Well Water and the Country Life

Lisa Strickland
Daily Laboratories

Location is important to homebuyers, who may dream of getting away from the city bustle and heading toward the quiet of the country. But they need to learn what comes with the country life, and what does not. One thing that does not normally come with a country home is municipal water services.

Instead, residential properties in rural areas often get their water from private wells. According to the EPA, 15 percent of Americans rely on individually-owned and operated sources of drinking water.

Water Quality Issues
One question potential homebuyers should ask is: “How’s the well… and is the water good?” After all, they will drink, cook, shower, wash and clean with this water every day. Water quality can be affected by many things, including the location, construction and maintenance of the well and pump, as well as the septic tank and lines.

Some issues with drinking water will be obvious, including unusual smells, tastes or colors; hard water stains; or particles in the water. Other contaminants are not obvious at all; the water may look, taste and smell fine. Some contaminants, like bacteria or nitrates, may cause serious medical issues and can only be detected through laboratory testing. Though city water is tested regularly by the water company, private well owners are responsible for their own testing.

Some local governments and many lending institutions require well inspections and water testing before a home with a private well can be sold. This should be done prior to listing a property, so the seller can identify and correct any problems that could affect the home’s marketability. Just like a leaky roof, a contaminated water supply will make a house worth less—and much harder to sell.

Standards for Testing
The EPA suggests that initial tests should at a minimum include coliform bacteria and nitrates/nitrites. The lending institution will most likely require the same tests within 30 days of closing.

Coliform bacteria is the standard used for the bacterial quality of drinking water. Coliform is not a single type of bacteria, but a group of “indicator” bacteria which live in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals and are found in sewage. Some may also be found naturally in the soil and surface waters, such as rivers, lakes and ponds. These bacteria do not usually cause illness by themselves, but testing for specific disease-producing bacteria is complex, time-consuming and expensive. A positive result for coliform bacteria indicates surface water or sewage may have entered the well and contaminated the water supply with disease-causing organisms.

Nitrates are compounds that form naturally when nitrogen combines with oxygen. Groundwater normally has a low concentration of nitrates, but sometimes higher levels can be found. Nitrates are common contaminants in Illinois groundwater, which may result from the overuse of fertilizer near the well, as well as runoff or seepage from septic fields, animal feedlots and farm fields.

High levels of nitrates do not affect adults—but can pose a serious health risk to infants less than one year of age. This includes a condition known as “blue baby syndrome,” where the infant’s blood is not capable of carrying oxygen, causing asphyxiation and the skin to turn blue. For this reason, pregnant women and infants should avoid using water with high nitrate levels for drinking or cooking—or preparing infant formula. And boiling the water does not help—and may actually increase the nitrate levels.

Sampling… and Resampling
The EPA establishes limits on the concentration of contaminants that would pose a health threat in public drinking water supplies. Although private well owners are generally not required to test their drinking water to meet those standards, lending institutions usually use the EPA standards for loan approval. The EPA limit for coliform bacteria is zero, while the limit for nitrates is 10 mg/L and the limit for nitrites is one mg/L.

Well water should be tested by a state certified laboratory, which will provide sampling instructions and collection containers. (A list of certified laboratories can be found at epa.illinois.gov/topics/drinking-water/private-well-users, or contact your local health department.)

If the test for coliform bacteria is positive, the well should be resam- pled immediately to eliminate the possibility of contamination from improper collection techniques. If the resample is still positive, the water should be boiled before it is used for cooking or drinking, and the well system will need to be disinfected. Various methods of disinfection involve chlorine, ultraviolet light or ozone treatments. If the resample is negative, the water supply can be considered safe for drinking.

Nitrates can be removed from the water with water treatment systems that use reverse osmosis, distillation or ion exchange. A water softener will not remove nitrates.

Because well water conditions change regularly, it is recommended to test the well at least once a year. If a well is properly constructed and maintained, it can provide years of service and safe drinking water. iBi

Lisa Strickland is owner and president of Daily Laboratories, a private, ISO-certified microbiology laboratory serving a variety of industries. For more information, visit dailylaboratories.com.