It’s a bad feeling.
You’re cruising along some back roads on the outskirts of town (going the speed limit, of course), enjoying a beautiful day, when you hear it. A low rumble, almost imperceptible at first, that makes you wonder if you’re hearing things. Soon enough, it’s definitely there and the disjointed rhythm makes it clear- the engine that has quietly chugged along for years is in a bad way. You make your way to the shoulder, and just as you come to a stop, the car dies.
A week later the mechanic calls and asks if you’re sitting down. He says that your beloved car needs serious engine work, and its not gonna be cheap. It turns out that car engines don’t like to run without oil, and yours has been bone dry for too long. As if to add insult to injury, he lays some hind-sighted advice on you that we’ve all heard before.
A little preventative maintenance goes a long way.
Under the hood of your car is a complex system that can be easy to forget about in the course of your daily commute. Similarly, there is a system under your lawn, leading up to your basement or crawl space, that pushes water from hundreds of feet under ground all the way into your plumbing. You probably don’t think about it when water flows from the faucet when you’re doing the dishes or washing up, but it takes a lot of moving parts to get it there.
Just as your furnace or boiler requires an annual cleaning, an annual check up should be done on your well system to keep things running smoothly. You can start your check up by determining if the pressure switch is set to the correct cut-in and cut-off pressure. The cut-in pressure setting is the point at which the pressure switch sends power to the pump to turn it on, and likewise the cut-off determines how much the pump pressurizes the system before it shuts off. To set the pressure switch, turn on a faucet so that the pump can cycle and watch the pressure gauge while the water is running. On a 40/60 switch the pump starts when the pressure drops to 40 PSI and stops when the pressure reaches 60 PSI; you can find the factory setting for your switch under the cap. If the action of the needle on the pressure gauge doesn’t mirror the factory setting, it may require adjustment. Even with new switches adjustment is often required, so if it’s a little out, it’s usually not cause for concern.
Adjustments can be done with a 3/8” nut driver on most switches, and the cap will
indicate that one nut moves both cut-in and cut-off pressure while the other adjusts only cut-off. Adjustments must be made while the pump is running, so if you don’t feel comfortable working close to live electricity, call a professional. To be clear, you can electrocute yourself by crossing the leads of a live pressure switch, so if you’re not comfortable, DON’T DO IT.
While you’re at the pressure switch, you can also check for leaks in the plumbing system by shutting off all the water in the house and watching the pressure gauge. If the needle on the gauge drops, you may have a leaky toilet. If the gauge dips down below the cut in pressure when the pump kicks on, there may be a faulty check valve or a leak upstream of the tank.
After checking for leaks, its a good time to check the air pressure in the expansion tank, which should be 2 PSI below the cut-in pressure. The air pressure has to be checked when there is no water pressure in the system, so start by turning off the breaker to your pump and open some faucets until water stops coming out. You can now use a tire pressure gauge to test the schrader valve at the top of the expansion tank. If the air pressure is low its probably time to replace the tank. Its possible to add air to the tank but it may not recommended by the manufacturer (Amtrol doesn’t recommend this). Alternatively, if the tank feels heavy with no water pressure in the system it is likely waterlogged.
Now that you’ve finished up inside you can inspect the well head area. Many people like to hide the well head with plants, shrubs or trees, but these natural coverings can make a perfect home for insects and other critters. If you find that the pesky bugs are trying to get into your well, you can purchase a vermin proof well cap such as the Royer watertight well cap through various online retailers. We have also seen people try to camouflage the well by planting trees around it, but be warned – if maintenance such as cleaning or pump replacement is ever required on the well a tree can be a major obstacle for the person servicing the well. An inaccessible well can drive up the cost when it’s time to replace the pump.
Finally! You’ve finished inspecting the mechanical functionality of your water system, but what about the water itself? To finalize your check-up, an annual water test and chlorination is in order. The best time to chlorinate your well is in the evening when the water in the well has been drawn down by normal usage. Let the chlorine sit in the well over night and you can flush it out in the morning. When flushing your well consider the recovery rate of your well (you can find this information on the inside of your well cap). Some wells can be pumped continually without running out of water, while others need time to recover in between periods of flushing. Wells equipped with pump protection
devices will shut off the pump automatically if the water level drops below the pump. For a full guide on chlorination, please refer to our How do I chlorinate my well?
After you’ve flushed your well and there are no trace odors of chlorine, it is time to test your well. The test will be the most accurate if the water doesn’t flow through your household plumbing first, so the best place to collect your water is at the spigot on the expansion tank tee. This spigot is under high pressure so make sure to open it slowly and not all the way, with your test container surrounding the spigot outlet. If there is no spigot on your tank tee, use the first faucet or spigot in your plumbing after the tank. The Maine CDC recommends the following guidelines for testing your well:
The Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states: Many Maine wells have too much Arsenic, Radon and Uranium. They recommend a yearly test for Bacteria, Nitrates and Nitrites and recommend a test for Arsenic, Uranium, Radon, First Draw Lead and Fluoride every 3 to 5 years.
Also, the Maine State Housing Authority administers an Arsenic Abatement Program for income eligible, single-family homeowners and income eligible landlords for dwellings with four rental units or less. For additional information about this program, including how to apply please go to: www.mainehousing.org/arsenic
For more information about water testing, fees and reputable labs please visit http://www.informe.org/hetl/