Well water testing is a must if you live in a home with a well. Unlike municipal water, which has been tested and filtered of dangerous substances, there’s no one watching that well water but you! So, letting it slide can be unsafe—for you and your house.
So whether you own a home with well water or are considering buying one, here’s what you need to know about how to test well water and make sure it’s safe.
How many homes have well water, anyway?
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 13 million Americans get their drinking water from a private well, a structure drilled into the earth that draws up groundwater to use for drinking, bathing, washing clothes, watering plants, and more. Because that water is coming right out of the ground, there is always a chance that it could be carrying harmful chemicals, bacteria, and more.
That’s where well water testing comes in, says Eric Roy, a chemist and founder of water filtration firm Hydroviv from Washington, DC. He splits tests into two types:
- Base-level testing: This test is often required by lenders before they’ll sign off on a mortgage, and it typically looks for things in the water that are tied to damage of the home’s infrastructure. For example, a bank-mandated test may bring to light issues of “hardness,” or chemicals that can damage the home’s pipes and plumbing. However, this test typically doesn’t address any safety issues for bathing or drinking.
- Higher-level testing: This test is the one homeowners should invest in, Roy suggests. It looks at things that are harmful to humans, such as arsenic levels or volatile organic compounds, which are organic chemicals that can make you sick if you ingest them. People tend to assume that any basic water test will look for every possible issue that’s out there, but that’s not the case. “Water testing only tests for things that you are looking for,” Roy says. “For example, if you’re just doing basic testing, you’ll never find lead, even if it’s a giant problem in your water.”
How is well water testing done?
Don’t count on a regular home inspector to screen well water in addition to checking out a home you hope to buy.
“Water testing is almost never part of a basic home inspection,” Roy warns.
David Henrich, president of the National Groundwater Association Board and vice president of Bergerson-Caldwell, a water well contracting firm in Minnesota, suggests hiring a specialized water inspector to do the test.
This professional will visit the home and collect samples directly from the taps. In addition to examining the samples for signs of a dirty well, such as cloudy water, low water flow, and taste or odor problems, he’ll also take the water to a lab that will measure the amount of bacteria, nitrates, and other contaminants in the well. A list of certified contractors can be found on the NGWA website.
If you want to save some cash, you can perform the test yourself, Henrich says. Many community health departments offer low-cost laboratory testing. They will provide information on how to collect the sample and where to take the collected water for testing. To find a certified lab in your area, call the EPA’s Private Well Owner Hotline at 855-420-9355 or visit the agency website.
How much does well water testing cost?
The costs vary greatly depending on what qualities you are looking to screen for and what the water labs charge around the country, but there are some general rules.
If you have a professional come out to collect samples and test for bacteria, arsenic, and nitrates, Henrich says, the bill will likely sit around $250.
If you collect the samples yourself and take them to a lab to test for those same three issues, the price will likely be closer to $175.
Each bill is subject to higher costs if you or your water collection professional decide to test for additional parameters such as lead or perfluorocarbons, a groundwater contaminant known to be problematic in some areas of the country.
What are some common well water problems?
If you’ve hired a professional to test your water, he should sit down with you to review the lab test results and make sense of all the numbers. You’ll want to pay particular attention to levels of bacteria and lead—there are no “safe” levels of these materials—and nitrates.
“Nitrates are particularly concerning for infants and small children,” Henrich explains. “While harmless in small amounts, high levels can impact both humans and animals.”
The maximum contaminant limit for nitrates issued by the EPA is 10 parts per million.
Can well water issues be fixed?
The good news is that most well water issues can be fixed, and don’t end up breaking the deal when it comes to a home purchase, Henrich says.
“Most issues can be remedied by water treatment to deliver the water quality a homeowner might be looking for,” he notes. “If there are any structural issues with the well, typically that can be remedied in an affordable fashion, too.”
Even lead in well water can be remedied, but costs depend on where the contaminant is coming from. Lead often comes from older pipes. But the exact source should be determined by a professional water treatment company.
You can call a water treatment company to get an estimate for fixing the issue. Buyers who find this problem in a home they hope to purchase can also ask that this cost be covered by the seller. If the seller refuses, it might be a reason to walk away from the home.
Should municipal water be tested, too?
Of course, if the home is on municipal water rather than a well, there’s no well to test. But it’s still worth making sure the water is safe.
The municipality is beholden to municipal water standards dictated by the EPA, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, legislation passed by Congress in 1974 that requires the EPA to set contaminant levels to drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur. You can also check local water quality in the EPA’s required Consumer Confidence Reports.
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