Part 1. Setting up the program and its parameters
By Ed Butts, PE
I wrote a series of columns last year and into January this year on well and pump rehabilitation and methods to improve the operating efficiency in both. This month, as a start to a two-part series and a logical continuation to the topic, I’ll expand the discussion outlining my concept of a well and pump preventive maintenance program with suggested procedures and recommended intervals.
Beginnings of a Preventive Maintenance Program
During the final months of 1978, my employer at Stettler Supply Co. agreed to expand the company by developing a new municipal, water district, and commercial division for the 30-year-old firm that had primarily focused on agricultural irrigation and domestic water systems.
As we launched this new enterprise, we decided to offer a preventive maintenance program on a trial basis. This would be our way of introducing and acquainting ourselves to a previously unknown base of new clients, introducing our new division to our existing clients, and as a way of gaining a full understanding of each water system’s particular needs.
After obtaining mailing lists from state water utility organizations and sending a form letter as an invitation, we awaited the reaction. The response was, in a word, overwhelming.
Many of these newly discovered clients, especially local smaller water districts and cities, informed me they had wanted to implement some type of preventive maintenance program for their facility, but didn’t know where to start.
The new preventive maintenance program was more than a method of gaining new business for our firm, especially since the late 1970s were also somewhat sluggish in the local irrigation business. Diversifying and expanding into the municipal and commercial water systems market not only provided badly needed revenue, but allowed us to keep current personnel who might otherwise have been laid off or assigned reduced hours during long winter periods.
Since we were already a long-established water systems firm, moving into this larger and slightly different market did not require substantial retraining or expansion of our service staff. We were also able to use our existing equipment and rolling stock, particularly our service vehicles and pump hoists.
As we moved cautiously into developing a preventive maintenance program for the various clients, one thing became rapidly apparent. The program was going to have to be customized and tailored for each client and the specific needs and number of pumps for each water purveyor. For systems with multiple well and pump stations, this meant we had to individualize the program for each client.
Although I was in charge and responsible for this new division—which included my cultivating new clients, submitting bids and proposals, and performing engineering and design—I was still young and didn’t wish to simply come out of the field and into the office to assign the maintenance and troubleshooting to the other employees. So, for the first four years of this new enterprise I alternated between field work and office work.
This not only helped me expand my skills in field work and troubleshooting, but allowed me the opportunity to visit and work with many of the new and diverse water system clients we gained throughout western Oregon. Eventually, the time and effort required to split my duties became more than I could reasonably handle, but those years were instrumental as they allowed me to learn new techniques, expand my troubleshooting skills, and increase my knowledge of water wells, pumps, and electrical and hydraulic theory.
Setting Up the Program
Before actually embarking on a new preventive maintenance (PM) program, we first had to decide how often to recommend individual site visits and develop some type of database to routinely document each individual client and their water system facilities, as well as track each PM and service procedure conducted at each site and for each unit.
A careful appraisal and balance of the estimated cost for each inspection, combined with what we felt to be the optimum frequency and need—not to mention the potential disruption to our service staff during our normal summer peak periods—resulted in a general recommendation of seasonal (every three to four months) inspections for most clients at each facility.
Some opted for every six months or even yearly inspections; a few even asked for monthly visits. The seasonal inspections were accepted by most clients as a compromise between excessive costs and ensuring adequate and timely PM procedures were being conducted to make the program worthwhile.
As far as building a database, after considering various methods of record keeping I settled on using a single master file for each client. Each file included information on each separate well and pump station. Each was assigned a unique identification code with the specific details of each facility recorded on “master data sheets” (Figures 1, 2, 3).
The original master data sheets remained at the office in the master file with copies, as needed, reproduced for the service (field) staff and updated when any changes or modifications were performed or
observed during a site inspection. Maintaining the details of every facility within the master files was critical to prevent any loss of data in the field or in a service vehicle.
Documenting the Program
The details of each individual PM site visit were documented on a single report form (Figure 4) that was turned in at the end of the day along with the specific work order, and thereafter transferred and updated as needed to the client’s master file for future reference and access.
A considerable amount of thought along with trial and error went into formulating the field site inspection sheet. We wanted to obviously collect enough data to provide a complete record of the inspection with the capability of making meaningful recommendations to the client for further service or repair if needed. At the same time, we didn’t want to overly complicate the procedure or load down the technician with unnecessary or meaningless data collection which could easily result in frivolous (and unbillable) time spent on an inspection.
Many on our staff felt there was not enough available space on a single one-sided form to include all the potential data that should be collected during the initial and operational inspections and thought a two- or three-sheet form should be used. I disagreed for several reasons:
- For whatever reason, inspection sheets, work orders, and other company forms longer than one page tended to get lost or misplaced during a typical workday, rendering the entire site visit meaningless
due to the lost information. Therefore, since a field technician’s workday might consist of as many as six or seven service calls, we tried to keep the field forms simple.
- The PM program was originally envisioned, structured, and priced to be a fairly rapid “in and out” to gather and record the most critical information such as static and operating (pumping water level) conditions of each well and pump and to conduct general maintenance on individual pump and driver units within a pumping plant. Therefore, it was important to provide a uniform set of tasks and criteria to follow and evaluate what was needed without spending unnecessary time or effort on less important or trivial tasks.
- Remember now this program was developed in the late 1970s before the advent and widespread use of alternate methods of data collection such as computers and paperless data-entry methods. Since almost all field work was still documented and recorded on paper, it simply made sense to keep the total amount of paper to a minimum to avoid generating massive files. Contrast that with today’s laptops, iPods, smartphones, and tablets instantaneously recording and collecting data in the field for easy transfer at the office.
Determining and maintaining a reasonable, uniform cost for a PM program was also vital since we could not effectively sell the program to most clients solely from harping on the advantages gained from potential energy savings and improving pump efficiency—at least not in 1979.
Selling the Program
To effectively sell and conduct the program to many water systems, it was important to stress we would keep each site visit meaningful and the cost to a minimum by concentrating on just the primary elements of an effective PM program. These elements included: (1) performing necessary routine maintenance at appropriate intervals; (2) determining the current efficiency and operating condition of each pump and motor; (3) identifying and heading off any serious situations with an individual unit that could result in significant downtime and higher repair costs if not addressed soon; and (4) maintaining the inspection reports and records as a collection of current and past data within a master file.
The site visit field form was developed specifically to act as a guideline of the tasks the technician was expected to perform on each unit, each in a fundamental order. By using this initial form over the first to three months of the trial PM program, we were able to quickly determine the typical cost for a single pump station inspection and thereafter apply that unit cost to pump stations with multiple units.
Since many municipal or industrial pumping plants or stations consist of three to four separate units in total, especially those found in water booster or wastewater pump stations, we were able to expand the horizontal use of each form to permit entering up to four separate units on a single sheet.
As important to booster pump stations as this program was, the primary selling point was made to those clients with wells and well pumps or wastewater pumps. Since many wells and well pumps can exhibit a sudden failure due to years of ignorance or lack of maintenance, this program permitted a routine examination and tracking of the well’s pumping water level and the operating condition of the well pump and driver (usually an electric motor).
For example, by checking the static and pumping levels of each well during each visit around the same time each year, we were able to quickly develop an accurate, in-house database on seasonal water levels in most regions of western Oregon and the Willamette Valley.
This type of inspection was particularly important for installations using submersible pump motors since periodic examination of the motor’s insulation resistance often provided a yardstick of a motor’s current condition, or more importantly, any progressive decline.
If this occurred, it usually provided the client with advance notice in one to two years this unit was heading for or nearing failure. This provided enough notice to the client to permit an orderly and scheduled repair or replacement of the motor rather than a rushed and more expensive emergency approach.
Gathering the Program Data
Another important factor should be mentioned. We didn’t expect our field technicians to function as engineers or spend time interpreting field data. Once we demonstrated to each technician the scope and type of data we expected to receive from each unit, a general uniformity within the PM program was set. This greatly affected the costs of the program and avoided tieing up the technician on potentially complicated and time-consuming calculations when their time was better spent on another service call.
As supervisors, we expected the field techs to observe and collect the listed parameters from each unit and record and report each observed anomaly to the engineering staff along with the field data form at day’s end. This allowed time for a full review and further interpretation of all field data by the engineering staff before contacting the client with any specific recommendations.
Although we were generally careful to require all field data and information be vetted and approved by the engineering department before contacting the client, we did demonstrate to each technician how to determine and record a few basic field observations and calculations. These included static and pumping water levels from wells along with water horsepower, input horsepower, and plant efficiency from pumping units. These were often requested by the clients, particularly when the they were present for the inspections.
We also cautioned each tech to avoid making any specific comments, recommendations, or conclusions to the client until all the current data with comparison to past data could be reviewed and fully interpreted.
Emphasizing Safety in Preventive Maintenance
Although our original PM program was developed and implemented for both potable and wastewater pumping systems, since Water Well Journal primarily focuses on wells and well pump systems, we will limit this discussion to this group.
If any of you are considering developing your own PM program, I stress the primary consideration is all safety procedures must always apply and be recognized. This not only means preserving the safety of your field technician and other employees, but potentially the client and the system itself.
This means each field technician must be properly trained and observant in electrical, mechanical, and confined space safety. The most basic of these is always observing OSHA’s mandated “lock out/tag out” procedures for protection against errant automatic or manual starting of electrical motors or engines (drivers) used to drive pumps. This not only protects from possible electrical shocks, but additional forms of injury that could occur. An example that could occur is a pump starting while the tech is repacking or greasing it or changing the motor oil.
Safety equipment and garments—insulated gloves, face shields, aprons—should be used whenever the tech is exposed to any electrical power.
Finally for electrical safety, instructing your employees on using the appropriate test meters and the proper procedure to obtain power, voltage, and current readings is vital. I suggest once a tech has become acquainted and familiar with a specific meter, he stick with that meter for all observations. More than one electrician has been electrocuted from dead batteries or a locked needle in a meter. This is the primary reason I always tried to use the same model and type of test meter (Amprobe RS-3) as my meter of choice throughout my career. I came to know this meter so well I knew instinctively when the needle was locked or on the wrong scale.
Proper procedure for electrical systems should consist of an educational and training program stressing knowledge of potential hazards, whether common or rare, and a universal test procedure, including routinely double-checking electrical meters before their use and not using ohmmeters to check voltages.
Beyond safety hazards to the technician, if the client or their representative insists on being present and watching during the inspection, they must resist the temptation many people have to “look over his shoulder” but instead be asked to observe from a safe distance, especially during electrical testing procedures. Not only does this type of activity expose the client to the same potential arc-flash hazards as the service tech, but the simple presence of this individual may impede the safe and rapid evacuation of both should an actual incident occur.
Finally, many water systems use potentially harmful chemicals and feed systems in their facilities (high-strength chlorine, acids, or caustics) or other ancillary systems interconnected to the pump start/run signal. Even though locking out the pump motor may prevent its start and operation, it may not necessarily disconnect or disable these other systems.
It is imperative each tech become familiar with the specifics of each system he services, works with the appropriate personnel at the facility before beginning work, and understands any potential implication from not shutting off the system properly or from not reengaging it properly as well.
The next area with a type of hazard occurs from exposure to confined spaces. Although most potable water pumping units are not located in regulated confined spaces, many control valves and other equipment are commonly situated in tanks or underground vaults or chambers. Accumulated or released vapors or gases within these environments, especially those heavier than air in underground vaults or facilities, can overcome a worker within seconds. Recognizing these potential hazards and equipping each employee with a gas sniffer or alarm to notify the tech should hazardous or flammable gases or a low oxygen level exist and an approved breathing mask/tank is recommended.
In conclusion, it is vitally important anyone charged with conducting preventive maintenance and service be fully trained and capable in understanding and performing the procedural and safety measures required for each unit in each pumping station and observe the proper shutdown (lockout/tagout), service, and reactivation protocols.
If the technician is not familiar with or adequately trained in the proper safety procedures, or is not capable of or expresses reservations or reluctance against measuring electrical voltage or current, an alternate employee should be selected and evaluated. Without trying to disparage anyone, this work often requires a higher level of skills including experience, training, and knowledge well beyond a typical service or repairman.
This concludes this first installment on setting up a well and pump maintenance program. Next month, we’ll wrap up with an overview on setting up the forms and performing the field work.
Until then, work safe and smart.
Ed Butts, PE, CPI, is the chief engineer at 4B Engineering & Consulting, Salem, Oregon. He has more than 40 years of experience in the water well business, specializing in engineering and business management. He can be reached at email@example.com.