Wednesday, January 21, 2015

DIY Well Pump Replacement

January 20, 2015

Home ownership is not for the faint of heart.

Here’s what Denny and I were doing Monday morning:

Gorgeous, sunny, spring-like day. Missouri winters are my kind of winters, sometimes bringing the snow I love, but also offering stretches of beautiful mild days. Den and I had decided it was a good day to salvage some old cedar fencing and repurpose it into shelving inside the house. We’d just finished stage one and were inside taking measurements when my seven year old announced that no water was coming out of the tap when he turned it on. While Denny checked the other faucets, my brain went into troubleshooting mode:

Pipes frozen? No way. It is January, but like 60°F outside.

Power out? Glance over at the fish aquarium, see the light still on. Not a power outage.

One of the kids messing with the main shut-off located in the bathroom? Doubt it. Even the kids are wary of the area behind the toilet.

Fuse in the box in the well-house? Let’s find out, shall we? A moment later we’re walking down the hill to the well pump house, a dark, dank, cobwebby place with a configuration of electricity and plumbing that I have, for the most part, managed to avoid familiarizing myself with for the eight years I’ve lived here. I was only partially sure I knew which was the pressure tank and which the pump itself…

We opened the door and were immediately met with a burnt smell, recognizable as something mechanical gone horribly wrong. After knocking down some cobwebs, with Denny rigging up a light, I checked the ancient fuse box. All was well. Hmm. I turned an ignorant eye to the plumbing. What next?

Call Mom and Dad. Duh.

I’m thirty-four years old and still call on my parents in times of need because, frankly, they are the most experienced and knowledgeable people I know when it comes to practical things around the house, farm, or automobile. They live half an hour away and Dad often comes over to give us a hand with such things. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to come over this time because he and Mom are halfway to Florida on vacation. Damn the luck.

Oh well, maybe they can help over the phone. I leave a message.

Meanwhile, back in the house… 

Yeah, this was the pile of dishes awaiting washing at our sink. We generally let breakfast and lunch dishes pile up and the kids take turns washing them after lunch. Of course, it would be a heavy dish day.

Denny is starting to stress a bit. For some reason, I don’t stress over these situations. I might even like them. Sick, right? I know. I mean, knowing it’s going to cost us gobs of money that we don’t have bothers me as much as it bothers Denny, but worrying about it doesn't change that. It is what it is and I often sort of shine in emergency, make-it-do sort of situations. Not that I have a pocketful of DIY skills or any such thing. I’ve patience and perseverance and I like to think I exude a calmness that helps everyone else stay calm; that makes me feel good. (I save my stress for daily, run-of-the mill things.) But you know what I think it really is? I'm able to focus for a change.

All day, every day, so many things clamor for my attention. I juggle them all, sometimes more efficiently than other times, but it’s often difficult to know where to focus my attention. The kids' schoolwork? Writing? Book promotion? Building friendships? Cleaning? Can I relax now? Nope, meals need preparing. You get the idea. But then something like this happens and bam! There’s one thing and it needs doing now. Everything else has to wait and I don’t have to feel guilty about that. I’m not sure I’m ever quite as happy as when I’m elbows deep in a project that takes my entire focus. It’s like a bloody vacation for me. (I inherited this particular illness from my parents.)

All that said, Denny did very well at not freaking out. We ended up calling a professional and arranging for him to come out the next morning because, as much as I like to do whatever I can myself, I thought I’d be in way over my head here and Denny is a self-professing whatever-is-opposite-of-a-handyman and abhors mechanical sorts of issues. (Lucky for him he’s good-looking and genius at everything else.)

My parents got back with me a short while later. My Dad walked me through some basic troubleshooting. He’s so patient. I eventually figured out what the pressure switch was and how it worked. Would you believe my nerdy mother even had, on her laptop, with her in a Winnebago at a rest stop in Louisiana, a photograph of my well house, pump and all? Believe it. Dad was able to look at that and guide me accurately.

Unplug the pump. File the points with an emery board. Plug it back in. Nada. The motor housing was hot to the touch and I don’t know much about pumps, but I was beginning to see there’s not that much to this system, not much that can go wrong. It’s likely frozen up. But the idea of trying to pull it myself and replace it… nah. And what if it’s something else? I’m still a little daunted and like the idea of having a pro evaluate it and do the work. Later Mom sent me a link to an inexpensive pump on Amazon that should do the trick and maybe I could have someone help install it? But I’m drawing a blank; I can't think of anyone right off who is familiar enough with plumbing. We decide to wait on the professional.

Now, about water. Just for such an occasion, I have a five-gallon container of drinking water stored in the back of the pantry. Water is one area it really pays to be prepared. That should last us two to three days, depending upon how much we use for cooking. Also, there’s two gallons of clean water in a pot on the wood stove. Fortunately and unfortunately, it’s been warm enough to go without a fire, so the water isn’t hot (which reminds us to go up and turn off the water heater, just because). A quick search turned up three empty five-gallon mud buckets. Denny and I head to the creek.

I admit, I found the situation somewhat romantic. I wouldn’t want to have to do it all the time, but there’s something I find deeply satisfying about taking care of our basic needs in a rather primitive fashion. Thank the Invisible Pink Unicorn that the weather was forecast to be mild for the next few days. It’s nice to be out. Especially when you have this to look at:

Tucker Creek Shut-Ins
Who’s complaining?

(Note the three children climbing around in shorts and t-shirts.)

One bucket goes in the bathroom for flushing the toilet. The rest goes in the kitchen for dishes. Den and I quickly figure out a system for washing the dishes, with water heated on our gas cook stove, a few drops of bleach added for bacteria, and so decide to excuse the children for the day and take the chore upon ourselves. Something about listening to tunes and washing dishes with this man really turns me on…


The following morning we kindled a fire in the wood stove and set on a pot of water to warm for dish washing. We had a bumpy start talking about finances, I confess--we're as human as the rest of you-- and I was a little out of sorts when the plumber arrived. He was an odd man, quickly deciding the pump was bound up and told us he wouldn't be able to get to it for a few days. Said he'd check on a pump. We asked how much the pump would cost and were shocked to discover it’s almost twice the cost of the one my mom had found online. Yeah, you often get what you pay for, but the reviews on the online pump were decent and this guy has no reason to shop around for a better deal than whatever he usually buys. He doesn’t even give us an estimate on the labor before he’s in his truck and pulling away, saying he'll call us.

Back on the phone with Mom and Dad, trying to decide if we should get the cheaper pump and find someone to help with it. I return to the well house and take a closer look at what I would have to do to get the old pump out. Now that it’s been confirmed what the trouble is, I’m a little more confident. That, and I’m getting used to this space. A little cleaning and some paint and it could be my new office. Not.

Now I see where I would have to disconnect the pump—different from my impression the day before—and there were only hose clamps holding the black ABS pipe pieces onto the fittings. Well heck, that shouldn’t be too hard. And it had to come off anyway, so it’s not going to hurt to try it. I had Mom order the pump for me. (She has Amazon Prime and can have it overnighted. She’s fancy like that.)

Back to the house. I was starting to feel pretty good. My grit was kicking in. No, not my grits, my grit; my determination, my courage, my resolve. I admit to being partially driven by the fiscal meeting that morning and was thinking; if I can save my family a few hundred dollars, it’s almost the same as earning it, right? By gum, I’m going to do it!

In the bedroom I changed into work clothes and put my hair back. I felt like I was getting my armor on, heading into battle. I thought about war paint, but decided to forgo it this time. There may or may not have been Rocky theme music playing.

(Sorry, OCD people, for not fixing my collar.)

I grabbed a couple of tools and told Denny what I was going to attempt. I watched his face light up. I rather lit up myself when he turned to one of the kids he was helping with schoolwork and said with pride and awe in his voice, “Your mom is awesome."

I mustn’t fail. They are counting on me.

My dad’s last bit of advice was to use a hair dryer on the ABS to soften it. The man’s a genius, I tell you.  Every homeowner, homesteader, and handy-person should have a hair dryer. I always end up using my hair dryer for these sorts of things and I can count on two hands the times in my life I have actually used it on my hair. Oddly, I still keep it in the bathroom drawer instead of with the other tools.

softening the ABS with hair dryer
When I'd loosened the hose clamps I'd realized there was still a good bit of water in the lines, so I'd grabbed two clean pots from the house and set them up to catch the water. Waste not, want not. 

Had to wait about ten minutes for that to drain out of the spigot on the outside of the well house. The hair dryer worked a charm on the first pipe. More water. More waiting. Finally, I got busy on the other two pipes that needed disconnecting. I wrestled with that forty pound pump for about fifteen minutes, pulling and twisting and prying, my fiery resolve cooling considerably as I met with no progress whatsoever. 

Reminded me of this play on a famous poem:

They said it couldn’t be done  
But she with a grin replied
She’d never be one to say it couldn’t be done 
Leastwise, not ’til she’d tried. 
So, she jumped right in 
With the trace of a grin 
She tackled the thing that couldn’t be done! 
And she couldn’t do it.

 So what? I shed a few tears of frustration, tasting the salty sting of failure. Give me a break, I’m not Wonder Woman.

At that point, my back, something of a mess generally, beginning to groan and complain. I realized I would need some help. Now that the situation had gone from “scary and complicated” to “simple and stubborn," I thought of a friend who is both smart and strong and would likely be willing and available to help. I took a break and told Denny my mind. He was unwilling to call in a friend until he had given it a go himself. I was disappointed at first, but after some thought and further discussion I understood. He was not happy about it, but he put on his big boy pants and, wielding a large rusty wrench that I’m surprised we even owned, he tackled the fittings. 

When he lived at the lake, he and his brother-in-law had some similar plumbing issues and he remembered they used a wrench this way. This man o’ mine twisted and twisted and kept on twisting the ABS (after a minute with the hair dryer) until it worked loose. He did the next and final fitting, all in ten minutes or so. I can’t believe it. I’m so happy and so proud of him, all the more because I know how he hated doing it. Alas, he doesn’t share my sense of satisfaction in completing this sort of job. (Later I fished around and thought of an area of life in which I similarly despise having to participate and that made us both feel better. Not everyone is cut out for everything, you know.)

We fetched some more water from the creek before returning to the house where we popped popcorn for lunch, and washed it down with some much deserved Redd’s Strawberry ale (you know, to conserve water). We make a fine team, if I do say so myself. 

And that was only half the day. Denny did school with the kids, and some design work. I took a nap, worked on some book promotion stuff, posted and sold some items on Craigslist, cooked and ate dinner, helped with dishes, checked with kids about their schoolwork, tucked kids in to bed, and wrote this here blog post. I’m tired, but satisfied.  The new pump should arrive tomorrow. We’ll take a look, run to town for any necessary fittings (as well as pick up groceries, and we’ll probably haul some trash in, too), and then we’ll see what happens. 

Tomorrow morning we’ll have the kids fetch water from the creek to drive home the lesson about water conservation. Yeah, we homeschool.

Just another week at Make-It-Do Farm.

(You know, after today’s work, I’d really like to take a hot bath. Doh.)

The following day....

Things pretty much went according to plan. I only had to call my parents three or four times, with minor questions. I'm also right grateful to FloTec for writing decent installation instructions-- with diagrams and photographs. Our first set-up leaked a bit, but we tightened up our work and by mid afternoon when we had a properly functioning system and water to the house again. And slightly improved water pressure, to boot! 

I don't think we'll go into the plumbing trade, but we are feeling rather pleased with ourselves.

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