The Ins And Outs of Your Country Home: What You Need to Know about Your Well-Pump and Septic System
For the last few years we have been seeing an influx of new homeowners in the Hudson Valley and particularly Ulster County. Many are arriving from nearby cities and have never owned a home before. If this is you; Welcome to the Hudson Valley! I made the transition myself 30 years ago! The biggest mystery to me was my well pump and septic system. Aren’t I pumping my drinking water out of the ground? And isn’t that where the other stuff goes when I flush? What’s wrong with these people? They act like it’s normal! Why is this ok? Let’s find out.
Civilization has always relied upon clean running water. Early civilizations would find it easiest to park themselves next to a river or stream. Preferably upstream. Today we have the luxury of running clean fresh water right through our own homes. Modern homes pump water from the ground and through the plumbing system for bathing, washing clothing and dishes, for drinking, and for waste removal. Waste water exits our home and back into the ground through our septic system.
It’s important to know a few things about your home’s well pump and septic system in order to keep your water clean and your family healthy, and to avoid unnecessary major expense.
Most country homes get water from their own private well. Water is pumped from the ground into your home with either a jet pump or a submersible pump. Jet pumps are located inside the home and pull water up from a shallow well. Jet pumps are usually limited to a 75 foot depth or less.
Submersible pumps can be any depth but are typically deeper than 75 feet. We have installed well pumps in this area as deep as 800 feet. It’s important to select the right well pump for the depth of the well and the volume of water the well produces.
In either case whether you have a jet pump or a submersible pump the water is pumped into a pressure tank. It's often thought that this is a storage tank, but its function is to maintain the correct “cycle time” for the pump so it does not overheat. The typical pressure tank has a bladder filled with air in the tank. The pump pushes water into the tank against the bladder until the high-pressure point is reached at which point the pump shuts off. As water is used the pressure drops to the low pressure point at which point the pump kicks on again. “Cycle time” is the time between the pump starting and the next time it starts while water is running. The recommended cycle time is typically about a minute and a half to about two minutes, depending on the pump. Cycle time allows the pump motor to cool between starts and prevents premature failure of the pump.
A malfunctioning bladder tank or pressure switch can cause a pump to fail permanently by “short-cycling” the pump. One way to check is to have someone upstairs run the water while you listen to the cycling of the pump. If it is a submersible pump you will hear the pressure switch clicking on and off.
If the pump turns on and off rapidly there may be a problem with the pressure switch or bladder tank that will cause your pump to overheat. We have replaced many pumps and bladder tanks at the same time because the bladder tank failed first and ultimately caused the pump to fail.
If you are not sure how to check this ask your plumber to check your bladder tank and pressure switch as part of a routine maintenance plan.
Many first time well users notice the pressure drop as the pump cycles off its high and low pressure points. This is most commonly a 20 psi difference. Fortunately we now have variable speed pump controls. These are set to give you a constant pressure by varying the pump speed to maintain steady pressure at all times. Even if another valve opens or closes the pump will quickly respond to this with little variation in pressure.
Another huge consideration with well water is the quality of the water itself. In this area it is most common to find hardness, sulfur, low pH, or bacteria in the water, or some combination. Occasionally we come across dissolved gases in the water such as carbon dioxide or methane.
Usually upon first purchasing a home you will have to test the water for bacteria. If bacteria is present you will be advised to install an ultraviolet system to kill the bacteria in your water. UV systems require annual maintenance to ensure safe and effective operation. If your test is negative don’t assume that it will remain that way. It’s a good idea to test your water periodically or install an ultraviolet system to be sure.
Any plumber or water treatment company should be able to test your water on site and recommend a proper course of action. Low pH and hardness will take its toll on your plumbing system and can cost thousands of dollars in the long run. Sulfur is harmless but the smell is difficult to live with. Your plumber or water treatment company will be able to recommend a solution for just about any problem that you have with your water.
Well pump systems at the very least should have a sediment filter. This protects your plumbing system from any particulates in the ground water getting into your fixtures. If you notice over time that your homes water pressure has diminished a clogged filter is usually the culprit.
After testing and “bulk treating” your water, the last step is a “point of use” “reverse osmosis” or RO system. This is typically installed under the kitchen sink for drinking water. Water is forced through a membrane to purify it with the contaminants flushed to drain. The water is then run through a small charcoal filter for taste. We add a small calcium filter after that to bring the pH back up, as some water can be stripped so clean through and RO system that it becomes acidic.
At the other end of your plumbing system is your drain system leading out to your septic tank And a vent system leading out above your roof. The vent system is just as important as the drain system to keep things moving. If you’ve ever held a finger to the top if a drinking straw and then raised the straw out of the glass you understand the importance of proper venting. The beverage will remain in the straw until your finger is removed from the top at which point the fluid leaves freely. This is the purpose of the vent pipe protruding from your roof. Improperly vented plumbing systems will drain slowly, have drains that gurgle, and possibly allow smelly gasses into the house.
Modern homes use PVC for drains and vents but most older homes may use cast iron or galvanized pipes for drainage. These may rust and clog internally and eventually need replacement. A camera inspection inside the pipe can reveal potential problems.
Once the wastewater leaves the house it is collected into a septic tank. Here is where the magic happens! Solids are broken down by bacteria that feast on this stuff and turn it into fluids. The fluids exit the tank into a leach field where it is both absorbed by the ground, and evaporated by the sun.
It’s crucial to maintain healthy bacteria in your septic tank to keep this process working smoothly. If sludge is built up in your leach field it could necessitate its replacement. We recommend not using chlorine bleach or antibacterial soaps as these will harm the bacteria in your septic tank. We also recommend Bio Clean as a monthly additive. Bio Clean is a unique combination of bacteria and enzymes that will not only keep the party going in your septic tank, it can be used regularly in the drains to keep them clean as well. The bacteria will devour any organic build up in the drains and turn it to fluid. There are liquid versions of Bio Clean on the market, but they may have a limited shelf life. Some of the over the counter products have been shown to leave a buildup in the leech field, exactly what you don’t want. Bio Clean is available from most plumbers.
There you have it. The ins and outs of your country home! I hope this information is helpful. Again, welcome to our little slice of Heaven. May you and your country home stay in the best of health for many years!