In urban and suburban areas where municipal water supplies are the norm, water quality is consistent from one home to the next. In more rural areas, however, water supplies must be carefully assessed to be sure they meet standards of healthfulness and abundance year-round. Springs and wells can be wonderful water sources, but certain tests should be performed before you commit to buying a home with an independent water supply.
Well Water Quality and Safety
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 15 percent of American homes are supplied by private water sources. Privately owned wells are not governed by the EPA, so homeowners must be particularly proactive about ensuring the quality of well water. If you’re considering buying a home that uses a well as its primary water source, it’s advisable to insist that the well water be tested. Well water quality varies widely and can be contaminated by a variety of harmful particles, including:
- Microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, and parasites
- Radioactive elements like uranium or radium
- Radon, a gas produced by decaying uranium
- Nitrates and nitrites from fertilizer or natural sources
- Heavy metals, including lead
- Excessive fluoride
- Animal waste
- Industrial wastes
- Household contaminants
It’s important to make sure private well water is safe to drink; if you’re considering a home with well water, you should find out whether testing has been performed.
Lead and Water Supplies
While lead in the soil has been known to contaminate well water, it’s more commonly present because of lead pipes in the home’s plumbing supply. Lead may also be present in some well water pumps, and in the past, lead wool or lead shot was sometimes added to wells to keep out sand. Steps have been taken to reduce lead exposure in U.S. residences since the mid-1900s, but older systems still warrant examination. The EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act has made lead components illegal in drinking supply systems installed since 1988.
Lead is particularly dangerous to children, but water filters are available to remove nearly all of the lead in your drinking water. The New York State Department of Health advises running the tap until cold water emerges for drinking, cooking, or mixing formula and never using hot tap water to cook.
Water Supply Testing
When considering the purchase of a home with a private well, asking the seller about the quality of the water may not be enough. Sellers may be unaware of any problem with the home’s water and may not have had the water tested for invisible, tasteless contaminants. Some well water has an “off” taste that’s attributable to perfectly healthy, natural minerals, while other well water can taste great but contain enough bacteria to make you sick. The only way to determine if water is safe is to get it tested.
The EPA publishes a brochure describing when a homeowner should get drinking water tested and how to find a certified laboratory.
For homes connected to municipal water supplies, buyers can contact municipalities and ask for water quality reports. Water suppliers must provide residents with an annual water quality report and are required by law to update customers when water quality changes. According to the EPA’s Public Notification Fact Sheet, residents must be notified within 24 hours when the water has an issue that is an immediate threat to health.
Water Rationing and Storage
Changes in the seasons can affect well water supplies as groundwater levels rise and fall. If your home is in a region where this is a common occurrence, well water may need to be rationed at certain times of the year or supplemented with water stored in tanks or cisterns. Cleaning, disinfecting, and strategically locating tanks and cisterns so that they will not collect groundwater and runoff are all important parts of a water storage system.
The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service points out that when rainwater is collected for human consumption, it should come from a system that includes a washed roof, leaf guards, an optional (but helpful) sand filter, and a routinely sanitized cistern. Water that has been stored without treatment is not safe for drinking, cooking, or brushing teeth.
Municipal water supplies can be affected by seasonal drought, which may result in periods of water rationing. Water rationing can have an effect on garden landscaping; if your new home is in a drought-prone area, you may want to consider xeriscaping, a form of landscaping that uses drought-resistant plants.
Flooding and its Effect on Well Water Quality
In addition to dealing with water shortages, homeowners can have supply issues when water is too abundant. In regions that flood, rising water can wash agricultural, household, and industrial contaminants into the water supply.
The EPA advises getting professional assistance to inspect your well after a flood, noting that “wells that are more than 10 years old or less than 50 feet deep are likely to be contaminated even if there is no apparent damage.” In addition to inspecting the pump, cap, and hardware for signs of debris and damage, homeowners should have an electrician check the pump’s control box and wiring system after a flood.
The EPA process for emergency disinfection of flooded wells ends with a very important final recommendation: Get your water sampled and tested! Without testing, it is impossible to guess what bacteria or contaminants might have gotten into your well. Frequent retesting is advised when there’s been a significant rise in floodwaters.
When it comes to protecting your family, the quality of water from a private well matters just as much as the quality of water from a municipal supply. In the case of a house supplied by well water, you have more personal responsibility for testing. With a simple test, you can learn whether the water you’ll be drinking is pure, clean, and safe.