Of course, we all want to drink clean uncontaminated water. If your home is served by a public water utility, the utility is responsible for treating and providing clean drinkable water to your home. For homes served by a private well, however, the home owner is responsible for ensuring that their water supply is safe. There are many potential contaminants that can get into water and make the water bad tasting or smelling and even unsafe to drink. The EPA has identified over 80 different contaminants that impact water quality.
Bacteria - Total Coliform
Bacteria, also known as total coliform (TC), can make you sick if you drink bacteria contaminated water. Bacteria can enter water in several places, such as in the well itself, in a treatment system (like a contaminated water softener), or at a faucet. Bacteria is a living organism, so to properly treat it means killing the organism. The most common treatment method is an Ultra-Violet (UV) system. An Ultra-Violet (UV) system is a permanent treatment method whereas a chlorine shock treatment is a temporary disinfection method only to be used after the bacteria source has been found and removed.
A UV system is installed where the water service enters the home and uses UV light to kill bacteria as the water supply passes through the system. Of course, humans cannot see ultra-violet light with the naked eye, however a small LED is normally located on the unit to confirm that the unit is powered. Simply seeing this LED doesn’t indicate that the UV system is properly functioning and treating water, but only that the UV system is powered. The unit’s UV bulb needs to be replaced approximately every 12 months. From my discussions with homeowners with UV systems, most have no idea that the UV bulb needs to be replaced annually. Either the installer did not disclose the maintenance requirements with the home owner or it’s simply a case of lack of maintenance on the homeowner's part.
The inspector recommends contacting a qualified plumber, well contractor, or water treatment specialist for any water treatment procedure. Straight chlorine bleach should NEVER been poured down a well as it can damage the well casing since bleach can corrode the well's metal liner and other components. When a total coliform sample is analyzed by a certified lab, they use a microscope to determine if coliform is present in the sample. Any result other than zero (0) indicates non-potable water that needs to be addressed before it can be safely consumed.
If and when a chlorine shock is performed, all water spigots in the home (including the exterior spigots) should be turned on and water flowed through every fixture. Once the smell of chlorine is detected at each fixture, then the water supply system should stand unused for at least 12 hours to allow the chlorine to do its job. Then, run water at each fixture again until the smell of chlorine is completely gone at each fixture. Approximately a week later, a retest should be drawn to be lab analyzed. I’ve heard of home owners pour gallons and gallons of bleach down their well only to have to wait 3 or 4 weeks to be able to drawn a retest sample. Most labs will not even accept water samples for coliform or e.coli analysis if chlorine is present in the sample. Of course, time is of the essence during a real estate transfer, so abiding by the proper chlorine shock procedure is key to helping to keep the settlement timetable on schedule. The retest is needed to ensure that the bacteria issue has not returned. In some cases, a chlorine shock is only temporary and multiple shocks may be needed.
Nitrate and Nitrite
Another common group of contaminants in well water are nitrate (NO3) and nitrite (NO2). Nitrate and nitrite are naturally occurring, but high levels of either in well water often indicates that runoff from a nearby farm or other fertilizer source has entered the water supply. A septic system located too close to a well or farmland adjacent to the well are both common sources of nitrate and nitrite. Nitrate and nitrite are both forms of nitrogen. The maximum level permitted in well water, per EPA standards, is 10.0 mg/L for nitrate. EPA regulations call for nitrite levels to be less than 1.0 mg/L as nitrite can be even more dangerous than nitrate.
Boiling water with high nitrate or nitrite may raise the concentration and increase the potential risks. High nitrate and nitrite concentrations pose an immediate threat to infants and have been linked to 'Blue Baby' syndrome which can be fatal without immediate medical attention. High nitrate and nitrite concentrations can also be hazardous to elderly people. A reverse osmosis system is the most common method of correcting a high nitrate or nitrite issues. Most licensed plumbers can install this type of system.
Metals - Lead and Iron
Other common contaminants in well water can include lead (Pb) and iron (Fe). These metals can be introduced into the well system within the ground, within the plumbing, or the actual plumbing fixtures inside the home. Until the 1980s, lead-based solder was common when a plumber installed copper plumbing. Over time, the lead in the solder can leach into the water and, thus, contaminate it. High lead levels can cause kidney failure, damage to the nervous system, and can impede mental and physical development. Tested water with a lead concentration under 0.015 mg/L or iron concentration under 0.3 mg/L is considered acceptable according to the EPA.
Although a first draw sample for lead is the best method (to determine if lead has leached into the water over a 6+ hour time period), EPA and PA DEP don't require a 6 hour first draw any more for lead in private well water samples. Lead concentrations are usually highest in the first water out of the tap (known as “first draw” water), since this water has been in contact with the plumbing for a longer time than simply running water for a time and then drawing a sample. Lead concentrations typically decrease as water is flushed through the plumbing system.
Just because your home was built within the past few years doesn't mean you may not have high lead levels in your water. Some brass pipe fittings (sometimes present in new plumbing fixtures) have been found to leach lead into your water. I have inspected relatively new homes that had high lead levels in their well water and I suspect the cause was from one or more newer plumbing fixtures.
Very Important --- You can only find what you test for in water. You can’t test only for total coliform and nitrates and expect to find lead. The basic water test performed during most home transactions with a well system are total coliform and nitrates. FHA and VA water analysis is also possible, and each consists of additional contaminants and is also, therefore, higher in cost. An FHA analysis consists of total coliform, e. Coli, nitrates, nitrites, and lead. A VA analysis consists of total coliform, nitrates, lead, iron, total solids, surfactants, and pH.
To help ensure uncontaminated water samples and accurate lab results, special care and procedures are needed when drawing water samples for analysis. A competent home inspector should be fully familiar with the sampling procedures as prescribed by the lab that the inspector uses for analysis. A minor deviation in the sampling procedure can possibly contaminate the sample and may provide for a false positive or false negative in the lab report.
I’ve also seen some lenders require raw water samples to be taken. In other words, even if the home has a UV system or Reverse Osmosis system installed, some lenders will require these systems be bypassed or turned off before the sample is taken in order to obtain raw untreated water directly from the well. Before ordering a water quality analysis, it is wise to inquire with the lender to determine if they have any special requirements. Doing so may save some time and effort later when the inspector asks you about any lender special requirements. Some lenders will only accept the water quality lab report if it specifically states that the samples were drawn untreated (if the lender requires untreated samples).
Besides doing well water quality analysis at the time of the home transaction, retests should be done approximately every 14 months to help ensure a new contamination source doesn’t appear in the future. Doing the future resampling every 14 months allows sampling to cross over various seasons after a few years when some contaminants may be more likely than in other seasons.
Considerable information about the various Well Water Quality Tests that we perform can be at our Water Quality Testing service page with descriptions of each test, each contaminant, and how high levels of each can be properly addressed. You can also learn about a Well Flow Analysis.
More information about well systems and water quality can be found at:
PA DEP Website www.dep.state.pa.us (Keyword "Wells")
Penn State Extension Water Resource Website bit.ly/1OU0J1O
Penn State Extension "A Guide To Private Water Systems in Pennsylvania" bit.ly/1RB5NqK
Penn State Extension Water Treatment Resources: https://extension.psu.edu/water/drinking-and-residential-water
Drinking Water Contaminants and Standards https://www.epa.gov/sdwa/drinking-water-regulations-and-contaminants
You can find our full service list under the Services tab at the top of our website: https://elizabethtown.wini.com
© 2014 Matthew Steger
Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer, an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI), and an electrical engineer. He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WIN Home Inspection has provided a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area since 2002. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.