The Pump House Project
How I learned (with a lot of help) how to diagnose and repair our well pump system
Every time we turned on the faucet, I could hear the pump kick on. I remember from a previous visit that this was not good. If the pump runs too much, we could end up having to replace it.
I looked at our system and tried to describe it to the folks at Ace Hardware, our local home builder supply and Radio Shack store. I mentioned that when I pushed on the Schrader valve (like older bicycle tires and cars) water came out instead of air. Much muttering was heard and heads were seen to shake. "Not good. Your bladder is ruptured."
Before I spent too much time considering our life line flight out of Crescent City to Eureka's hospital, they said that a bladder is a barrier inside a pressure tank. The idea is water is in the bottom of the tank and air is in the top, inside a large balloon like device called the bladder. The bladder is supposed to maintain a certain amount of air pressure to push on the water. This supplies pressure to your water system without the pump having to turn on, until the volume of water in the tank is used up. Then the pump kicks on, replenishing the water in the tank.
The two ingredients are not supposed to mix. "You could be growing all kinds of bacteria in there." Okay, I'm sold, where do I sign?
So I left the store with an 82 gallon pressure tank in the back of my truck. I got back home, driving up to the pump house. I unloaded the box, carefully sliding this rather large tank out of the cardboard. After setting it on the ground, I went in and looked at the old tank. I thought they would be interchangeable. I had a new lesson: Just like computers, (but definitely not changing as quickly) nothing stays the same. It seems the old tank has both an input and output connection, situated 180 degrees from each other. My new tank had only one, with some kind of valve at the top.
I later learned that the valve at the top controls the air pressure in the bladder. "Factory set - Do not adjust!" Well, actually, it IS supposed to be adjusted, based on your pump turn-on/cut-off pressures. But more on that tidbit later.
I loaded the tank back into the cardboard (luckily I never took the plastic off of the tank itself, nor tore the cardboard) and headed back to Ace. I asked where the other connection was. They said this tank only has and needs one connection. "You need a tank tee. I am out right now, but I have another one coming in tomorrow morning."
I went home, told my father in law "Part needed, not in till tomorrow." Luckily, I have not yet touched the existing system, so water still flowed.
Next morning, prior to going, I sketched a drawing of the existing pump connections, along with a few photos on my digital camera. The photos ended up being too murky to tell accurately what was going on. But the drawing got the point across. After obtaining the Tank Tee, I ended up with a bagful of various components, a mixture of PVC and metal. "Be careful with that Tee. If you tighten any fittings too much, the Tee will crack."
Famous last words. I dismantled the old tank, with Tom's help. He showed me how to break galvanized pipe fittings to unfasten them, one at a time. The pipe wrenches look funky, but boy do they work! Pretty soon, I had a pile of 3/4" galvanized pipe fittings. I looked inside some of them: Yuck! Corroded, hard orange stuff cutting the interior diameter down to half of what it should have been. I laid out all of the new parts, making sure I knew how they were going to go together. I started assembly with a 6" 3/4 galvanized pipe into the top of the Tee. I even remembered the Teflon tape for the joint. It was snug. I reached over, grabbed a wrench and yup, "snick" meant the Tee had just fractured. Crap.
Now we have no water, and I'm heading back to Ace. Luckily, they had one more Tank Tee - Mine! I also bought some more fittings in PVC, so that all of the material going directly into the Tee would be PVC, not galvanized metal. Back to the scene of the crime. Now Tom is shaking his head, saying "What the hell is wrong with the water?" I later hear that he keeps muttering "Damn kid, shouldn't have messed with it, it was working just fine."
I start with the hose bib (water faucet) first. I will not be able to twist it on after the Tee is in place on the tank, so I tighten it onto the new 6" PVC pipe, and that goes into the Tee. I also screw in the pressure gauge, 2 plugs (the Tee has more holes than I need) and an emergency pressure relief valve. Then I started cutting to fit my PVC pipe. The PVC glue primer is purple, and the glue itself is blue. This stuff smells chemically. My head is getting a little spacey - cool! Or, maybe not. I still have a job to finish.
A couple of 90 degree elbows later and I am threading into the old metal union. Unions are a way to be able to dissect a set of fittings and pipes without having to resort to a hacksaw. The nut comes lose (eventually - depends how long ago it was tightened) and then two pieces separate that were mated together and held in place by the nut screwing onto the threads of one of those pieces. More Teflon tape.
Eventually, I get it all back together, and get the filter back in line, all set to go. I cross my fingers, kick on the breaker for the pump and I say "Ahh!" Water is spraying out of many of my joints. I quickly cut it off, retighten, and turn it back on. Now, just motor noises, but no water.
"Did you prime the pump?" Tom asks. I respond "How do I do that?" He looks at it, trying to remember, leaning on the pump pressure switch while levering himself up and down. "Get more water." For a very short amount of time, I think "Well, turn on the pump so I can get it." Luckily I do not say it out loud. I start gathering up all of the containers I can find around the property while Tom is trying to get the plug out of the top of the Jacuzzi pump. When I see him cussing over it with a pipe wrench, I go get a crescent wrench and hand it to him. He finally gets the plug out and reaches in a finger. No water. He starts pouring water towards the hole. At this point, it is now dark and we are having a hard time seeing what we are doing. Did I mention that tempers were running high?
A gallon later, he partially closes the plug and tries the switch again. Water pressure for a second or two, then nothing. He pours more water in, after removing the plug, fills it up, closes the plug, then tries again. Same thing. I am starting to run out of water containers. He is starting to cuss, so I suggest that I try. I undo the plug, and he yells "Keep it covered with your finger!" I plug it with my finger, then unplug it to pour water in. He yells "Get the plug back in!" Great. A back-seat pump repairer.
After 8 gallons and no success, I tell him I'm giving up until morning. He keeps trying. I come back and he's got the pump going as he's looking for more water. I reach over and cut the power, saying "I'm pretty sure that I read that the pump should not be run dry." I get lots of dirty looks for that one.
Earlier, I had looked up Jacuzzi's web site for info on the pump. They will not acknowledge that they ever made it, according to their site. The only other sites I can find with "priming pump" don't really help either, unless I want to hire some of the contractors that are advertising, or purchase some of the hot tubs that have self-priming pumps.
At some point, Diane runs to the local store and buys 5 more gallons of drinking water in various size containers. I watch as they are all slowly poured down that little hole, getting the same results.
I finally tell Tom, I'm going to bed. I've checked with Helen, and she does have several gallons she can use to flush the toilet, if she needs to. Tom looks at me and says "Can you go without water?!" I say "Yes." I remind him that we haven't gotten anywhere after more than 20 gallons and we were now out of most of our available water. "I obviously do not know how to fix this, so I will call a plumber." "I'm not paying for it!" he retorts. "No, I am." I reply. That gets silence. He slowly walks back towards his house and I sigh quietly and close and lock the pump house door.
The next morning, I call Ace. I am told that I am probably having a problem with my foot valve, or my well water level was too low.. I didn't know I had a foot valve. They suggest I haul up the supply pipes that extend down into the well and see what is going on, and if they are wet. I go out, cut several of the padlocks (my father in law has locked many things up and we can not always find the keys any more) and lever off the top of the well. The pipes are also plastic, held in place with hose clamps around pressure fittings. Very tight. I tried for 30 minutes, finally gave up and hack-sawed the pipes close to the fittings, after carefully tying rope around the fittings and lashing the other end of the rope to nearby posts. Visions of suddenly free pipes falling back down into the well put to rest, I hauled the pipes up. They were definitely wet. There was even a slug on one of them. I thought about his existence on the pipe, extending down into the well, and wonder if it has any idea where it is, or just got stuck going up and down, feeding off of the side of the pipe - Okay, enough!
Looking at the foot valve, I see that there is no spring - Next problem found! By this time, we have called a plumber, and he said he would try to drop by while on his way out of town for another appointment. I gather the tools required, eventually getting the foot valve off of the end of the pipe. Diane and I decide that I will go ahead and go back to Ace to see if I can get a replacement, hopefully getting back before the plumber gets here, and she will meet the plumber if he arrives sooner.
I get to the store and describe the fitting I took the foot valve out of. We hunt around, eventually finding the right kind of step-down pipe thread sizes, and I ring up another handful of parts. Back to the house.
The plumber has been and gone, and basically blessed my pipe fitting construction, although he recommended that the filter be in line after the pressure tank. Great. Well, next time I tear it all apart, I will move it. But not now!
I find out that since I have left the cover of the well off and the pipes lying around, Tom has come by several times muttering.
I get the new foot valve on the end of the draw pipes, and lower them back down into the well. I stop, pull them back out, and measure them: 24'. Okay, now I know the water level - Cool. Back down into the abyss. Looking at the pipes I cut off, wrestling with the fittings some more, I make a decision: Screw it. I'll just shorten the cork-boards being used as sanitation seals. I quietly hack them up, put it all back together, close it up, and make it look like it hasn't been messed with. What Tom doesn't notice won't be muttered about. I even made the chains and what locks were left LOOK like they are locking up the well access lid. It must have been good enough, because to this day he walks right by it without notice.
I go over to my next door neighbor, David, and ask to use his hose to fill some gallon containers. "I had to work on our well and now I need to prime the pump." He cheerfully offers his hose, and says "I hope it all works. Those problems can be difficult." Or something along those lines. I grin and think happy thoughts.
Back to the pump, I unscrew the plug, poor in the water, close it up, cross my fingers and turn on the power. Noise! Water noises! the pressure goes up to 30 , then drops to 5, but it DOESN'T GO TO ZERO! I turn off the pump, open the priming plug - White, frothy water. That's different! I poor more water in, it only takes a half gallon more, then overflows. I plug it back up, turn it back on, and the pressure goes to 20! Then 30! It's working! Wahoo!
I go out and tell Tom "It looks like it's working!" We go back in and start to open the valves that isolate the pump from the various feeds: Our house, Tom and Helen's house, and what I assume feeds the back yard hose bibs. As I start cranking them open, he yells "Slowly, slowly!". Oh yeah, old pipes! I go slower, but it all appears to be working. Mind you, there are steady drips from most of my taped joints, but IT'S WORKING!
I smile, and head out to share the good news. I figure the tank will take awhile to fill. After 20 minutes, I am beginning to get worried. The tank should have filled by now. I go back in, and yep, the pressure valves show 55psi. They are supposed to cut off at 50. I start to pry up the cover of the pressure switch and "Click" the pump stops. Apparently, using it as a push point to raise yourself up and down is not recommended. I push the cover back down, but not all the way.
Sigh. Water. When you don't have it, you really realize how much you take it for granted. Just like electricity. My clients tell me the same thing about their computers. "I never knew I needed it so much!"
Now, flushing toilets are a wonderful sound!
I baked several dozen chocolate chip cookies and gave some to David and thanked him for his water. I gave some to Tom and Helen, and thanked them for their patience. Diane and I then took a bag down to Ace, and we thanked them, too. Several of the staff still smile when I come in these days :)