Industry veterans share tips along with what to watch out for.
By Mike Price
Servicing old pump systems can be tricky.
A water well system professional may be called by a customer to service one problem—only to find a mixed bag of other issues have infected the old water system.
In Denis Chevalier’s mind, the water pressure tank is the focal point when servicing a water system. The veteran second-generation service technician of Chevalier Drilling Co. Inc. in Highgate Springs, Vermont, likens the pressure tank to a breathing apparatus for the water system. The pressure tank allows the system to breathe without damaging any other parts, he says.
The pressure tank determines how often the pump turns on and off, and how long it runs once it is started to fill the pressure tank. Over time pressure tanks lose air, so they need to be recharged with air to ensure the drawdown and the pump cycle remain at a reasonable level.
If the pressure tank is faulty, Chevalier says a nasty domino effect can ensue, including:
- Significant problems with the pressure switch, control box, or contactor by turning these elements on and off more frequently.
- Wears on the contacts, coils, capacitors, and relays that go with them.
- Grounded or broken wires in the well and/or comprised pump motor.
“We often go out to water calls and the reason for the out-of-water call is because the pressure tank failed and the pump was cycling on and off rapidly every few seconds when the customer was drawing water,” Chevalier says, “and it either burned out the pressure switch or it injured the wires in the well or it damaged the motor in the well by the constant on/off frequency that was occurring.”
It’s such a common issue Chevalier carries new pressure tanks on his service truck, ready to replace old ones if necessary when out on service calls. The company, established in 1954, primarily services submersible pumps in its region and finished its busiest year to date in 2016 due to the large building boom and the drought in the Northeast.
“The pressure tank is by far the most critical component and the one that normally is the most maintenance-intensive part of the water system,” he says.
Chevalier cautions if there is a control system for a larger water system, or the system has advanced wiring, there may be a magnetic contractor that has a coil and contact in it.
“Those things will all get beat up,” he says. “A lot of times we see the wire in the well gets damaged because the pump is turning on and off and it’s twisting the wire and the pipe down in the well constantly. It eventually wears the insulation off the wire and either grounds or breaks the copper wire.”
In applications other than residential wells, if a pressure tank is being used, it is again the key component to check.
The condition of the relays and capacitors are the next components to check. Oil-filled capacitors can leak and fail, and relay contacts can become pitted and also fail.
Checking to ensure the pressure switch is still providing the pressure the user needs comes next. Sometimes the pressure in the water system will become soft, requiring the tank to be charged with air and the pressure switch reset to a higher pressure.
“We oftentimes have to charge the tank with air because anytime you increase the pressure in a water system, you have to correspondingly increase the air pressure in the pressure tank to continue to maximize the effective drawdown of the tank,” Chevalier says.
Claude Chevalier, CWD/PI, Denis’ brother who is president of Chevalier Drilling, tells homeowners if they suddenly hear the pressure switch clicking on and off, they have a pressure tank that has lost its air charge or has a ruptured diaphragm. This rapid cycling could damage the pump motor, wire, or controls if not resolved.
Brother Mike Chevalier, a co-owner and service technician, says the age of the pump and broken wires are the more common service problems with water systems if they’re not protected with torque arrestors and cable guards when installed.
“A lot of people put their own pumps in or don’t take too much care about it,” Mike says. “They put them in without suppressing torque generated from the pump starting and stopping.”
In the event a pump needs to be pulled for service or cleaning, Claude says if the pitless adapter has been in use for an extended period of time, it may be difficult to attach to and/or release for extraction of the pump. In extreme cases when the pitless cannot be removed, the well casing must be excavated and cutoff below the pitless and a new piece of casing and pitless installed for removal and reinstallation of the pump. The age of the pump and the lifespan of the pump vary from application to application.
Denis is presenting a seminar on troubleshooting submersible pumps and pumping systems at the Vermont Ground Water Association Annual Meeting, March 3 in Rutland, Vermont.
“In Vermont a number of people doing this kind of work are gray haired, retiring, or retiring soon,” says Denis, a founding member of the state association. “We need a group of young technicians who are being trained and made ready to take over the important work of water system troubleshooting and repair. The challenge is to pass on the information we have in our heads to those who are just learning.”
On the other side of the country, Tony McBee, CPI, faces a different set of issues when faced with servicing older pump systems.
A senior project manager for Weber Water Resources LLC based in Chandler, Arizona, McBee deals with older equipment still in use today. Working in both Arizona and California, contending with corrosion issues, both in the piping system and electrical gear, are common. If the system is still functional, they’ll attempt to maintain it.
“In the case of submersible pumps, you look for leakage in the fittings and in the piping system, and bladder tanks, pressure tanks,” McBee says. “You look at electrical gear to make sure terminations are in good condition and connections are tight. Things that can depreciate or degrade over time, like electrical connections that get heated and cooled from carrying the amperage, so components may have a tendency
to loosen up over time. It creates a hot spot, and then you get a burnt connection, burnt wire, things like that.”
On larger pump systems in excess of 100 to 150 hp, pumping equipment can commonly be more than 10 years old, according to McBee, with a pump in the ground 25-plus years. For residential systems, equipment over five years old is approaching the older equipment designation.
The well and pump settings on the average are deeper in Arizona than in Southern California.
“If you’re putting in a large horsepower submersible in a deep well-type application, I’d definitely be careful about the material you expect to go into the well,” he warns. “That’s not something you want to be pulling out for some minor issue, especially when you’re dealing with larger horsepowers.
“You need to look at water quality and might consider upgrading materials to stainless steel versus cast iron components you might see on some of the motors.”
When it’s time to replace equipment, part of the job of a water well system professional is to explain the options to the customer, including presenting different choices of materials if possible, especially if they’ve had a failure.
McBee cites an example: If galvanized drop pipe is pulled because you find the pipe has a hole in it, it might be a selling point to upgrade to stainless steel pipe—especially if there are water quality issues to consider.
Water quality issues are aplenty in McBee’s region, from nitrates to arsenic to manganese. Manganese and minerals, McBee says, are likely the most important contaminants in regard to selection of materials.
“That’s the buildup you’ll see in your pipes that help shorten their life.
“Even high mineral content where substances collect on the pipe electrolysis can occur. You get electrolytic action going on—a reaction between components in the water and stray electrical currents that are there even though people don’t know they’re there.”
Depending on the age of the equipment, issues can come into play if repair parts are no longer available. For instance, if the magnetic starter is obsolete and it’s not possible to get contact kits or coils for it, McBee says replacing the entire starter is the fix. As equipment ages this will occur.
As long as the equipment is maintained, not just installed and forgotten until there is a problem, McBee doesn’t foresee problems with older equipment. He gives a rundown of preventive maintenance for electrical gear:
- Ensure components are clean so they work properly, especially components with contacts and coils.
- Ensure good terminations, good connections. These will lead to a failure in the future if not addressed.
- Same with piping: If there is a leak, fix it. Small leaks can lead to bigger problems, especially if it’s leaking onto another component of the system (pressure switch or flow switch for instance).
McBee, another veteran of the industry for 30 years, earned the National Ground Water Association Certified Pump Installer (CPI) designation in September 2016. He sees certification, especially in California due to its high level of regulations, carrying immense weight with customers.
“Having the certification definitely helps you with customers and owners’ perception of your company and your people,” he says. “I’ve actually seen it on some bid projects where it’s specified into the bid that installers have to be NGWA certified installers.”
Sam Tyler, CPI, president of Tyler Well & Pump Inc. in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, agrees working with older systems
can be difficult.
The more common issues he faces include:
- Clogged jets on shallow well and deep well jet pumps
- Clogged or worn pressure switches in both jet and submersible systems
- Motor winding failures.
During the company’s busy season in the summer they can work on older systems five to 10 times a week.
Although its rare, Tyler still comes across 6-inch artesian wells with two twin pipe jet systems in them. It is one well that is being shared by two homes. When one jet assembly fails, in most cases they both have to come out of the well at the same time because it’s difficult to reinsert them individually.
Because of this, both homes are without water during the repair. This can be difficult for the neighbor, Tyler says, because their system was working just fine.
“Sometimes the jet assemblies can be set over 100 feet in the well, making the extraction labor intensive,” he says. “A lot of times the pipes are taped together so all the pipes are pulled at once. A pump pulling machine can’t pull all those pipes because they don’t fit between the machine’s wheels and the job has to be done by hand.”
Once the work at the well is complete, Tyler says both pump systems need to be re-primed and flushed before turning
the water back on to the homes.
“Out of all the repairs we do, I say this kind of setup is the most difficult to deal with,” he says. “My advice to anyone coming across one of these setups is to try to convince both parties to put a submersible pump in the well that can feed water to both houses. It’s a much simpler and more efficient way to deliver water to both homes.”
Mike Price is the senior editor of Water Well Journal. In addition to his WWJ responsibilities, Price produces NGWA’s newsletter and contributes to the Association’s quarterly scientific publication. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.