Water quality testing is a home buyer's or home owner's first line of defense to ensure that their home's drinking water is safe to drink ("potable"). Although the inspection of well systems and the testing of water quality quality is considered outside the scope of a home inspection (per the ASHI Standard of Practice), WIN Home Inspection offers water quality testing as an add-on service. WIN Home Inspection (Lancaster, PA) uses only Pennsylvania-accredited laboratories for our certified drinking water analysis. All water samples are taken in a prescribed manner per the laboratory's guidelines and delivered promptly to the laboratory for analysis.
The EPA has identified over 80 different contaminants that impact water quality…and people’s health. WIN Home Inspection offers water quality testing services so that you can make sure your water is safe for drinking, cooking, washing the dog, and other uses.
When deciding which water test you would like performed, keep in mind that only those contaminants that are tested for can be found in the water sample.
Some lenders or loan types (such as FHA, USDA, and VA) may require that a specific water quality series be performed as part of the home's purchase or a mortgage refinance. Unless your lender has a specific requirement, any of the below water sample series can be performed at the time of your home inspection or as a stand-alone service.
Treated or Untreated? - Some lenders require the water samples be drawn untreated. This means that any installed treatment system (Reverse Osmosis system, water softener, or UV light) must be turned off or bypassed so that untreated water is sampled straight from the well and not affected by an installed treatment system. Verifying what type of sample your lender requires is critical that so the water samples are obtained exactly as your lender requires and time and cost of re-sampling is not needed.
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The above tests are our standard water tests. On occasion, some lenders have varying requirements compared to the tests listed above, so please consult your lender prior to ordering your inspection so that we know exactly what test(s) your lender will require for your specific loan.
More information about well systems and water quality can be found at:
PA DEP Website www.dep.state.pa.us (Keyword "Wells")
Penn State Ext. Water Resource Website bit.ly/1OU0J1O
Penn State Ext. "A Guide To Private Water Systems in Pennsylvania" bit.ly/1RB5NqK
Drinking Water Contaminants and Standards 1.usa.gov/1eFp30B
Below are descriptions of what the various common water contaminants are and how each can make water unsafe to drink. The below information is taken directly from the Penn State Extension "A Guide To Private Water Systems in Pennsylvania" document [the full document can be accessed using the link above].
To address water quality issues (such as those listed below), consulting a qualified and licensed plumber, a qualified water treatment specialist, or a qualified well contractor is recommended.
Coliform are a large group of bacteria that occur throughout the environment. They are used as an indicator organism to show the potential for disease-causing bacteria to be present in water. In other words, if coliform bacteria are present, it is presumed that a contamination pathway exists between the bacteria source and the water supply, and disease-causing bacteria may use this pathway to enter the water supply. Coliform bacteria occur frequently in private water systems, usually from contamination by surface runoff or from human or animal wastes. The type of well cap installed may be directly related to the cause of the coliform presence in the well. Examples of the various well cap types are shown at the bottom of this page.
Most coliform bacteria do not cause disease, but the greater their number the greater the likelihood that disease-causing bacteria may also be present. Since coliforms persist in water longer than most disease-causing organisms, the absence of coliform bacteria leads to the assumption that the water supply is microbiologically safe to drink. Consuming water with coliform bacteria present may cause gastrointestinal illnesses, fever, and other flulike symptoms. Therefore, the drinking water standard requires that no coliform bacteria be present in drinking water supplies. Sampled water with a positive total coliform result is considered "non-potable" and should not be consumed by humans or animals.
Results from coliform bacteria tests are normally expressed as the number of bacteria colonies present per 100 milliliters (100 ml) of water. Some laboratories may simply express coliform bacteria results as “present” (P) or “absent” (A) or "None Detected" (ND). In this case, “present” indicates only that at least one bacterium was present in each 100 ml of water, and "absent" or "None Detected" would mean 0 coliforms were found. Bacteria results also may be reported as “TNTC,” or “too numerous to count,” meaning the bacterial concentration was too high to quantify or ">200 Coliforms/100 mL" meaning the measured count was higher than 200 (again, probably too high to quantify).
Positive Total Coliform (TC) or E. Coli issues can most often be addressed with an ultra-violet (UV) system. One or more chlorine shock treatments are another option, however this procedure needs to be properly and carefully performed. See page 56 of the "A Guide To Private Water Systems in Pennsylvania" (link above) for more information.
An ultra-violet (UV) system is an inline appliance that gets installed where the water suply line enters the home. There is an ultra-violet light bulb inside the unit that kills bacteria as water passes through the system. The UV light bulb needs to be replaced every year. Many homeowners, I find, are unaware of this fact.
If the chlorine shock treatment option is chosen, the depth of the well needs to be known in order to determine how much chlorine is needed. Adding too little chlorine may not correct the bacteria issue and too much chlorine may damage the well casing and/or prevent timely retesting; this will also undoubtedly delay obtaining a potable sample for analysis. Once the chlorine shock is performed, water needs to be run to every water spigot in the building (meaning bathtubs/showers, kitchen and bathroom sinks, exterior spigots, etc.) until the smell of chlorine is observed, then no water should be run for at least 12 hours. This allows the chlorinated water to be able to make prolonged contact with the plumbing system and fixtures.
A reasonable amount of time needs to occur before a retest can be done, often 7~10 days. The retest should not occur until after the smell of chlorine is gone from every water fixture in the home. The reason for the 7~10 day delay for a retest is to allow time for any bacteria to possibly grow back in the well system. If the chlorine shock was successful, no bacteria should have grown back within that time frame and the retest result should be clear of coliform. Resampling too soon may not provide an accurate test of the water's potability (thereby possibly providing a false negative) or the lab will simply not accept the sample for testing if there is still chlorine in the well water.
A certified lab should be able to provide a specific list of detailed instructions about how to properly shock the well and retest the water's quality. A concern that anyone performing a chlorine shock on a well needs to be very aware of is that many off-the-shelf bottles of chlorine bleach also contain small amounts of mercury. Chlorine bleach is meant only for washing clothes, not for drinking water. Mercury from using chlorine bleach in well water may be left behind in trace amounts if used to shock a well; mercury consumption is hazardous and can be deadly.
Standard well caps should also be replaced with a sanitary well cap as an improper cap may be the source of well water contamination. Examples of each cap type are shown below. If the well casing terminates below, at, or near grade, it should also be extended to terminate at least 8" above grade.
Nitrate in drinking water usually originates from fertilizers or from animal or human wastes. Nitrate concentrations in water tend to be highest in areas of intensive agriculture or where there is a high density of septic systems. In Pennsylvania, nitrate exceeds 10.0 mg/L in about 2 percent of all private water systems, but in the southeastern and southcentral counties where agriculture is most prevalent, it exceeds 5 percent.
Nitrate has a primary drinking water standard that was established to protect the most sensitive individuals in the population (infants under 6 months of age and a small component of the adult population with abnormal stomach enzymes). These segments of the population are prone to methemoglobinemia (blue baby disease) when consuming water with high nitrates. The need for a nitrate MCL has been questioned lately because blue-baby disease occurs very rarely in the United States. Nitrate may be reported on your water test report as either nitrate (NO3) or nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N). Look carefully at your report to determine which form of nitrate is being reported. The primary drinking water standard or MCL (maximum containment level) is 10.0 mg/L as nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N), but it is 45.0 mg/L as nitrate (NO3).
High Nitrate issues can most often be addressed with a Reverse Osmosis (RO) or Anion Exchange system.
Nitrite is another oxidation state of nitrogen and has similar health issues as nitrate, however its primary drinking water standard or MCL is 1.0 mg/L as nitrite-nitrogen (NO2-N).
High Nitrite issues can most often be addressed with a Reverse Osmosis (RO) or Anion Exchange system.
An even more specific bacteria test can be conducted for E. coli (short for Escherichia coli). This is a type of fecal coliform bacteria commonly found in the intestines of animals and humans. A positive E. coli result is a strong indication that human sewage or animal waste has contaminated the water source.
Hundreds of strains of E. coli exist. Although most are harmless and live in the intestines of healthy humans and animals, a few can produce a powerful toxin that causes severe illness and even death. Infection often causes severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps; sometimes the infection causes nonbloody diarrhea. Frequently, no fever is present. It should be noted that these symptoms are common to a variety of diseases and may be caused by sources other than contaminated drinking water. E. coli tests are reported as the number of bacteria per 100 ml of water. The presence of any E. coli in a water sample is unacceptable; thus, the primary drinking water standard for E. coli is 0 per 100 ml of water.
Positive Total Coliform (TC) or E. Coli issues can most often be addressed with an ultra-violet (UV) system. One or more chlorine shock treatments are another option, however this procedure needs to be properly and carefully performed. See "Total Coliform" above for more details. Also, see page 56 of the "A Guide To Private Water Systems in Pennsylvania" (link above) for more information.
If lead is detected in your drinking water, it probably originated from corrosion of your plumbing system. Lead was a common component of solders used in plumbing systems until it was banned in 1991. In homes built in the early 1900s, lead pipe also may be present. Thus, if your home was built before 1991 and has a metal plumbing system, it is likely that some lead is present. If your water supply is corrosive (see discussion above), then any lead present in the plumbing system may be dissolved into your drinking water.
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.
A survey in 1989 found that about 20 percent of the private water supplies in Pennsylvania contained lead concentrations above the MCL (maximum containment level) of 0.015 mg/L (15 µg/L). In 1991, the federal government took steps to limit lead in water plumbing systems. As a result, a recent survey of private water systems in Pennsylvania found that lead contamination had declined from 20 percent in 1989 to 12 percent in 2007 (Swistock et al. 2009).
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 plumbing fixtures (such as some brand new sink faucets or their related plumbing fittings) have been found to leach lead into water. This appears to be much more likely in plumbing products manufactured in the Far East. I have inspected relatively new homes that had high lead levels in their well water and I suspect the source of the lead was from one or more newer plumbing fixtures inside the home, and not necessarily from the well itself.
Lead levels can seriously threaten drinking water safety. Lead is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Long-term exposure to lead concentrations in excess of the drinking water standard has been linked to many health effects in adults, including cancer, stroke, and high blood pressure. At even greater risk are the fetus and infants up to four years of age, whose rapidly growing bodies absorb lead more quickly and efficiently. Lead can cause premature birth, reduced birth weight, seizures, behavioral disorders, brain damage, and lowered IQ in children. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers lead to be the most serious environmental health hazard for children in the United States.
High Lead (Pb) issues can most often be addressed with a Reverse Osmosis (RO) system. If the source of the lead contamination is suspected to be or can be positively identified to a specific fixture, faucet, etc., replacing the suspected component is suggested. Retesting the well water for lead after the repair is made is recommended for confirmation.
Also, contrary to what some local plumbers have been telling home owners, performing a chlorine shock of a well will have absolutely no affect on lowering lead levels in the water.
How do you reduce the amount of lead in your drinking water? EPA Lead In Water Document
Iron is a common natural problem in groundwater in Pennsylvania and may be worsened by mining activities. It occurs throughout Pennsylvania but is most problematic in the western region. Iron does not often occur in drinking water in concentrations of health concern to humans. The secondary drinking water standard for iron is 0.3 mg/L because it causes a metallic taste and orange-brown stains that make water unsuitable for drinking and clothes washing. However, due to Iron being a secondary contaminant, the EPA does not require, but does recommend, that high iron levels be corrected.
High Iron (Fe) issues can most often be addressed with a Reverse Osmosis (RO) system.
The pH of water is a measure of how acidic or basic (alkaline) the water is. It is measured on the pH scale (from 0 to 14) in pH units. If the pH of water is less than 7.0, it is acidic, and if it is greater than 7.0, it is basic (alkaline). Water with a pH of exactly 7.0 is considered neutral. If pH values deviate very far from neutral, other water-quality problems may be indicated. These would include the presence of toxic metals such as lead (at low pH) and high salt contents (at high pH). It is recommended that the pH of your water be between 6.5 and 8.5 to minimize other potential water-quality problems. Acidic water with a pH less than 6.5 is much more common in Pennsylvania (occurring in 18 percent of private wells) than high-pH water (occurring in only 2 percent of private wells), especially in the northern and western regions of PA. In general, pH is an indicator of other potential water-quality problems and is very rarely a problem by itself. However, due to pH being a secondary contaminant, the EPA does not require, but does recommend, that this issue be corrected.
Low pH issues can most often be addressed with an Acid Neutralizer.
The total amount of substances dissolved or suspended in water is referred to as the total solids (TS) content of water. Water high in TS often contains objectionable levels of dissolved salts such as sodium chloride. Thus, high TS may indicate the presence of other water-quality problems. The recommended drinking water standard of 500 mg/L for TS exists because high-quality waters generally have lower TS levels. However, due to Total Solids being a secondary contaminant, the EPA does not require, but does recommend, that high Total Solid levels be corrected.
High Total Solids (TS) issues can most often be addressed with a Reverse Osmosis (RO) system.
Surfactants are a measure of foaming agents or detergents contained in drinking water. The EPA limit for surfactants is 0.5 mg/L. However, due to surfactants being a secondary contaminant, the EPA does not require, but does recommend, that high Surfactant levels be corrected.
High Surfactant issues can most often be addressed with a Reverse Osmosis (RO) system.
Hardness is a general term used to refer to the water’s calcium carbonate (CaCO3) content. Hardness does not pose a health threat, but it can cause aesthetic problems. It can ruin water heater elements, reduce soap lathering, and make laundry and dish washing difficult as well as clogging sink aerators and showerheads. Moderate levels of hardness are beneficial because they typically inhibit plumbing system corrosion. Removal of hardness using a water softener is necessary only if the water is causing aesthetic problems. Use of water softeners may result in undesirable levels of sodium in drinking water and may increase plumbing system corrosion.
Hardness may be reported in milligrams per liter (mg/L) or in grains per gallon (gpg). One grain per gallon is equal to 17.1 mg/L or parts per million (ppm). A water hardness of about 90 to 100 mg/L provides excellent corrosion control and is usually acceptable aesthetically, but there are no drinking water standards for hardness.
Hard water issues can most often be addressed with a water softener (Ion Exchange).
It is recommended that all well systems be serviced regularly by a licensed plumber or a qualified well contractor. For all property transactions where there is a well, the inspector recommends obtaining the well's log from the property owner which should include important detailed information such as: locations of the well's components, pump and casing depth, service records [when components were last repaired/replaced], well yield data, age of the well's components (pump, pressure tank, wiring, etc.), etc.
PA has no statewide standards for private drinking water wells, so maintenance of well systems and ensuring the potability (is the water safe to drink?) of well water is the responsibility of each well's owner. Many home owners with a well aren't aware of this. It is recommended to retest your home's well water every 14 months for safety reasons. This allows for testing to span the seasons after a few years; different contaminants may be more prone under certain seasonal and weather conditions. It is also recommended that no pesticides or fertilizers be applied to the ground within 100' of the well casing as this can cause well contamination. Pets should be kept away from well casings and the ground around the well casing should also shed water away from the well casing. The top of the well casing should stick up above grade (at least 12" is recommended) to help prevent contamination of the well water. Standard well caps should be replaced with sanitary caps (see bottom photo).
WIN Home Inspection also offers Well Flow Analysis to test a well pump's performance.
These are photos of standard well caps. The one on the right has a large hole in it. Insects, rodents, pesticides, fertilizers, ground water, etc. can easily enter either well and contaminate the drinking water.
This photo shows a sanitary well cap installed on a well with a proper casing height (the casing terminates at least 12" above grade). It is recommended that all standard well caps be replaced with a sanitary well cap to help prevent well water contamination. A sanitary well cap ensures a better air-tight seal to help prevent contamination of the drinking from the top of the casing.
For additional information about well water, well systems, etc., please contact Matthew Steger via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call (717) 361-9467.
Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI) and a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer.
WIN Home Inspection provides home inspection services in Lancaster, PA and surrounding areas of south-central PA.