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Water Testing

Well Water Testing

Overview

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) rules that protect public drinking water systems do not apply to individual water systems, such as privately owned wells. As an individual water system owner, it is up to you to make sure that your water is safe to drink.

What To Test for In Your Well

Several water quality indicators (WQIs) and contaminants that should be tested for in your water are listed below. A WQI test is a test that measures the presence and amount of certain germs in water. In most cases, the presence of WQIs is not the cause of sickness; however, they are easy to test for and their presence may indicate the presence of sewage and other disease-causing germs from human and/or animal feces.

When To Have Your Well Tested

At a minimum, check your well every spring to make sure there are no mechanical problems; test it once each year for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels. If you suspect other contaminants, you should test for those as well. However, spend time identifying potential problems as these tests can be expensive. The best way to start is to consult a local expert, such as the local health department, about local contaminants of concern. You should also have your well tested if:

  • There are known problems with well water in your area
  • You have experienced problems near your well (i.e., flooding, land disturbances, and nearby waste disposal sites)
  • You replace or repair any part of your well system
  • You notice a change in water quality (i.e., taste, color, odor)

Examples of Water Quality Indicators:

Drinking water in the test tube for chemical and microbiological analysis

Coliform bacteria are microbes found in the digestive systems of warm-blooded animals, in soil, on plants, and in surface water. These microbes typically do not make you sick; however, because microbes that do cause disease are hard to test for in the water, "total coliforms" are tested instead. If the total coliform count is high, then it is very possible that harmful germs like viruses, bacteria, and parasites might also be found in the water.

Fecal coliform bacteria are a specific kind of total coliform. The feces (or stool) and digestive systems of humans and warm-blooded animals contain millions of fecal coliforms. E. coli is part of the fecal coliform group and may be tested for by itself. Fecal coliforms and E. coli are usually harmless. However, a positive test may mean that feces and harmful germs have found their way into your water system. These harmful germs can cause diarrhea, dysentery, and hepatitis. It is important not to confuse the test for the common and usually harmless WQI E. coli with a test for the more dangerous germ E. coli O157:H7.

The pH level tells you how acidic or basic your water is. The pH level of the water can change how your water looks and tastes. If the pH of your water is too low or too high, it could damage your pipes, cause heavy metals like lead to leak out of the pipes into the water, and eventually make you sick.

Examples of Contaminates

Nitrate is naturally found in many types of food. However, high levels of nitrate in drinking water can make people sick. Nitrate in your well water can come from animal waste, private septic systems, wastewater, flooded sewers, polluted storm water runoff, fertilizers, agricultural runoff, and decaying plants. The presence of nitrate in well water also depends on the geology of the land around your well. A nitrate test is recommended for all wells. If the nitrate level in your water is higher than the EPA standards, you should look for other sources of water or ways to treat your water.

VOCs are industrial and fuel-related chemicals that may cause bad health effects at certain levels. Which VOCs to test for depends on where you live. Contact your local health or environmental department, or the EPA to find out if any VOCs are a problem in your region. Some VOCs to ask about testing for are benzene, carbon tetrachloride, toluene, trichloroethelene, and methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

Other germs or harmful chemicals that you should test for will depend on where your well is located on your property, which state you live in, and whether you live in an urban or rural area. These tests could include testing for lead, arsenic, mercury, radium, atrazine, and other pesticides. You should check with your local health or environmental department, or the EPA to find out if any of these contaminants are a problem in your region.

Please remember that if your test results say that there are germs or chemicals in your water, you should contact your local health or environmental department for guidance in interpreting the test.

Certified Laboratory Testing

Do not take your drinking water for granted. Safeguard your most basic necessity. Please read below to understand why.

Since industrialization, we are continuously producing, using and releasing man-made chemicals in our environment. These chemicals leaching through the surface, through contaminated rain water or through the contaminated source of the drinking water, may end up in your kitchen faucet! These chemicals, most of them, are dangerous to human health and cause many health issues ranging from bad taste, upset stomach, attacking our nervous system, damaging our skin to causing cancer just to name a few.

Basic water sampling includes testing for bacteria and nitrate/nitrite chemical contamination.

For FHA/VA Financing
FHA/VA and some state housing finance programs require more extensive water testing, including bacteria, nitrate/nitrite chemical contamination, turbidity (clarity), iron, lead, chlorine and PH.

For Property Owners
EPA and other experts recommend annual water testing for bacteria and nitrite/nitrate chemical contamination. In addition, every 3 years, test for sulfate, chloride, iron, manganese, lead, hardness and corrosion index.

Water quality is a concern for many reasons:

  • Your Family’s health. Drinking and bathing in contaminated water can cause serious health problems. 
  • If you are purchasing a home with a private well, you should always be concerned about its physical condition. Sometimes a well becomes contaminated because it is defective. In other words, it’s not the water source that’s the problem, it’s the well itself. Wells can be very expensive to repair or replace ($5,000-$10,000 per well).
  • Your lender may require that the well pass a water test prior to loan approval. 
  • Whether you are purchasing a home or have lived in yours for a long time, a private well should be tested for the most common contaminates: bacteria, nitrates, nitrites and lead. The EPA and the American Ground Water Trust recommend ANNUAL testing of private wells.

Common Drinking Water Problems and Solutions

A listing of symptoms in water, the common causes, and possible solutions to common drinking water problems.

Symptoms in Water Common Causes Possible Solutions
¹mg/L stands for milligrams per liter. This is a common water testing measurement and is equal to ppm or parts per million.
²SMCL stands for Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level—set by EPA for aesthetic problems (tastes, etc.) in drinking water.
³MCL stands for Maximum Contaminant Level—set by EPA for health-related issues in drinking water supplies.
Grayish white film in sinks, tubs, dishes, reduced suds in laundry, frequent failure of water heater elements, scale in teapots.

Hardness  due to calcium and magnesium dissolved from bedrock. There is no drinking standard but a hardness level above about 120 mg/L¹ or 7 grains per gallon is most likely to cause these symptoms.

 

Ion exchange water softener (exchanges calcium and magnesium for sodium or potassium).
Water which is initially clear but produces brown, orange or red- dish stains or sediment, metallic tasting water.

Iron  dissolved from bedrock or from nearby disturbance (mining, etc.). Iron above the drinking water standard (SMCL²) of 0.3 mg/L is most likely to cause these symptoms.

Water softener (low to moderate concentrations of iron if recommended by manufacturer) or oxidizing filter for higher concentrations (pH adjustment of water may be necessary). Manganese concentration should also be considered when choosing treatment (see below).

 

Black specks or black stains, metallic tasting water. Standing water (tub or toilet tank) may appear gray or black.

Manganese  dissolved from bedrock or from nearby disturbance (mining, etc.). Manganese above the SMCL of 0.05 mg/L will cause these symptoms.

Water softener (low concentrations of manganese if recommended by manufacturer), oxidizing filter for higher concentrations (pH adjustment of water may be necessary to optimize removal).

 

Salty taste, corrosion of metals.

Chloride  dissolved from bedrock or from various local activities (road salt, gas drilling brines, etc.). Chloride above the SMCL of 250 mg/L is most likely to cause these symptoms.

 

Reverse osmosis or distillation systems at individual taps. As chloride is very difficult to remove from water, consider developing new source of water.
Orange or opaque gelatinous film or strands coating toilet, and sinks, musty odor. Oily film on water surface (see also page 2).

Iron bacteria . There is no drinking water standard for iron bacteria in water but any presence of these bacteria can cause these symptoms.

Shock chlorination of well, continuous down-well chlorination using pellet droppers in severe cases. Follow-up with multi-level media unit. Carbon filtration may be needed to reduce chlorine.
Gurgling or bubbling noise in well, spurting faucets, white gas bubbles in water.

Dissolved gases in water (methane, ethane, carbon dioxide) from natural sources or from mining/gas drilling. There are no standards for these gases. Methane concentrations above 28 mg/L are most likely to cause these symptoms.

 

Continue routine testing if concentrations is below 7 mg/L. Install vented well cap above about 7 mg/L and aeration system for higher concentrations (above about 28 mg/L).
Rotten egg odor in cold and hot water, black greasy stains.

Hydrogen sulfide, sulfides, sulfate reducing bacteria  in groundwater. There is no standard but any amount can cause these symptoms. NOTE: odor at one sink may be caused by bacteria in drain rather than water (disinfect drain to remove odor).

 

Shock chlorination of well (in some cases), oxidizing filter, continuous chlorination and filtration. Activated carbon filtration may be used for less severe cases.
Rotten egg odor in hot water only.

Hydrogen sulfide  generated by a chemical reaction with anti-corrosion magnesium rod (often called the “anode rod”) in hot water heater.

 

Remove and omit rod or replace with alternate metal rod (caution: removing rod may void the heater warranty).
Turbid, cloudy, or dirty water

Measurable concentrations of total suspended sediment (TSS) or turbiditycaused by silt, sediment, and clay from runoff or nearby earth disturbance or drilling activities. May also originate from oxidized metals (iron above 0.3 mg/L and/or manganese above 0.05 mg/L) that are naturally occurring or from mining.

 

Cartridge or bag element filtration (less severe cases) or multi-level media filtration (more severe cases).