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Drinking Water From Household Wells

Savvy Consumer: Drinking Water From Household Wells
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What Should I Do?

Listed below are the six basic steps you should take to maintain the safety of your drinking water. After the list you'll find "how to" suggestions for each point to help you protect your well and your drinking water.

  1. Identify potential problem sources
  2. Talk with "local experts"
  3. Have your water tested periodically.
  4. Have the test results interpreted and explained clearly.
  5. Set a regular maintenance schedule for your well, do the scheduled maintenance and keep accurate, up-to-date records.
  6. Remedy any problems

Protecting Your Ground Water Supply

When Building, Modifying Or Closing A Well

  • Hire a certified well driller for any new well construction or modification
  • Slope well area so surface runoff drains away
  • When closing a well:
  •     - Do not cut off the well casing below the land surface
  •     - Hire a certified well contractor to fill or seal the well

Preventing Problems

  • Install a locking well cap or sanitary seal to prevent unauthorized use of, or entry into, the well
  • Do not mix or use pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, degreasers, fuels, and other pollutants near the well
  • Never dispose of wastes in dry wells or in abandoned wells
  • Pump and inspect septic systems as often as recommended by your local health department
  • Never dispose of hazardous materials in a septic system
  • Take care in working or mowing around your well

Maintaining Your Well

  • Each month check visible parts of your system for problems such as:
  •    - Cracking or corrosion,
  •    - Broken or missing well cap,
  •    - Settling and cracking of surface seals
  • Have the well tested once a year for coliform bacteria, nitrates, and other contaminants
  • Keep accurate records in a safe place, including:
  •    - Construction contract or report
  •    - Maintenance records, such as disinfection or sediment removal
  •    - Any use of chemicals in the well
  •    - Water testing results

After A Flood - Concerns And Advisories

  • Stay away from the well pump while flooded to avoid electric shock
  • Do not drink or wash from the flooded well to avoid becoming sick
  • Get assistance from a well or pump contractor to clean and turn on the pump
  • After the pump is turned back on, pump the well until the water runs clear to rid the well of flood water
  • If the water does not run clear, get advice from the county or state health department or extension service
  • For additional information go to

1. How Can l Spot Potential Problems?

The potential for pollution entering your well is affected by its placement and construction - how close is your well to potential sources of pollution? Local agricultural and industrial activities, your area's geology and climate also matter. This document includes a checklist to help you find potential problems with your well. Take time to review it in the box labeled "Protecting Your Ground Water Supply." Because ground water contamination is usually localized, the best way to identify potential contaminants is to consult a local expert. For example, talk with a geologist at a local college or someone from a nearby public water system. They'll know about conditions in your area. (See item # 5)

2. Have Your Well Water Tested

Test your water every year for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels. If you suspect other contaminants, test for these also. Chemical tests can be expensive. Limit them to possible problems specific to your situation. Again, local experts can tell you about possible impurities in your area.

Often county health departments do tests for bacteria and nitrates. For other substances, health departments, environmental offices, or county governments should have a list of state certified laboratories. Your State Laboratory Certification Officer can also provide one. Call EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline, (800) 4264791, for the name and phone number of your state's certification officer.

Before taking a sample, contact the lab that will perform your tests. Ask for instructions and sampling bottles. Follow the instructions carefully so you will get correct results. The first step is getting a good water sample. It is also important to follow advice about storing the samples. Ask how soon they must be taken to the lab for testing. These instructions can be very different for each substance being tested.

Remember to test your water after replacing or repairing any part of the well system (piping, pump, or the well itself.) Also test if you notice a change in your water's look, taste, or smell. The chart below ("Reasons to Test Your Water") will help you spot problems. The last five problems listed are not an immediate health concern, but they can make your water taste bad, may indicate problems, and could affect your system long term.

Reasons to Test Your Water

Conditions or Nearby Activities: Test for:
Recurring gastro-intestinal illness Coliform bacteria
Household plumbing contains lead pH, lead, copper
Radon in indoor air or region is radon rich Radon
Corrosion of pipes, plumbing Corrosion, pH, lead
Nearby areas of intensive agriculture Nitrate, pesticides, coliform bacteria
Coal or other mining operations nearby Metals, pH, corrosion
Gas drilling operations nearby Chloride, sodium, barium, strontium
Dump, junkyard, landfill, factory, gas station, or dry-cleaning operation nearby Volatile organic compounds, total dissolved solids, pH, sulfate, chloride, metals
Odor of gasoline or fuel oil, and near gas staion or buried fuel tanks Volatile organic compounds
Objectionable taste or smell Hydrogen sulfide, corrosion, metals
Stained plumbing fixtures, laundry Iron, copper, manganese
Salty taste and seawater, or a heavily salted roadway nearby Chloride, total dissolved solids, sodium
Scaly residues, soaps don't lather Hardness
Rapid wear of water treatment equipment pH, corrosion
Water softener needed to treat hardness Manganese, iron
Water appears cloudy, frothy, or colored Color, detergents

3. Understanding Your Test Results

Have your well water tested for any possible contaminants in your area. Use a state-approved testing lab. (See below for sources of approved laboratories.) Do not be surprised if a lot of substances are found and reported to you.

The amount of risk from a drinking water contaminant depends on the specific substance and the amount in the water. The health of the person also matters. Some contaminant cause immediate and severe effects. It may take only one bacterium or virus to make a weak person sick. Another person may not be affected. For very young children, taking in high levels of nitrate over a relatively short period of time can be very dangerous. Many other contaminants pose a long-term or chronic threat to your health - a little bit consumed regularly over a long time could cause health problems such as trouble having children and other effects.

EPA drinking water rules for public water systems aim to protect people from both short and long term health hazards. The amounts of contaminants allowed are based on protecting people over a lifetime of drinking water. Public water systems are required to test their water regularly before delivery. They also treat it so that it meets drinking water standards, notify customers if water does not meet standards and provide annual water quality reports.

Compare your well's test results to federal and state drinking water standards. (You can find these standards at or call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline 800-426-4791.) In some cases, the laboratory will give a very helpful explanation. But you may have to rely on other experts to aid you in understanding the results.

The following organizations may be able to help:

4. Well Construction and Maintenance

Proper well construction and continued maintenance are keys to the safety of your water supply. Your state waterwell contractor licensing agency, local health department, or local water system professional can provide information on well construction. (See the two graphics below. One shows three types of well locations and how surface water drains. The other lists the distances from the well to guard against possible sources of pollution.)Image of a good, fair, and poor well location

The well should be located so rainwater flows away from it. Rainwater can pick up harmful bacteria and chemicals on the land's surface. If this water pools near your well, it can seep into it, potentially causing health problems.d

Water-well drillers and pump-well installers are listed in your local phone directory. The contractor should be bonded and insured. Make certain your ground water contractor is registered or licensed in your state, if required. If your state does not have a licensing/registration program contact the National Ground Water Association. They have a voluntary certification program for contractors. (In fact, some states use the Association's exams as their test for licensing.) For a list of certified contractors in your state contact the Association at (614) 898-7791 or (800) 551-7379. There is no cost for mailing or faxing the list to you.

Many homeowners tend to forget the value of good maintenance until problems reach crisis levels. That can be expensive. It's better to maintain your well, find problems early, and correct them to protect your well's performance. Keep up-to-date records of well installation and repairs plus pumping and water tests. Such records can help spot changes and possible problems with your water system. If you have problems, ask a local expert to check your well construction and maintenance records. He or she can see if your system is okay or needs work.

The graphic on the next page shows a good example of an animal-proof cap or seal and the casing of a well. Protect your own well area. Be careful about storage and disposal of household and lawn care chemicals and wastes. Good farmers and gardeners minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Take steps to reduce erosion and prevent surface water runoff. Regularly check underground storage tanks that hold home heating oil, diesel, or gasoline. Make sure your well is protected from the wastes of livestock, pets, and wildlife.

Image of possible sources of contamination and how far they should be from a wellTo keep your well safe, you must be sure possible sources of contamination are not close by. Experts suggest these separation distances as a minimum for protection -farther is better.d

5. Talk With Local Experts

Good sources of information and advice can be found close to home. The list below tells about some "local experts":

Image of a vermin-proof cap or sealAn animal or vermin proof cap prevents rodents from entering your well, being trapped and dying. Paving around your well will prevent polluted runoff from seeping into your water supply.d

6. Fix Problems Immediately

If you find that your well water is polluted, fix the problem as soon as possible. You may need to disinfect your water, have a new well drilled, replumb or repair your system. Consider hooking into a nearby community water system (if one is available). If you have a new well drilled or connect to a community water system, the old well must be closed properly. Consult "local experts" for help. You might consider installing a water treatment device to remove impurities. Information about treatment devices can be obtained from the following sources:

Water Quality Association
PO. Box 606
4151 Naperville Road
Lisle, IL 60532

National Sanitation Foundation
PO. Box 130140
789 N Dixboro Road
Ann Arbor, MI 48113-0140
(734) 769-8010, (800) NSF-MARK

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(to visit in person)
Office of Water Resource Center
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Ariel Rios Building
Washington, DC 20460
Phone: (202) 260-7786

Monday through Friday,
except federal holidays,
8:30AM - 4:30PM ET

E-mail address:

There are many home water treatment devices. Different types remove different pollutants or impurities. No one device does it all. Also, you must carefully maintain your home treatment device so your water stays safe. For more information, get a copy of EPA's pamphlet, "Home Water Treatment Units" from the U.S. EPA Resource Center or call the Hotline at (800) 426-4791.

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