our Better Nature Home

Unless you test your well water, you have no idea whether it is really safe for use. More....

printer friendly page
- by E.A. Zimmerman


Many of us in the Quiet Corner get our water from a well.  Nationwide, about 15 to 20 percent of people rely on well water (Source: EPA). Most have no idea whether their water is safe, because they haven’t tested it. 

toxic water
Without testing, you really don’t know whether your well water is safe.  Many contaminants that can cause serious illness or disease cannot be identified by appearance, taste or odor.   

Some impurities like hydrogen sulfide (which causes a rotten egg smell) or iron (which can leave a rusty stain in toilet bowls) are obvious.  If a squirrel drowns in your well, you will probably smell it eventually.  Unfortunately, many contaminants that can cause serious illness or disease cannot be identified by appearance, taste or odor.  For all you know, you have been drinking, bathing and cooking in pollution or naturally occurring toxins like arsenic or radon for years. 

What kind of testing is required for private well water? 
The short answer?  Practically none.  If the water in your house comes from a public drinking water supply (defined as serving 25 people or with 15 service connections), it is tested regularly for over 80 contaminants, and must meet drinking water standards.  However, there are no state or federal laws that require private homeowners to periodically test their own well water.  You and you alone are responsible for protecting your family’s health when it comes to testing your well water.    

There are a few exceptions.  Testing is done when new wells are constructed.  Banks usually require water testing before they will give you a mortgage buying a home with a well.  However, they typically only look at limited criteria, such as the location of the well, flow and volume of water produced, coliform (bacteria), and minerals.  Plus it is a onetime event.  Good initial test results do not come with a lifetime guarantee.  Water quality can change over time.  It can be affected by corroding plumbing, spills or blasting nearby, and other factors.  Groundwater usually moves very slowly (as little as a few feet a year), so it could take a long time for pollution to reach your well.

What should you test for?
At a minimum, test for general water quality indicators, such as total coliform bacteria (which could come from a failing septic system or agricultural runoff), pH (acidity or alkalinity), color, turbidity (cloudiness), hardness (which affects how well detergents work), sodium (important if you have high blood pressure), iron and manganese, nitrates/nitrites (large amounts pose a threat to infants), and chloride and sulfate (which affect taste.)

If you or your neighbors have used lots of pesticides or herbicides for lawn care, gardening, termite or ant control, or agriculture, or  if elevated nitrate/nitrate concentrations show up in a preliminary test, check for pesticides and herbicides.

If you live near a gasoline station (existing or former), junkyard, industry that uses chemicals or landfill, consider periodically testing for Volatile and Synthetic Organic Chemicals (VOCs and SOCs) such as solvents and gasoline compounds like MTBE and benzene.

Some areas of Connecticut like parts of Woodstock have naturally occurring arsenic in the groundwater.  You should test for this at least once.  If the pH of your well water is below 7.0, test for lead, copper, cadmium and zinc.  These metals could leach from corroding plumbing, pipes, brass fittings or chrome fixtures.  If an air radon test shows over 4 pCi/l, test your water for radon. See more recommended tests at links below.

How often should you test? 
If I were you, I would run a comprehensive test at least once to get a baseline.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends testing annually for coliform, nitrates, pH, and total dissolved solids.  Consider additional tests every 3-5 years for contaminants of concern, such as lead, copper, cadmium or zinc if your pH is below 7.0.   

You should also do a test if:

  • you notice a change in well quality or quantity;
  • someone in the house is pregnant or nursing;
  • there are unexplained illnesses (e.g., recurring gastro-intestinal problems);
  • your neighbors find a dangerous contaminant in their water;
  • there is a noticeable change in taste, odor, color or clarity;
  • there is a chemical or fuel spill nearby; or
  • when you replace or repair any part of your well system (piping, pump, or the well itself).

Most groundwater is safe to use, but you want to be sure yours falls in that category.  See next week’s article for more on where to have water analyzed, what it will cost, and what to do if your results indicate a problem.

What’s in Your Well Water – Part II

Where and how can I have my water quality tested?
Use a state certified environmental laboratory.  Get a list of approved labs (available online or by calling) from the State of CT Dept. of Health.   Not all labs are approved to run every type of test.  Some samples have to be collected a certain way and special containers must be used, so be sure to contact the laboratory to find out requirements.  It is best to get your sample bottles directly from the laboratory. Follow their instructions to the letter to get accurate results.

What will it cost? 
It depends on which lab you use, what you test for, and whether you collect and deliver the samples yourself or have a professional do it.  To give you a rough idea, a test just for lead might be about $50.  If you are testing for lots of things like pesticides or VOCs, it might run about $300 (the equivalent of two pairs of name brand sneakers.)  It isn’t cheap, but think about what your health is worth.   If you do combinations of tests, you may get a discount.  Since part of the cost is associated with set up at the laboratory, when multiple neighbors go in together to have tests done at the same time, the cost may be lower.  

What do I do if things show up in my water sample?  
If tested substances show up, do not panic.  It depends on what and how much is found.  Some substances are an aesthetic issue only, such as hydrogen sulfide odors.  Other substances can make the water undrinkable.  Certain substances are only a problem over a lifetime of exposure. Remember that some substances tested for, such as magnesium, calcium, arsenic, and radon, may be naturally occurring, so if they show up, it doesn’t necessarily mean that nearby commercial activities are ruining your water.

well cap drawing, EPA
An animal-proof cap prevents rodents from getting into and croaking inside your well.  Paving or mounding soil around the well will keep polluted runoff from seeping into your water supply.  Dug wells should be covered with a concrete curb and cap that stands about a foot above the ground.  A drilled well should have a locking well cap.  EPA drawing.

If levels are above state or federal health drinking water standards, you do need to take steps.  It’s a good idea to figure out the source of the problem whenever possible.   For example, there could be issues with the way your well is constructed and sealed.  A rotten egg odor could come from dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas due to the local geology.  The solution might be as simple as installing a carbon filter.  The odor could also be caused by certain bacteria.  If you only notice the smell when you use hot water, the magnesium rod in your hot water heater could be the source.

If you have health related questions about water quality or what your test results mean, contact your local health department (NDDH at 860.774.7350) or the CT Dept. of Public Health at 860.509.7293. 
If it turns out that you need to put a treatment system in, contact a licensed contractor for options.

There are many types of home water treatment devices.  Different types are designed to remove different pollutants or impurities. You might just need to treat water used for drinking and cooking, or you may need a whole house system.  Once you install it, remember to maintain it – e.g., by regularly changing filters – or it won’t work.

What can you do to protect the quality of your well water in the future?  Make sure rainwater flows away from the well.  Runoff can carry harmful bacteria and chemicals over the surface of the ground, and it could seep into your well, especially if it is shallow.  It is probably not a good idea to tie your dog up to the wellhead (which Doug has seen.)  Minimize use of fertilizers and pesticides in your yard.  Store hazardous products safely.  More than one homeowner has ruined their own well by spilling or dumping household hazardous waste nearby. If you have an old underground oil storage tank, think about having it replaced with an aboveground tank.  Make sure your well is properly constructed and capped.  If activities planned in your neighborhood could impact water quality, get involved.  Attend public hearings and ask what measures will be taken to protect the local water supply. Don’t take the connection between well water quality and your well-being for granted.

Originally published in the Villager newspapers on February 19 and 26, 2010

More Information and References


Fun kids games and activities
Fun Kids Games!

grief, illness, caregiver
Love, Loss & Gratitude

  Our Better Nature

HOME | Site Map | Contact | Contact webmaster about text link ad placement

If you experience problems with the website/find broken links/have suggestions/corrections, please contact me!
The purpose of this site is to share information with anyone interested in environmental protection.
Feel free to link to it, or to print hard copies for personal or educational purposes (see permissions) with a citation for the author. I have no responsibility or input on articles written by other authors.
No permission is granted for any commercial use or reproduction online.
Appearance of ads on this site does not constitute endorsement of any of those services or products!
If you are interested in placing text links or other ads on this site, contact the webmaster.
©2007 Chimalis. Original photographs are copyrighted, and may not be used without the permission of the photographer.
See disclaimer, necessitated by today's sadly litigious world.
Last updated October 25, 2016

HOME | Conservation | Open Space and the Outdoors | Pollution Prevention | Wildlife | Contact | Search