What do you do when you turn on the faucet and there is no water?

by Brian L Published 1.16.2014

It is one of those phrases that probably strikes fear into the hearts of millions, but many others have never been concerned with. Since moving to our 168 year old house, I’ve heard it more than enough times. “There’s no water.” And while I hate to be told about it, what seems even worse is to have the water completely shut off for no apparent reason while you are actively using it. That always puts a lump in my throat. It is so easy to take running water for granted. We just open a tap, and there it is: our own personal Old Faithful. And we’ve really come to depend on it being there whenever we want it. But my wife and I have learned that the well water supply in our old home is not quite as reliable as city water.

Man staring into his shower head, frustrated

The first time we were stuck without water was before we had even fully moved into the house. We had decided to throw a family party on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend after spending the summer working on our new, old house. On the day before the party, I thought it would be nice to get our new water softener installed so we would have soft water for our visitors. No problem, I shut off the water and plumbed it in. The only mistake I made was at one point I opened the main shut off valve before everything was connected. I figured at the time, this is fine, because I had turned off the water pump and depressurized the lines before starting anyway. When I opened the valve however, I was surprised to hear air hissing through the open pipe. I thought nothing of it and continued my plumbing. Once I was done and turned on the water pump, it would run, but there was no water. I opened up the top of the pipe going down into the well and discovered it was full of nothing but air. Well, it made sense that a pump for water won’t pump air, I figured I needed to fill the pipe with water to prime the pump. The first thing that crossed my mind was that this would be a lot easier if I had running water…I got a few jugs of water from my in-laws’ house, but no matter how fast I poured it into that pipe, I could not fill it. That is when I learned about foot valves. There is a valve at the bottom of the inlet pipe within the well that allows water to come into the pipe, but does not allow water to flow back out. Fortunately, the pipe in my well is plastic, so my father-in-law and I were able to pull it up by hand. After pulling up 60+ feet of pipe, there we found the disintegrated remains of a foot valve. It was a little nerve racking trying to find a replacement on Sunday morning of a holiday weekend, but once installed, it was quite simple to fill up the pipe and prime the pump. Phew! We had water again and before company started arriving no less!

Obviously, that was not our only no-water event. In fact, every time the power goes out we have no water. But the first time the water went off unexpectedly when we were using it, we were filling the bathtub to give our infant twins a bath. One minute the water is running fine, the next minute, the room was silent. Not even a trickle was coming out of the tap. I started to wonder how we were going to wash the babies, take a shower, wash dishes, etc. When, all of a sudden, the water came back on and seemed fine. It ran without slowing at all and filled up the tub. The next day we experienced more of the same. Water then no water, then water again. I started to wonder if our well was drying up, and began cursing the ski resort that shares the hill we live atop. They must be bringing down the water table, feeding our precious water to their snow machines. But I eventually concluded that could not be the cause, because when the water comes back on, it stays on. What I eventually found when I started looking further into the issue, is a small metal adapter screwed into the pump was full of rust. Within the pump itself, the hole leading to this fitting was completely plugged with rust. This adapter has a small plastic tube that carries water to the pressure switch responsible for turning the pump on and off. The rust was so thick it was restricting water from flowing freely out of the tube and indicating to the pressure switch, that there is a low pressure condition. So the pump would not come on until the water slowly seeped its way into the tube. The adapter is made of some alloy because it does not rust, and it is screwed into the well pump which is cast iron. I recall (perhaps from a long-ago chemistry class) that dissimilar metals in contact with each other can cause a galvanic reaction, which essentially causes excessive corrosion. Since every couple of years, I have to clean out this rust to keep our water flowing steadily, but we don’t really seem to have much iron in our water, I’m confident this is the cause. One of these days, I really need to replace that adapter with a plastic one which should hopefully eliminate the galvanic action and therefore the disruptions to our water supply.

I have also discovered over the years, that although the most common well-pumps installed these days seem to be submersible pumps that are designed to be under water, our jet-pump is not one of those and does not run at all when it is under water. The first time this happened (yes it has happened a few times now), my wife had gotten up before me to take a shower. She quickly came back into the room to recite “there is no water”. Since it was a chilly December morning, I went down to the basement first to see if I could determine a cause. I didn’t really expect to find anything there, but I didn’t want to go outside through the cold and snow to the well house just yet. What I saw caught me off guard. In our basement, there is an old abandoned pipe running along one wall near the floor. I had always figured since it was no longer connected to anything, that this was a leaky or plugged pipe bringing water in from the well house that had been abandoned in place of the now plastic piping doing that duty. Well, this morning, there was water dripping out of that old pipe. Now, I had to go outside to see what was going on. When I opened the well house and removed the insulation, the only thing I could see is water. The entire foundation had filled up with water, completely submerging the well pump. So I was at the home center as soon as they opened, buying a portable sump pump I could connect to a garden hose. It took over an hour to pump out all the water. After it had emptied, I reset the breaker for the pump that had tripped and the pump started right back up again. So why did my well house fill with water? Once the pump came on, I discovered that the fiberglass pressure reserve tank had a pinhole leak in it. I had assumed at first that the sump pump within the well house had failed and that this leak filled up the foundation slowly, so I rigged up my new portable pump with an external float switch and plugged it in. That one did not work either. There was no power to the outlet it was plugged into. I checked all the breakers and they were all on except the one feeding the large room off of the kitchen where I was doing some remodeling. The breaker was labeled “Living Room” on the panel, although this room is clearly not the living room. After verifying all the electrical connections in the room were safely terminated, I turned on that “living room” breaker and the sump pump came to life. Why on earth is the sump pump connected to the same circuit that feeds what the previous owners considered the living room?? I have no idea. That is just one of the joys of older homes I guess. I have also since learned that even without a leak in the newly replaced reserve tank or anywhere else, a heavy rain or melting snow provides enough water to flood the well house when the “rigged-up” portable sump pump fails to turn on. Since this has just recently happened once again, I hope to correct this situation by installing a permanent pump this week before it gets any colder.

As I’m writing this, I see I’ve mentioned a few different things that I need to deal with at some point in the future. This brings me to another phrase heard often. Years ago, I thought I understood what people meant when they said that “with old houses you are never done, because there is always something that needs to be worked on”. Since it seems that no matter where I look at home I see something else that needs attention, it’s clear that back then I had no idea what they meant. But I now I truly understand.

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Why having a second house isn't as glamorous as I thought it would be

by Brian L Published 7.11.2012

When my wife and I bought our house in a semi-rural area, we discovered a number of things we had never dealt with before, many of which involved water. I had grown up in the suburbs. I’ve always had city water and sewers, so I never really gave too much thought to where water comes from, or where it goes after we’ve used it. It was always there. Just turn on the faucet and water comes out, whatever water ends up in the sink, goes down the drain, never to be seen again.

A photo of our well houseNow all of a sudden, we have this little structure behind our house a little larger than a doghouse. This, we were told, is the well house. It’s where our water comes from. When I opened the door, after sliding aside a few boards and some obviously mouse infested fiberglass insulation, I was surprised to see that the house sits on a deep foundation. At the bottom, about five feet down was a pump, some piping and a pressure reserve tank. My first thought after looking again at the boards and insulation is “I wonder if the pipes in here ever freeze?” We do live in northern Ohio after all, and there’s no heat in this little building. Then I started thinking about all of the other ways that our “new” water supply might not prove to be as reliable as what I’m used to. Top it all off with the realization that the water is pumped out of the ground and straight to the tap without any treatment at all and I was starting to get a little uncomfortable with this situation.

Well, it’s been almost nine years since my first encounter with the well house and I can happily report that after replacing the boards and mouse nest insulation with rigid foam, (not to mention, cleaning and painting the outside since we have to look at it everyday) the pipes have never frozen; at least not yet. I guess there’s enough heat five feet below grade to prevent that. But I can also say we have had a fair number of system failures and have also made a few other water infrastructure improvements, the details of which I can share with you in future posts. 

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