Help with well and well pump
May 27, 2019 6:35 AM   Subscribe

We were on vacation, our cat turned on a faucet and ran our well dry, and there's been no water since then. We're back, but we have only lived here a few weeks, never had a well before, and the local pump guy hasn't returned our calls (holiday weekend). We want to know what we can try today without making matters worse, and what to do to prevent even more $$$$ damage.

Basics about the well and pump:
- It's very low flow: 1/4 GPM.
- It's ~700' deep.
- There's a pump that's probably ~50' up from the bottom.
- There's no constant pressure system in the basement.

Water status:
- When the cat sitter discovered the problem, the kitchen faucet was on the On position and no water was running. He turned the faucet to Off.
- No water has been used since then (days), so there should be plenty in the well.
- We tried testing depth by dropping in ice cubes, but just heard them drop a long, long way, with nothing we could definitively call a splash at the end. We're not sure what it would have sounded like before this problem occurred.

Pump status:
- The cat sitter initially told us that the circuit hadn't tripped.
- He tried running water the next day for a few moments, with no success.
- When we got home, the circuit WAS tripped.
- If we flip the breaker back, we do hear a hum deep in the well. So far, we've just done that for a few seconds.

So, some questions...
- Can we safely flip the breaker on and try running water for a few minutes? Or is there some chance that we haven't yet fried the pump and that that would do it?
- What else can we try today?
- Is there anything else do we need to do right now?

In particular, we have a water heater that I'd love not to damage if we haven't already. It was running and we just turned it to Standby.
- The manual says it's an A.O. Smith Voltex, and warns, "IMPORTANT: The anode protecting the tank requires power to the unit to operate. Do not shut off power to the unit for extended periods of time... [without] drain[ing] the tank completely."
- The manual also says the display would show a low water level alarm, which we don't see activated. But our toilet tank was completely empty, so I don't know why there would be water in the water heater. The manual also warns, "IMPORTANT: Do not turn on power to the water heater unless it is completely filled with water."
- Another thing it says is "If the water heater is going to be shut down for an extended period, the drain valve should be left open." (But I haven't opened it.)
So for now, can we just leave it as is, on Standby? If we do get water running, can we turn it back on or does something need to be done first?

Same with other appliances -- once water is running, anything we need to do before using them normally?

What else do we not know we don't know? If pictures would help, I can post what equipment in the basement looks like, and the well head... and I assume you'll need a photo of the cat.
posted by daisyace to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You probably need to prime the pump. Now, I don’t know exactly how you’d do that, but there’s likely some sort of plug leading down to the pump that you would open up and pour water into. You will probably have to do this a couple of times as it clears air bubbles out of the system.

Hot water heater just needs to have some water in it. You could check a hot water faucet, or the drain valve to verify. Or you could just turn it off. If it’s gas, make sure you know how to turn it back on.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:52 AM on May 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

Toilet tank won't empty itself unless someone flushed it (catsitter?) or it has a leak. Hot water heater is probably full of hot water. Turn off its power completely. Attach a hose to the drain valve to fill buckets as needed. Use the water to wash. Do not pour hot water into the toilet, it could melt the wax seal.

Old pumps needed to be primed, I had one in my basement, but I had a shallow well. Yours is a whole different thing, not sure how you'd go about priming it.

If you can manage until tomorrow without running water wait for someone who knows what they're doing. If you can't, consider spending the night at a motel or at a friend's.
posted by mareli at 7:09 AM on May 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yes, the pump most probably needs to be primed (fingers crossed that that is the only issue with it, depending on how long the water was on due to cat shenanigans). Do not try to run the water until you've gotten someone in to check the system. Sorry about the holiday weekend. This is not something you can do yourself, especially if you are not familiar with the system.

If your area is one that has a lot of wells/pumps, you might try calling around to various plumbers to see if anyone does holiday emergency service and can handle a well pump issue.

For future reference, the issue is not so much that the well ran dry - we have (or rather a neighbor has) run a well dry once or twice when we were on a shared well and the other house had a party and did lots and lots of dishes while we all were taking showers. You just need to immediately turn off the water in those circumstances so that you don't need to reprime the pump. I grew up with a well and my parents were obsessed about not running the water/pump if we lost power, or if the flow slowed to a trickle.
posted by gudrun at 8:19 AM on May 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: No, your deep submersible well pump does not need to be primed. The well will eventually recharge, and cover the pump.

Open up the electrical box on the well head, after turning off the power to it. If you are not confident about being able to do that, just wait for the well guy.

It's probably a modular unit, with a cover that has the motor starter attached to it, and blades that interface to the electricals that run down into the well, and run in from the utility service. Is there a "Pumpsaver" brand circuit board on that modular cover? If so, it is entirely possible that you have not fried your deep submersible pump: the Pumpsaver would have shut it down as soon as it pumped the well dry, if it was properly calibrated. Even better, modern pumpsavers have dataloggers in them, but I've never met anyone that has the unit that reads the data. Strange.

There's a check valve down on that deep submersible well pump, so when the well pump can no longer provide pressure, the water should become immobilized in the vertical pipe leading to the surface. These check valves can fail after a decade or so, leaving the water to drain back into the well when the pump shuts down. At 1/4 gallon per minute, 1 inch pipe will "fill up" at 73 feet per minute, so if you have to refill the entire pipe from the well pump to the surface, it will take as long as 5 minutes.

So, it's possible that no water will appear at the surface for at least 5 minutes after you start the pump.

The information that is missing is the average water level in you well. Your well behaves as a reservoir, taking up the slack, retaining as much as 400 gallons of water. Since your well is 700 feet deep, I think we can assume that your average water level is much lower than that, but I can't guess how much.

Don't restart the well unless you have a pumpsaver in that box on the well head.
posted by the Real Dan at 9:21 AM on May 27, 2019 [9 favorites]

Presuming you are in Massachusetts, read this page and PDF.

The pump test portion of the your water well completion report, and the date, would be invaluable in answering your questions and concerns.
posted by the Real Dan at 9:39 AM on May 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you want to stay home, bottled water to drink, hand sanitizer for hygiene and any old water (pond, creek or rain barrel) can see you through. Pond water can be used to flush the toilet, just fill a bucket and pour moderately forcefully into the bowl. This is not the time to be fastidious about flushing after every pee. Signed: someone who used to have the worst well in all creation.
posted by kate4914 at 11:11 AM on May 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I urge you to do two checks: one - is your pump a submersible? (do you have any literature - manual, receipt, serviceman invoice, etc giving a model number or other info); two - does the pump have 'run dry' protection? If you can tick those two boxes, you have a free pass to experiment with starting the pump and waiting to see what comes out. If it is not submersibible then yes you will probably need to prime, if there is no run dry protection you risk damage to motor/pump by operating it without knowing where the water level is.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:56 PM on May 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all! Local legend pump guy (LLPG) had, in fact, already been to the house in our absence, had flipped the circuit off and turned off the water main to let pressure recover, and showed up again not long after I posted to get us back in business. We started being able to use water again yesterday, and while we're still going a little light on it today out of once-burned wariness, it seems to be back to the status quo. It didn't cost us a cent despite his two Memorial Day weekend visits. Whew! For future reference, I'm going to try to track down our water well completion report, as the Real Dan suggests. Thanks again!
posted by daisyace at 7:00 AM on May 28, 2019 [7 favorites]

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