Over the last decade I have become fairly knowledgeable about our water supply; where our water comes from, and how it gets to us. This hard won knowledge has been gained trying to provide a potable water supply to my house.
We were incredibly naive when we bought 10 rural acres outside of Kamloops just over 10 years ago. The property already had a well on it but we never bothered to test it prior to purchasing the land. We installed a submersible pump in our newly acquired, 500′ deep well only to discover that the well was so marginal (well under 1/3 gallon per hour) that it was virtually impossible to supply enough water for our family of five. We bought the most water-efficient appliances we could find (I could also call this post why I’ll never buy another Asko clothes washer …), but still struggled to provide enough water for all of our needs. Our kids were in cloth diapers at this time, and not being able to finish a load of laundry a day was challenging!
We quickly abandoned this first well and dug a surface well on our property. A surface well can be significantly less expensive to setup than a deep well, and we could not afford to drill another deep well at the time. Our surface well was essentially a 14′ long, 4′ diameter steel culvert sunk into the ground. The bottom 3-4′ of the culvert was perforated with small diameter holes so that ground water seeped into the well through a filter bed of gravel. This well provided adequate water but was not without problems; the water level fluctuated seasonally so that on a couple of occasions the well was close to going dry, and our ground water had a high iron content that resulted in heavy reddish stains in all of our water fixtures. Stephen (our son) also contracted a campylobacter infection soon after switching to this well, a serious concern with contaminated surface water. In fact, in BC it is no longer permissible to dig new surface wells for residential water systems, you are required to use deep wells. I do not necessarily agree with these new regulations; a surface well is perfectly safe … once you know what you are doing.
Our final water solution on this property was to dig a new deep well (360′ deep) that had an acceptable flow rate. We pumped the water from this well into a 1500 gallon cistern (underground water tank). The cistern buffered the well and allowed us to use more water than the well was capable of producing over short periods of time, allowing us to do multiple loads of laundry and flush toilets, cook and drink throughout the day … heaven! During the night (when we used no water) the cistern would slowly be refilled from the well. This system worked remarkably well. Unfortunately for us we only got to use it for a few months as we installed it just before selling the property. We actually put this new system in to sell the property. It is very difficult to get a mortgage on a property without a reliable water source, making the land harder to sell.
Prior to moving to our business property (where we are today) we drilled a new deep well (130′ deep) and tested its flow. We were positively giddy to learn that this new well had a flow in excess of 30 gallons per minute. For residential water use this flow rate is far in excess of what is needed. ‘Never again!’, we crowed to each other would we forgo flushing the toilet so we could finish a load of laundry!
In fact, the flow rate from this well is so good we decided to install a fairly sophisticated water system capable of supplying 5 gallons per minute of water on demand. Our reason for this was simple. We operated a small wood manufacturing business outside of any fire protection district. We wanted the safety of knowing that if we hooked up two fire hoses in a fire emergency there would be adequate pressure to use both hoses at the same time. After some deliberation we eventually went with a Gould’s 3 phase submersible pump and a Gould’s BF30 pump controller sourced from Aggressive Pump out of Kelowna, BC. The installed system delivered on its promise … when it worked.
Over the last three years we have once again found ourselves without water for a few days to over a week at a time. In the past lack of water was simply due to a lack of water … recently this lack of water has been due to the unreliable, complex and difficult to maintain equipment pumping the water. The BF30 pump controller is a technological marvel; it is a digital controller that converts single phase AC to 3 phase AC electricity, allowing it to start and stop the water pump without the torque associated with typical units. Torque is hard on equipment; it can weaken and even break the drop pipe that the submersible pump is suspended on. In a deep well a broken pipe minimally means an expensive repair bill, and at worst means that your expensive pump is now an unrecoverable paper weight at the bottom of the well. I freely admit it now, as an engineer I was completely seduced by this sexy technology. After over a decade of living in the sticks I was finally rejoining the digital age!
We started having issues with the pump controller fairly soon after installation. Periodically, we would lose water pressure. The best description I have is that the digital controller was ‘hung’; we had to turn off power to the controller, wait 5 minutes and power the unit back on. After cycling the power, the system would operate normally again … a little like working with older versions of the Windows operating system.
The real problems started towards the end of the first year. We realized there was no water coming out of our taps one day and went to investigate. The BF30 immediately troubleshot the problem, the pressure transducer (essentially a pressure monitor that tells the system when water pressure is too low) had failed. Initially I was impressed. I did not need to diagnose anything; no hours spent crawling around in small pump room enclosures, no getting wet and no getting dirty. I called the installer of our system and requested a new pressure transducer. After some confusion identifying the part I discovered that the transducer was not stocked locally and had to be shipped out. The delay did not overly concern me as I assumed I would be able to override the automatic operation of the controller and manually toggle the pump so that we could get some water for flushing toilets and cooking. I was surprised to discover that the controller could not be overridden … without a functioning pressure transducer the controller would not start the pump. We were reduced to bottled water we brought on site while waiting days for the new transducer. We were told that a physically proximate lightening strike could cause the transducer to fail. We did not have a storm around the time of our failure, and were never really sure what caused this failure.
Towards the middle of the second year we experienced our next major problem. Once again the controller tried to diagnose the problem and reported a problem with the pump and associated wiring; a possible short or open circuit. Armed with this information I checked the wiring and pump resistance and found no indications of problems. After several discussions with the technical support at Aggressive Pump we came to the conclusion that the fault lay in the controller. The original pump installer insisted that we pull and inspect the pump; no indications of failure were found in the wiring or the pump during this inspection (although I do not believe the pump was even inspected after all of that). Finally, Aggressive Pump replaced the pump controller under warranty. The replaced pump controller fixed the problem but we continued to have to occasionally reset the system.
Our final failure occurred last month. This time the new pump controller simply went dead … there was no self-diagnosis. Neither Aggressive Pump nor the equipment installer were able to tell us what was wrong, nor were they willing (or able?) to offer a solution to the existing system. They did offer to sell us a new pump (under a new warranty?), but we had no interest in this option; the system has proven to be unreliable and at the end of another three years we would potentially be faced with another expensive controller replacement.
The technical phone support person from Aggressive Pump did imply that these problems were probably caused by external factors, and raised the possibility of line noise from BC Hydro (our power utility). These comments were only made at the end of our relationship and were not raised as a possible issue prior to this, nor was any information provided about the failure of the original unit.
My own opinion is that a claim of power spikes or line noise in the supply voltage causing failure is an indication of poor equipment design. None of the other digital equipment in our household has experienced problems; we have had computers, digital thermostats and pianos all older than this equipment, and all of them continue to function flawlessly. Why is this the only piece of equipment so prone to failure? I did notice that in the second controller we received, the ability to bypass the pressure transducer and pump water manually was included. I am not sure how long this controller has been manufactured, but it seems to me Goulds is still working the design kinks out of it.
Water systems are not maintenance free, and I expect to have periodic problems and maintenance issues. However, not being able to bypass common problems (like a failed pressure switch), perform field repairs or diagnose problems makes an unpleasant situation nasty.
We are consistently seduced by technology as a quick and effective fix to our latest problems. We are digging deeper wells so that we can continue to access water from depleting aquifers. Deeper wells increase the cost and complexity of pumping water; bigger drilling rigs, heavier electric wire and more powerful pumps are some of these costs. Reduced ability of the home owner to repair and replace these items due to well depth and technological complexity are another cost; we lose self-reliance and control in this situation, and are left to the mercies of professionals and experts. Increasingly, there is an argument to be made that our return on increased technological complexity to solve our problems is at best marginal and possibly negative. We are losing more than we are gaining.
Possibly, the solution to aquifer depletion is not increased well depth, but evaluating our water needs and reducing our consumption. Also, increasing our reliance on harvesting and storing rain water, and allowing aquifers to replenish.