How (not) to replace a pressure switch

As a brand new home owner, I’ve decided to share my expertise with others to help them learn about homeownership.

Recently, I found myself in a precarious situation when the pressure switch to my well pump decided to stop working. Since I did such a great job replacing it, I thought it’d be a great idea to tell others about the experience so they could learn from my cleverness.

(Note: Please don’t do any of these things. You might die, I almost did, I think…)

This is not my well pump. This is a stock image I got off the interwebs. But it’s a lot more attractive than my well pump, so we decided to go with this instead.

Step one: Diagnose the problem

If you’re the owner of a well, and you know nothing about well pumps, you’ll assume that a weird jetting sound coming from your well house is a perfectly normal thing, until you see water leaking out from the bottom of said well house. This is the sign that you have a problem. Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice a small jet of water shooting out from the top of the pump straight into the ground. At this point, you should poke around inside the well house until you find a pipe-looking thingy, about an ⅛ of an inch in diameter. See if this fits over your water jet. If it does, shrug your shoulders, make sure the water is still working in your house and go on about your life, confident that you’d solved whatever that was.

Step two: Diagnose the problem again

So, during the course of the day, you’ll hear the jetting sound from the pumphouse some more. At this point, you should ascertain that whatever problem you “fixed” previously, is indeed, unfixed. So, keep trying what you did before, but this time, worry about it all day. Finally, at the end of the day, go inside your new home and google this phrase: “Well pump tiny black pipe thingy water jet.”

Hey! Guess what?! Your well pump has a pressure switch. That answers a lot of unasked questions, doesn’t it? So, according to a bunch of different websites, the pressure switch works by shutting off power to your pump whenever the pressure gets to a certain point. That makes sense. Armed with this knowledge, you’re pretty sure you’re going to need a new pressure switch. Great. So, it looks like what’s happening to your well is the pressure gets too high and the little black pipey thingy gets pushed off. That’s handy as one site you didn’t look at suggested too much pressure could turn into some sort of explosive. Make sure you don’t read that site too closely, as it makes you nervous.

Also, be sure not to mention that to your wife at all, because it’ll definitely make her nervous. So, figuring you need to relieve the pressure so the black pipey thingy doesn’t pop off again, run a hose to an outside spigot. Turn the spigot on, and direct the hose away from the house, assuming that the runoff (it’s really not that much anyway) will divert to the aforementioned marsh behind your house. Marshes like water, right? Go and stare at the little black pipey thingy for a while to see if it pops off again. Hey! It didn’t. Resolve to go to the hardware store in the morning and buy a new pressure switch and install it. Sleep well secure in knowing you’re a responsible homeowner. Like an adult and everything.

Step three: Procrastinate

Wake up in the morning, get really busy doing something else and forget your well pump problem for a few hours. Suddenly remember, rush out to the well house and see if your black pipey thingy is still intact. It is! Great job!

You’re a heck of an adult! I bet your parents are so proud of you! Take this opportunity to brag to your wife and fish for compliments as you surely deserve them. Make sure you show off your newfound knowledge of pressure switches, that will really impress her! Maybe she’ll give you a cuddle or two for being so responsible. Decide to wait until tomorrow to go and get that pressure switch. Your solution to the problem is working so well (there’s only a small puddle in the yard) that surely it can wait one more day.

Step four: Have the water stop flowing in the middle of your shower

This one is tricky, as it has to be timed just right. You want to have everything lathered up, hair and beard covered in shampoo, just about to rinse when the water quits flowing. Swear. Get out of the shower and scrape suds off your body enough to get a pair of shorts on.

Go out to the well house as soap residue dries on your body and take a look at the well pump through one eye. Your other eye should be slammed shut as you have shampoo in it. Stare at the well pump and hope no one notices your lack of knowledge. Wiggle the cover to the pressure switch, hoping it does something. Have that cover come off in your hand exposing a mass of imposing wires and switches. Be afraid, but don’t show it, as your children are staring at you expectantly and you don’t want to be unmanned in front of them. Ask one of them to go get a wooden broomstick. Wait as they argue over which one it should be. Pick one at random for the job. Have that one shoot you a dirty look as he or she sulks away to get it.

Stare at the exposed switch and wonder if it’s smart to be messing around with electricity while you’re wet from a shower standing in mud barefooted as you wait.

Get the broomstick and bang the switch with it. Since it’s wood, you hope it’s non-conducting. Jump three feet into the air while cursing when the electricity going to the switch sparks. Explain to your laughing children you weren’t afraid, just alert.

Step five: Fun with electricity

Bang the switch with your broomstick a couple more times, observing as you do that the pump switches on and off every time the electricity arcs. Hmmmm… Have the other child fetch a screwdriver (allowing time for the sulk and stare). Poke the switch with a screwdriver, being careful not to touch the metal shaft of the screwdriver and notice the mechanical action of the switch. Determine the switch isn’t making contact to start the pump because the points of contact are out of alignment? Or something. Head back inside for a penny and a pencil. Come back out to the well house, and unplug the pump. Cram the penny in between the contact points of the switch and use the pencil to wedge the switch closed (it’s non-conducting, right?).

Plug the pump back up, and delight in the sound of it starting up. Rush back inside to finish your shower, awed by your genius. You could probably be an electrician, if you just applied yourself. Or some sort of engineer. Good job, smart guy! Finish rinsing off, only to have the shower quit just as you get the last bit of shampoo out of your beard. Dry off and go and look at your well pump again. Get freaked out at the smell of burning plastic, and unplug everything. Stare at your pump for about 15 minutes, wondering how long electrical fires smolder. Figuring the pump house is a good piece from the actual house, shrug your shoulders again and go inside. Explain to your wife that, according to your original plan — that you totally didn’t just make up — you’ll be without water for the next 8-12 hours. Ask her if she’d like to cuddle an almost-engineer. Get a confused look in response. Go to bed, and don’t think about electrical fires.

Step six: Go to the hardware store at least three times

First thing in the morning, get up and forget the water isn’t working. Spend 12 minutes trying to remember why. Oh, yeah, now you know. Decide, however, that you need to at least have one cup of coffee before heading to the hardware store. Use collected rainwater from a bucket left outside by accident to make coffee with. Be impressed with yourself. You’re like some sort of hybrid survivalist-engineer. Wonder what that kind of job might pay as you drink your coffee.

Remember Macgyver? He was a survivalist/engineer type. And he had a sweet mullet. You should grow a mullet. Finish your coffee. Head to the hardware store. Ask the guys in the red vests where the pressure switches are. Make sure you ask them while using all the technical jargon you got off google the previous days, so they know you’re so clever. No one wants to be the dumb guy at the hardware store. Go to the aisle specified by the store employees and stare at the 4-8 identical looking pressure switches. Stare hard, while trying to figure out the difference.

Finally, pick the cheapest one. Take it home. (Pro-tip: Take a photo of the wiring on your old switch so you can replicate it on your new switch. Immediately put the phone down so you can spend about an hour looking for it later.) Remove the defective switch from the well pump. Notice that the little black pipey thingy is attached via a nipple on the bottom of the switch. Notice that it has thread tape on it. Realize you don’t have thread tape. Head back to the hardware store. Come back home with thread tape, Unscrew the black pipey thingy, apply the thread tape and screw it back on.

Now, use a screwdriver to screw the wire leads to the switch. Realize you can’t remember where you left the screwdriver the night before. Hunt for it for 45 minutes. Finally give up, and head back to the hardware store to buy a new one. Come home and find your old screwdriver sitting on the ledge next to the well pump where you left it last night. Curse at it. Unscrew all the wiring connections, using your new screwdriver out of spite. Reconnect all the wires according to the fuzzy cell phone image you took of the previous wiring. Get confused and do it wrong. Undo what you did and do it again.

Finally, assume that it’s close enough and you’re tired of dealing with it and just plug it in. Nearly weep tears of joy when the pump starts working properly. Rush indoors and use the bathroom as you’ve been holding it most of the day since your toilet doesn’t work without water. Brag to your wife about being an engineer/survivalist (a survivalneer? An enginalist?) and ask her how she’d feel about cuddling a man with a sweet mullet. Get a little heartbroken when she says she’d love to, but then realize that she’s not talking about you. Decide in your head you don’t like Macgyver anyway.

That’s it! Easy peasy. Now you too can replace a pressure switch on a water pump  by following these 6 simple steps. (No, really, don’t. For reals. I did this, and most of it was really dumb. Try following these instructions instead, it’s a lot safer.)

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Melissa has a background in marketing, brand management, graphic design and photography. She left corporate America to pursue her dream of living a simpler life. Simpler doesn’t always mean easier but she enjoys every minute on her small homestead. She loves to cook, practice herbalism and gardening. Her passion is spreading the word about sustainable living and sharing her love of herbalism and living from scratch.

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