Simplified Well and Pump Maintenance

Five tips so your customers get the most out of their water systems.

By Ed Butts, PE

As we mutually embark on new adventures and challenges in the new year, it occurred to me there may not be any better subject to clear the holiday-drenched mind than outlining some basic—and I do mean basic—well and pump maintenance procedures.

In this column we’ll discuss the fundamental and elementary aspects of conducting routine well and pump maintenance. Not for the seasoned well or pump guy, water works operator, or fastidious homeowner, but for the everyday homeowner who is more lax on this task. These tips not only help keep the system working as efficiently as possible and for as long as possible, but help the owner recognize subtle, early warning signals that if they knew were happening might prompt a phone call to the friendly neighborhood well or pump guy.

Everyone who has been in this business long enough has run into the type of individual I am referring to here. A person who believes their new or existing modern water system will take care of itself and require no maintenance whatsoever.

Maybe we’re partly to blame for this. We have done such a good job of building wells and water systems that now require little routine maintenance, customers believe they never have to worry about them until they fail.

It’s always tough to convince these individuals their well and water system are like their own bodies—they require some periodic maintenance and TLC once in a while.

None of what I mention here is rocket science or requires spending massive amounts of money. But it is what I believe to be the least amount of effort every water system owner should invest in their well and water system. In other words, it is what I call simplified well and pump maintenance.

But First, a Story!

Who amongst us have not heard this before: “I get up to make coffee every morning and there has always been water at the kitchen tap, until now.” I can personally relate this type of comment from numerous customers through the years, but there is one example that always sticks out in my mind.

During my early 20s, I frequented a restaurant a few miles from my home before heading to work, a place which brewed what I thought was the best coffee in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

The name of this still operating restaurant is The Original Pancake House. Each workday morning, I would drag my carcass from bed, take a shower, dress, and venture to the restaurant to be greeted by Shirley. Shirley was an excellent and attentive waitress who was proud and mindful of the fact she had worked more than 30 years for the same employer.

Upon arrival one autumn morning I observed a sign on the front door reading: “Sorry, we are closed today. No water.”

As I peered through the front door glass, I could see Shirley and the cook milling about and trying to decide what to do. Wondering if there was something I could do, I gently tapped on the glass. Shirley saw me, came to the door, and informed me they could not open as there was simply no water when they showed up for work.

I told Shirley I was in the well and pump business and offered to troubleshoot and repair the condition if I could. They immediately accepted my offer, and this is where it starts to become more interesting and surreal.

Even though the two longtime employees knew the restaurant used well water, it was not all that unusual that neither had any idea where the well, pump, pressure tank, or controls were located. They didn’t have any knowledge if the well pump was a submersible, jet, or even a 1920s rod pump.

Figuring we could mutually find something to look at, Shirley led me into the kitchen, preparation, and dishwashing areas. As we ventured through the neat, clean kitchen and turned a corner into the dishwashing and food preparation area, I spied what looked to me to be the top of a 42-gallon conventional pressure tank hidden behind several boxes and placed against a corner wall. Immediately next to the tank mounted on the wall was an old-style control box. Hallelujah, we had found it!

At that instant, I think I was happier than a miner who stumbled across a gold strike. Not because we found the tank and control box, but the pump was obviously a submersible, which meant I would be escaping having to pull 100 feet of dual pipes and an injector from a well early in the day—and most important to me, I might still be able to get my morning cup of coffee after all!

The control box was a 1960s or 1970s vintage for a ¾ hp or 1 hp pump with an old-style control box where the relay plugged into a fixed backboard and the start capacitor was clipped to the same backboard and attached with two wires (that’s right, an old Jacuzzi control box for you old-timers).

After I hastened to my service truck to obtain my tools and meters and verified the power was shut off, a quick inspection and testing with my trusty Simpson 372 quickly told me the capacitor was blown (the leaking oil also gave this away) and the relay had failed.

These are all forms of simple preventive maintenance and troubleshooting that require no more than using the five basic senses. 

Fortunately, I had replacement components with me and was able to have the pump running within a few minutes, just in time to observe a severely waterlogged tank.

As the pump cycled several times, the cook said, “That’s so irritating to have to listen to all day long. It’s been going on for over a month now and driving me crazy. I sure wish the owner would do something to stop that damn banging noise. Not only that, but the water pressure is always surging up and down.”

“Noise?” I exclaimed! Ultimately, I was able to drain the tank and replenish it with an atmospheric charge to get them going so they could open. Since I did not have an air compressor with me, I promised to and did return later to precharge the tank.

All this activity began around 6:05 a.m., but I had the restaurant in water at 6:45 a.m., only 40 minutes later than the normal opening time. Once everything was back to normal and I had cleaned up and returned my tools and meters to my service truck, I came back into the restaurant and sat down at what had become my favorite booth, anticipating the free breakfast I just knew I would get for helping them out of a jam.

As the coffee brewed, Shirley said, “We really do appreciate your help with fixing this, Ed. It’s surely worth a free cup of coffee.” What? No breakfast?

So, What Am I Talking About?

The message I hope to convey with this tale is not that I missed out on a free breakfast, but simply that home owners and other well and water system owners cannot afford to repeatedly ignore their wells and water systems.

Irrespective of the sales hype, hydraulic, electrical, and mechanical devices and systems cannot simply take care of themselves. All wells and water systems must receive some measure of preventive maintenance on a timely basis.

In my example, if Shirley, the cook, or anyone else who worked there had simply informed the absentee owner about the unusual noise and surging water pressure, a serviceman could have been summoned to correct the condition long before the system actually failed.

It’s up to us—all of us as stewards of our nation’s groundwater resources and well and water system professionals—to fully inform our customers on the type and scope of well and water system they own and the routine maintenance they should be conducting on their system.

Even systems with the finest constructed wells, sophisticated controls and drives, bladder or diaphragm tanks, or automatic air volume control systems are not immune from this need. The customer must be educated on recognizing a few of the specific telltale signs of impending problems, or worse yet, doom.

The following list, along with the applicable senses in italics, includes what I regard as just a few of the most important advance warnings and when professional help should be summoned.

1. Water quality changes (sight, taste, touch, smell)

A well or water system that delivers water with a noticeably different color, taste, odor, or increased sediment should be suspect. Although many wells will seasonally produce water with minor changes in any of these characteristics due to normal variations in atmospheric pressure, aquifer draft, or static or pumping levels, what is important is to recognize sudden or severe changes in any specific water quality parameter.

In most cases, I try and suggest new well owners, especially those who previously had and are used to city water, track and document the water quality from their water system throughout the first year or two of operation. Over a period of one to two years, this newfound familiarity and accumulated history with a well type of water system will help them determine if a physical change in their water is possibly due to a problem or simply a predictable seasonal variation.

This is not necessarily when the customer must spend hundreds of dollars on a water analysis. Just asking them to be alert to any mild or sudden changes in their water is usually enough, especially for the presence of increased sand, silt, or soil/clay particles along with color and taste/odor changes.

This situation, above all others, is often a true early warning of well problems as issues such as increased entrance velocity, cascading water, collapsed wells, or subtle changes or shifts in aquifer or well flow can result in mild to severe upsets or changes to water quality.

This type of observation pattern is doubly important for those on a water filtration or softening system. A simple hiccup in the backwash timing, regeneration, or an inadequate/excessive flow rate can result in cementation or the loss of filter media or resin, resulting in a non-functioning filter, or in the worst case, total failure.

I have seen this type of problem occur numerous times due to the simple but temporary loss of power that completely deleted or revised the backwashing timer settings. Water treatment systems are examples where the homeowner must familiarize themself with the sound, timing, and frequency of items such as automatic backwashing and rinsing, regeneration, and loss of pressure and take remedial action when these normal events change or disappear.

In some cases, however, laboratory water analysis is warranted to confirm or refute a dangerous condition. This should apply to homes with severe, repeated, or chronic gastrointestinal illnesses as the presence of E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria or viruses could be the source, particularly for shallow or poorly constructed wells or those with inferior seals.

2. Changes in sound, noise, or pitch of an operating well pump (hearing)

Many homeowners have told me over the years they knew their well pump was failing even up to a month or better before it happened. They would tell me this was not because they were clairvoyant or due to decreased output or increased sand in the water, but from a change in the sound, pitch, or vibration the pump made.

Obviously, changes in sound are much more noticeable and apparent with an above-ground motor, such as a jet or vertical turbine pump motor, but I have noticed for myself when subtle changes in the sound and pitch from an operating pumping unit precede an imminent failure.

This may be caused from a telegraphing noise or constant ticking from a bearing or impeller rubbing or failure through the pipe, variations or changes in hydraulic resonance, or an electrical noise coming from a control box, variable frequency drive, or motor. Even a failing bladder tank can begin to make unusual gurgling or hissing noises.

Another area where the sense of hearing can help is by picking up an increased frequency or length of pump cycles. If a pump cycles on and off during the middle of the night or cycle times become longer when no water is being used, this is a prime indicator of a system or check valve leak or water-logged tank.

I own a water well system and can readily hear the pump’s operating cycling sound and pitch from our bedroom at night. I can assure you any deviation from what I have learned as routine cycling would be immediately investigated for cause. The bottom line is sound and noise can be an effective early warning, especially once the homeowner has gotten used to the normal sound and pitch their water system makes over many years of use. Remember my example? If the cook had simply recognized the unusual sound caused from the excessive cycling he could have notified the owner for corrective action.

3. Temperature (touch)

While observing temperature doesn’t apply to every water system component (you cannot ask someone to shimmy down a well to check the temperature of their submersible motor), it can be a helpful indicator for exposed motors or electrical panels. Simply placing a hand upon an operating motor can reveal hot spots or excessive running temperature from failing bearings or overheating in a control box or electrical panel.

4. Odor (smell)

An odor can be an effective monitoring means since no special training or instruments are needed. We all know what we think are unusual odors. Overheated or burning electrical insulation or equipment can cause a smell and unusual odors can also emit from hydrogen sulfide or other gases in well water. Even failed or non-lubricated rubber bearings have been known to place the smell of burned rubber into water.

5. System pressure and flow (sight)

The final category on this abbreviated list includes the most common early warning indicators: the water system’s flow and pressure. These are likely the easiest parameters to follow since we are all exposed to the normal flow and pressure from a well and water system every day.

One item I always ask new water system owners to familiarize themselves with is the pressure gauge and its normal readings and range. Recognizing the normal operating pressures of their water system is often helpful information when the system is outside these parameters.

Obvious variables such as surging or oscillating water pressure at fixtures, common to a waterlogged pressure tank, should be instantly recognized by a homeowner with immediate action taken to avoid component or pump/motor failure.

Subtler, but still recognizable, indicators include slightly or greatly diminished flow or pressure from fixtures, sprinklers, or hoses. In many cases, this is most apparent when running more than one fixture simultaneously, such as when two people are showering at the same time in different bathrooms. Although this type of problem often starts as a minor loss of flow, as the unit continues to decline in performance, the output (flow rate) will also decline.

DACUM Codes
To help meet your professional needs, this column covers skills and competencies found in DACUM charts for drillers, pump installers, and geothermal contractors. DO refers to the drilling chart, PI refers to the pumps chart, and GO represents the geothermal chart. The letter and number immediately following is the skill on the chart covered by the column. This column covers: DOA-1, DOA-2, PIA-1, PIA-2, PIA-3, PIA-5, PIA-6, PIF-2, PIF-4, PIF-6, PIF-8, GOA-1, GOA-2. More information on DACUM and the charts are available here.

This type of indicator is also often a sign of declining water treatment or well performance. Water treatment equipment may demonstrate increased head loss and reduced capacity from several factors such as plugged media, infrequent or inadequate backwash, or excessive flow rate for the installed unit.

Declining well performance can result in decreased yield and increasing pumping due to aquifer decline or possible well plugging or collapse.

Another indicator where sight is helpful is to have the homeowner occasionally walk around the property, especially over the route between the well and the pressure tank or home, particularly during dry stretches. If a nice, green patch of grass suddenly develops next to another patch of dry grass, this is often a dead giveaway of a water leak.

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These are all forms of simple preventive maintenance and troubleshooting that require no more than using the five basic senses. In fact, I bet most of you can think of some tips using your senses I haven’t cited.

When you ask customers about conducting routine well and pump maintenance, you’re not asking them to perform dangerous or drastic procedures, spend copious amounts of time or money, or have you come out every six months. You’re just requesting they develop a familiarity with their well and water system and recognize any subtle or sudden changes to them when they occur.

Using their already God-given senses and powers of observation can increase the reliability and performance of their well and water system for many years at virtually no cost.

Until next month, work safe and smart.


Ed Butts, PE, 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 epbpe@juno.com.