Do you source your drinking water from a well on your property? If so, do you know how often to test your well water to ensure that it’s safe for human consumption?
How about protecting it from potential contaminants? In this article, we’re going to cover the basics of how often to test it, what to test for, the types of tests available, and how to protect it.
Types of Wells
There are generally two different types of wells that people may have on their property as potable water sources: surface wells and artesian wells.
Surface wells are generally 20 to 30 feet deep and are fed by snowmelt, nearby lakes, underground streams, and rain that saturate the water table.
Most of these are accessed by shallow pumps, but they’ll also have easily accessible covers. These covers can be removed so people can draw water with buckets or hoses.
Artisan wells are at least 100 feet deep and need to be drilled through loam, clay, and impermeable rock layers to get to deep water veins. The only way to draw water from these is by a pump—usually an electric one, but a manual pump can also be installed in case of power outages or emergencies.
Since shallow wells are so close to the surface, they’re more likely to get contaminated by chemicals and bacteria. Additionally, if the cover is removed regularly for well access, there’s also a risk of contaminants such as plant matter and/or animals, which can drown and poison the water.
Artesian wells draw from so deeply in the ground that the water quality remains far more stable year-round. They’re also less likely to be affected by contaminants.
Depending on where you’re located, your well water could be at risk from many different contaminants. The most common ones are:
- Bacteria: E. coli (Escherichia coli), coliform, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, salmonella, Enterococcus, Campylobacter, and Legionella are the main culprits to test for. These bacteria and opportunistic pathogens can cause an extraordinary amount of damage to the human body, so it’s vital to be diligent about testing for them.
- Parasites: Depending on where you’re located, your well water could be at risk of contamination from parasites such as Giardia lamblia, Toxoplasma gondii, Entamoeba histolytica (hello amoebic dysentery!), Cyclospora cayetanensis, or Cryptosporidium. These are more common in surface/shallow wells than artesian ones.
- Nitrates: People who live in mixed residential and agricultural zones must watch for nitrate seepage in their wells. These can come from livestock or other people’s septic systems.
- Chemicals and Heavy Metals: No, this doesn’t mean that there’s a Norwegian black metal band lurking down your well. Pesticides, fertilizers, arsenic, and lead are a few that you should test for regularly, as well as household chemicals such as cleaning products, laundry detergent, etc.
- Decomposing matter: As mentioned earlier, shallow wells can get contaminated by small critters falling into them and drowning or by plant matter that gets in and rots. If your artesian well pipes are quite old, there may also be a risk of contamination via perforations in the pipes.
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): VOCs are the result of industrial and fuel waste and they work their way into water sources with alarming frequency. If you’ve ever heard of an EPA Superfund Site, they’re often cleaning up VOCs like benzene, carbon tetrachloride, toluene, trichloroethelene, and methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).
How Often to Test Your Well Water
As a general rule, you should test well water for bacteria and parasites every six months (usually in spring and autumn) and every two years for chemical and heavy metal contaminants.
This is a median recommendation, however, and can be adapted to individual circumstances.
For example, if you live on an isolated property hundreds of miles away from other humans or farms, and you draw your water from an artesian well drilled into a mountainside, you can probably get away with more infrequent testing.
Similarly, if you’re in a heavy agricultural area or a denser population, you may wish to test more frequently.
Some health authorities suggest that you should test for coliform, E. coli, and nitrate every year and arsenic every three years because these can cause serious issues like heart issues, digestive issues, breathing problems, cancer, and death.
The risk is particularly high for sensitive individuals, such as babies and those who are immunocompromised.
You should also test if your septic system fails, if your family members are ill, or if your farm equipment has failed.
One of the best ways to ensure that your well water remains clean and potable is to keep an eye on it. Examine your water visually regularly, looking for discoloration, sediment, etc. Take note of how it smells and tastes: if something seems “off” to you, get yourself some home testing kits.
You can buy a variety of different tests in stores or online to check for various types of contaminants. Check out your local hardware store or plumbing center, or do a search for home water testing options. You may not be able to find many all-in-one kits, but you can purchase a few different ones to cover chemical, bacterial, and fungal contaminations.
A few to check out include:
The Safehome Water Testing Kit, tests for bacteria, heavy metals, nitrates, and much more. Considering the $300+ price tag, however, it’s comparable to hiring a professional to come and test everything for you.
SJ Wave’s 16-in-1 kit tests for water hardness, pH levels, heavy metals, etc.
Varify’s 17-in-1 kit also tests for hardness and pH levels, but also for bacteria and other harmful pathogens.
Health Metric’s Bacteria-Testing Kit is specifically geared towards testing your well water for E.coli, coliform, and other nasties.
Your region will undoubtedly have a list of water testing authorities and labs you can contact. They’ll determine the professional who’s best for your needs, and can recommend a series of tests to perform on your well water.
These tests will be sent to an accredited lab, where they’ll be combed through for every possible contaminant imaginable.
Once the results come back, the technician can explain what they mean and what actions may need to be taken. Depending on location, comprehensive professional tests can range between $250 and $800. As such, budget for at least one annual test (preferably in springtime) to ensure your well water’s safety.
Water Filtration Systems and Protection
Once you’ve had your water tested, you can determine whether it needs protection from future contaminants. The results you get from the tests will give you an idea of where extra protection is needed (if at all) so you can take action accordingly.
If, after regular testing, you discover that your well water is often contaminated with bacteria, heavy metals, or sediment, you may wish to look into a home filtration system.
These can filter out harmful pathogens and improve your well water quality exponentially. Some of the ones to look into include:
Reverse Osmosis Systems
Reverse osmosis systems use semi-permeable membranes that can filter out contaminants like heavy metals, sediments, and various types of bacteria. They’re usually installed at one point in the home, such as the kitchen tap.
As such, that would be the only tap in the house where truly safe drinking water could be sourced. They’re also some of the priciest systems around, though you can find them for a few hundred dollars, like this APEC system at Amazon.
Ultraviolet (UV) Sterilizers
If you’re primarily worried about bacteria and fungal pathogens, then a UV sterilizing system might be the best option.
They disinfect well water by neutralizing these crumbugglies so they don’t nest in your digestive tract, wreaking havoc on your life and everyone else’s.
The one issue with UV filters is that they won’t do anything to remove sediment or filter out chemicals. If these are also present in your water, you’ll need to use an additional method, such as sediment filters.
You can find multi-filter systems that will take care of the sediment, as well. The Aquasure Quantum Series 18, for example, tackles sediment, bacteria, chemicals, and hard water scale for your entire home.
If you’re mostly dealing with sediment like rust, sand, and silt, then you can get a sediment filter installed. These use filter cartridges, which can be easily removed and either cleaned or replaced.
They’re fairly affordable, like this iSpring system, and will leave your water crystal clear.
Carbon Charcoal Filters
If you’ve ever used a Brita filter (or similar), then you already have experience with these. They can either be installed in your pipes or used in pitchers, and will filter water through several layers of carbon. This filters out and absorbs sediment and silt as well as chemicals.
The disadvantage is that you need one system for each faucet, so most people use them just in the kitchen and bathrooms.
This is one of the easiest—and oldest—water decontamination methods. It involves boiling water into steam, which then condenses into potable drinking water, thus eliminating pretty much all contaminants.
You can use a system like the CO-Z one-gallon filter or create your own distiller using chemistry equipment or even basic household items.
Do some research to determine which is the best for your household (as well as your budget), and take whatever precautions you feel are necessary for your health and safety.
Surface Filters and Safety Caps
If you find that the main contaminant culprits are critters or plant matter getting into your well, you’ll need to sort out your well’s cap.
The options available will depend on the type of cap or lid it has on it now, as well as the diameter and material that the pipe is made of.
Our surface well is made of two-foot-diameter concrete pipe, and we have a heavy concrete lid that sits atop it. It weighs about 200 lbs and thus isn’t easily moved by children or wildlife.
If you currently have a plastic or resin cap on yours, consider replacing it with something significantly heavier.
While you’re at it, have a filter installed that sits neatly inside the well. On the off chance that you need to take the cap off for testing or maintenance, this filter will prevent leaves and critters from falling into the water below.
As far as artesian wells go, ensure that the casing, cap, and seals are in good working order. Check these regularly for any potential damage, such as cracks or chips.
These often happen in areas where there are extreme weather fluctuations, as intensely cold winters alternating with hot summers can degrade plastic quite quickly.
Be sure to attend to any issues as soon as you find them. If you, your family, and your homestead all depend on well water to keep you healthy and strong, then it’s a top priority to ensure that it’s as safe as possible.
Check the water regularly, ensure all equipment is in good working order, and stay hydrated!