On Sept. 1, 1979, I struck out on my own to become an independent PHVAC mechanical contractor. I’d been an employee for seven years, and I certainly knew I did not know everything. Fact is, I’ll never know everything because of how vast the treasure trove of knowledge was then and still is — knowledge has grown exponentially, and that’s been the best part of this adventure: There’s always something new to learn each and every day. 

My former boss was fond of throwing me into the deep end of the latest venture pool! “Here, you’re in charge of all oil burner work.” But we don’t do oil burner work. “We do now – here’s your first service call!” Sink or swim, and I was determined to be the best in the pool. As always, I sought out mentors and found them in Jim Wilson and John Wilson, who managed the local Sid Harvey’s branch. They stocked the parts I needed and had a great deal of knowledge regarding oil heat. I soaked up all I could and attended every training opportunity that was available. 

Our little town of York, Pennsylvania, is really no different than any town USA in that there are unique and wonderful back alley shops staffed with gurus of knowledge. Jack Bentz was one such guru and his forte was in well water pumps and water treatment systems. We all knew him as “Red,” his well-known nickname. Red was the lone employee of P. W. Strickland, and to this day, I truly believe he was the best most knowledgeable well pump guy within the radius of my portion of Southeastern Pennsylvania. A better mentor you couldn’t ask for. Whenever training was available, I took the time off to soak up the knowledge available. 

At the time, I was a sole proprietor and fearless when it came to tackling all things new. One of my first well pump replacements was for a commercial business. Suspended on 2 inch galvanized steel at 450 feet deep, the 5-horsepower 3-phase pump windings were shot, presumably from the previous night’s thunderstorm. The owner was a friend of our family and we belonged to the same trout-fishing club. Networking has always been a great asset. Red to the rescue! I did not have a pump jack — he did and loaned it to me. 

If you’re not familiar with a pump jack, it’s a heavy-duty oak plank with a hole for the pipe at its center and a set of toothed jaws to grip and hold the pipe being extracted from falling back down into the well, which allows you to disassemble the upper section of pipe with the crane, setting it aside before returning to once again lift another section above grade. Red also hooked me up with a crane operator and told me what to expect — mostly that I’d be getting wet and really soaked if I failed to wrap a rag around the joint while disassembling the 21-foot sections of galvanized steel pipe. 

There were no heat-shrink or plastic compression tubes for the wiring — back then, we joined the ends together with rosin-core solder, and then wrapped each junction with rubber stretch tape followed by No. 88 electrical tape to ensure the rubber stretch tape could not come loose. Before inserting the new pump into the well, I did a final check of the motor windings because how dumb would I look if after reassembling 22 pieces of 2-inch galvanized steel and installing them in the well, the pump wouldn’t run? 

Lots of pumps followed, including numerous agricultural settings. Chickens are stupid! When a well pump goes down, the heart-cup feeders go dry and if the chickens peck a few too many times without getting water, they quit trying and must be retrained. Mad dash time! While installing the new pump, I spied a house on fire near the horizon. One of the owners happened to be walking by and I asked him if anyone had called the fire department? Turned out to be a home owned by the chicken farm that they rented, and he rousted a crew to go do battle. If you’ve never been inside a commercial egg laying hen house, let me tell you they only clean out the chicken poop when the laying hens are shipped off to the soup companies and the air is thick with ammonia. If you tear up cutting onions, you’ll have the water works really leaking!

Pump calls

One of the first pump calls I ever had was for a Goulds jet pump. I knew just enough to be dangerous, but here was a pump with a delayed response to pressure drops when the owners drew water. The pressure gauge would drop almost to 0 psi before the pump switch would snap shut and bring the pump on. There was no issue with the pump, and pressure recovered rapidly. So why was the pressure switch so slow to react, but worked fine once it did? 

Power off, pressure drained away, and removed the 20/40 pressure switch. No debris, so next was the copper pilot tube from switch to the cast iron body of the Goulds pump, which was free and clear. Peering inside the compression fitting on the pump body, I spied what appeared to be a solid blockage, which turned out to be a shelf of rust. Over the next several decades, I would encounter this numerous times. 

One nuisance well pump call had me vexed, so I turned to Red for advice. It was a deep-well jet pump installation with a low-yield well. Jet pumps, for the most part, are designed to deliver 10 gpm. This one was getting air-bound, which causes the jet pump to lose its prime and required manually re-priming the pump. We were having a drought, and the well’s water level was lower than normal. The recovery rate was obviously less than 10 gpm, and the foot valve was so close to being out of water that air was being pulled in, hence — loss of prime. My first thought was to install a flow restrictor, but the owner wasn’t too happy about the idea because once rains returned and the well was back to normal, they felt that would have to be removed. 

Red listened carefully and said he had the ideal solution. He noted we don’t normally like to have a shallow well (single-pipe) jet pump foot valve more than 25 feet below the water surface in the well. “But, I’m dealing with a deep well (two-pipe) jet pump,” I said. Red told me I needed to redo the piping and add a tailpipe. 

“We always keep the foot valve a minimum of 15-feet above the bottom of the well so no debris is sucked in and you’re going to shorten up the two-pipes by 34-feet and add a 34-foot tailpipe with relocating the foot valve to the end of the tailpipe,” Red said. “This then becomes a self-regulating flow-control device. As the water level falls below the ejector assembly toward the foot valve, your flow will eventually match the well’s yield. If you only have a 4-gpm recovery rate, then once the water falls to 25 feet below the ejector assembly, the gpm delivery rate will match the recovery rate — end of losing prime!” (See page 17, “Tail Pipe” of the Goulds pump basics) As always, Red was right and thus endeth the saga of the lost prime. Thanks, and a hat-tip to the engineer at Goulds who came up with this idea. 

Decades later, after acquiring F. W. Behler and having multiple employees, I hired Red to set up a well water pump shop and train our employees. It was a pleasure having my mentor and friend in-house to pass on his knowledge. Unfortunately, Red passed on just a few years later. Gone but never to be forgotten by the thousands of folks — like me — he helped over many decades.