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.