Is Well Water Safe to Drink/Use?

Is Well Water Safe to Drink/Use?
The United States has one of the safest water supplies in the world. But if you’re one of the 43 million people (about 15% of the population) that relies on a well for your drinking water, you alone are responsible for the safety and quality of the water that comes into your home.

While the Safe Water Drinking Act provides health standards for municipal water supplies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t regulate private wells or provide recommended criteria or standards for individual wells. The EPA does provide information about testing for contaminants and treatments. You will need accurate testing to diagnose any issues, followed by application of the appropriate treatments to ensure that you have both healthy water and peace of mind.

EPA information on private drinking water wells

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Pros and cons of well water vs city water

If you compare well water to city water, you can probably tell some differences between the two without the need of a test. They often look, taste, and even smell different from each other, especially when comparing chlorinated municipal water with fresh well water.

Depending on where you live, you might prefer the taste of well water, that seems perfectly clear and healthy. Well water doesn’t typically taste or smell of chlorine, and it’s not fluoridated. It’s unlikely to have traces of pharmaceuticals like those found flushed through municipal water supplies. You also don’t have to deal with issues related to the corrosion of municipal water lines or the effects of disinfection byproducts.

On the other hand, you could be one of the many homeowners who see issues with your well water, including staining on your laundry and appliances, an off-putting taste or smell, or even the suspicion it’s making you sick. You may need to treat or filter your well water for contaminants to make it both better tasting and safe to drink.

Whether you like your well water or hate it, there is a risk that waterborne illnesses that are routinely eliminated in city water supplies may find their way to your groundwater, with little barrier to entry into your home.

The only sure way to tell for sure what is in your water is to test it.


Common contaminants in well water

Contaminants in your water supply may be both natural and manmade, including dissolved minerals, runoff from agriculture or industry, and other pollutants. As surface water seeps underground to the aquifers and groundwater which feed well water, the substances picked up can drastically affect your water quality.


Hard water

More than 250 million people in the U.S. have hard water. It is also the most common issue associated with well water. Hard water contains high amounts of dissolved minerals such as calcium and magnesium. While not considered a health hazard, hard water can leave scale on your appliances, build up mineral deposits in plumbing, make laundry feel stiff and rough, and leave your skin and hair dull and lifeless.

A traditional salt-based water softener is recommended for well water. Successful treatment will depend on both the level of hardness, and if there are other contaminants present in the water such as iron.

Tier1 Water Softeners

Read more about hard water


Iron and Manganese

If the water coming out of your tap is yellowish or red, or you see yellow, red or brown staining on your fixtures or laundry, you may have iron in your water. Visible stains appear at levels as low as 0.3 parts per million. Iron may give your water a metallic taste, and can turn tea, coffee and potatoes black. Black stains may also be a sign of Manganese. Both are often present in well water.

In order to effectively treat the issue, you’ll need to verify both the type and level of the contaminant in your water with a water test.

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Read more about iron in your water


Nitrates/nitrites

Nitrate is a compound that occurs naturally, and also has man-made sources. The most common groundwater contamination is from fertilizers and other agricultural runoff. Levels above 10 mg/L are considered unsafe. High levels of nitrate can affect how blood carries oxygen and cause methemoglobinemia (also known as blue-baby syndrome.) Bottle-fed infants under six months old are at the most risk. Adults may also be at risk of health issues.

Because nitrates in drinking water are colorless, odorless, and tasteless, a water test is the only way to detect them.

Read more about Nitrates and Nitrites


Sulfur/sulfates

The smell of rotten eggs is a telltale sign of the presence of hydrogen sulfide or sulfur bacteria in your water. You’ll need to identify whether the source is the water supply or your plumbing, so you’re sure to treat the actual cause of the issue. High sulfate levels can give water a bitter or medicinal taste and can have laxative effects as well as be corrosive to plumbing.

Read more about sulfur in your water


Arsenic

Arsenic is found in many groundwater sources, including every state in the U.S. While trace amounts are found in many foods naturally, the EPA maximum standard for drinking water is .010 ppm. You can install a Reverse Osmosis System to reduce the arsenic in your water.

Reverse Osmosis System


Bacteria

One of the most important tests for well water is the detection of Total Coliform, or bacteria. Because it’s impossible to test for all organisms, these serve as indicator bacteria for how sanitary your water system is. If Total Coliform shows up in your water sample, surface contamination has somehow entered the water, and you’re at risk for disease-causing organisms.

It’s recommended that you test well water every year for bacteria. For year-round protection, you can install a water filtration system with Ultraviolet (UV) Disinfection to deactivate the bacteria right as it enters your home.

UV Disinfection

Read more about Microorganisms


Turbidity and Total Dissolved Solids (TDS)

If your tap water seems cloudy, or has particles that settle on the bottom after you let it sit a while, you likely have a problem with turbidity, or suspended sediment. High sediment can be related to the presence of oxidized metals in the water, microbial life, or pollutants. Total Dissolved Solids, or TDS, are the dissolved minerals you can’t see in your water.

Treating Turbidity may be as easy as adding a sediment pre-filter to your water filtration system, or may require a UV system if it’s microbial. High levels of TDS can be treated with a Reverse Osmosis System.


Acidic Water

A pH level of 7 is considered “neutral”. The acceptable range for pH in water systems is 6.5 to 8.5. Low pH, or acidic, water is corrosive, which can lead to copper, lead, and other metals from pipes, fixtures and appliances leaching into your water. It’s also very hard on your body’s digestive system. To raise the pH of acidic water, install a whole house water neutralizing system.

Tier1 Whole House Water Neutralizing System


Should you test your well water?

While there are many well water issues that provide obvious clues, such as an odd taste, smell, or stain, others can only be detected with a water test. A test is also the only way to verify both the type of contaminants in your water, and the level present. You will need to know both to figure out the most effective treatment solution.

Read more about water tests


How often should you test your well water?

The National Ground Water Association recommends that private well owners have their wells checked and tested every year to ensure water safety.

You should test your well immediately if:
  • You notice a change in the taste, odor, or color of your water
  • You replace or repair any part of your well system
  • There are significant nearby issues, such as flooding, new construction, or industrial activity
  • There are known problems with well water in your area

State and local health departments may provide a list of accredited labs to test your water, or you can ask your county environmental or public health services if they provide well testing services. You can also purchase water tests online.

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You can ensure your well water is safe to drink

The vast majority of well water in the U.S. is perfectly safe to drink. But because there’s no government oversight over wells like there is for city water, any homeowner with a private well is responsible for ensuring the safety and quality of their own water. A yearly water test can identify any issues and provide direction for the most effective treatment to give you the best water at every tap in your house.

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