One day you turn on the faucet and nothing happens. If you have a private drinking water well you will have to determine how to get your water back “on.” There are a number of reasons why a well might suddenly stop producing water, but basically they all break down into equipment failure, depletion of the aquifer or other groundwater problems and failing well design and construction. Equipment problems are not only the easiest to identify and fix, they are more common than groundwater problems (which were covered in a previous post) or well design and construction issues. Intermittent episodes of severe water pressure loss or even no water is usually a sign of a problem with the water supply. If you have water first thing in the morning and again when you get home from work, but the supply seems to run out especially when doing laundry or taking a shower, then you may have a groundwater problem. Sudden failure or failure after a power outage is probably a mechanical problem with components of the system. The first step in identifying the cause of a water failure is to check the equipment. The essential components of a modern drilled well system are: a submersible pump, a check valve (and additional valve every 100 feet), a pitless adaptor, a well cap, electrical wiring including a control box, pressure switch, and interior water delivery system. There are additional fittings and cut-off switches for system protection, but the above are the basics. To keep the home supplied with water each component in the system and well must remain operational.
The components within the basement provide consistent water pressure at the fixtures in the house and the electrical switch that turns on the pump. The pump moves water to the basement water pressure tank, inside the tank is an air bladder that becomes compressed as water is pumped into the tank. The pressure in the tank moves the water through the house pipes so that the pump does not have to run every time you open a faucet. The pressure tank typically maintains the water pressure between 40-60 psi. After the pressure drops below 40 psi, the electrical switch turns on the pump and the pressure in the tank increases. Any failure in any component or loss of electricity can cause a well to suddenly stop producing water when a faucet is turned on.
If you have power (and I assume you do if you are reading this), the most common cause is a failure of the pump, but first check your circuit breakers to make sure that the problem is not electrical. If there is a short in the pump system it will blow the circuit and if there was a power surge as the pump was turning on a circuit could have blown. So turn off and on the pump’s circuit breakers or change the fuses. Pumps generally have two circuits tied together because an immersion pump draws a lot of power (240 volts). Make sure both circuits are on- a small water drizzle is one sign of a 240 volt pump getting only 120 volts. Next check the pressure gauge on your pressure tank, read it. If it is not showing a pressure of 40-60 psi (slightly left of center) that could be your problem. The electrical switch at the pressure tank (grey box) is a fairly common cause of failure in the pump/private well water system; so check the voltage before and after the switch to make sure it is working. Manually closing the pressure control switch should turn the pump on. Close the switch, if when you do this the pump does not turn on the problem is the pump. If the pump can not be heard to turn on when you manually turn on the pressure control switch, that is your problem. The pump is the piece of equipment subject to the most wear and tear and most likely to fail. When the pressure in the pressure tank falls to 35-40 psi the switch at the pressure tank turns on the pump.
There are two types of pumps; a jet pump and a submersible pump. Most modern drilled wells are built with a submersible pump so that the ground water is not exposed to potential contaminants before it reaches your home. In older pump installations and dug wells, above ground jet pumps were often used, which potentially allowed the introduction of contaminants at the surface concrete well cap. A drilled well generally has a 6 inch diameter pipe sticking out of the lawn somewhere. A dug well is wide enough for a man to fit down into the well so that the well could be dug. Dug wells tend to have concrete lids or other large lid that can sometimes be confused with multiple septic tank systems. Dug wells are more susceptible to contamination and tend to be older. The pump for a dug well is sometimes in a pit next to the well or it will be located in the basement. Jet pumps are easier to check since they are not in the well and you can pretty much see if they are running. A submersible pump in a drilled well can be checked for power and the pressure switch can be checked with a volt meter and the pump can be heard operating. The safety switch and control box for the pump should be in the basement on the wall near your pressure switch. If you needed me to tell you these things now would be a good time to call the well driller to come out and diagnose the problem. Well drilling companies can generally replace, pumps and pressure tanks and other well components. Things like a leaky valve at the bottom of the well can result in a pump losing it prime after a power failure. In addition, they can diagnose an improper well design. Private well construction was not regulated in Virginia until the 1992 and is still not regulated in many places including Pennsylvania. I have seen some funky well designs as a VAMWON private well volunteer. An electrical problem will require an electrician, but component replacement can be done by the well drilling company. In Virginia a license is necessary to work on a well as a certified water well provider. Plumbers generally do not have this certification. Do not call a plumber for a well problem.
The submersible pump is a long cylindrical unit that fits within the 6 inch diameter well casing. The bottom portion consists of the sealed pump motor connected to a series of impellers separated by a diffuser that drives the water up the pipe to the plumbing system through the pitless adaptor and a pipe that runs from the well beneath the ground to the basement. Submersible pumps should last 15 years or more, but silt, sand, algae and excessive mineral content can impact their life. A submersible pump operating high sediment water may fail in 5 or 6 years (and several have in my neighborhood). The sediment and mineral content in groundwater acts as an abrasive that wears out the pump bearings and other moving parts and causes the pump to fail prematurely. Often old wells produce less sediment than new wells and a replacement pump may last longer. Any impact to the well (hitting the well pipe with a car or truck), or a bit of gravel broken loose from the formation can cause the pump to wrack, hit the sides of the well and fail. As a well owner you might want to consider a planned replacement of system components rather than waiting for system failure.
If you can hear the pump turn on, yet no water is delivered to the house the problem might be a failure of the pipe leading from the well to the house. If like me your pipe runs under a portion of the driveway, this turns out to be a fairly expensive, but simple fix-excavating the pipe and replacing it. If the horizontal well piping between well and building does not slope continually upwards or if it has a high spot, an air lock can form in the piping. If you need help with a well problem, the Wellcare® Hotline is staffed by the Water Systems Council (WSC), the only non-profit organization solely focused on private wells and small well-based drinking water systems. The Hotline operates Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Eastern Time, and can be reached at 888-395-1033.
Also, if you are in Virginia you can call or email the Virginia Master Well Owner’s Network for help. My name and email are near the bottom of the list with the volunteers and I am happy to help if I can. http://www.wellwater.bse.vt.edu/contact_mwo_table.php