Section#1: Understanding Water Well Systems

A Word About Safety and Risk

Many do-it-yourself activities are inherently dangerous, especially if it involves pressurized water, electricity and equipment. Reading beyond this point indicates your acceptance of complete personal responsibility for your safety and the safety of others. This course is for information purposes only. It doesn’t teach everything about staying safe with electricity or water. Take steps on your own to understand the risks and to learn how to protect yourself against them.

VIDEO: Watch a Deep Well Hand Pump Installation

Of all the private sources of water you can tap into, water wells support the most people. Surface sources of water such as lakes, rivers and springs are options in some places, and so are rainwater collection systems. But of all these possibilities, wells are by-far the most relied upon. According to the National Groundwater Association, there are more than 13 million year-round households in North America that rely on groundwater exclusively, with more than 500,000 new residential water wells created annually using one of four techniques. Trouble is, unless you take steps to learn, you’ll be clueless about how to install your own water well system and how to make water flow again when it stops. Many times in my rural life I’ve fixed water well problems for myself and for neighbours in less time than it would take for a repair guy to drive to my place, and at a cost that’s much less than any plumber would charge. Speed and economy are two reasons to become your own water well expert,  starting with the basics of water wells and pump systems.

 

Reliability By Design

My job in this course is to help you build the skills and systems to handle four water supply challenges: install a new pump in a new well; fix mechanical breakdown; keep water flowing during electrical grid failure; and eliminate water shortages from a weak well. There are many ways to meet the challenges we’re tackling here and the technical options you’ll find in this course work well together to make your water supply bomb proof. And when it comes to getting lots of water from a weak well, the modifications and adaptations you need to complete use hardware that’s easy to find thanks to the internet. More on this later.

Understanding Water Well Systems

Your first task is to learn to recognize what kind of water well you have, and to recognize the type of wells other people you need to help might have. As with any technical endeavor, you need to start with an understanding of the basics before anything else.

Wells can be deep or shallow, drilled, dug, bored or driven. Drilled wells are typically small in diameter (4 to 8 inches), more than 25 feet deep and are the only option for accessing water from bedrock. Drilled wells like the one you see here include a metal tube (called a “casing”) pushed into the hole in the ground far enough to extend down past any soil that might be present, then further on into bedrock. Casings also extend several feet above the surface to keep out surface water and dirt. Even when you need to drill 100 feet or more through bedrock to get water, modern drill rigs do the job in a day or less. My own drilled well is 143 feet deep, with the first 6 feet going through soil. The rest is limestone bedrock.

Dug wells are just as the name sounds. They’re holes dug into the soil only (no bedrock) to a relatively shallow depth. Traditionally, dug wells were shoveled out by hand and lined with stones, but today they’re usually created with a backhoe or excavator. Dug wells can be created only in soil of some kind, they’re typically 24” to 36” in diameter, and usually less than 20 feet deep. These days tubular concrete well tiles keep soil and surface water out of the hole, instead of hand-laid stonework.

Bored wells are another option. They’re just like the dug well you see here in the illustration, except deeper. Created by specialized equipment that augers a round hole in soil only, this lets bored wells go deeper than dug wells (up to 50 feet deep). The boring operation is less disruptive to the surrounding landscape than using a backhoe or excavator, too. Bored wells also use concrete well tiles to keep surface water, dirt and critters out of the hole.

Driven wells are completely different than anything else. They’re made by fitting a sharp, rigid, screened attachment that threads onto the end of rigid steel pipe. This attachment is called a sand point, and it allows a pipe to be pounded into the ground using a sledge hammer or jack hammer for extracting groundwater from abundant, relatively shallow sources in coarse soils. Sand points are the simplest and cheapest option for getting a well, but they only work in sandy or gravelly soils with water close to the surface.

Water Wells at a Glance

How can you quickly tell what kind of well you have? Check out these telltale visual features and you’ll know.

Drilled well: The only kind of well with a metal casing that extends above the ground. All drilled wells have (or should have) some kind of metal cap on top of the casing.

Hand-dug well: This could have a wood or metal cover, usually flush with the ground. If you see round field stones lining the insides of the well when you look down into it, you’ve got an old-time dug well. Just imagine what it would have been like to dig one of these.

Modern dug well: If you see a round concrete cylinder and cap about 3 feet in diameter and extending above the ground, you may have a modern dug well. If total well depth is less than 20 feet, it is dug for sure (not bored). Your well was created by a backhoe or excavator, with the concrete tiles installed one on top of the other, then the soil replaced.

Bored well: This will have the same kind of concrete cap of a dug well, but it’ll be deeper than about 20 feet.

Sand point: If all you see coming out of the ground is a metal pipe a couple inches in diameter, then you’ve got a sand point. A sand point well isn’t as common as other types of wells because it takes uncommon geological conditions to support one. You need sandy or gravelly soil with a water table that’s less than 20 feet from the surface. In regions with winter temperatures that go down below freezing, the entire pipe could be buried, or it could end in a pit below the frost line with an access cover.

Watch the video below about a water well being drilled in the limestone bedrock of the Canadian island where I live. This well has since proven to be very productive with a flow rate of about 50 gallons of water a minute.

VIDEO: Watch a Deep Well Being Drilled Into Bedrock

What You Need to Know About Water Pumps

There are three main kinds of water well pumps in the world: submersible pumps; jet pumps; and piston pumps. Of these three, the piston pump is the most rare. As time goes on you see fewer and fewer of them.

Piston Pumps: You can tell a piston pump by the quiet, pleasant “thumpa-thumpa” sound they make as they operate. Most also include a couple of visible rubber drive belts connected to an electric motor by exposed metal pulleys. Piston pumps are great for shallow well situations with up to 300 feet of horizontal draw, but never for raising water more than about 20 vertical feet. Piston pumps used to be very popular decades ago, but are falling out of favor because of their high cost relative to pump output. Remember this “20 vertical feet” business. It’s quite crucial, as you’ll see later. If you’ve got a working piston pump at your place, by all means keep using it. If you need to buy a new pump, a piston pump isn’t your best choice. You’re better off with a jet pump or a submersible as I’ll explain.

Watertight Connections

Black polyethylene water pipe is the mainstay of intake lines and rural water distribution systems in most regions, and screw clamps tightened onto barbed metal connection fittings are the way joints are made leak-proof. Trouble is, screw clamps alone won’t make reliable connections on black poly pipe. You also need to heat and soften the pipe with a propane torch or heat gun before tightening the screw clamps down. If you don’t heat you probably won’t get a tight seal. You know you’ve heated the pipe enough when it becomes noticeably softer and more pliable. A sufficiently heated pipe also takes on something of a shiny sheen on the outside when it’s hot enough. Have the loose screw clamps sitting on the pipe and ready to go before you heat, then bring the connection together quickly, slide the clamps into position, then tighten them with a small socket wrench. Just to be safe, use two clamps per joint, spending the little extra money for stainless steel clamps. Always use a socket wrench or nut driver to tighten the hex head on a screw clamp. A screwdriver alone only develops marginal torque for this job.

Jet Pumps: These are a popular choice because they’re the least expensive water well pump going and they can work in both shallow or deep-well modes. You can tell you’ve got a jet pump because it sits above ground, and it makes a kind of whooshing sound as it operates. Jet pumps need to be “primed” before they’ll work. This means the entire pump casing and intakes lines are completely filled with water. Even a small amount of air in the lines stops jet pumps from pumping. Jet pumps may be common and cheap, but they’re not my favourite type. Submersible pumps are much better in my book, as you’ll see.

Submersible Pump: These aren’t as cheap as jet pumps for a given size, but they’re more than worth the extra money for several reasons. They move more water than other pumps of a given horsepower and they never need priming. That’s because the pump itself sits below water level in the well – wires and all. You know you’ve got a submersible pump because there’s no pump to be seen anywhere. Water simply flows into your home from a pipe noiselessly. All submersible pumps need to be supplied with electricity, so wires or a conduit leaving your home and making its way down the well is another telltale sign you’ve got a submersible. Pumps like these also play a crucial role in getting lots of water from a weak well, as I’ll show you later.

How Water Well Systems Work

There are three main parts to any water well system that delivers flowing water: the pump, the pressure tank, and the pressure switch. All types of water pumps have some version of these parts. The pressure switch monitors pressure in the pressure tank, turning the pump ON when tank pressure falls below some preset level. This is typically 30 psi to 40 psi. The pressure switch recognizes a rise in tank pressure as the pump delivers more water to the tank, then turns the pump OFF when this preset high level is hit. This is typically 50 psi to 60 psi. This rising and falling of tank pressure is common to almost every private water well system. Common, but not desirable nor inevitable. Later in the ebook I’ll show you how to have very constant water pressure from a pump-driven system. Besides better performance, your pump will also last longer this way.

Water Questions to Ask When Choosing a Rural Property

If you’re looking for a rural property to settle on, questions about groundwater are one of the most important things you can ask.  It’s easy for less than honest people to hide issues like insufficient, bad tasting or contaminated water in the area. Asking additional questions beyond a real estate agent or the property owner may be the most important water-related skills you’ll exercise. Finding a property with safe, tasty and abundant groundwater is more than half the battle. Ask questions like:

  • How deep do wells have to go to find abundant water in this area?
  • Is there sulphur water, natural gas, a nearby landfill or other local geological issues that might cause problems with water quality?
  • If you’re looking at buying a property with an existing well, how deep is the well? What kind of well? How far from the surface is the water? How much reserve water does the well actually hold? You’ll learn more about all these questions as you go through this course.

Click here for hi-res printable download.

The specifics of water wells comes down to the type of pump used and the depth of water from the surface. The illustrations and video coming up  shows how parts of water well systems are connected, including a foot valve, check valve, pump, pipes, fittings, pressure tank, pressure switch and other parts.

VIDEO: How Water Well Systems Work

Troubleshooting Water Well Pumps

Got water pump problems at your place? Coming up next you’ll find troubleshooting information for the main types of pump systems, alerting you to the most common sources of trouble and how to identify and fix them. You’ll find complete instructions for each of the three main types of water pumps, so some wording is repeated.

For Jet Pumps

Pump runs, but does not move water:

Air in the system – This is the usual source of trouble. If your well runs dry even for a moment, a jet pump will suck in air and stop pumping. Even when water returns to the well, a jet pump still won’t move water with air in the system. Add water to the pump casing through the top plug to displace the air. Look for air leaks if system worked fine before and water has always been plentiful in the well. Pipes, especially the typical black polyethylene pipes, can develop splits, allowing air to enter the system.

Pump won’t start:

No power to pump – Check power supply with multimeter and re-establish power if needed.
Failed pressure switch – If power is supplied to the pressure switch, but the pump doesn’t run, you could have a bad pressure switch. The contacts get worn and pitted over time. Shut the power supply OFF, double check that power really is OFF, then clean contacts or replace pressure switch. Cleaning might keep you going for a while, but replace the switch as soon as you can. They don’t cost much. All three main types of pumps use the same kind of pressure switch.
Bad capacitor – Capacitors are energy storage devices. They give electric motors a little kick start to get them rolling from a standing start. When capacitors go bad, you can often see physical signs of damage on the end of the capacitor itself. Full featured multimeters can assess the capacitance of a capacitor. More on this coming up.

For Submersible Pumps

Since submersible pumps are hidden within the well, you don’t know whether lack of flowing water has happened because the motor is bad or there’s some other problem. Here’s what to check and the order in which to check them:

Pump won’t start:

No power to pump – Check power supply with multimeter and re-establish power to pump if needed.
Failed pressure switch – If power is supplied to the pressure switch, but the pump doesn’t run, you could have a bad pressure switch. The contacts get worn and pitted over time. Shut the power supply OFF, double check that power really is OFF, then clean the contacts or replace pressure switch. Cleaning might keep you going for a while, but replace the switch as soon as you can. They don’t cost much.
Bad capacitor – Assess capacitor (see video up next), replace if necessary.
Broken or shorted power wires within the well – This problem is not uncommon with submersible pumps. Wires inside the well rub against the side of the well as the pump turns ON and OFF. This rubbing eventually wears through the insulation, allowing a short circuit that shuts down the pump. The pump is actually still good, but can’t run because of the short. Pull the pump from the well (more on this later) and fix the broken wires.
Burned out pump motor – Sometimes the motors of submersible pumps just go bad. They can last 20+ years of hard use, but much less time if a submersible pump is allowed to run dry for any length of time. Pull the pump from well and replace with a new one.
Damaged pump impeller – The impeller is a little internal propellor that moves water through the submersible pump. You can’t see it, but it’s there. Sometimes grit gets sucked up from the bottom of the well and damages the impeller. Other times running a submersible pump dry can damage the impeller. From above ground you can’t tell for sure if the problem is a bad motor or bad impeller. Either way, pull the pump from the well, find out and rectify why the impeller failed, then replace the pump.

For Piston Pumps

Pump won’t start:

No power to pump – Check power supply with multimeter and re-establish power if needed.
Failed pressure switch – If power is supplied to the pressure switch, but the pump doesn’t run, you could have a bad pressure switch. The contacts get worn and pitted over time. Shut power supply OFF, double check that power really is OFF, then clean contacts or replace the pressure switch. Cleaning might keep you going for a while, but replace the switch as soon as you can. They don’t cost much.
Bad capacitor – Capacitors are energy storage devices. They give electric motors a little kick start to get them rolling from a standing start. When capacitors go bad, you can often see physical signs of damage. See video up next for capacitor testing methods.

Motor running but pump not turning:

Drive belts too loose – Tighten drive belts. This is the usual trouble.
Seized pump – This is rare, but it can happen. Take the belts off, then try and turn the pump manually. If it can’t turn, the problem is a seized pump. You’ll need to replace your piston pump.

Pump running but not moving water:

Air in system – Piston pumps are less finicky about air, but enough of it can still shut them down. Prime system and retry. If your pump was working before, find source of air leak. It could be a split in a pipe somewhere, or it could be that your well ran dry for a time.
Failed leathers – Leathers act as valves in a piston pump. Unbolt the metal top part of the pump, replace leathers, reprime pump, then try pump again. Failed leathers are a rare thing, so ensure there’s no air in the system before you take the pump apart.

Watch the video up next to learn more about troubleshooting a submersible water well pump.

VIDEO: How to Troubleshoot a Water Pump

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