As I wrote in my last column, the pitless adapter is a rather simple but important device used to complete a modern well. All of these have a way of keeping pumped water below the freezing point or frost line. They also have a way to, in effect, make or break this below frost line connection to the service line that takes the water to its next stop on a trip from the aquifer to the faucet or whatever use it fills.
The first pitless adapter that I saw in the mid to late 1950s used a spool as the sealing mechanism about 5 feet below the ground — at least here in southern Michigan. I understand in some parts of the country these spools or connecting points from the inside of the well to outside the well have to be as much as 7 or 8 feet deep due to extreme frost. Likewise, in milder climates a 2- or 3-foot depth will work just fine. In any event, whatever the depth, the spool is equipped with at least two and sometimes four O rings. Each O ring fits nicely into a machined base and keeps the water under pressure between itself and the other O ring. This machined base is something like a large diameter pipe tee with no threads on the “run” and a threaded joint on the “branch” that connects to the service line. I understand that some really early pitlesses used cup leathers in place of the O rings, but I never saw one of these. I have been told that they could be very difficult to use when breaking the waterproof joint for service to the well, pump or drop pipe.
In all the spool-type pitlesses, the O rings were a bit larger than the inside diameter of the casing — and this is true even today. Some manufacturers did a really good job of machining the bases and others did only “so, so.” Regardless of the machining quality, it was and is important to lubricate the O rings before installation. Today we have lubricants designed especially for this but, in times past, some of us used Vaseline, others used axle grease and still others used nothing. I have been told that the axle grease could deteriorate the O rings, which are made of rubber, and that it has health considerations. If the installer used nothing and installed the spool in a so-called “dry” condition, removing the spool could be a real problem. I have had many jobs working on wells drilled by others where I had to “beat on” the spool for most of a day to get it to break loose. Some of my driller friends have told me they ended up breaking the spool when they beat on it too hard and had to dig the pitless adapter unit out, avoiding its real purpose, which is not having to dig. These spool-type pitlesses are still used today, especially in public supplies, roadside rest areas and other facilities that use a well with 6-inch casing or larger.
In the early 1960s, we began to see a slightly different pitless adapter. This one had, in effect, a pipe union as the connect/disconnect point and a mechanism to accomplish this. This usually involved some sort of device connected by a rod to the top of the pitless, and turning a nut on the rod moved the two parts of the “union” apart, making well service easy. This was the type of unit that I once encountered on the worst pitless failure I have ever seen. I was called to service the pump on a 4-inch well that I did not drill at a residence in a high-end suburb. The pitless was one with the union-type connection and they were usually very easy to disconnect. In this case, I had an extremely difficult time disconnecting and, as I recall, even broke some of the parts. When I did get the drop pipe up 5 or 6 feet, it was pretty obvious that someone had dumped a whole bunch of granular chlorine down into the well and just let it sit. This person, who owners told me was a water conditioning service man, failed to flush the chlorine through and most of it just sat and corroded the pitless parts. I had to return to my shop where, luckily, I had some used parts that matched those that I broke and I was able to get the system back in running condition. The water conditioning guy, of course, had no business opening the well and pouring things into it.
This union-type pitless is still being used and is still a well designed and manufactured item. With the popularity of non-metallic casing, it is not as popular as it was in years gone by.
One of the key factors controlling pitless adapters used in the state of Michigan is that they must be so-called “clear case” and “fail safe.” By clear case, I mean that the entire inside diameter of the well casing must be free and clear of any obstruction when the pitless is disconnected. I have been to a lot of conventions and have seen many examples of pitless kits that are what I would call a tongue and groove type. To use these, the installer drills a pretty good sized hole (2- or 2½-inch, I believe) into the casing and inserts the groove part of the pitless through this hole. A rubber washer that is curved to match the casing is installed both inside and outside, and a large nut tightens this part to the casing. On installation, the tongue part is fastened to the top of the drop pipe and slides into the groove part, making a water-tight part joint, and usually a small O ring is used to secure this joint. When disassembled, the groove part obstructs the diameter of the well casing and we are not allowed to use these — and never have been — in the state of Michigan. Probably the biggest reason is that for many years the 4-inch well was the standard in this state and obstructed casing just did not work. It is true that in a 5-inch or 6-inch or a larger well, obstructing the inside diameter is not as important.
A second reason for banning these units in Michigan is that the joint into the casing is not under pressure and it could potentially leak into the well, letting all sorts of nasty stuff in. Oddly enough, I still see these little kits for sale in the big box stores around here. When questioned about this, our Department of Environmental Quality staff says it is not illegal to sell such an item but it is illegal to use it. I find this statement very contradictory and, in my opinion, is just more governmental gobblygook — my apologies, Jim. In any event, I have never seen one of these installed in the field, and that is just fine with me.
Well, readers it has finally gotten hot and dry in Michigan and the lawn mowing schedule has become a little better. Until next time, work hard and safe and pray that you don’t come onto a well that some amateur has messed up.