If a well is the primary water source to a home or parcel of land that you’re interested in purchasing, you’ll want to be sure to have well testing done ahead of time.
After all, when using well water, you can’t make any assumptions about its purity.
You need to test the well to ensure that it’s safe for you and your family to use and consume.
In this blog, we’ll discuss the top things you need to know about well testing.
Let’s get started.
1. What is a well test?
A well test is a test that measures the presence and number of certain germs and contaminants present in the water.
2. What does a well test check for?
Well testing checks for several water quality indicators (WQI) and contaminants.
WQI are biological or physico-chemical indicators that are easy to test for and may indicate the presence of toxins or disease-causing germs.
Fortunately, WQIs by themselves do not cause illness in most cases.
That said, you do want to test for them and make sure your water is safe.
You can visit the CDC’s page on Water-Related Disease and Contaminants in Private Wells to read more about the germs and chemicals in drinking water wells and the illnesses that they cause.
3. What are some examples of well water quality indicators (WQIs)?
Here are some examples of water quality indicators that you may want to look out for…
Coliform bacteria comes from animal feces, soil and plant material, and surface water that infiltrates the well.
While most coliform bacteria do not make you sick, testing for specific disease-causing microbes can be difficult since they are usually present in small numbers.
As a result, the total coliform bacteria count is tested instead.
If the count is high, then it’s a good possibility that harmful germs or parasites might be found in the water as well.
Fecal Coliforms / E. Coli:
Fecal coliforms are a type of coliform bacteria originating in the feces and digestive systems of animals (including humans).
E. coli is one of these fecal coliforms and may be tested for by itself.
As with other coloforms, fecal coliforms are typically harmless, but they do indicate that the water may be contaminated by sewage or feces, which can cause diarrhea, dysentery, and hepatitis.
It is important not to confuse this test for the usually harmless WQI E. coli with a test for the more dangerous breed, E. coli O157:H7.
The pH level of your water will tell you how acidic or basic it is.
Well owners like to test the pH level of the water because it can change how the water looks or tastes.
Additionally, if the pH of your water is too low or too high, then it could damage your pipes and eventually make you sick.
4. What are some examples of well contaminants?
Here are some examples of contaminants that you may want to look out for…
This is naturally found in a variety of foods.
High levels of nitrates in drinking water, however, can make you sick.
In well water, nitrates will come from private septic systems, wastewater, animal waste, flooded sewers, polluted stormwater runoff, fertilizers, agricultural runoff, and decaying plants.
This type of test is recommended for all wells, and if your nitrate level is higher than EPA standards, then you should look for other sources of water or ways to treat your water.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs):
VOCs are industrial and fuel-related chemicals that are harmful to your health.
The type of VOCs you’ll encounter ultimately depends on where you live.
Some examples include benzene, carbon tetrachloride, toluene, trichloroethylene, and MTBE.
Other contaminants depend on your local area.
They may include lead, arsenic, atrazine, and other pesticides.
Check with your local health department to see what contaminants are an issue in your region.
5. What isn’t included in a well test?
It’s important to note that radon is typically not on the list of materials that are tested for in a standard well test.
But it’s very important to test for radon in your water supply as it is dangerous to your health.
Be sure to check whether radon is included in your test.
If not, it’s worth paying for an additional radon test.
6. When should you have your well tested?
You should have your well tested at least once a year for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, pH levels, etc.
If you suspect other contaminants, then those should be tested for as well.
A local expert from your health department will be helpful in this case.
They can help you identify whether you just need a routine check or if any local contaminants are of particular concern.
You may also need your well tested if:
There are known problems with well water in your area
You have experienced problems near your well (flooding, land disturbances, nearby waste disposal sites, etc)
You replace or repair any part of your well system
You notice a change in water quality (taste, color, odor, etc.)
7. Who should test your well?
State and local health or environmental departments will often offer to test private wells for nitrates, total coliforms, fecal coliform, volatile organic compounds, and pH.
To find someone to test your well, visit your local health or environmental department’s website or county government’s website to find out how to submit a water sample for test at a state-certified (licensed) laboratory.
8. What should I know if I’m buying a property with a well?
If you’re buying a property with a well, you may be in some new territory.
We’ve collected some frequently asked questions, and we’re compiling them here, so you can read up on what you may want to know.
Is well water safe to drink?
Yes! Water from a private well can be just as safe (if not safer) than municipal water.
To ensure its safety, you’ll need to regularly test the water.
How can I tell if my well water is safe?
The only way to know for sure if your well water is safe is to have it tested.
Note that some contaminants will change the appearance, smell, or taste of your water.
If this is the case, then you’ll want to send a sample in to your state health department or call an inspector immediately to come out and have your water tested.
Can I test my water at home?
Do-it-yourself test kits are available for you to test your water at home.
However, these tests will never be as accurate as those performed in a state-certified lab.
For the best results, utilize the services of a certified lab in your area.
How often should I have my well tested?
The government generally recommends having your water tested annually for coliform bacteria and nitrates.
Other contaminants should be tested for once every five to ten years.
How long will it take to get the results?
It depends on the tests you’ve ordered.
For typical results, you may see your results as quickly as three to five business days.
However, some labs can take as long as two weeks to return your results.
How much property do you need if you have a well?
If your property has a well, then it may also have a septic system.
Because of this combination, you’ll want at least a a half acre of land.
However, you will also want to check with your local planning department to see if they have additional lot size requirements.
For example, many New York towns require a minimum of two acres when a well and septic system are used.
This is because septic systems can leak and contaminate the well if they’re too close together.
How old is your well?
On average, a well typically lasts around 30 to 50 years.
If you’re purchasing a home with a well that’s over 20 years old, you should factor in replacing the parts of the well that will eventually fail into your budget.
For example, it’s common for well pumps to only last around 10 years or so.
Make sure you ask the owner how old the well is, and if they aren’t sure, get a well inspection.
Inspections often show some clear signs of age!
What type of well is acceptable?
You should only buy a home with a drilled well.
A drilled well typically goes down 100 feet or more and is built with special equipment.
A drilled well is preferred over a dug or bored well as they are more reliable and less prone to contamination.
You can recognize a drilled well because there will be a pipe sticking up out of the ground at least a foot or more with a thick cap on the end of it.
How far apart should the well and the septic system be?
A well and the septic system should be at least 100 feet apart.
If you come across a home where the septic system and the well are close together, then it’s best to avoid buying this home.
Where should the well cap be?
A well cap should always be located uphill or on level ground.
As contaminants (like oil and grease from your driveway or manure from your livestock) fall on the ground, they can flow downhill and contaminate the well where water pools on the ground.
You always want your well to be located on a level surface or uphill so contaminants can’t accumulate on top of it.
9. What should I know before I get a well inspection?
You shouldn’t buy a home with a well without testing that well first.
Well testing will check for two things: water quality and water quantity.
For water quality, a water sample will be taken from the tap and sent to a qualified lab where tests are performed.
The lab will run the test analysis and return your results letting you know if you’ve passed the limit for each element.
In some cases, you may be told that your water is “unsafe.”
Check out #11 if you want to know why.
There’s an indefinite number of possibilities for why your water quality may be testing as unsafe, and you should consider all of them as you address the problem.
For water quantity, most locations require that the well produces 3-5 gallons of water per minute.
Generally, you’ll see a 3-gallon minimum is required for older homes and a 5-gallon minimum for new homes.
It’s important to note that just because a well has clean and safe drinking water does not mean that it has a large enough quantity to meet the needs of your household.
When you get your well inspected, a professional inspector will help you check the flow rate.
The flow rate is affected by the well’s drawdown rate (which can be determined by a drawdown test).
The drawdown rate is the rate at which water drops when a well is being pumped.
The stable rate is the rate at which there is no drawdown.
This will be affected by the size of the static head (or the total volume of water the well can hold while at rest), the pump rate and the well recovery rate (or the rate at which new water enters the well).
If the test finds the well doesn’t have the capacity to handle your water needs, the most common fixes are:
Drilling a new well
You can try to drill a new well in a different spot that has better access to water.
Just keep in mind that this will cost between $5,000-$15,000 depending on the soil and the depth of the water.
This method injects high-powered water into the rock formation around the well.
The idea is to widen the fractures in the rock to increase the network of water-bearing fissures that supply water to the well.
Just keep in mind that if you decide to decommission the existing well on your property, there are usually regulations governing the proper procedure.
Typically, the well will need to be professionally filled and sealed.
This way it does not drain, contaminate or otherwise harm the groundwater.
10. How much does well testing cost?
A full well inspection ranges from $300 to $500.
The ultimate cost will depend on the inspector and the type of water test they must conduct to check the water quality.
The average water test on a property is anywhere from $25 to $400.
This variation has to do with the number and type of tests you request.
11. What is causing my water sample to test as “unsafe”?
Water contamination can be caused by a wide variety of reasons.
The following list details possible problems.
It can help you diagnose what may be wrong with your water or well.
Poor sampling technique
I.e. dirty hands, sample bottle cap set on ground or countertop, sample water poured from another container to sample bottle, water splashing off floor or bottom of sink while taking a water sample
Note: Bacteria testing is very sensitive, and you’ll want to make sure you’re careful, so there’s no cross-contamination.
Dirty sampling faucet
Leaking or dirty swing tap
Plastic parts on sampling faucet
If the faucet has a plastic throat, don’t use it!
Sample taken through a faucet aerator
Faucet not sterilized
Insects in a frost-free hose bib
Sampled through a garden hose
Never take a sample from a hose!
Garden hose water line left under pressure
Bacteria love garden hoses and can move backward through a water system
Stagnant water in an unused well
If it hasn’t been used, flush the water prior to sampling
Bad pressure tank
Buried pressure tank with a pinhole leak
Standard pressure tank with contamination (bacteria) above the waterline
Always waterlog a standard tank when chlorinating a system
Bladder or diaphragm in pressure tank leaking
Bladder in captive air pressure tank fouled and the bacteria have turned anaerobic (septic)
The well hasn’t been cleaned in 20 years and just needs a good well cleaning (read the next section about well cleaning!)
Crack in the well casing or a bad weld at a seam
Unused, off-line water softener that is fouled
What a great place to grow bacteria
Well casing too close to the ground
Keep them 12” high
Note: A lawnmower can blow dirt in the well
Broken well cap cause insect/vermin problems
No well cap at all or a pail or coffee can over the well casing
Insects in the well
Anything crawling across the ground can contaminate it!
Earwigs in the well
The only way to clear earwigs is to “vacuum” and aggressively clean (chlorinate) the well
Broken (leaking) lateral between the well and the house
Iron or sulfur bacteria that has built up a heavy biofilm which is hiding and growing coliform bacteria
Leak at the pitless adapter
Pour grout job at the well casing or no annular space seal
You’ll see surface water running down along the outside of the well casing if this is an issue
Depression at the well casing
Surface water will gather here and saturate the soil as it runs down next to the well casing
Well casing has lifted with the frost and needs to be pounded back down
No backflow presentation device between the boiler (hot water heat) and the water system
An electrical problem in the well
A skinned wire can provide an environment to enhance bacteria growth
If you fix the electrical problem, then you’ll resolve the water issue
If you have “red” water coming out of the tap, then that’s another flag for an electrical problem in your well