Sunday, June 25, 2017

Speaking of Tractor Hydraulics ...

A while back I bought an old, big tractor. I already had a small landscape tractor, but I wanted to be able to dig in this rocky soil and the little one just wouldn't cut it <link>. This big guy had been poorly maintained for many years out here in the Arizona sun and has been a constant pleasure for me to mess with.

But, wait, how can a poorly maintained tractor be a pleasure? In case you haven't noticed, I like to fix things; especially things that I know little or nothing about. I get to dive in, take it apart, figure out how it works, and eventually, actually use it for whatever purpose it was intended. This tractor has been a great project machine for the last couple of years and has been running (well mostly) the entire time. It's dug holes for me, the neighbors and a friend down the road; it also moves dirt for folk that managed to get a pile of it delivered to start a garden. Fun machine.

The valves for the front loader have been leaking the entire time, but hydraulic fluid is much less expensive than the $1800 valve assembly, so I just lived with the leak until about two weeks ago. I had several choices, replace the valve, fix the valve or install a different valve. Each choice, naturally, had its own shortcomings:

If I replace it, I'd have to shell out $1800 plus shipping for a new one. There are a few used ones that show up from time to time on ebay, but who knows their history? I'd have a new valve and it wouldn't leak.

I could send it to a hydraulics shop. I called a couple of hydraulic shops and the estimates ran from $700 to $1000 with the caveat that they might have to custom machine some parts that weren't available. That, of course would drive the price up. The up side is that it wouldn't leak.

Replacing it with a different kind of valve would require some modifications to the tractor and special fittings would have to be put in place. This was the cheapest solution in raw money, but would take some plumbing and fabrication time.

I decided to pull the valve loose from the tractor and see how bad it would be working on it. The hydraulics were weird compared to other tractors of the same era and the valve assembly was a lot larger than I initially thought. I just put it back on the tractor thinking I would decide later (after a couple of quarts of hydraulic fluid) which route I would pursue.

But (there's that word again), after putting it back, the front bucket wouldn't hold position. I noticed it throwing away a pile of weeds. I put the bucket about a foot off the ground in the up position and went to get a wagon load of weeds. When I got back, the bucket had rotated down.

After rotating the bucket up again, I put the weeds in the bucket and went to get another wagon full; when I got back, the weeds were on the ground and the bucket was down again. Taking it for a test drive, I found out that I had to rotate it back up every few minutes or it would wind up facing the ground. The arms worked fine, it was just the bucket that was trouble.

My trouble shooting skills kicked in and told me that messing with the valve put it over the edge and it was time to make one of the decisions above, so I decided to rebuild it myself instead of taking it to a hydraulics shop. Yep, that was choice number four that I hadn't thought of before.

Out came the big tools and cheater bar, and about an hour later I had the valve free from the tractor. The idea was to pull it apart, replace the various o-rings and put it back. So much for plans.

Here's a top view of the valve assembly:

The two handles are for the loader lift and the bucket tilt. From the back side, it looks like this:

People familiar with tractors might notice a couple of things. There are the usual 'work' ports, two each for the loader up down and bucket rotation cylinders and an input port for the fluid. What isn't there is the output port to return the fluid back to the system. That can be explained by this picture of the mounting plate after the valve was removed:

See the hole in the middle of the picture? It's the relatively clean black spot. That's the return line; they actually fed the fluid through the mounting plate to a pipe that leads to the frame of the loader where the reservoir is. This has the advantage that it will not rot in the sun and the disadvantage of making the valve almost impossible to replace with something else. Probably wanted to ensure the sale of parts later.

Here's the valve after I got it out:

I carried it inside the garage and started taking it apart. But before I show you the guts of the thing, I want you to notice the fitting on the very lowest part of the valve body in the picture. Doesn't that look like a galvanized pipe fitting? It was. Here's another view of it while it was still on the tractor:

I knew this wasn't supposed to be there, but didn't really understand what the problems might be. Notice the wet fittings from the leak; I have to keep in mind what the actual problem was I was trying to fix.

These are the two 'spools' that are the actual moving parts inside the valve body. The cylindrical cuts in them allow hydraulic fluid to move to the inputs on the cylinders depending on where you have the control levers positioned. The galvanized fitting is right there at the bottom of the spool on the right. I hunted down a parts diagram of the valve assembly to see what was supposed to be there:

I wrapped a red rectangle around parts that were missing. What happened was that the end cap (20 on the drawing above) was taken off and probably lost. The other parts (17-19) probably went with it, so they sealed that part of the valve body with a kludge of galvanized pipe fittings. Naturally, pipe threads didn't match the threads of the valve it was a little bit too small, so someone wrapped the fitting with about three yards of teflon tape and screwed it in that way.

This was the cause of the bucket rotating down on its own. When I took the valve off the first time I probably bumped the fitting and it moved enough to cause a small fluid flow, just enough to cause the bucket to move slowly. When I messed with it the second time the already deteriorating teflon tape turned into slime and just came apart. Its that pile of stringy looking stuff in the spool picture above. Here's a closer look:

I also found my leak:

I used a flashlight to give you a better view. That hole in there is where the seal for the top of the valve should be. That little pile of black debris down below it is what was left of the seal. All the top seals were that way, brittle powder. It's actually a wonder that the leak wasn't much worse.

So, there I was. The valve had over 200 bucks worth of missing parts and a bunch of cheap seals and o-rings that needed to be replaced. Roughly a couple of weeks wait for delivery and a few hours of work.

Naturally, I decided to take a totally different approach. I ordered one of these:

This is a 24 gallon per minute, double spool valve assembly. Brand new, latest technology and a JOY STICK ! For some work in re-plumbing and mounting this, I'll have the latest in loader control. Yes, it'll cost me about $100 more to do it, but this is just another project to have fun with.

Now, I'm pacing the floor waiting for it to arrive.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

I FINALLY Got My 3D Printer

Many, many moons ago I decided that I couldn't afford a 3D printer since I don't want to make 3D printing a hobby, I just want to design and print things to use in my other hobbies.

Things like a coffee cup holder for the little tractor, enclosures of one kind or another for the various little computers around the house, custom light switch plate that has a USB plug in it for one of those double outlets, an outside enclosure that will hold an XBee; you get the idea. I've spent hours scanning the web for ideas about enclosures and there just aren't many choices, and the choices there are, frankly, suck.

I don't plan on being the worlds greatest enclosure designer, but it would be great to hide the wires and switches inside something.

But, since it would be a tool, not the focus, I couldn't see spending over a $1000 for a reasonably good printer that I wouldn't have to babysit and nudge all the time. Since I wouldn't spend the money, I decided to use credit card points to buy the printer. It took years to get enough to buy the printer ! Those points don't add up very fast.

Once I got the points, I was up to my neck in various projects around the house that were causing me to spin in circles accomplishing nothing, so I decided to force myself to finish certain projects before I was allowed to order the printer. The well repair got in the way, I also got some very heavy duty shelves for the garage, some serious repair work on the pool filter, and a big storage box for my toy hauler, but I finally finished them. A couple of days ago, the printer arrived.

I got the Flashforge Dreamer basically because of the reviews. There are certainly better ones and cheaper ones, but at some point, you have to make a decision, and good or bad, this was the choice I made. Needless to say, when the printer arrived I unboxed it right away and hunted down the test print.

I did that! Sure, it was composed by someone else, and all I did was print a file, but after literally years of postponed expectations, I finally did it. Dual extruders and different colors of filament and totally enclosed, oh my. (misquoting Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz a bit).

There's company visiting, so I don't get to spend much time messing with it, but I did create my first little box.

It's about the size of a quarter; too small to actually use for anything, but I drew it and printed it. No, darn it, it wasn't easy. I started off with FreeCAD and got totally lost in the intricacies and nit-picking of design rules. What the heck is a closed polygon anyway?

OpenSCAD is very compelling because you basically program the print. I could probably do that, but I really wanted to be able to just click on an object on the screen and move, stretch, or spin it until it looked like something I wanted to print. Lots of modelling software is geared towards creating characters for games. I'm not at all interested in the skin texture of some scantily dressed teenagers dream girl for a video game. Plus, that software is really, really complex. I want to print things, not spend weeks designing a facial scar for the burly hero of the latest version of Doom. On second thought, maybe the dream girl could be a project later.

In simple desperation I started using Tinkercad on the web. I'm not happy with it being a cloud based tool, but it will do for now. As I gain experience, I'll probably change to something else, but at least it was simple enough to get me started.

The box and lid above was done with Tinkercad. I got the box on the first try, and I based it on a box a friend of mine made me a couple of years ago. The lid, well that was another story:

The first one was too long, and I forgot a bevel. The second one was too long. the third wouldn't slide in at all, to big. etc. It took five tries to get it good enough. Now do you see why I started with a tiny box? I didn't use much filament (more is on order already) and I learned a heck of a lot. Plus, it didn't take five hours to print the thing. It's really disappointing to spend that much time and find out you missed the screw hole by 5mm.

The slide on lid is sort of the idea I want to use for my temperature sensors. Mount everything on the lid, screw the lid to the wall, and slide the box over it. Simple to mount, simple to open, and mounted to something so I don't keep knocking it off the bedside table. What else could I possibly want?

Since I've got relatives staying with me right now, I can't devote hundreds of hours to working out the details, but I can sneak in a little time now and then to play with it. It's funny they don't complain about the smell of melted ABS at all.

This area has an excessive heat warning for the next week. The local weather predicts temperatures as high as 120F (that's 48C to most of the world), so I guess I'll be inside for the afternoons.

Guess what I'll be doing.

Monday, June 12, 2017

My Well, A Parody of Problems Part 6 (Disinfecting)

Remember back in part 1 <link> I mentioned that the inspection found a bad pressure tank and coliform in the well? I've fixed the pressure tank (and a whole lot of other unexpected stuff), so now it was time to get rid of the bacteria. I wasn't in a big rush to get to this because there were no bad bacteria found, just the usual that wind up in water from time to time. Plus, we all have filters, reverse osmosis devices and water softeners in our houses. There was no real danger and not even any noticeable inconveniences. It did need to be fixed to prevent too large an infection that would clog up the filters too fast, but we weren't close to that point.

One of the things that you need to be sure of is to get chlorinated water into all the pipes that feed the house before the various filters and such. Also, the well itself needed a really high dose of chlorine to kill anything hiding inside. You don't want a high dose of chlorine in the houses, because we didn't want to move while this was happening, so I split the system into two parts.

One part was the well itself and the pipes coming up from the ground to the tank as well as the well casing going back down underground. The other part was the holding tank, pressure tank, surface pump and all the piping to the houses. My thinking was that I'd chlorinate the holding tank at a level roughly equal to what the cities use and let normal usage circulate the chlorinated water to the houses. Of course, I told the neighbors to run water through their pipes to get the chlorine up to their houses. This was mostly to lower the tank with chlorinated water so I could fill it to the brim  before I disconnected the well from the tank.

Then I would pour chlorine into the well and hook the plumbing back to the well vent so I could circulate the water to distribute the chlorine and (hopefully) splash around on the well casing itself. Our well casings are PVC, with a steel pipe around the top thirty feet to protect the PVC pipe. This is very common out here; actually I don't know of any well that isn't constructed this way. Having a PVC casing is great because I don't have to worry about rusting a steel casing by pouring chlorine down the well where I can't effectively rinse it off. The plumbing would effectively look like this:

During the process, the holding tank would be all the water we have and the well could be stirred up any time by just starting the bottom pump. There would be a high level of chlorine in the well and a lower level in the tank. Of course, the way I actually did it was a little different.

I mixed a couple of cups of chlorine into the holding tank and told the neighbors to run their water for a little while to get it up to their house. First I topped off the holding tank, then I mixed about a half gallon of swimming pool chlorine with five gallons of water and poured it through a funnel down into the well. You really should water down the raw chlorine. That heavy concentration right out of the jug can mess stuff up. I wanted to check the chlorine level of the well as well as stir up the water down there, so I made a couple of adapters for a water hose:

Yes, I got a little wild with the glue, but it was early, OK. The skinny one went on the (new) well vent:

And the other one went on the very end of the pipe that fills the holding tank:

This way I could connect from the output back to the vent and get the chlorine through all the well piping. So, I connected a hose between them:

And turned on the well bottom pump. After a seemingly very long time, the chlorine started to show up, so I let it run for about twenty minutes more and shut down the well bottom pump. To check it, I just used a pool chlorine test kit. It wasn't accurate because I exceeded its maximum, but it let me know the chlorine was circulated.

Since the holding tank was disconnected from water, the neighbors agreed to hold off on laundry, turn off automatic watering, bypass the water softeners and close the automatic fill valves on the pools. The automatic stuff should not be running during this process because we has a finite amount of water to work with. Some of those water softeners can use 700 gallons of water recharging, and a load of laundry takes a ton of water. I think they over did it a bit though because we only seemed to use about 700 gallons for all the houses and one of them have two little boys still in diapers.

Around 7:30 pm after soaking for twelve hours, I ran the well bottom pump for another 20 minutes. This was partly for fun and partly to stir it up again. Meanwhile, folk were using the water from the tank and the level was slowly dropping. It looked like the tank would be plenty of water for the houses, but I checked again around 10:00 PM to put my mind at rest. There was plenty of water in the tank.

Bright and early on the second day, I disconnected the hose from the vent side and drug it away from the well to a patch of dry ground. I turned the bottom pump back on and started flushing the chlorine out of the well. This is always scary because some wells actually go dry during this process. If you pump more water out than the well can supply, you have to shut things down, wait for the well level to rise and then continue.

That didn't happen, there was plenty of water in there to flush the chlorine level down to something reasonable. What I did was flush the well until it had the same chlorine level as the tank and then put everything back to normal. By leaving a level of chlorine that was roughly equal to city water, I could extend the time the chlorine was in the system to kill off anything hiding in a pipe connection somewhere. The chlorine would all be flushed in a few days with the only problem being that our pool chlorine level might get a little higher.

There's some things that can happen when you disinfect a well that usually aren't mentioned:

The chlorine will kill the bacteria in the pipes and well which leaves their little dead bodies in the water. If the infection is bad enough, this will clog the various filters you have around the house. The primary filter on a reverse osmosis filter may plug, the filter some refrigerators have may die, things like that. If you find you have very low water pressure somewhere, check the filter; you may have plugged it up.

Also, if you have a lot of scale in the pipe, hitting it with chlorine may cause it to release from the pipe. That plugs filters also. It can also expose the raw pipe, and if you have lead pipes, lead will dissolve into the water. This is Arizona, not Michigan, our pipes are copper, PVC or PEX, no lead to worry about. This is what happened in Flint, they got an e-coli growth and over chlorinated to clear the infection. That dissolved the scale and exposed the lead in their water pipes. A reaction between the chlorine and the lead pipes dissolved the lead into the drinking water and a major water crises developed.

They had lead pipes because it was the law. Yes, there was a regulation that the pipes from the city supply to the house had to be made from lead. And also, yes, they are replacing all of them now. Stupid rules.

Both of these mean discolored water may happen as well as a chlorine smell that well users aren't used to. It isn't a bad thing if you know it might happen, but it can be a bit annoying. We didn't have any of that happen, things went really well.

Thus, the debacle of the well is over, done, fini. I still want to make some other improvements to the system though. I want a 'too full' indicator that will tell me when the tank get too much water in it and shut off the bottom pump. This can happen if the float fails. I also want an alarm to tell me when the tank is too empty and shuts off the surface pump. This can also happen if the float fails.

It would also be really cool to monitor the pumps for when they run, and develop a feel for what should be happening. That way I might be able to develop some heuristics for predicting problems. I also would like to know the level of the well so I can get a feel for the actual water usage of the three houses. Sounds like I need a waterproof ultrasonic distance sensor for the tank and a power monitor for the incoming power. It won't take long to recognize the power usage of the two pumps, and I'll be able to keep track of the tank level so (maybe) I can predict a float failure.

No, I won't monitor the individual lines to the houses. We're in this together, and I refuse to gather any data on other family's usage. Aggregate data is OK though.

But, for now, I don't even want to see that well.

Monday, June 5, 2017

My Well, A Parody of Problems Part 5 (Discussion)

Part 1 of this project is here <link>.

A reader asked that I put up a diagram of typical well plumbing and describe how it works. The problem is that there are a lot of ways to plumb a well, so I'll describe how my well used to be plumbed and what I changed it into. You can better understand what went on, and maybe, apply it to some problem you may be involved with in the future.

Let's start off with a picture of what the plumbing used to look like:

Not shown is a pump at the bottom of the well a few hundred feet down that raises the water up to ground level. The water came in from the left and hit a tee fitting that would send water to both the well and a booster pump. The booster pump had a pressure switch attached to the output to control the maximum and minimum pressure. Next was a pressure gauge so you can control and monitor the water line pressure followed by three pressure tanks to help maintain the pressure and cut down on the booster pump cycling. Then another pressure switch, hose bib and the manifold that led out to the three houses.

Obviously, this will work since we had been using it for years. However, there are some problems. First, since the well head feeds the tank and the pump, the pump will suck water from both the well and the tank when it is on. If there's any air in there, the air will cause cavitation and give lower pressure. It could, over time, destroy the pump because there isn't enough cooling and the pump will overheat. Additionally, any sand that comes up from the well has a good chance of being picked up by the pump and sent to the houses causing problems.

Second there are two pressure switches. Each one is trying to control the pressure on the lines to the house and you have to switch back and forth between them to get the pressure set right. Since they'll age at different rates and one of them might be shaded while the other is in the sun, you can never rely on the pressure being right. These things have a spring inside to control them and heat will change the tension. In the Arizona sun, this is a problem.

So, I changed it to this:

Now the well feeds into the top of the storage tank so the water has a chance to settle out whatever debris happens to get through. The booster pump can only pump from the bottom of the storage tank which prevents any air from getting into the system. There is only one pressure switch to eliminate one failure point and make it much easier to adjust. This is a configuration that is used a lot in my area. There is another configuration that is used here, but most people change it over time to the way above. The other configuration looks like this:

No storage tank, no booster pump and less parts to fail. Of course the disadvantage is that everything relies on the well bottom pump. The heavy cycling of the pump causes it to fail more often and those things are expensive. But, this configuration will save several thousand dollars initially and the other stuff can be added when money isn't as tight.

I hope this answers any questions the last well post may have left.

The other notable (at least to me) thing is that the well was inspected twice in the last few months. One inspection passed it with flying colors and the second one found the bad pressure tank. I don't attribute the inspection with finding the coliform infection, that was a lab in town that a water sample was sent to. Neither inspection looked at the wiring; they looked at the conduit, and ran the well, but they didn't actually check anything to see if there was a problem brewing. Sure, they have disclosures that say they don't open things to look inside, but would you buy a refrigerator without opening the door? It runs, and doesn't make any weird noises, so it must be good ... right?

Never trust those inspections, go look for yourself. Read a little, look up common problems on the web, decide for yourself. Sure, you may find something wrong, but at least it could be a bargaining point.

I still haven't disinfected the well, but everything is all set up for it. I'm trying right now to coordinate a date for that since it will mean turning off the well bottom pump overnight. One of the folk is pretty ill and the other family has little kids. Tough to coordinate.

I'll describe that part of this project in the next well post.

Friday, June 2, 2017

My Well, A Parody of Problems Part 4 (Plumbing)

Now, I'm going to talk about the plumbing on the well. Let's start off with something that was simply annoying. Every well needs a vent; you have to let some air in when you take the water out. Around here, it's a simple curved pipe with a screen on the end of it that screws into the well head. Here's a picture of the one that used to be on my well:

To get it off and have access to pour disinfectant into the well, I had to unscrew this thing. Notice what happens when you turn it counter clockwise to remove it? Yes, it slams into the well controller and won't go any further. I could remove the well controller and run the risk of losing the bottom pump wiring down the well, or cut the darn vent pipe. I went and got the reciprocating saw and cut it in half. Terrible waste of a $20 piece of specialized pipe, but I wasn't willing to pull the controller.

When I replaced it I just used some PVC pipe shaped into an inverted 'J' with a hose screen stuffed into the end.

Notice I made it plenty long enough to get off, I also put threaded fittings in the middle so I can unscrew the top and stick in a funnel for pouring disinfectant down the well. I wanted to put a faucet on the well head as well so I could pump disinfectant in a circle through the well and the perfect place to put it was to remove the pipe plug at the location labeled 'A' in the picture below:

But, of course, the pipe plug had merged at the atomic level with the tee fitting below it. I had a 36 inch pipe wrench in there and couldn't get it to budge. The problem with a wrench that large is the risk of actually breaking a pipe. I really, really didn't want to break a pipe, so I opted to change out the fitting at location B with a tee and put the faucet there. It worked out pretty nicely:

I used a union to connect the new fittings to the old pipe because you never know when you might have to service something here and I didn't want to have to dig it out at some really inconvenient time. Also, it's too tempting for someone that wants to hook up to the water to use that faucet for a hose which will let air into the system when the bottom pump isn't on. Also, if there isn't any water there because the bottom pump isn't on, they might start messing with stuff to get water. I really didn't want that, so I replaced the faucet with a piece of pipe for day to day use. If I want to use the faucet, I just unscrew the pipe and put the faucet in place.

Those two items were done now, so I turned the system on and immediately ran into problems. The pump was cavitating which means that it was sucking air somewhere. I tried the trick of Saran Wrap around the various fittings to try and find the leak and couldn't; it must be sucking air somewhere. Maybe the underground pipe got messed up somehow.

I went and got a shovel and started digging along the pipe that leads from the well head to the tank and found this:

Well, not exactly this. It wasn't cut and plugged when I found it. Someone had taken the easy way out again and just used a tee to connect to the bottom tank pipe to get the water from the well into the tank. That meant that the surface pump would suck from the well anytime the well pump happened to be on at the same time. That presents problems because it could suck air from the well, not the tank. It would also mean that the water from the well wouldn't have time to settle and sand could be shoved out the lines to the houses plugging things up.

Not only that, notice the concrete around the base of the elbow fitting? The pipes had been put in before the wall was built and they had covered the pipes with concrete. Since there was no 110 VAC at the well, I couldn't use my jack hammer, so I used a hammer and chisel to break up the concrete to expose enough of the fittings to work with. This picture is after I had removed the concrete and separated the line to the bottom of the tank from the well head.

Remember, this is our source of water and the surface jet pump was cavitating this whole time. I didn't stop to take pictures of the mess at first. After I plugged the tee fitting off, the surface pump forced the air out of the house line and stopped having trouble. The houses had water, albeit only as much as was in the tank since the open pipe led to the well. I was stuck finishing the job to get us back in service; no time to throw a fit and storm around. that would have to wait 'til later.

In retrospect, I should have realized there was a problem here. There was no pipe going into the holding tank at the top fitting. Remember this picture from a previous post:

It pretty obvious that there should have been a pipe going into the tank right where the white pipe plug is. There's even a pipe to direct the water down into the well.

I started digging a trench over to the well and kept hitting the pipe that led to the bottom of the tank, so it was a shallow trench. I don't feel a bit guilty about only digging a shallow trench; I was fighting what was already there. I got the trench in and installed a couple of 45 degree fittings:

Then I completed the water run over the existing tank top fitting to get the well head connected to the tank where it should have been for the last many years.

I turned on the well pump (actually, I twisted a couple of wires together) and gritted my teeth just in case, but it worked fine. The water came up, went through  the new pipe, and filled the tank. Everything was working again and water was restored. This time a bit more correctly than it had been in years.

Now, there was time to throw a fit and storm around. I took out my frustration of someone screwing up this simple step and covering it with concrete on the loose dirt as I put it back in the trench. It raised quite the dust cloud.

Notice that the ground is dry? After the first day of dealing with a muddy mess, I realized that hooking a water hose to the system allowed me to run the water without having it puddle up right where I was working. I could also stick the hose in the top of the well and save the water. I never had problems with leaks in the various pipes, I may have finally gained enough skill to join pipes correctly the first time, or maybe I just got lucky.

Probably should put some stepping stones over the barely covered pipes though.

End of part 4.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

My Well, A Parody of Problems Part 3 (Wiring)

Part 1 of this series is here <link>

Now that I had the float setup, it was time to attack the rest of the wiring on the pump. Let's start off with a picture:

The connection box A is where the float connects at the left hand side, on the right is 220 VAC coming in from the main panel, and both go down the bottom conduit over to the pump controller box labeled B. The connection to the bottom pump is inside the controller box where the yellow wires are. Then there is a conduit to a box that is attached to two pipes coming out of the concrete labeled C. This piece of flexible weatherproof conduit literally bends around the well vent pipe and was actually crushed. I'll talk more about that vent pipe when I get to the plumbing fiasco. From box C a conduit runs to a pressure switch labeled D, continues through the switch to ANOTHER pressure switch on the lower right.

The pump controller (B in the picture above) is a pretty normal pump controller that has the start and run circuitry for the bottom pump. This is a normal configuration since you don't want the capacitors or relay several hundred feet below ground when they fail. Here's a down view of the controller circuitry:

Notice the the lamp cord actually travels into the controller on the lower end. When I had everything open, it was a bit frustrating because the main source of 220 for the bottom pump was carried through those wires. Motors don't like big voltage drops across the wiring, it tends to make them run hot.

The box labeled C above was a mystery. It had unterminated wires coming in from the bottom and a 220 pair from the controller that was wired around to the
first pressure switch.

After checking with the neighbors and reviewing the history of our houses, it turns out that those wires were from the original house on the land. There was only one house and the wires went up to the main panel on the house. There was no need for the wiring any longer, but it was still connected at that house. Someone just used the conduit path through the box for wires because it was too much work to move the conduit. Notice the cover on the lower right. This cover used to be on the box held carefully in place with duct tape that had rotted in the sun. There were no outlets under the cover even though there were outlet lids on the cover.

This has a bit of history to it. Once upon a time, when my house was being built, the contractors would sneak an extension cord down to the well and plug into an outlet that was in this box. The folk paying the bill got tired of that and removed the outlet. I guess they lost the screws and just grabbed some duct tape to hold things in place. Inside the box, on one of the active connections, I found this:

Yep, the wires had gotten hot. I pulled on the wires and one of the fell out. Let this be a lesson to you, make darn sure the wire nuts actually connect to all the wires. Eventually this would have arced enough to fail and I would have been out there, in the dark, probably when it was either super hot or raining, fixing this stupid connection. It wouldn't have caused a fire unless the dried and crumbling duct tape happened to catch. Just an annoyance.

Now, about the pressure switches. Notice I used the plural. There were two pressure switches in series on the system. One was attached to the surface pump and the other was fed water pressure by the house supply line. Why two? Isn't it obvious? The pumps often come with a pressure switch attached, but since the system already had one reading the house supply line, and it was too hard to remove one of them, they wired them in series. Jerks.

I call them jerks because the switch attached to the pump was completely burned out and wired together inside:

If you look closely you'll notice that one terminal set for the wiring is completely gone and the wires have been hooked together under the screws. When the extra pressure switch failed, they just used it as a connection point for the wiring. I actually remember when this happened. A random ant got into the switch and was crushed by the contacts. That left the smell of crushed, cooked ant for other ants to follow. The switch was filled with ants looking around, and in short order more of them got killed by the action of the switch. The formic acid in the ants ate the contacts and serious arcing destroyed the internals of the switch.

Yes, the guy in charge of the well called out a repairman, but the repairman took the easy way out. To actually remove that switch I had to clamp off the water feed tube (that black tube on the left of the pump), and put in a 1/4 inch pipe plug. How many of us have a 1/4 inch pipe plug in our junk box out in the garage? That was another trip to Home Depot; I'd already been there for a box to contain the connections that would replace the extra pressure switch.

Over a few days, I rewired almost every connection. I ran in a 110 VAC pair to power outlets for tools, took the conduit with the kink completely out, rerouted the wiring for the pressure switch (singular now) and put in new electrical boxes to handle all of it. Towards the end of the project I got a neighbor down to help pulling wires and another one came over to see what was going on and got enlisted to help. I made all the major connections in a box I put on the wall and ran 220 wire pairs down to the controller. Every single box has a ground leading back to the panel, something that was in short supply before. I also put in two 220 VAC switches to control the two pumps. This is a really nice feature when you need to work on part of the well. It was really nice having a couple of extra sets of hands during that part of the project.

For example, here's the electrical box I replaced the failed pressure switch with:

Over on the left is the box that is wired to one of the houses. It's closed off and labeled. I wrapped metal tape around the top of it because I didn't trust the seal on the box; a little extra sealing is never a bad thing out in the weather. Also, notice that there are a lot less conduits with circular wiring. In the top center is the pressure switch that runs the surface pump. It must have been a real problem trying to set the water pressure back when both pressure switches were active. One would interfere with the other and you wouldn't be able to tell which one was causing problems. Now, setting the single switch is simple.

Of course, I wasn't just working on the electrical, during this process I was also attacking some pretty serious screw ups in the plumbing.

That's in the next post.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

My Well, A Parody of Problems Part 2 (Holding tank)

Part 1 to this project is here <link>

In part one I talked about replacing one of my well pressure tanks and discovering that there were some other problems that needed fixing. This is the continuation. I'm certain that the things wrong were not the result of incompetence, instead they are the result of having to fix something that HAS to be working. Often, we kludge something together to get it working, and then never get back to straightening out the problem completely. For example, right this second my Jeep has stop leak in the coolant. It was too hot to take apart and fix. I promise I'll get to it someday ...

One of the first things I noticed was that the holding tank float was set too low in the tank. This is usually an easy problem to fix, just take the top off the holding tank and pull the float up a little. You may have to adjust the weight or support of the float, but that's easy. It does take a little time though to get it right and you may be walking back and forth from the well over several days getting to the satisfactory setting. OR, wasting a bunch of  water dumping and refilling the tank. Not a very good solution.

I opened the tank up and took a close look at the float. First thing I noticed was that the wire on the float was taped. What? Why would anyone tape a wire that was suspended in water and carried 220 VAC through it? I was really careful with it and followed the wire to a piece of conduit that came through the side of the tank.

Think about this a minute, there was no box to connect the float, the wire from it ran directly into conduit. Following the conduit it led to a box on the wall surrounding the well. I opened the box and didn't see the wire from the float, instead there was a piece of 18 gauge stranded double cord in there. That's exactly the same wire that your bedside lamp would use. Hardly the right wire for a float switch that carries 10 amps of 220 VAC around a well.

OK, I admit it, I was a bit angry, so I ripped the conduit out of the ground, disconnected it from the holding tank and it broke in my hand. This is flexible conduit designed for wet conditions, it shouldn't break. Here's some pictures to help you understand:

This is the (supposedly flexible) conduit. Notice that it snapped in half in two places. Didn't take much force, I'm a little skinny guy.

This is looking down into one of the breaks. What I intended to do was pull the wire out and see what was going on; I couldn't. The wire had burned and the inside of the conduit was destroyed.

This is the other end of the wire. Notice the tiny lamp cord that is coming out the other end of the conduit?

What a mess. I took the entire conduit out, and once again, headed off to Home Depot for parts. After I got back, I installed a new conduit, put a box on the side of the well for connecting the float, and fished new wire from the origin to the box. Here's what the box on the tank looks like:

Sorry, the conduit was already buried when I took this picture. Let's look a little more closely at the float now.

The gray cylinder at the end of the wire is the actual float switch, the other cylinder at the right is the weight that holds it down in the water. Notice the shiny part of the wire near the center of the picture? That's electrical tape that hooks a replacement float to the old wire.

See, the problem is that no one was able to pull the wire out of the conduit, so they took the easy way out; they cut the wire and spliced in a new float. I'm not sure how long this has been going on, but the float has failed twice since I've been out here. No, I wasn't in charge of the well back then. Remember, this float switch carries 1.5 horsepower worth of current at 220 VAC; not a safe situation. I have to give credit to the last person that worked on this though. The tape has held up well and didn't leak. That person was good with tape.

Now, when you replace the float, you do it inside the box and wind up a little slack in there also in case you have to do some adjustments in the future.

The way this works is the weight holds the float at some level inside the well. When the water is low, the float hangs down a closes a switch inside to turn on the well bottom pump. As the pump fills the holding tank, the float rises and at some point, determined by the position of the weight, the float tilts and turns off the current. A very simple circuit that is used in wells all over the world. The water is drawn from the tank at the bottom by a jet pump on the surface and sent to the houses it serves. We'll get to the problems I had with that in a future post.

I still haven't replaced the float. I had to order it because it was much, much cheaper online than out in town. Also, the one that was in there was only for a single horsepower. That may be the reason the floats have failed in the past; they were under rated. Only time will tell, these things may fail faster than the other parts of the well.

Yes, I'm very, very careful with the float; water could get through the tape at any time, especially with me dragging it in and out of the well. No, I didn't open up the conduit to find the splice inside where it went from the float cord to the lamp cord. It just wasn't worth the time to hunt it down. Actually, to prevent my curiosity causing me to waste a bunch of time finding it, I threw the conduit away. I'm a little OCD about this kind of stuff and would have been cutting on the conduit for hours with a Dremel tool.

End of part two.

Monday, May 29, 2017

My Well, A Parody of Problems Part 1 (Pressure tank)

I've mentioned a few times that I live in a desert foothill region north of Phoenix, AZ, and I have a water well. Actually, I share the well with two neighbors. Recently we had a well inspection and two things turned up, one of the pressure tanks was 'waterlogged' and there was coliform in the water. Neither of these are earth shattering, just replace the pressure tank and treat the well and get on with life.

But ...

Man I hate it that every thing I get into has a 'but' in there somewhere. I went down to double check the fact that one of the pressure tanks had failed and used the technique that the inspector had used, tap on the side to see where the water level is. Frankly, that's crap. Tapping on the side sounded exactly the same to me at the top bottom and middle of the tank. Actually, all the tanks sounded the same at the top bottom and middle. I got on the phone and called a few companies that service wells to both, check the price of replacement and find out how to test the tank to see if it was bad.

Let's look at what a well pressure tank is. This is what they look like:

This is from Home Depot and appears a little shorter than it actually is. This thing has plumbing fittings on the bottom and a shrader valve on the top. Inside it has a rubber diaphragm designed to hold air above and water below. The idea is that you pressurize the top with air, and incoming water at the bottom will compress the air and give you a water pressure reserve to keep your pump from having to respond every time you rinse something off. Inside, it looks something like this:

Up on the top, under a black plastic cover is the schrader valve; that's where you check the air pressure. Since the inspector said the tank was waterlogged, if I pushed the little pin inside the schrader valve, I should get water out ... right?

No water came out of any tank and the air pressure read about the same as the water pressure on our water pressure gauge, 30 pounds. I didn't have any idea if a tank was bad or if the inspector was wrong. When I brought this up with one of the well contractors, he told me you have to turn off the water and check it, and that makes sense, but to drain the water from three pressure tanks not only makes a huge mess of mud to deal with, but also takes fifteen minutes or so.

I just gritted my teeth, turned the power to the system off and opened the faucet in the line and let the water drain. I got tired of waiting, pulled one of the pipes loose to hasten the process, and got drenched like everyone else that does this kind of thing, but finally I had the system at zero pounds. Now, check the air pressure on the three tanks, 28 pounds, 26 pounds, 0 pounds. Yep, one of the pressure tanks was bad; it has a hole in the bladder and won't hold air.

The inspector had said that his company could replace the pressure tank for $700, so I called a couple of other companies in the area and they all estimated about the same price for doing the work. Being a cheap sucker, I started pricing the tanks to see if it would save me money to replace it myself. A little while later I pulled up beside the well with a new pressure tank strapped on my trailer ready to do some plumbing. The pressure tank cost me less than $380 (taxes and all) at the local Home Depot.

It took some doing and a 36 inch pipe wrench backed up by a 24 inch pipe wrench to get the old tank out. This is one inch galvanized pipe with unions at each tank to make replacement somewhat easier, so it's tough to work with. Of course, putting the new one in was much easier since teflon tape makes the fittings go together pretty easily, but there were two more trips to Home Depot because you never, ever get the right fittings the first time. Things like the new pressure tank was a little wider than the old one, a galvanized elbow was rusted solid and I couldn't get it loose at all, the usual things that crop up when working with plumbing. This is why plumbers have bin after bin of fittings on their truck; you never know what you need until you start the job.

The new tank's installed, but now I have to check the air pressure on it. This is one of those things that the web will mislead you on. Most of the posts on this say to set the pressure on the tank a couple of pounds less than the water pressure is set for. Fine, what the heck is the water set for? I didn't check it closely enough to be able to estimate two pounds less; I just looked for the pressure to go up a ways, not exactly what the pressure was. Also, one of the gauges is a water pressure gauge, the other is an air pressure gauge, and those things are usually accurate to around 10%. At roughly sixty pounds, the inaccuracy could be as much as 12 pounds off between the two of them.

How the heck do you set the air pressure at 2 pounds less than something that can vary that much? Back on the phone, the most friendly well serviceman laughed out loud at me. "Set it for 28 pounds," was his answer. Seems he went through the same process back when he was starting out and experimented until he got a number that works well in most circumstances, 28 pounds. I set the air pressure at 28 pounds and cranked the system up.

Here's the new tank installed:

And, the old tank:

(The plan for the old tank is to use my plasma cutter, cut the tank in two, make a fire pit out of the bottom and a bell out of the top. No one realizes that it will be a HUGE wind chime someday. Don't tell the neighbors.)

No leaks, surface pump ran until the water pressure reached 60 pounds and shut off. Wow, I fixed the well and saved us close to $350. I wanted to be sure that everything else was OK though so I decided to cycle the system a bit and opened the various electrical boxes to see how to control the equipment.

There was a total mess of marginal and downright wrong connections, old wiring that was loose, and circuitry that circled back on itself for no apparent reason. There were even things that should have been power sockets, that had nothing under them and wires that were hot that didn't seem to go anywhere on the pump system and came from somewhere other than the main panel from the pump.

Crap ... this needed to be fixed. Over the years, various people had done repair work to the well as things failed, and apparently, they did the very least they had to do to get it working and never got back to fix it right. This just compounded the possible problems over time until I had a mess to fix for the community well.

Fine, lets fix the darn thing.

End of part 1.