Wells and Pumps, Oh My!

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m cheap^H^H^H^H^H frugal. It makes me sort of crazy to pay other people to do something I can do, or ought to be able to do.

About ten years ago, the pump that pumps water out of our well to the house failed. Coincidentally, I had just been at Lowe’s, and saw that a replacement pump was $500. I called a couple places to get the pump replaced, and got bids from three that ranged from $1500 to $2500; the middle estimate of around $2000 was from the company that initially installed the well. The process was for three guys to come out, pull the pump out of the well, replace it, drop it down the well, and turn the darn thing on again. I watched the entire process, and realized that there was no reason I could not do the same thing.

Sunday, we came home from running errands and found that the house water pressure was 0 PSI; not good. I did some troubleshooting; the pressure switch was good, except for the dead Oklahoma Brownsnake that was curled up on top of the pressure relay switch under the cover, quite fried. Well, that was interesting.

I tested the motor resistance using my VTM; all three readings were in spec. I figured that it was the controller. I ran out to Lowe’s and bought one (they used to cost $100, but now are $70), installed it (it takes about 10 seconds), and… nothing.

So I figured I had a dead pump. I went out to the wellhead, and checked the wiring, and had 230VAC, so the controller was in fact working. Then I felt the water pipe coming up; the pump motor was running! You can feel the vibration running up the plastic pipe. Curious.

I decided that I needed to have a look at the pump. That means it needed to pulled out of the ground. Our well is about 180 ft deep.

Now, the water gets into the house through the well casing (pipe) through a fitting that attaches to the casing. The fitting is called a pitless adapter, and it’s essentially a sliding joint. I tied a stout climbing rope around the fitting, tied the other end to a nearby tree (this was my backup in case I let go of the pipe to keep it from falling all the way to the bottom of the well), got Ian to back me up, and pulled the piping and the piping part of the adapter straight up; it came out easily, and we pulled it up the 18 or so inches.

The adapter fitting is attached to a short iron pipe segment that is connected to another adapter that connects to 1″ PVC pipe. Each PVC pipe segment is 20′ long, and has a female threaded adapter at the “top” of the pipe, and a male threaded adapter at the bottom. The male fitting goes into the female fitting on the next pipe to make a single long string of pipes.

Now one thing I learned from my watching the crew the last time was a nifty tool to save back strain. There’s was made from a steel plate about 18″x6″x1/8″ thick. I made the same thing out of a 2×4. I drilled a 1-1/4″ hole in the middle of the board, and then used a jigsaw to cut a notch out of the 2×4 to the hole. Since the hole is the same diameter (1-1/4″) as the outside diameter of the pipe, and the PVC fittings are about 1/8″ wider, the well can hang from the board while you work on unscrewing the joint.

This is what the board looks like, clean and with an example of how it holds the pipe.

It took about five minutes to make this. The tools were a 1-1/4″ hole drill, the 2×4, my drill motor, and my jigsaw.

I noticed that the top of the pitless adapter fitting was threaded. An iron pipe with a thread on both sides could have a “T” and a couple short pieces of pipe to make a handle could be screwed down into that pitless adapter and be used to hoist the thing up instead of the rope I used.

So I pulled up the first 20′ segment of pipe. It was heavy, but not excessively so. Ian and I alternated pulling the pipe. The process was pull the pipe until the next fitting came up, set the board on the well head, and put the fitting and pipe into the board to support the rest of the piping and pump. I was being very paranoid, and was also adding another rope tied around the pipe at the bottom of the fitting as a don’t-drop-the-thing-into-the-well-casing backup. Note that as you lift, you also need your helper to pull up the wiring that leads down to the pump to make sure it doesn’t interfere with the pipe and such as it comes up. On ours, the wiring was electrical taped to the PVC pipe, and I had to cut it off for each segment. More on the tape later…

The top pipe unscrews from the bottom pipe. We used one set of channel lock pliers to hold the lower fitting in place, and another to unscrew the upper fitting. The detached pipe was set on the ground.

As with most projects, it wasn’t really that easy. One problem was finding tools – if you have seen my garage, you would know that that is a large problem. The 20 ft pipes also got hung up in overhanging tree limbs, so the project stopped for a while so I could hunt up my bowsaw and do some trimming. We also got a ladder set up next to the well so one of us could climb up and help steady the pipe, which waved around quite a bit.

So this process was repeated about eight times. The pump showed up! We put it on a piece of cardboard and I started checking it out. The intakes were completely clogged with electrical tape pieces! I cleaned them all out, then wiped down and cleaned the exterior of the pump. I figured that now the thing would work, since if the intake was clogged it made sense you got no water.

Putting the pump back down was the opposite. We lowered the pump and wiring, stopped at the upper fitting, and screwed on the next pipe section with the two channel lock pliers, repeating this until the pump was down. I didn’t connect the pitless adapters, but rather aimed the outflow downhill, and fired up the pump. NOTHING. There was a little air moving out of the pipe, but that was about it.

So I had a defective pump for some reason that was not obvious. The motor was running, but no water was moving. It was about 1700 on Sunday at this point. We headed out to a much needed dinner and bathroom break (no water in the house, so the toilets were not working either), and then headed by Home Depot and bought a new pump. This one was $400, and included a control box (so I ended up returning the control box I bought earlier that day).

We got back home around 1900, and pulled the clearly defective pump back up. The pump has a threaded female receptacle on top to connect to the PVC pipe, using an adapter… which I DIDN’T HAVE! And both Lowe’s and Home Depot were five minutes from closing. We quickly used some of my frequent traveler points to get a hotel room near school so we could shower and use the bathroom, packed, and headed out to spend the rest of Sunday night at the hotel.

We had another problem during the pipe pulling process, which lead to a second problem. PVC is somewhat flexible, but it does not like sharp bends and torsion force. As Ian was pulling a section, he stepped back a couple steps, and one of the male threaded adapters failed. The pipe headed down the hole (OH CRAP!) but I dove and grabbed it. So one of the pipes was ruined. We tried to unscrew the remains of the male adapter, but we just could not get it off. I tried drilling a hole through it to use a cheater bar, but the thing shattered, and now we had *two* unuseable pipes. I muttered dark words, but figured it didn’t make any difference, we could get the thing down the well, it would be in the water, and if it wouldn’t have enough water to run the sprinkler system, we could worry about that in the spring. One other thing I did was try to pull pipe without disconnecting everything, which lead to a lot of pipe up in the trees.

The next morning, after everyone was at school, and after I went to work for a bit, I went and got the adapter, and went home to install it. I got it installed. I hooked up the three electrical wires using the supplied butt crimp connectors and heat shrink tubing, and then attached the first piece of pipe, got the electrical wires attached to the pipe using zip ties (the clogging electric tape had me bothered), and THEN noticed that I had picked up one of the PVC pipes with the broken connectors. Grrrr… I took it all apart again, got a good pipe, and re-did the work.

When Ian got home from school, we went to drop the new pump in the well. We had a LOT of trouble getting the long pipe string to connect to and screw onto the top of the pump (remember the pipes in the trees that I mentioned?). So I told Ian we were going go ahead and take the pipes apart, and while we were doing that, I told him to turn the pipe one way, and what we managed to do was tighten the pipe to the point that the fitting broke; I had screwed up the “righty-tightly lefty-loosey” rule. So now we had four pipes out of commission. We went ahead and dropped the pump the rest of the way, and turned it on, but no water – the pump was not in the water with 80′ of pipe missing.

So I needed to repair the pipes. This is pretty easy, but the cure time is 2+ hours, and it was already 2000, so time was not on our side. So we did the hotel thing again. I got the family settled in at the hotel, then headed back to Lowe’s. I use the medium grade cement for my sprinkler system, but for this, since the piping had to support 60 lbs of pump, pipe, and water in the pipe, I used heavy grade. Heavy grade wants *six* hours to cure. I headed to the house, cut the bad fittings off, primed the pipes and the new fittings, and glued them up. I left the pipes in the warm garage to cure and headed to the hotel. This was about 2200, so the fittings had until about 1500 the next day to cure.

The next afternoon after Ian got home from school, we pulled the top section (with the pitless adapter) up again, removed it, and then put the four repaired section back on, and finally the top section again. We set the adapter on the edge of the well casing again, turned the pump on, and saw a gush of water. Yea! I turned the pump off after the water was running clear.

Next, we very carefully lowered the pump so the pitless adapters mated. When I was sure they were together, I used a 2×4 to gently tap them completely together. I turned the pump back on, and the tank filled up, and then I turned the valve to let the house pipes fill, and we were back in business.

The tools I used in this project:

Two sets of 12″ channel lock pliers
Propane torch for the heat shrink tubing
Dykes to cut the wire (and compress the butt connectors)
Zip ties
PVC heavy cement
Purple PVC primer
Hacksaw to cut PVC pipe
Well pump
Four replacement fittings
Ladder, flashlights, rope, etc.

The total cost of materials here was about $415. $405 of that was the pump and tax, the rest was a couple fittings and cement. The project took essentially 48 hours, of which about five was actual project, and the rest going to work, running errands, sleeping, etc. I saved about $1600 or more. We did burn some of my accumulated hotel points, but only about 10% of what I have. The weather was not the best, chilly and raining for much of the work. But it got done, was not dangerous, and I fully expect the pump to last another 10 years.

I would not recommend this for everyone. I’m very good with tools, incomprehensibly cheap in some ways, and preternaturally confident (some would say arrogant, but I think that’s a bit strong!), and I did this without screwing the well up (which would have been very expensive). I was very paranoid about dropping stuff in the well and jamming it so I could not pull the pump up). I would almost rather have a cable or something (like a 1/8″ stainless steel cable) attached to the pump so I could use a manual winch (like on a boat trailer) to raise and lower the pump and pipes (curiously, the old pump had a place for such an attachment, the new one did not).

I am going to take apart the failed pump and try to figure out why it will not move water. I’ll report on that later.

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One Response to “Wells and Pumps, Oh My!”

  1. Raegan Says:

    And the teenagers learned some new and interesting “vocabulary” in the process, too!

    Great job! It’s nice to have water again. It’s surprising how often we wash our hands–you don’t notice it until you can’t do it!

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