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Well and pump and pressure tank sketch (C) InspectAPedia Intermittent Water Pump Cycling When No Water is Running, Diagnose & Cure

  • WATER PUMP INTERMITTENT CYCLING - CONTENTS: Intermittent or random water pump operation: how to diagnose & correct water pump intermittent cycling "on-off" when no water is (known to be) running in a building. Well pump & water tank off-use cycling or water pump turning on-and-off: diagnosis & repair procedures. SHORT CYCLE vs INTRMITTENT CYCLE: Comparison of Intermittent Well Pump Cycling with a Short-Cycling Water Pump Problem or with Lost Water Pressure. INTERMITTENT CYCLING REPAIRS: How To Fix Water Pump Intermittent Cycling
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about diagnosing and correcting intermittent well pump cycling on and off when no water is being used in the building
  • REFERENCES
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How to diagnose, find and fix the cause of intermittent or irregular well pump cycling on and off:

This article explains how to diagnose & repair water pump intermittent cycling - the water pump comes on when no water is being run in the building. Intermittent water pump cycling means that the water pump comes on for no apparent reason.



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What is Intermittent Water Pump Cycling, What Causes It, and How is it Corrected?

leaky air volume control causes pump short cycling (C) Daniel FriedmanReader Question: (Nov 16, 2014) Jay said:

My bladder tank kicks on every like 30 seconds and runs for about five minutes then kicks off and then about 20 seconds later it repeats itself? Any suggestions on what I should try or do?

Intermittent water pump cycling which we explain here means that the water pump comes on for no apparent reason - that is, you are unaware of any water running in the building. (When water is running in a building served by a private well and water tank and pump system it is normal for the water pump to cycle on and off to deliver water to the building.)

So here we are not talking about "short cycling" in which the water pump turns on and off too frequently when water is being run in the building. However, some of the causes of "short cycling" might also lie behind "intermittent pump cycling".
See SHORT CYCLING WATER PUMPS

Here are the more likely causes of the water pump coming on at odd times when you're not (aware of) running any water. You may want to investigate these possible causes roughly in the order they are listed below.

[Click to enlarge any image] Shown in the photo: a rusted, leaky air volume control on a water pump.

  1. Running Toilets: A toilet somewhere in the building is running - this can be VERY hard to spot - unless you are meticulous. I've tried wiping the toilet bowl interior to make it dry and then feeling it later for wetness above the water line, or watching the water in the toilet bowl for ripples, or placing a little septic dye or food coloring in the toilet tank to see if it appears in the bowl below, or, simplest, simply turning off all toilets at their supply valve to see if the pump cycling goes away. A leaky flush valve or a leaky fill valve in a toilet causes this problem.

    See TOILET RUNS CONTINUOUSLY for diagnosis & repair of running toilets.
  2. Leaky Plumbing Fixtures: A plumbing fixture such as a sink, tub, shower, or clothes washer is leaking slowly - such as a faucet or shower head dripping into the fixture (where you can see it) or worse, dripping into a hidden building cavity such as a wall or ceiling cavity (where water stains eventually show up below) or into a floor or crawl space (where you may not see the leak).

    See LEAK TYPES, WATER SUPPLY or DRAIN PIPES
  3. Leaking Water Tanks: An air leak at the water pressure tank, above the water line in the tank, (or a water leak from the water pressure tank) can cause the tank to slowly lose air and the water pump to cycle on. This is possible with both traditional steel water tanks and with modern captive-air bladder type tanks (water is in a separate bladder inside the tank).

    Older water tanks which have an air volume control (which rarely work) are designed to automagically add air to the water tank as needed, so if the AVC is working and if there is a little air leak on the tank somewhere (often you can spot a rusty pinhole leak), this condition could continue for a while before being diagnosed. We discuss leaks in water tanks and temporary repairs a
    t WATER TANK REPAIR PROCEDURES
  4. Leaky check valve or foot valve: A check valve at the pump or a foot valve in the well at the bottom of the water pipe could be failing and leaking, sending water backwards from the pressure tank, through the water pump, and back into the well. This can eventually lead to loss of pump prime and loss of all water supply as is discussed at our website.

    See CHECK VALVES, WATER SUPPLY
    and
    see FOOT VALVES, WELL PIPING for diagnosis & repair procedures.
  5. Corroded leaky galvanized steel well piping (C) D FriedmanLeaks in well piping: A water leak in the well piping between the building and the well or even inside the well could also cause a back-flow of water from building to well and lead to pump cycling on and off.

    Leaks in well piping can occur at connectors such as those used on plastic water piping, or well piping leaks may be due to corrosion and perforation of older galvanized steel well piping - shown in our photo at left.

    See WELL PIPING LEAK DIAGNOSIS for details.

    Jeremy Rasmussen (Rasmussen Well Drilling, Inc.) points out that galvanized steel well piping is particularly prone to corrosion and leak perforation in the section of well piping that is repeatedly wet then exposed to air during the normal draw down cycle of water inside the well casing at each pump cycle.

    The galvanized iron well piping shown was on a 180 foot deep well in Two Harbors MN. We elected to leave the corroded piping in place until leaks or pump problems justified its replacement.

    Because of the trouble and cost of pulling deep well piping, Rasmussen recommends that when pipe replacement is needed, the well pump, air vent (if present) and other in-well equipment should all be replaced at the same time.
  6. Leaky snifter valve: some submersible-pump wells served by an older bladderless pressure tank introduce make-up air into the pressure tank through a snifter valve found on the well pipe riser inside the well. If the snifter valve, a type of one-way (air in no water out) check valve should become leaky it might allow water to leak backwards out of the well piping, dropping pressure in the water system, especially if this fault is combined with a leaky check valve elsewhere in the well piping system.

    See SNIFTER & DRAIN BACK VALVES
  7. Defective Pressure Control Switch: A defective pump pressure control might, in theory cause this intermittent cycling but in more than 30 years of practice I've not found this to occur.
  8. Clogged water pressure tank inlet: a partial blockage of the water entry passage into a water pressure tank or water storage tank can cause intermittent well pump cycling. Clogging may be due to mineral, silt, or other debris, or it may be due to a damaged water pressure tank bladder.

    When no water is being used in the building and the pump has cycled off at a pressure higher than that contained inside the water pressure tank, higher-pressureized water from the building plumbing system can slowly back-feed water into the pressure tank. When that back-feed drops building water pressure below the pump switch cut-in pressure the water pump cycles. This intermittent well pump cycle will continue until the water pressure tank has also been pressurized to above the pump cut-in cycle. Thanks to reader K.K. for this tip 8/43/2014 and who wrote

    We had intermittent pump cycling, when no water was running, the pressure gauge would hold for 2-3 minutes then drop to cut in. We checked the pressure vessel pressure, it was a little low, pumped it up with no result. Turned off various stop cocks to isolate any leaks no change. So isolated it to the pressure vessel itself, presumed the bag was damaged, not quite burst but leaking. On removal of the pressure vessel today we found that the inlet was clogged with sediment, only the size of a small straw was allowing water in. The bag is perfectly intact. We have very high iron and manganese content and have a filtration system after the pump.

Contrasting Intermittent Well Pump Cycling with a Short-Cycling Water Pump Problem or with Lost Water Pressure

Short cycling of a water pump means that the water pump turns on and off too rapidly or too frequently when water is being run in the building.

If this is the problem with your water pump, see WATER PUMP SHORT CYCLING CAUSES.

and this water tank or control repair article: Water Tank Repairs: Diagnose "Water Pump Short Cycling".

Intermittent water pump cycling which is discussed at Intermittent Water Pump Cycling When No Water is Running means that the water pump comes on for no apparent reason.

Loss of water pressure means that the pressure with which water enters a plumbing fixture has become too slow, or is sometimes too slow or weak in water flow rate, or water flow may stop entirely.

See WATER PRESSURE LOSS DIAGNOSIS & REPAIR

Reader Question: well pump chatter: hesitating water pump

(Mar 27, 2015) tammie said:
my pump kicks on then as it shuts off it hesitates 4 or 5 times and the bladder is not filled does this with and without water running

Reply:

Sounds like a clogged water filter, pipe, closed valve, or a bladder stuck to itself in the pressure tank. Occasionally burned pump contacts, loose wiring, or even a debris -clogged pressure switch could be at fault but usually the trouble is that the pump can't send water out into the pressure tank or building fast enough: a blockage is making it reach cutoff pressure almost immediately - seconds or less after it starts.

Watch the pressure gauge: that may help you see the problem I describe.

Question: pump runs for no reason

(June 17, 2015) Gil said:
New water pump installed recently. Concerned because pump will turn on for no reason approx. 3 to 4 times a day and run for 10 to 15 seconds. Is this normal?

(June 27, 2015) Ron said:
Our water pump was just recently replaced a year ago, however for the last few days it has been acting wierd as in
-weird intermitten clicking or banging in the piplines
-the banging occurs only after flushing the downstairs toilet
-and to me it seems like the water pressure is at 3/4 of usual strenth
However today the banging and vibrations happened more frequenty and after using any of the downstair plumbing, also the noise was louder. There is a big storm passing through the area here in Lansdale,Pa and at first I attributed that to the frequent breaker short ciruiting, however the only breaker that needs to be reset is the well pump one.

...

And now the pump no longer works it is a brand new pump and just recently intalled, flipping the breaker causes a thump and cuts the breaker back to off again. Also the orignal pump also went bad during a storm is thier any correlation there? Need to pick someone's brain. Also any suggestion for any local (Lansdale, PA) reputable well repair men obviouslt the last guys failed to get the job done.

(July 16, 2015) Chris said:
This year at my cottage, I installed a new 3/4 hp pump and a new Hanflo foot valve. My pressure tank is an old galvanized steel, air over water tank. The pump cycles every 12 minutes for 2 minutes, like clockwork, when no water is running. I have shut off all the valves downstream from the pressure tank, so I think it is either the tank or the foot valve or both? Is it normal for a pump to run so regularly? By the way it is also very hot to the touch.

(Sept 2, 2015) Carl said:
I have a well on our farm house with a 44 gal. WelTrol tank. Yesterday it started short cycling when no water was being used. The tank feels like it is completely full of water. I can't shake it and tapping it anywhere, even at the very top, sounds solid, no metal ring like a healthy tank sounds. It cycles on and off every five (5) seconds. It runs up to about 80 cuts off then back on again at 50 and all that takes 5 seconds or so. I'm guessing the bladder has completely failed.

The tank was installed in 1992. So that makes it 23 years old. A new pump was installed about ten years ago and the tank was fine then. I'm out in the country and it will take a day or two to get a new tank. If I add air to the tank will that let me limp by for a day or two? Or should I let some irrigation sprinklers run (they're plumbed right off the main supply coming from the pump, and that would keep the pump running during the day until we can replace the tank.

I thought I had noticed in the last week or so that the pump was coming on a little too often but I assumed someone was using water and didn't take the time to check it out. Any help would be appreciated. Thank you. Carl in South Carolina

(Oct 22, 2015) David said:
I have a 3/4 horse pump submergable pump just put it in yesterday it come on for 3to 4 minits and then it stops pumping for 3to 5 minits what could it be

(Dec 4, 2015) james clark said:
I can shut off pump water before it gets to tank and pump stays off? I have no leaks, when i put pressure on tank pump cuts on and off every min. I have 28lb on tank at pump cut off at 30lb
b. what is my problem?

Reply:

Gil the article above poses some possible causes of the condition of "pump turns on for no reason"

Ron: short cycling or rapid cycling can trip a circuit breaker or even burn out a pump pressure control switch or pump motor.

Ron I'd look at two InspectApedia articles on

- well pump short cycling
and
- water hammer

(try the search feature)

David:

If the pump is running out of water or otherwise overheating that may be the cause.

James:

Check your air gauge, check actual tank pressure, and most important check for a waterlogged tank. That sounds like the trouble.

How To Fix Water Pump Intermittent Cycling

Review the list of intermittent well pump cycling provided just above and fix that cause

To correct the problem of water pumps coming on when there is no apparent reason, we need to find which of the causes listed above is occurring. Look for problems like those listed earlier in this article and fix them.

Look for other hidden causes of well pump cycling

IF that does not cure mysterious well pump cycling when you believe no one is running water in the building, look for more hidden causes such as a hidden leak in water supply piping or well piping underground.

The most common causes of hidden causes of intermittent pump cycling:

  1. water is running somewhere in the building without notice, such as a running toilet
  2. a leaky check valve or foot valve at the water pump or in the well
  3. a leak in well piping somewhere between the bottom of the well and the pressure tank in the building

Multiple faults or causes of well pump cycling on and off?

Remember that though it's not common, on occasion more than one water pump cycling fault could be present. Each of the possible causes listed above is also discussed as a diagnosis and repair topic at this website.

Examples of how a Leaky Check Valve or Foot Valve can Cause Intermittent Water Pump Cycling

Question: Intermittent running of our well tank, tank replaced, bad foot valve?

I have a similar issue. First we experienced intermittent running of our well tank. The tank would run when we were not calling for water.

We had the tank replaced and upgraded from 20 gallons to 35 gallons. Our pressure switch is set at 30/50 psi. We were told that the valve(??) was bad because water did not shoot out and air was sucked back in when the tank was replaced. Since having the tank replaced, the psi still decreases when we're not running water. In addition a new problem has started.

Our water slows down and then stops completely for about 15 seconds during various times of the day (showers, washing dishes, etc.) and the water will spit at times (running faucets or when the toilet fills up). We verified that we have no leaks in or around the house. Our pump is submersible. Thank you very much. - Tara

Sorry, I have to make a correction. Our pressure switch is set at 40/60 psi. Thanks. - Tara

Reply: a bad foot valve can cause intermittent well pump and tank running and loss of well prime

Tara:

I'm not sure what "valve" you were told was bad. Perhaps a foot valve or check valve? A bad check valve or foot valve can lead to loss of pump prime and thus loss of water pressure. While that cause and symptom are not usually intermittent but rather a hard failure, a slow leak in a check valve or foot valve could show on occasion up as intermittent water pressure loss.

That is, if water is being run frequently and the leaky valve is a slow leak, the pump may retain enough water to not lose prime (assuming we're talking about an above-ground well pump here). But when water is left off for a longer period and the slow leak has time to lose more water from the pump, piping, and even pressure tank, one could lose water pressure.

The fact that you replaced the water tank and are not running water but still see a loss of water pressure read on the gauge at the tank is a strong suggestion that you have either

When your well pump is submersible (yours), you won't experience loss of prime (the pump is under water and always can prime itself). But you can see air in the well piping and water tank system and loss of water pressure as we've both described.

The "spitting" you describe at faucets or at a toilet can be caused by air entering the well piping through the same leak that in other pressure conditions lets water leak out.

I think it's time to have a plumber or well expert investigate the well piping for leaks.

Follow-up from Tara: I am struggling to understand why our water stops and spits now after having the tank and valve replaced

Thank you for your reply. Our invoice states that the "check valve" was replaced. I do know that it is the valve that is very close to the well tank. Are the terms "check valve" and "foot valve" interchangeable for the same valve or are they two separate valves? As I am understanding it, I think the check valve is visible and near the tank; the foot valve is below the ground at the bottom of the submersible pump.

I am struggling to understand why our water stops and spits now after having the tank and valve replaced when we did not have this problem prior to the new tank and valve. Just tonight I have noticed a hissing sound coming from the well tank that I did not previously hear. Our plumber is on vacation this week. I am trying to educate myself as much as possible before next week. I'm concerned about assuming the problem is the foot valve and pulling up the pump as our plumber seems to want to do. I would think that if the the foot valve was leaking we would have had the loss of water all along. Thank you very much.

Comment:

Tara a check valve may be at an above ground pump or at the bottom of the well (where it's better called a foot valve.) If the worker did not pull the well piping they didn't replace a foot valve.
See WELL PIPING CHECK VALVES
and the separate
article WELL PIPING FOOT VALVES for details.

I don't know what's hissing (air, water, or a control or an air volume control). I hope you'll tell us what the plumber says about that hissing - it's important in helping other readers.

About your earlier comment and my reply: if you are not running water but still see a loss of water pressure read on the gauge at the tank is a strong suggestion that you have one of the problems we list above - or
see How To Fix Water Pump Intermittent Cycling in this article.

Also, we have often seen that any work on a well, pump, piping, tank and water tank system can disclose other marginal components or problems that were not obvious earlier. For example just stirring up dirt and debris in the well or well piping can cause clogging of the water pressure sensor switch leading to odd water pressure behavior, or clogging of a water filter leading to loss of pressure.

And both old water types on occasion a new bladder-type water pressure tank can suffer from a bladder that sticks to itself, preventing water from entering or leaving the pressure tank.
See WATER PRESSURE TANKS, BLADDER TYPE.

Watch out: besides a bad check valve or foot valve, a leaky pipe anywhere between the bottom of the well and the building interior can also lead to intermittent water pump cycling.
See WELL PIPING LEAK DIAGNOSIS or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.

Reader Question: OK to shut off a well pump to stop intermittent cycling on and off?

(Dec 24, 2015) Kent said:
Our pump is intermittently cycling we have no water running and can not find any leaking faucets, toilets... the pressure gauge is not moving (pegged out)where should we start? Will turning the pump off create more problems ?

Reply:

Don't turn off the pump as you may lose prime. Do review the article above. Let me know if questions remain.

(Dec 25, 2015) kent said:
Did turn pump off but back on now. Turned water off to house and it still intermittently cycles. Now have dirty water. Where to start. Other then calling nplumber

Reply:

Kent, in the article above I list common causes of intermittent pump cycling: these are the things to look for yourself; a running toilet can be hard to spot: try turning them off.

Question: intermittent cycle of the pump stops when I turn off water to the house

1 Jan 2016

Val said:
Intermittent cycling stops when I shut water to house off. No appliances leaking. Do you think it's piping under the house?

Reply:

Val that was a smart diagnostic move - turning off water into the house. As the intermittent pump cycling stopped we can guess that indeed the problem is on the house side of the shutoff valve.

I would look

first for a running toilet - that can be subtle and hard to spot so try shutting off the water supply to individual toilets for a while.

second for a leak in supply piping somewhere that you can't see - such as under the house, so if there are shutoff valves that let you turn off some sections of supply piping that may help you track that down

Val said:
I know that a leak is not acceptable but measured time between cycles and it took about 30 min to empty 20 gallon pressure tank. I can do a lot but going under the house is not one of them (not that it matters but female)! Would I be able to wait until business day next week? Thank you for responding so fast :)

No toilet leaking. Used food dye.

Reply:

Val:

I'm guessing your home is built over a hard-to-access crawl area; I'm in a tough spot trying to guess about how much damage an unattended leak is going to cause for a building I can't see. If it were my house I'd try to look into the space, even if just with a flashlight from a crawl space entry.

If I saw water wetting heating or electrical components I'd want to turn water off and call for urgent repair help - for safety.

If I thought water were running into walls or ceilings I'd want to turn off water to stop costly soaking of building components that are going to require demolition to repair:

Otherwise I would be OK with waiting for a less costly service call after the new Year.

Val said:
It's a mobile home so very creepy under there. I checked walls around around appliances faucets and showers. Did not find any damp spots. I understand you can give me an opinion on it. Is there a way that I can calculate the loss of water aside from the simple 20 gallons/30 min? Just worried about pump.

Reply:

OK. Good going.
Ok to wait;
When you do have someone inspect below to find and fix the leak, be sure that they also check to see if the insulating blanket or body wrap under your mobile home was soaked. If it was you'll want that removed, the under-floor dried, and then new instulation installed - to prevent a costly mold contamination problem.

Water Pump On-Off Cycling Rates & Water Draw-Down Times

So is your well pump short-cycling? Intermittent cycling? Or is something else wrong? Or are there two things wrong?

In response to this reader question: Pump clicks ON for 2 minutes then is OFF for 7 minutes regularly. No water is being run. Is this normal?

We have moved this discussion to a new article. A.L. and other readers, please see WATER PUMP DRAWDOWN VOLUME & TIME

Summing up intermittent pump operation compared with short cycling well pumps

  1. Intermittent pump operation: If a pump is running for no apparent reason and we're not running water in the building (or we think we're not running water there), then I call this WATER PUMP INTERMITTENT CYCLING. The time between pump-on cycles will depend on how fast water is leaving the system and might be anywhere from "pump won't stop running at all" (though other problems can cause that too) to "pump runs once in the middle of the night".
  2. Short Cycling pumps: Very short pump-on cycles followed by short pump-off cycles is caused by a water-logged pressure tank (lost air charge) combined with a rapid use of water in the building or by a significant water piping leak somewhere. See WATER PUMP SHORT CYCLING. These cycles are typically under 30 seconds.
  3. Chattering pumps: Extremely-short pump on/off cycling or pump chattering is usually caused by a blockage at the pump or water system output, like a clogged debris filter. This on-off cycling rate will typically be a second or less.
  4. Continuous pump operation: if the pump won't stop running the cause may be simply a high water usage rate that exceeds the pump or well's capacity to deliver water or there may be a leak or a bad control.
    See WATER PUMP WONT STOP RUNNING

...


Continue reading at FOOT VALVES, WELL PIPING or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.

Or see INTERMITTENT WATER PUMP CYCLING FAQs - diagnostic questions and answers for a water pump that seems to run for no reason.

Or see PUMP PRIME, REPEATED LOSS of

Or see WATER PUMP DRAWDOWN VOLUME & TIME - typical volumes and times between pump cycles depend on well tank size, pressure settings, and other factors

Suggested citation for this web page

WATER PUMP INTERMITTENT CYCLING at InspectApedia.com - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.

INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES: ARTICLE INDEX to WATER SUPPLY, PUMPS TANKS WELLS

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