Getting good at repairing pumps in the field
By Robert Stuart
The world of pumps is becoming more and more complicated. To techs (in most cases) a pump is a pump and we simply need to match flow, amps and power requirements. But spa manufacturers are looking to set themselves apart and offer something unique, so in our industry pumps are constantly changing.
Another complication is that salespeople sell the customers on nomenclature, names and titles. Service people live in a world of amps, frame size, discharge types and union connections. I’ve seen customers confused because the salesman told them the color of their pumps were unique and no other pump would work, so when the tech showed up with a plain black pump, they felt it was the wrong one.
Most techs try to install OEM equipment when replacing a pump or motor; however, sometimes that’s not an option. Over the last several years, the pump market has changed so much that many of the OEM pumps are no longer made; some are proprietary and almost impossible for a nondealer to get; and sometimes you just don’t have the luxury of hunting down the original equipment.
In those cases, what do you need to look for? What should you stock in your truck and what is the best way to prevent another trip?
WHAT TO STOCK
Figure out what you service the most. If you’re a dealer of specific brands and only service those brands, it’s pretty easy: Cross-reference the year or serial number with the manufacturer, and make sure you have that pump before going on the call. If you’re a service company that works on everything, it takes a bit more work to figure out what you need.
If you’re a field tech, never head out on a service call without getting as much information as possible, including symptoms. A good tech can narrow most problems down to a few things with a simple conversation with the customer. It’s easy to assume a “My spa is tripping the breaker” call means a problem with the heat element, but a few more questions might let you know the spa had been making a noise when the motor starts pointing to a motor issue instead.
I’ve sold Marquis, MAAX, Cal Spas, Catalina, D1, Master Spas, Viking and a few other brands out of my store; there are also two Watkins dealers and a Sundance/Jacuzzi dealer in the area. I stock four pumps most of the time: a Balboa Dura Jet, an Aqua-Flo Flo-Master XP2e, and Waterway Executive 56/48 frame pumps. These cover about 70 percent of my service calls. Sometimes I have to change unions or other plumbing to get them to work, and often I remove mounting brackets and simply use a shock pad. You can buy ½- to ¾-inch rubber floor matting at any hardware store and cut it into small motor pads to carry with you as shock pads.
The art of rebuilding pumps or motors isn’t what it once was. Few techs do it, and even fewer do it efficiently. Simply replacing a pump seal can create the need for a new impeller or wet end, and if the bearing is shot the labor and parts involved can cost as much as a new motor, so it’s often easier just to sell them one.
Getting good at repairing pumps can set you apart from the competition, but you will need to be efficient. Most spa motors use one of a few pump seals. I stock U.S. Seal Mfg.’s 100, 200, 201 and 1000 (I actually use the Viton/Salt version, but these numbers are most commonly known). I also stock 6202 and 6203 bearings, as those are what I see the most. I bought a puller from an auto-parts store to pull the bearings, and adapted my own set of homemade tools to push bearings and seals back on that includes everything from old sockets to various sizes of PVC.
As far as impellers go, I’ve found that stocking one each for Vico, AquaFlo, Waterway, PowerRight, Sta-Rite and Sundance/Jacuzzi pumps in 3 to 4 horsepower covers most rebuild needs.
TAKING IT APART
One of the first things I do on every service call is look between the motor and the wet end to see if there is corrosion and determine if the seal has been leaking. If it has, I listen to the bearing to see if it sounds like it has been compromised.
Once the diagnosis is done and I let the customer know the situation, I pull the motor and take the face off the pump to see if I can get the impeller off. I use a pair of large Craftsman oil filter pliers with a cloth on the impeller to see if it will move, being careful to not squeeze too hard and break the fins. Then I turn the armature with either an armature tool (from Pool Tool) or a wrench on the back of the motor. If it doesn’t move easily, I mark the motor housing front and back, pull the motor bolts out and pop the whole rotor/armature out with the pump head attached. Laying it all on a foam rubber pad, I put a 3-foot wood clamp with rubber grips on the jaw onto the rotor to hold it in place, then re-grip the impeller (or use an impeller wedge from Pool Tool) and try to move it by gripping the handle of the clamp and pliers and turning them opposite directions. The impeller wedge is great, however if there is a lot of corrosion it’s not going to hold.
Once the impeller is off, I can remove the seal and ceramic seat and replace those. If the impeller shaft is cracked it’s best to replace it, especially if the seal rides on it and could ride imbalanced. If I have to remove the bearing then the motor faceplate has to come off. This can be accomplished by wiggling back and forth with two flat blade screwdrivers, but be careful to not force it and bend the plate. Before I pull the bearing, I usually put a nut or shaft cover over the shaft threads to keep from damaging them with the puller. Once the bearing is out, I clean the shaft with emery cloth and use CRC cleaner to get dirt and grease off.
PUTTING IT BACK TOGETHER
Putting it all back together, I use a water-based shaft seal lube from U.S. Seal Mfg. to slide the bearing back in place and on the rubber part of the seal. In the field I use a piece of PVC and a mallet to tap the bearing back on. I use CRC or alcohol on a rag to clean the ceramic seat; if this has any dirt or even oil from your fingers, it will deteriorate the seal again. I then use magic lube on the wet end o-ring and snug everything back together with hand tools. I commonly come upon pumps that techs have used a drill to put everything back together and damaged the pump head grommets or they went the other way and didn’t get it all tight enough. You simply can’t tell with a drill; you have to do it by hand.
Before putting the pump back in the spa, make sure it all turns free. If it’s tight, chances are the capacitor won’t be able to overcome the friction and the motor won’t start. Look at the capacitors with the motor out and make sure they aren’t leaking.
Sometimes you’ll have problems, like when the impeller breaks and the grommet sticks on the end of the shaft threads. A common mistake here is to clamp it with vise grips and try to take it off. The grommet is usually brass, and squeezing it too hard will only make it tighter to the point you’ll break the threaded end. It’s best to bring a small propane torch (you should always have one in your truck anyway) and heat only the grommet trying to avoid getting the shaft hot.
Motor repair is always easier on the bench, but it doesn’t take long to get good at it in the field. Remember, if you have to take it back to the shop, you will increase your service time by at least double so the more you can accomplish on-site the better.
Pump seals, bearings and pump tools are usually available at most distributors, but you may have to ask. Some don’t offer them in their catalog.
These skills are invaluable and can bleed over into other areas of your life. Last year, my wife had a serpentine pulley come off her car in a remote area without the ability to get the part for days. I got there late at night to fix it, popped a spa motor apart, pulled the bearing and used it in the belt pulley! It ran that way for 2,000 miles before I got around to putting a new one on (although the car did go into a filter cycle every 500 miles after that). A good spa tech can fix anything!