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This article describes the purpose of water storage and water pressure tanks, how water tanks work, what goes wrong with the water tank (such as water tank leaks, loss of air charge, corrosion, failure to admit water) and how to fix water tank troubles.
We explain the purpose of water storage or water pressure tanks on private well systems, or in pressure boosting systems on municipal water supplies. We discuss how to diagnose & correct short cycling "on-off" of the building water pump. What is the difference between a bladder type water tank and a glass lined no-bladder water tank? How are well water tanks recycled?
We explain the different types of water tanks such as tanks using an internal bladder or diaphragm, bladderless steel, fiberglass, or plastic water tanks, and water tank pressure and air controls and valves.
1. Prevent short cycling pump: An air charge in the tank delivers water pressure out of the tank and into the building to avoid water pump rapid on-off cycling or "short cycling" that is annoying and that ultimately damages the equipment.
2. Provide water storage: At some properties where the supply capacity of the water well is limited, a large water tank may also be used to store water for use by building occupants. That storage capacity assures that occupants always have water and permits the tank to be re-filled slowly during off-use periods.
Here we provide information on the purpose and function of water tanks and on water tank selection, installation, troubleshooting, and repair. Our complete list of water tank installation, diagnosis, & repair articles is at the end of this page.
Private well and pump systems include a well (the water source), piping from the well to the building, a water pump, and a water tank to which building water supply plumbing is connected.
[Click to enlarge any image]
Building plumbing fixtures (sinks, toilets, showers, tubs) are supplied with water from the building water supply piping, and drain into the building drain-waste-vent (DWV) system.
When water is turned on at a fixture in the building, compressed air in the water tank acts like a spring: it pushes water out of the water tank and into the building water supply piping and thus water is sent on to the building plumbing fixtures.
If many fixtures are being run at once in the building, or if the water flow rate produced by the pump and piping and controls is a modest one, the pump may run continuously all while the fixture is being operated.
More typically, if only one fixture is running and if the pump and well can deliver a high water flow rate, the pump may come on and off several times while the fixture is being run.
As water leaves the water tank, water pressure in the water tank drops. Since the water tank also contains air, the air pressure drops too. In the tank water pressure and air pressure will be at the same psi. Sketch courtesy of Carson Dunlop Associates.
A pressure control switch, usually mounted on or near the water tank, senses the pressure drop, and at a pre-set "pump cut-in pressure" (typically 20 or 30 psi) the pressure switch turns on the water pump.
See WATER PUMP PRESSURE CONTROL ADJUSTMENT for details of this control.
The water pump, located at the tank or perhaps in the well, pumps water to the building from the well, simultaneously re-pressurizing the water tank and providing water to the building.
See WATER PUMP LIFE EXPECTANCY for types of water well pumps, how they work, how they are diagnosed and repaired.
Because the water pressure tank is connected to the water pump (water in from the well) and also to the building water supply piping (water out to the building) the water tank is said to be "floated on the water line" and when the water pump is running water is pushed simultaneously into the water pressure tank and into the building supply piping.
The pressure control switch turns off the water pump when water pressure in the pressure tank reaches the "pump cut-out pressure" (typically 40 or 50 psi) - pressure switch turns off the well pump.
Bladder type or "captive air" water tanks (shown in our photo at left and in the sketch above) store the water tank's air charge in the upper portion of the steel water tank. Water in the tank moves in and out of a rubber bladder in the tank bottom.
Because the air charge is kept separate from the water in the tank, air is not absorbed into the water and bladder type water tanks do not normally need to have makeup air added.
Water pressure or water pump short cycling problems with bladder-type water tanks are usually traced to a problem with the pump controls, with well and water piping leaks, or less often, to a failure of the internal tank bladder itself - a component that may be replaceable.
If the water-containing rubber bladder in a "captive air" water tank is defective (it can become stuck to itself and remain collapsed), the result can be a rapid on-off short cycling of the water pump.
We test water pressure tanks to see if they're empty or nearly empty of water by seeing if we can gently rock or move the tank.
If the water tank is heavy with water it does not move easily.
Watch out: Be careful not to jiggle the tank so hard that you cause a leak or break a pipe! Bladder type or captive-air water pressure tanks and their repairs are described just above and in more detail at WATER TANK TYPES where we describe all of the types of storage tanks found in, on, or around buildings.
Bladderless Steel Water Pressure Tanks (photo at left and sketch just below) use a single steel tank interior to hold both the air charge and the water supply.
Modern steel bladderless type water tanks may be coated internally to increase the water tank life by resisting corrosion.
That's what "glass lined" refers to on some water tanks.
(A "glass lined" or "epoxy coated" water tank will not be a bladder type water tank which we discussed above.)
Bladderless water pressure tanks, because the air charge and water are in the same container, can lose their air charge over time (air is absorbed into the water) and may need air added.
See WATER TANK AIR, HOW TO ADD for details.
Air in the water tank acts like a spring or cushion which serves to smooth the delivery of water into the building as the pump cycles on and off. That's why we call this the water pressure tank rather than a water storage tank - though for most people these are the same device. Sketch courtesy of Carson Dunlop Associates, a Toronto home inspection, report writing, & education company.
This air cushion effect prevents the water from surging (much) at the plumbing fixture as the pump turns on and off as water is running during use of the fixture (such as a sink or shower).
More important, this cushion effect prevents short-cycling of the pump on and off, which in turn prevents pump burnout or water pressure control switch damage which could occur if the system switches on and off too rapidly.
Why is a pressure tank with a buffer or spring or cushion of air needed? Water itself is not very compressible.
Since a pump can usually pump faster than the flow of water out of a single faucet, as soon as the pump switched on, water pressure would build way up and the pump would immediately switch off.
Water would not flow nicely from the tap. Instead it would come in a series of squirts. Worse, you'd burn up the water pump or pump control switch by this rapid cycling.
The air cushion in the tank acts like a big spring which is compressed by water pushed into the tank by the pump at the same time that water is also flowing out of the pump, tank, and piping system into the building to whatever faucet has been opened.
So while water is running in a building served by a private well, part of the time the water flow is being maintained only by air pressure in the water tank, and part of the time the water flow is being boosted by the pump during its on cycle. And during the pump's on cycle, it is both pushing water into the house and re-pressurizing (by compressing) air in the water tank.
I have a well system at a marina and would like to install commercial flushometer toilets and urinals. It is old and is currently served by a standard residential system.
I have space above the rest rooms and would like to install a stand alone pressurized system that is fed by the existing residential system, but would provide the gpm and pressure to function the commercial units. Likely to be a total of 3 toilets and two urinals.
Any ideas or plans available? Thanks, Bill
Bill, we provide a detailed answer to this question
at FLUSHOMETER VALVES for TOILETS URINALS
While flushometer valves by various manufacturers can operate at a range of water pressures (10-100 psi) the typical operating pressure requirement is 25 psi. But the fixtures also need a high water flow rate at that pressure to operate the valve and flush the fixture properly.
That's why the standard water supply pipe diameter to the fixture is 1 1/4" rather than the common 1/2" or 3/4" water supply piping found in residential and light commercial buildings using conventional tank-type toilets.
When choosing fixtures and deciding on water storage volume, pressure, and plumbing specifications you'll need to be sure to check the specific requirements of the flush valves you are buying for the urinals and toilets.
Reader Question: I'm replacing my well tank. The plumber says they recycle these tanks. Is that possible? - Anon
Well water tanks are often collected and recycled, especially by larger plumbing and well drilling companies. To recycle an internal-bladder well water pressure tank the tank is cut open and the bladder is removed.
The remaining steel is delivered to a recycler. This is a useful detail to know about not just because we recommend recycling whenever possible.
Our photo (left) of a bladderless steel water pressure tank illustrates a unit that was replaced by a newer internal bladder tank
. The steel tank will be taken away by the installer (avoiding leaving something difficult for the homeowner to dispose-of), and stored in the installer's junkyard until that company has accumulated enough tanks to have them hauled en-masse to the recycler.
The plumbing company that opens water pressure tanks has an inside view of problems that may have developed with the bladder or with the tank itself - useful water tank failure cause and effect data.
Continue reading at CISTERNS or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.
Or see WATER PRESSURE BOOSTER PUMP - using a pump and tank to improve building water pressure
Or see WATER PUMP PRESSURE SENSITIVE - pressure boosting without a pressure tank
Or see WATER TANK FAQs - questions & answers posted originally at this article.
Or see WATER TANK REPAIR PROCEDURES
Or see WATER TANK TYPES - what are the different kinds of water pressure tanks & water storage tanks & how are they used?
Or use the SEARCH BOX found below to Ask a Question or Search InspectApedia
Try the search box below or CONTACT US by email if you cannot find the answer you need at InspectApedia.
Please see WATER TANK FAQs where most of our diagnostic questions & answers appear; also see the FAQs given below.
(May 11, 2016) Pat said:
We are having an issue with our water pressure changing (which changes the water temperature) while we're taking showers. We're on a hill. We use city water that feeds directly into a tank. From there our pump feeds it to the house. Our pressure tank is at the end of the line (water goes through the house before getting to the tank). There is a sixty foot elevation change from our water tank, which is where the pump is, to the house. is this too much for the pump to try to push the water up 60 ft in elevation, plus another 120'(when it gets to the top before reaching the house), and keep a reasonably consistent pressure so the temperature doesn't change while taking a shower?
Have you considered installing a point-of-use anti-scald valve that will regulate water temperature regardless of pressure changes? That's what I'd do. Searching InspectApedia.com for "point of use anti scald valve" returns this article that may help:
An alternative would be to install a much larger pressure tank closer to the point of use of the water (in the house). I think the POU anti scald valve is a better idea.
(May 15, 2016) Pat said:
Thank you for your suggestion, but i don't think an anti scalding valve is what i need. I checked with an infrared thermometer and the hot water heater doesn't put out more that about 117 degrees. With cold water already mixing in it never feels like it gets to a scalding point. It's just the changing pressure and temp that is bothersome.
I would still like to know if putting another tank and pump combo at the top of the hill (house level) would help with the changing pressure.
Right, Pat, but a valve that automatically regulates the temperature at the fixture should protect not just from scalding but from getting too cold as pressure between hot and cold vary. Or am I still missing something.
Another route is to add an independent pressure booster to your water system to try to keep pressure more uniform. We do that with a local tank and pressure booster pump - more or less what you're thinking.
(May 18, 2016) Anonymous said:
One of our future projects (sooner than later) is remodeling both bath/shower areas. We would then just purchase new valves with the temperature regulators built in. But, I'm thinking that the installation of a local tank and pressure booster pump would be helpful.
Any suggestions as to the size of the tank and size and type of booster pump?
(May 20, 2016) Jan said:
water come out from the air valve on top of the pressure tank, . Is need to replace or can be repaired that tank?
If it's an internal bladder tank the bladder or tank needs replacement
(June 2, 2016) princess said:
what is my guide in buying a pressure tank? how big should it be in terms of the size of the tank and the size of the motor.
what is also my guide in buying an overhead water tank, what is the capacity?
Princess I'm not familiar with "overhead" water tanks - nor just what you're asking about. Tank physical size requirements depend on the job it's doing; a simple typical north American water pressure tank, regulating pressure, not storing backup volumes of water, is small - 30-50 gallon rated capacity. Tanks in the hundreds or thousands of gallons are needed in some situation such as storing a water reserve when a well is limited.
(June 7, 2016) Anonymous said:
pin hole in tank
Hardware store or plumbing supplier tank repair metal screw + rubber washer. Short term fix.
(June 7, 2016) Nancy said:
Hi there. I have an old bladderless pressure tank for my irrigation system. I recently had to fix a leak in a pipe running to/from the tank and had to drain all of the water out of the tank. I now have the irrigation system running but the pump will not stop and no water seems to be going into the pressure tank. I don't seem to have any other leaks in the system. How do I get water back into the pressure tank to stop the system from running on? Any ideas?
I suspect your pump has lost prime. Search InspectApedia for HOW TO PRIME THE PUMP to read details. Don't let a pump keep running dry as it's likely to be damaged.
(July 17, 2016) Jamie said:
What's the wiring order for the pressure switch on pressure tank
Easy wiring instructions are usually given on a sticker right inside the pressure switch cover.
(July 19, 2016) Jason said:
How do I know if the bladder is bad in my pressure tank? When I put air in, it comes out through the T bar drain plug?
If the T-bar drain plug is at the bottom of your pressure tank where water is normally going to be routed into the tank, and if air is coming out there (at an air valve), and if your tank uses an internal bladder, then I suspect the bladder is torn or burst.
(Aug 14, 2016) t said:
low pressure how can i tell if bladder is bad
Low water pressure would not directly be due to a defective tank bladder; more likely a bladder that's stuck and not allowing water into the pressure tank or that has a hole and is leaking, will result in water pump short cycling on and off too rapidly. Ultimately that short-cycling can damage the pump itself or its control switch. IF that happens more likely the pump just won't run.
Search InspectApedia.com for DIAGNOSE LOW WATER PRESSURE to see diagnostic and repair suggestions.
(Aug 21, 2016) f. castellanos said:
I have a 20 gallons pressure tank, and after bleeding or discharging a lot of water, a great deal of it remains. Can I open it in the bottom (it has 4 bolts) and get all the water out? It is a rubber bladder type.
I would NOT open the bolted-cover on the water pressure tank bottom to remove remaining water from the tank as I speculate that that's a port intended to permit replacement of the tank bladder; you may damage the bladder or have trouble getting a re-seal on the tank, and besides it's not necessary.
If your tank indeed uses an internal bladder as you and I think, simply opening the drain valve at the tank bottom while the pump is turned off will normally drain all of the water out of the tank; that's because the air pre-charge in the tank will push the water out. The air pre-charge is set to 2 psi below the pressure control switch CUT-IN pressure, say 28 psi. That's more than enough to empty the tank.
If your tank uses an internal bladder and no more water will drain out of the tank but the tank is still heavy with water I suspect a perforated or damaged tank bladder. Search InspectApedia.com for WATER TANK BLADDER REPAIR to see details.
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