

“So, a lot of guys are going solar. Part of that is because you don’t have to climb a windmill tower. You have these younger guys who don’t want to get up there and work on a platform that’s 2 feet by 2 feet. A lot of these second-generation guys would rather just work on a solar pump.”

Nevertheless, windmills are so reliable Harris figures it will be a while before they start disappearing from the landscape.

“Repairing a windmill is cheaper than putting in a new solar well,” he says. “If you’re just replacing, say, the blades, that’s still less expensive than installing a solar system. So, people are still doing repairs—that’s the majority of the work that’s out there right now.”

So Simple

The beauty of windmills is their simplicity. From the dawn of the automobile age to the jet age to the space age, the technology surrounding windmills has remained relatively unaltered. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Right?

“The windmill is just a simple positive displacement mechanism,” Harris says. “It turns and pulls an uprod that’s down below and forces the water up. There’s not a whole lot of maintenance. There aren’t a lot of components in the windmill itself. Really, all you have to do is put some oil in it once a year or so. And it can shut itself off in high winds.”

Adds Sykes, “It’s a reliable source of free energy. Basically, you just have to check them once a year—check the oil, make sure the nuts and bolts are tight. Most of the time, unless something tears it up, you’re good.”

Additionally, installing a windmill is a relative breeze for contractors. “If you know what you’re doing, it’s a fairly simple process,” Harris says. “With two guys, you can usually put up a brand-new windmill in a day or a day and a half.”

And here’s another advantage—at least for ranchers—that many people might not consider: “It’s interesting when you replace a windmill with a solar pump,” says Harris. “The windmill is where the cows go to get water because they can see it. Solar is mostly below ground, and the cows have to remember where it is.”

Windmills also have an aesthetic quality that solar pumps lack. “Some homeowners use a windmill as a landscaping decoration,” Harris says. “We see that a lot.” Or as Sykes puts it, “A lot of people like the novelty of a windmill.”

Even Easier

But don’t expect windmills to be reduced to little more than a gimmick in the coming years. American West Windmill & Solar has added a design wrinkle that should ensure the windmill’s status as a viable water pumping option. It’s the Model 902, which the company introduced to the market a couple years ago.

“The windmill has been so efficient for so long, nobody’s really changed it. There have been a few tweaks here and there, but overall a windmill has not changed.”

“What we’ve gone in there and done with the 902 is improved some of the components that are inside the mainframe of the motor,” says Harris. “A lot of the components are easier to remove and repair. We’ve done away with several of the components and put them all into one piece. Now when you repair the windmill, all you have to do is take off the hub. All the internal mechanism and gears come out in one piece.

“That’s really been the only big improvement (with windmills) as long as I’ve been in the industry. The windmill has been so efficient for so long, nobody’s really changed it. There have been a few tweaks here and there, but overall a windmill has not changed.”

“We were just trying to see if we could take something and put our own spin on it, make it a little easier to work on,” adds Sykes. “We wanted to make something that’s more efficient and runs smoother. We were trying to design something new that would run even better. They seem to be a lot easier for contractors to work on.”

Needless to say, the Model 902 was a source of great intrigue when American West unveiled it. Says Harris, “(At trade shows) people would automatically flock to the windmill and say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty neat.’ It was kind of funny. A lot of people were curious about how it works.”

Pete Aragon, owner of Aragon Windmill & Pump Service in Canyon, Texas, is one of the satisfied contractors who has worked with the Model 902.

“I’ve put up several of them, and I haven’t had any troubles with them at all,” Aragon says. “I like it. I think it’s a good product that they have. But I think it’s just like all of them in that as long as you keep them maintained and keep them oiled, they’ll last a long time.”

Indeed, even with the never-ending advent of new forms of clean energy, the windmill keeps on turning—just as it has for the past century. It’s the water pumping equivalent of Old Faithful.

Sykes sums it up neatly and succinctly: “Windmills have always been around. And they always will be around.”


William Wagner is an award-wining writer, editor, and project manager for Wagner Communications. He has written for magazines, newspapers, books, and websites. He lives in the Chicago area and can be reached at william.wagner7@gmail.com.