Well water woes...
May 11, 2022 5:32 PM   Subscribe

Is my well dead? Living in the country with a 1,200 gallon concrete well built in 1994 (along with the house and connections). For the past 10 years it never seemed to fill up as much as it should, so we made due with two or three water deliveries a year. However (more inside) the well is currently draining at an alarming rate, and needs to be filled about once a month. Help!

Context: I moved in with an Eccentric Elderly Relative last year for his care. EER has lived here since the house was built in 1994. Understandably, he has not kept up with as much care on the place as he should. About ten years ago, EER turned off the indoor toilets and began flushing them with collected rainwater. This was laborious, and messy. Two months ago me and another relative got the kitchen sink fixed and turned the toilets back on, with the understanding that if we needed an extra delivery or two a year so be it. EER also used to garden a lot, but he doesn't any more.

Since then, the water level in the well itself has been dropping very quickly. We take maybe four or five quick showers a week between us. We bring in drinking water. AFAICT, the toilets are not running. There is no air in the lines. Water pressure is fine (when the well has water). No grit or sand in the house water, which AFAICT would indicate a "dead well." Water pump itself was replaced about two years ago. We live in Whatcom County, WA, and with the exception of July and August it rains a ton.

A possibility is that EER is "fixing" his own toilet by running it and flushing it more often than he has to, or playing with the sinks. That said, he'd be having to do this a lot during the night for me not to notice.

My other relative thinks the well may be cracked. It's old, but then again it's eight inches of poured concrete all around, and mostly below the waterline. IMO there's nowhere it could leak to. So maybe the water line into the house? But as mentioned, no air or grit in the water coming in.

tldr, the well is draining way faster than it should, and I think I'm doing a pretty good job of monitoring water usage. I'm a bit of a water tyrant, actually. Do we need a new well?

Thanks in advance!
posted by cidrab to Home & Garden (13 answers total)
Best answer: Is the pump running when nobody has used water recently? If not, the issue isn't a leak in your water lines.
posted by wierdo at 6:39 PM on May 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What you describe as "1200 gallon" and "poured concrete" doesn't sound like a well, it sounds like a cistern--a storage tank for what the well brings in. Depending on whether or not it was installed correctly, it may indeed be leaking. The waterline you refer to is almost certainly groundwater, and it would probably accept everything in the cistern above groundwater level if the leak occurs below the groundwater level.

Modern wells seldom or never draw from groundwater; they draw from aquifers. Groundwater is much more susceptible to fluctuations and contamination.

Another possibility, though, is that you are in fact having a problem with the well itself, and it's not keeping up with the demand, either because of pump/waterline issues or because of a receding aquifer.
posted by bricoleur at 6:44 PM on May 11, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: It is also possible that one of the toilets has a VERY slow leak. I lived in a house that had a toilet that leaked 13,000 gallons in a month, but nobody could tell that it was leaking!
posted by rockindata at 6:51 PM on May 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you bricoleur, this is definitely a concrete cistern that we're talking about, that's draining too fast, or faster than it used to, even while being pretty good about not using too much water.

wierdo, the pump isn't always running, but the water pressure is always "on" filling a holding tank in the garage.

rockindata, the toilets are original with the house. I don't "hear" them running but it could be an issue!
posted by cidrab at 7:15 PM on May 11, 2022

Best answer: The pump that pushes water from the cistern to the pressurized container in the garage isn’t the well pump. If you have an actual well that’s supposed to fill the cistern then it will have its own separate pump, which might not be working. If you don’t have an actual well with a separate pump, then what’s supposed to fill the cistern (other than a delivery truck)? Rainwater from roof gutters?
posted by jon1270 at 7:25 PM on May 11, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Perhaps you can put some dye in the toilet tanks to see if they are leaking.
posted by coberh at 7:25 PM on May 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If the cistern is filled by a well, you should be able to find the inlet pipe for the well water near the top of the cistern somewhere. Depending on the installation, you may be able to see it from the outside; otherwise, you'll have to look inside the cistern. While you have your head in there, you should also see a shutoff switch for the well pump, to shut it off when the cistern is full. The shutoff switch may be a big, obvious thing like a toilet float, or a smaller plastic unit mounted on the tank wall.

If there is no inlet, then sole source of water is, as jon1270 pointed out, the water deliveries.

One more thing: if there is a well, and it's faltering, the cistern would be acting as a settling tank and you'd never see either sand or bubbles in the house's water lines (at least, not until the sand got up to the level of the house intake).
posted by bricoleur at 7:52 PM on May 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your cistern must be being filled by a well (or something else). The average American family uses something like 300 gallons per day, so even if you are being quite sparing with your water use, your cistern would only last you ten days or so if it weren't being filled from somewhere. A few water deliveries per year aren't going to make that much difference (if they are just filing your 1200 gallon cistern).

So the cistern probably isn't the problem itself, it's that the well that is supposed to fill the cistern isn't filing it as fast as you're using the water from it.

Sounds like you need to hire someone to come have a look at your well to figure out why it isn't supplying the water you need, which could be for a variety of different reasons, some easily fixed and some not. If you can't find the well, they'll probably be able to locate it.

Low-flow toilets, shower heads, sink faucet aerators and a washing machine and dishwasher that don't use too much water will help reduce your water use, likely by a lot if everything in the house is nearly 30 years old. Most of these are a good idea anyways and will save you on water heating as well!

If you really think the cistern is leaking (though it doesn't sound like this is the case), just fill up containers for water to use for a couple days, turn off the water coming in to the house, carefully measure the water level and check if it changes over those couple days. But it really sounds like the problem here is the supply of water, not the storage of water in the cistern.
posted by ssg at 8:25 PM on May 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If it was built in 1994 I would expect a detailed plan of the water and septic to be filed with the county. That should tell you how it was meant to work.
posted by clew at 8:32 PM on May 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Right outside of the cistern is an upright plastic box with two switches inside, poorly marked. We leave them both "on." One is most likely for the pump inside the cistern sending water to the house. The other -- might be? -- the well pump, which I also leave on.

We are having someone to come out and look. Guessing after almost 30 years the main well pump (not the recently replaced cistern pump) could be the problem. There is definitely a well feeding the cistern.

Septic tank in on the other side of the house, and also needs a look.

Thank you! More advice welcome, of course!
posted by cidrab at 9:02 PM on May 11, 2022

Best answer: No grit or sand in the house water, which AFAICT would indicate a "dead well."

If the well is pumping into the cistern, and then the house water is pumped from the cistern, any grit or sand would likely settle out in the cistern, so this might not be easily apparent.

The suggestion to check what is on file with the county planning or building department is where I would start. You should also be able to find the well log (what the well driller is supposed to fill out and file) with the Department of Ecology (link), assuming the well was put in legally, which might give you some useful information.

Usually a cistern like that is only used when the well produces too little to directly supply the household (as in, the well produces only a trickle, so it runs into the cistern pretty much 24/7, and the cistern gives you a big enough supply to be able to shower and so on, then it slowly refills). So a well that was marginal in 1994 might well be even less adequate now, with lowering water tables and so on.

Lastly, if I am reading your question correctly: it sounds like the water supply used to be adequate, but that was with one occupant who was using rainwater for the toilets and the kitchen sink didn't work. Now, with two occupants, a working sink, and toilets connected to the cistern, you are running out of water. That might not be any sudden failing of the cistern or well, but just proof that the supply was never adequate and the only way it was managed in the past was by supplying the toilets from a different source. You may be in the situation of needing to find a way to increase your supply, like by digging a deeper well.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:40 PM on May 11, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If the toilets are original, I would start there. They’ve still got the giant tanks on the back. Try turning off the water to them for a week and see what that does to your water use. (Or do what we always did and put a bunch of bricks in the tank to make them low flow.)

Ask any neighbors to see if they’ve had issues - that’ll let you know if the water table has fallen and there’s just less to pull.
posted by Bottlecap at 10:50 PM on May 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cursory googling didn't find me an online repository of Whatcom permitted systems, but if you start here and explain what's up and have EER available to speak as The Property Owner I bet they will hook you up with original plans and inspections, if they have them.
posted by clew at 11:33 AM on May 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

« Older Classroom Reading Tracking/Book Sharing Software   |   Health Insurance When Leaving/Starting a Job Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.