Diagnosing Pump and Well Problems

For your rural customers on well systems, here are some approaches to take when they run into trouble.
Diagnosing Pump and Well Problems

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Diagnosing problems with a deep-water well can be difficult. Symptoms of a serious problem, like no water in the house, can be caused by either the well or the pump, and sometimes both. Troubleshooting well problems is also complicated by the fact that almost all the action takes place far underground. Because of this, many diagnoses can’t be entirely confirmed until the well is pulled, which requires lifting the water pipe and the submersible pump attached to it up and out of the well. This is a job that requires careful planning. Here are some warning signs of well and pump problems and how to address them.

Common Symptoms

No water. The most basic problem, of course, is no water in the house. You turn on a sink faucet and nothing comes out. The happiest cause of this is a tripped circuit breaker that shuts off power to the pump. If you flip the breaker on again, and everything seems to work OK, luck is on your side. But generally, no water means well problems or pump problems.

Well issues are centered around lack of water, usually caused by the time of year. Late summer is most common. Overuse is typical in spring and summer, and it can eventually draw down the water table so that it falls below the depth of the pump. In most cases, the well will be replenished if the customer simply reduces water usage for a few days. Complete replenishment will happen in the winter and spring. Very dry conditions, however, are more serious. If local conditions are declared a drought by state government, then the water table may have lowered to the point where replenishment will take many months, or even years.

The most economical way to fix this problem is to lower the pump deeper into the well. This is done by installing additional water pipe at the top of the well, which will lower the pump enough to be submerged in water. Once the pump is immersed, reconnect everything and make sure the system is working properly. If the pump bottoms out before it’s submerged, this often means a new well has to be drilled.

Here’s a tip for your customers: The water depth in a well does fluctuate, and they can chart this by doing a simple test. Just lower a fishing line, with a bobber attached to the bottom, into the well. When the bobber hits the water, mark the line. Then pull it up and measure the distance between the bobber and the mark. Do this several times a week for a couple of weeks to get a sense of how the well behaves.

Sputtering water. If you turn on a sink faucet and water sputters (or spits out), it means there’s air in the system. This usually comes from two sources: a malfunctioning pump, or a break or crack in the water pipe above the pump. To confidently diagnose and fix these problems, the well has to be pulled.

Cloudy or muddy water. This sign indicates a sinking water table and a pump that’s pulling from shallow water where the percentage of silt and sand is higher. It can also indicate a failing pump that is not filtering out the silt before it’s pumped to the surface. Once this process starts, the pump wears more quickly because of the abrasiveness of the silt and sand.

High utility bills. If the customer’s power usage for a month is abnormally high and there’s not another obvious reason for it, suspect a pump that’s running all the time. This can happen when the pump malfunctions, the water is low, and/or the pressure switch (mounted on the storage tank) needs adjustment or replacement.

Poor tasting (or smelling) water. Sometimes hardware issues, like old corroded plumbing pipes, can cause water to taste or smell off. But usually the culprits are water-based. Wells can suddenly be contaminated with harmless bacteria, silt and sand, and decaying organic waste that comes from the soil above. These can create off tastes and odors that are annoying but not always dangerous. To know how serious these issues are, the water needs to be tested by a state-certified lab.

Pressure switch problems. Like other mysteries in a deep well, the proper functioning of a pressure switch takes some experience to understand. But on the most basic level, if there’s no water in the house, this switch may not be calling for it, even when the pressure in the storage tank drops below the limit that should call for more from the pump. A quick inspection of the switch can reveal some maintenance chores. Once the cover is removed, four contact points will be front and center. These points look like the ignition points that used to be in car distributors (for those old enough to remember such things). If the contact surfaces on these points are burned or pitted, they should be cleaned up with sandpaper or an ignition file.

Pulling and Replacing a Pump

Help customers decide what replacement pump to buy. The size calculations for submersible pumps are more complicated than one might guess. A big part of the equation is usage: what appliances are in the house, how many bathrooms, how many people, and any special outdoor activities like landscape watering and a swimming pool. A typical large house, with all the standard water-consuming appliances and 3 1/2 bathrooms, would usually require a 1 hp pump. Lesser requirements would need smaller pumps.

After doing work on a well (or the mechanical components that pump water from the well), be sure to recommend to customers that they test the water at a certified lab. And while they’re waiting for the results, drink filtered or bottled water.

About the Author
Steve Willson owned and operated his own carpentry contracting business in Rochester, New York. He then joined Popular Mechanics magazine where he was the home improvement editor for 22 years. He is the author of three books and has edited or rewritten 11 books on various home improvement, plumbing and tool-use topics. To see a wide selection of the kinds of well pumps described in the article, go to Home Depot's website.


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