Three common problems
If you’re comfortable replacing electrical and plumbing components, you can save at least $150 on the service call as well as money on the parts. All the parts that can be replaced by a DIYer are located inside the house. You’ll need to call a pro for outside electrical, piping, pump and check-valve failures.
Most of the time you’ll find the parts you need at home centers. But home centers may not carry the highest-quality parts. If you want to get long-lasting parts, shop at a plumbing supplier.
The most common symptoms of well trouble are no water at all, pulsing water pressure and a pump that runs constantly. If you experience any of these, there’s a good chance you can solve the problem yourself.
Video: Fixing a Dead Well
Problem 1: No water at all
Photo 1: Then check the pressure switch
Photo 2: If the switch is bad, replace it
Photo 3: Temporary quick fix
First, be sure the power is on
Start by checking that the well switch located near your pressure tank hasn’t been switched off. Then check the well’s double-pole circuit breaker to see that it hasn’t tripped. If it has, reset it. A breaker that keeps tripping likely means a problem with the well pump, and you’ll need to call a pro for that.
Then check the pressure switch
(Photo 1) You’ll find the pressure switch mounted on a 1/4-in. tube near the pressure tank. It’s what senses when water pressure has dropped to the point where the pressure tank requires more water. The switch then powers up the well pump.
If the switch is bad, it won’t start the pump and you won’t have water, so testing the switch is your first step. Remove the cover and bang a screwdriver handle sharply against the tube below the switch to jar the electrical contacts. If you see a spark and the pump starts, the pressure switch is the problem. Replace it. A new switch is about $25. If there’s still no spark, you’ll have to replace the controller.
If the switch is bad, replace it
(Photo 2) If you find the pressure switch is bad, test the pressure tank to make sure it isn’t waterlogged (see ‘Problem: Pulsing Water’). To replace the switch, start by removing the wires to the old switch (be sure to label them) and unscrew the switch. Coat the tubing threads with pipe dope or Teflon tape and screw on the new switch so it sits in the same orientation. Then reconnect the wires.
Temporary quick fix
(Photo 3) If banging on the tube under the pressure switch kicked on the pump, it means the contact surfaces of the electrical contacts are pitted or burned, causing a poor connection. You can temporarily restore the surfaces to keep it going until you can buy a replacement switch.
First, turn off the power and double-check with a voltage tester. Pull the contacts open and file off the burned and pitted areas using an ordinary nail file or emery board. Replace the pressure switch as soon as possible because this fix won’t last long.
WARNING: CONFIRM THE POWER IS OFF!
Before you replace the pressure switch or file the contacts, turn off the power at the main panel and check the wires with a noncontact voltage tester.
Video: Fixing a Well Pressure Tank
If all else fails, replace the controller
Replace the pump controller
Remove the screw at the bottom of the pump control cover and lift it off the box to disconnect it. Take it to the store and buy an exact replacement. Snap the new cover onto the old box (no need to rewire if you buy the same brand). Then start the pump.
The pump controller houses a capacitor to help start the pump. Most pump controls are mounted in the house near the pressure tank, but others are mounted inside the well pump itself and the fix requires a pro. If you don’t have the box shown below, this fix isn’t for you.
There’s no way to test the controller, so you either have to risk blowing $75 by replacing a good one, or throw in the towel and call a pro. Replacing the pump controller as shown here is easy, and it’s your last, best shot at avoiding a service call. If you’ve replaced the pressure switch and the pump still won’t start, we think it’s worth the risk to replace the pump controller.
Anatomy of a well
Rural homes usually have a ‘deep well’ with a submersible pump situated at the bottom of the well casing.
Problem 2: Pulsing water
Photo 4: Test for water at the air valve
Unscrew the plastic cover from the air valve on the top of the tank. Use a small screwdriver to depress the air valve to see if water comes out.
Photo 5: Rock the tank
Push against the top of the tank to rock it slightly. If you can’t rock it or it feels top heavy, it’s bad. Drain it and replace it.
Check pressure tank
(Photo 4) When water ‘pulses’ at the spigot, it usually means you have a waterlogged tank. Replacement is your only option. A new tank costs about $200 and up. At right are two methods for diagnosing a bad tank: checking for water at the air valve and shaking the tank.
A typical pressure tank stores about 6 to 10 gallons of water inside a balloonlike bladder on the bottom half of the tank. The top portion is filled with air. As the pump fills the tank, the water compresses the air above the bladder. The compressed air is what powers water through your house when you open a faucet. When the bladder fails, water seeps into the top half, reducing the tank’s ability to force out more than 2 or 3 gallons of water. The water also rusts the tank from the inside.
These are the symptoms of a bad pressure tank:
- Water pressure in one faucet drops dramatically when someone opens another faucet or flushes a toilet—because the tank has lost its capacity to store and pressurize water.
- Water pressure fluctuates while taking a shower or filling a tub—the tank can only pressurize a few gallons of water, forcing the pump to cycle on and off.
- Water leaks onto the floor around the tank, or water starts to look rusty.
- Your electrical bill jumps for no apparent reason—because the pump has to start so many times, and frequent starting takes more power than longer run-times.
Tank replacement tips
- Buy a larger pressure tank. Frequent starts wear out well pumps, controllers and pressure switches much faster than longer runtimes. The larger the pressure tank, the fewer times your well pump must start. Since well pumps are much more expensive, the longer pump life more than offsets the higher tank cost. This is particularly good advice if your home uses more water than average (for example, you run a business with high water needs, irrigate a large area or raise animals that require large amounts of water).
- Don’t buy a tank based on price alone. Cheap tanks cost far more in the long run because of shorter bladder life and accelerated tank rust-out. Our expert swears by the Well- X-Trol brand, but it may not be available at your local home center.
Problem 3: Pump runs nonstop
When a pump turns on, you’ll hear the clicking of the pressure switch opening and closing. If you hear frequent clicking when no water is flowing, you have problems outside the house and you’ll need to hire a pro. It could be a broken water line from the well to the house (usually you’ll have a wet area between the well head and the house), a bad check valve just above the submersible pump at the bottom of the well, a bad connector leaving the well casing or even a broken water line inside the well casing. Each of those problems requires a pro.