There are a number of reasons why a well might suddenly stop producing water, but basically they all break down into:
- Equipment failure,
- Piping Leak
- Depletion of the aquifer or other groundwater problems
- Failing well,
- Frozen pipes or well
Equipment problems are the most common so we will start there. The first thing to check for an electrical problem:
- Circuit breaker tripped
- Burned out fuse
- Short, broken or loose wire in the well (may have caused the problem)
If your well stopped working right after a thunder storm, check to see if the well was struck by lightning. This is fairly common in the south and Texas. If there is a short in the pump electrical system it will blow the circuit and if there was a power surge as the pump was turning on a circuit could have blown. To make sure a circuit breaker is not tripped, 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. If the pump keeps turning off and it is not because of dry well, then there might be a short. A trickle of water or no water could also be frozen pipes. If it’s really cold outside (below zero) check that first.
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 the well may be drying out. Diminished flow that is not related to use can be caused by reduced flow through pipes either due to a blockage or cracked pipe. If the water suddenly stops completely that is usually a sign of a mechanical problem.
There is a lot of parts of well system and well design does vary depending on geology, weather, local custom, and age. These days deeper drilled wells are more common, to be less impacted by drought and contamination. The essential components of a modern drilled well system are:
- a submersible pump,
- a check valve or foot valve (and additional valve every 100 feet),
- a pitless adaptor,
- electrical wiring including a control box if the starter is not in the pump itself
- pressure switch
- a pressure tank unless you have a constant pressure pump
- and interior water delivery system.
To keep the home supplied with water each component in the system and well must remain operational. The most common equipment failure to cause sudden loss of water are:
- Failed motor on the pump
- Failed starter for the pump (can either be part of the pump or a separate unit in the basement)
- Defective pressure switch
The components that are usually in the basement are the pressure tank and pressure switch and potentially the starter. These provide consistent water pressure at the fixtures in the house and the electrical switch that turns on the pump. Most water treatment equipment will also be in the basement, but does not usually affect whether or not you have water. The pump moves water to the basement water pressure tank (unless you have a constant pressure pump), inside the tank is usually 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. Reduced water pressure could be due to a water logged or leaking pressure tank.
Read the pressure gauge on your pressure tank. If it is not showing a pressure of 40-60 psi (or 30-50 psi) that could be a sign that the pump is not turning on. The question is why. The pump could have failed, the well could be dry or not have enough water to operate (there is a cut off on the pump to protect it when the water level is low), the pressure switch could have failed. Pressure switch problems are easy to fix. Many models have a manual bypass lever. If yours does you can force the pump on using the lever. If the pressure starts to rise when you press the lever then you need a new pressure switch. The last one I bought was $25.
If the pressure on the gauge was in the desired range, it could be several things. First let’s make sure the pressure gauge is actually working- tap the gauge with the back of a screwdriver (gently) and see if the gauge moves. Both the gauge and pressure switch can clog with sediment. Yes, the gauge on my last pressure switch failed and I did not see it until I was looking for another problem.
If the pump cannot be heard or measured with a voltmeter to turn on when you manually turn on the pressure control switch, then it is either the starter or the motor. The pump is the piece of equipment subject to the most wear and tear and most likely to fail.
There are two types of pumps; a jet pump and a submersible pump. Most modern drilled wells are built with a submersible pump. In shallow wells and dug wells, above ground jet pumps were often used. Dug wells tend to be older and have concrete lids or other large lid. The pump for a dug well is sometimes in a pit next to the well, a well house, 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 jet pump can lose its prime. So if you have a jet pump check that first. You need water to prime the pump. If you do not have a hand pump you can connect to your system and draw water up, run a hose from the hot water heater. If a jet pump continually looses prime, you probably have a leak either in the foot valve, check valve or a line. Look for it.
Most modern well installations are drilled wells with a submersible pump. A drilled well generally has a 6 inch diameter pipe sticking out of the lawn somewhere. A submersible pump can be checked for in the basement with a voltmeter if you cannot hear it operating. The safety switch and control box for the pump should be in the basement on the wall near your pressure switch.
The submersible pump consists of the sealed pump motor connected to a series of impellers separated by a diffuser that drives the water up the pipe (a flexible tube) to the plumbing system through the pitless adaptor and a pipe that runs from the well beneath the ground to the basement. The starter can be either part of the pump or separately housed in the basement. Either the motor or starter can fail. Submersible pumps should last 14-17 years or more, but silt, sand, iron bacteria and excessive mineral content can impact their life. Any impact to the well -hitting the well pipe with a car or lawn tractor, or a bit of gravel broken loose from the formation can damage the pump.
If you can hear or measure that the pump turns on, yet you have no water or only a little the problem might be a failure of the pipe leading from the well to the house. Depending on the distance to the house this can involve quite a bit of excavating to dig up the pipe and replace it. Look for a waterlogged area. Replacing this pipe has to be carefully done and should not be pieced. 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 the temperature outside is below zero and you turn on a faucet and either get nothing or just a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe, first. If your well supply line or the water main is not frozen, you may have water in part of the house, but not others. The most likely pipes to freeze are against exterior walls of the home, or are exposed to the cold, like outdoor hose bibs, and water pipes in unheated interior areas like basements and crawl spaces, attics, garages, or kitchen cabinets. Pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing. In sub-zero weather wells with separate well houses can freeze. Keeping the temperature in a well house above freezing will prevent this.
There is no quick way to fix frozen pipes and calling a plumber does not help until the pipes warm up and you can see if any pipes burst. Make sure you know how to turn off the water in case you have a burst pipe (cutting the well power switch will do it). Turn the heat up, open cabinets under the sinks in the frozen bathrooms and kitchens and use ceramic heating cubes if you have them to warm up the area where the pipes are frozen. Plastic piping is considerably more tolerant of freezing than copper pipes. There is a real shot that a plastic pipe can freeze without bursting if all the connections and elbows are sound.
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.