When Should I Test My Well Water?

The best time to test for contaminant in well water is during the spring or summer following a rainy period.

Testing for bacteria should be conducted after repairing or replacing a well pump or piping. If a new baby is expected in the home, it is a good idea to test for bacteria and nitrate in the early months of a pregnancy and again during the first six months of the baby?s life.

If any older person or anyone with a low immune system is going to live in the house, check for bacteria and possibly nitrate/nitrite.

When purchasing a property with a well, the water should always be tested for bacteria. Additional tests can be performed depending on the situation.

Well With Poor Water Flow

Wells should produce a minimum of three gallons of water per minute, anything less than three gallons per minute will create hardships for the home owner. A good producing (residential) well will deliver in the region of five or more gallons of water per minute.

The gallons per minute are the number of gallons being delivered at the end of a controlled test, many wells can produce five or more gallons per minute for five or ten minutes but cannot sustain the volume for a period of time. If the well cannot sustain the volume demanded and the water flow is less than three gallons per minute, runs dry during the test or produces silt, there is a problem with the well that will need to be rectified.

The first remedy that should be tried is to limit (or reduce) the quantity (gallons) of water that the pump delivers for use by fitting a restrictor valve (or resetting the valve if it is already in place). By reducing the flow many wells that draw down to less than three gallons per minute can operate without a problem when delivering a lower quantity.

If the problem is not cured with a restrictor, it will be necessary to drill a new well. This is a costly exercise and there is no guarantee that they will find water (or a supply that is better than the one that is being replaced).

If it is not possible to drill a well that will out perform the problem well, another alternative to consider is a cistern (check with your local health department for local regulations). A cistern can often be used on wells that go dry if used for more than twenty minutes (really dry well). A large cistern (tank) of between one and two thousand gallons is buried and connected to the well, which is limited to a flow rate of between half and one gallon per minute (between 720 and 1440 gallons per day), normal household usage is between 150 and 250 gallons a day. The cistern acts a water “bank” where water can be drawn without concern for the supply, the cistern fills slowly regardless of the usage.

This does not put any pressure on the wells capacity allowing it to supply the needs of the household without any problem. The single drawback to this system is the likelihood of bacteria breeding in the cistern and contaminating the drinking water system. An ultra violet water purifier or chlorine injection system can be installed on the water line from the cistern to the house, these systems purify the water eliminating the bacteria in the water that enters the house. Chlorine is not the method of choice if the property is on a septic system.

Note: There are areas around Waynesville where there is not enough water to use this system and it is then necessary to bring water by truck.

How to Disinfect a Well

Plan on spending some time doing this job. It is better to do it right the first time. It only takes a small amount of bacteria left in the pipes to re-infect the whole system.

1. During this procedure water will not be drinkable, so plan to do the test at a time when there is little need for water. Use three gallons of fresh, unscented household bleach (Clorox has a higher bleach content than generics). Large diameter or very deep wells may require more chlorine. Dilute the chorine, one gallon at a time in a large bucket of water.

2. Remove the cover from the top of the well?s casing. Pour the chlorine solution into the well casing. Using a clean hose connected to a faucet that operates from the well, pour water into the well casing until such time as you can smell chlorine coming from the water in the hose. As the hose is removed rotate it inside the casing to disinfect it. Replace the cover on the casing.

3. Open each faucet in the distribution system until you smell chlorine, then turn off. The goal is to get the chlorine solution to all the parts of the plumbing, including both hot and cold waterlines. It is necessary to run 30 or 40 gallons of water through the hot water tank. Be sure to flush all the toilets.

4. Leave the chlorinated water in the pipes a minimum of two hours, preferably overnight.

5. Open all faucets and flush out the chlorine solution until you can no longer smell it.

NOTE: If the home is on a septic system use a hose draining to yard when flushing the system. The septic may not be able to handle the large volume of chlorinated water.

6. The well water distribution system should now be disinfected. Follow-up sampling should be done after all traces of the chlorine are gone to insure that the disinfection procedure was successful.

Note: Large amounts of chlorine can damage the resin in water softeners so they may need to be bypassed before disinfection. In general it is usually safe to also chlorinate the water softener, check the with the manufacturer if the owners manual states that it should not be chlorinated.

Any in-line water filters should be removed and replaced with new filters after the disinfection is completed, tested and the results are negative.

If you have chlorinated the well and the results have come back positive (it still has bacteria). Re-chlorinate the well using one more gallon of bleach than was originally used, and have a water sample re-tested. If the test results come up positive again, a well technician should be contacted. They will “shock” the well using bleach tablets. Homeowners should not attempt to use these tablets, they are highly toxic and difficult to use.

NOTE: Do not use chlorine tablets or swimming pool chlorine, it if too strong and may render the water undrinkable for quite some time.

Well Water Testing

The question of whether or not to have your water tested is a serious one that concerns the health of you and your family. Your water should be safe to drink and acceptable for all household uses. Most people think of testing water for drinking quality and forget about the less serious problems that may be present such as taste, odor, and staining of laundry, or fixtures.

To test for every type of contaminate possible in water would be impractical. However, depending on your situation, you should decide on which tests might be best suited to you. Some of these tests are available on-site, others have to be sent to a lab. Depending on the test, lab results may take from two to fourteen days to be received.

Some of the more common tests.

BACTERIA/ Coliform Bacteria. One of the most common water tests checks for bacteria that may be entering the water supply as a result of a failing septic tank, sewer line or water runoff from certain agricultural lands. Lab results: two to four days. In most cases of bacteria in well water can be removed by sanitizing the well and water system using super chlorination. If chlorination fails to remedy the problem a new well or a chlorination system must be installed to make the water safe to drink.

NITRATE/ NITRITE – Test for contamination in the water supply from fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste. Generally an elevated level of nitrate/nitrite is not of great concern to most peoples health. Lab results: on site (and to the lab, 14 – 21days). Levels above 10mg per liter are of concern if a baby is been fed formula made with this water. A reverse osmosis water filtration system will remove nitrate/nitrite from the water.

LEAD – Older homes may have lead piping. Newer homes may have lead in fittings or solder joints. A high level of lead in drinking water causes damage to the brain and the central nervous system. A reverse osmosis water filtration system will remove lead from the drinking water. Lab results: ten to fourteen days.

IRON – (Total Iron) If red staining is noticed on bathroom fixtures, the iron level content needs measuring. Lab results: on site. Excessive iron can be controlled with a water softener, or softener in combination with a sulfite filter or chlorination system.

HARDNESS – (Total Hardness) Water hardness affects how laundry detergents, shampoos and soap work. Hard water leaves a film on glass; spots would also be noticed on a newly washed car. Any hardness above three grains per gallon would benefit from a water softener. This test can also be used to check the effectiveness of an installed water softener. Lab results: on site. Excessive water hardness is controlled with a water softener. The harder the water the larger the softener needs to be. Water hardness is measured in grains. Soft water 1 – 3 gpg / grains (0 – 50 parts per million) Hard water 4 – 7 gpg / grains (60 – 120 parts per million) Very hard water 8 – up gpg / grains (130 – up Parts per million)

Maintaining a Septic System

In a system that is properly maintained, the bacteria necessary for its proper operation can live happily almost indefinitely, going about their daily chore of breaking down solids. If the septic system is abused it will shut down. Sludge will form, build up and get pushed into the leach field causing it to fail. Should the leach field fail, it may be un-repairable.

Maintenance – No regular maintenance should be necessary in a normally functioning system where good septic etiquette is practiced. The septic tank should be pumped out and inspected every four years.

Pumping – The septic tank can be pumped but the leach field cannot. Have the tank inspected every three to five years, and more often if a lot of water or a garbage disposal is used. Check the sludge level. The tank needs pumping when the sludge reaches 1/3 of the tanks depth. After pumping, add a pound of yeast to kick-start the bacteria.

Dual System – Some homes have a dual leach field system with a switchover valve located in a distribution box in the yard. This allows the homeowner to alternate between two separate leach fields. This should be done every six to nine months.

Trees and Shrubs – Planting trees or shrubs in the area occupied by the leach field is strongly discouraged. Trees should be kept as far away as possible. Roots from trees will block and possibly destroy the pipes in the leach field.

Trucks and machinery – refrain from driving over any portion of the leach field. heavy weights could cause the pipes to collapse. Normal use of a lawn mower or tractor should not affect the integrity of the leach field, Problem

Signs – Foul odors in the home or yard. Slow or backed up drains may be related to a septic problem. Wet spongy ground, a section of lawn growing darker and faster than the rest of the lawn, or lush plant growth may be indicative of a potential problem. If the home is using well water, repeated intestinal illnesses may indicate a serious failure of the septic system and/or contamination of the water source.

Mark where your tank is – It is important know the location of your septic tank. This information will be necessary when the tank needs to be inspected or pumped. Avoid driving over the tank or the leach field with cars or trucks (lawn tractors are OK).
If the septic system?s location is unknown, it may be possible to obtain records of its location from your local health department. If they do not have records, a septic contractor will be able to locate it for you.

Additives – The use of additives to the septic system is discouraged, if the system needs additives it is a sign of misuse and the users habits should be changed. Additives can also cause a flurry of activity in the tank that stirs up sludge that is better left in place at the bottom of the tank

Note: See the section on well water

Lead in Drinking Water

Up until the 1950s lead pipe was used as the supply line from the water main to the house and in many areas, it may still be in use. Your home might have plumbing with lead or lead solder. It is impossible to see; smell, or taste lead.

Furthermore, boiling water that has passed through lead plumbing will not eliminate the lead from the water. Lead was also a component in the solder used on copper pipes. Lead-based solder is not as large a concern as lead piping would be. That’s because, with age, sulfates, minerals and various oxides build up and coat the interior surface of the pipe forming a barrier between the lead solder joints and the water passing through it.

Lead-based solder has been banned since the 1980s.

Water can be tester for lead content.

To minimize contamination from lead leaching from pipes into drinking water:
-Run the water for three to five minutes before drinking it.
-Never use water from the hot water faucet for drinking or cooking, hot water leeches lead from the pipe and from the soldering the joints.

Note: If lead piping is used in the supply lines for drinking water it should be replaced, or a reverse osmosis water purification system installed.

For more information see the EPA fact sheet

Caution – Remodeling Around Water Heater

The hot water heater can not be located in any bedroom, bathroom or clothes closet. The hot water heater must be accessible for maintenance and relighting of the pilot.

All gas or propane burning appliances need a plentiful supply of air to operate efficiently and safely. When a gas hot water heater is starved of air/oxygen it burns inefficiently and creates carbon monoxide, a deadly, life threatening gas.

At the time the gas hot water heater was installed, the installer and the local building inspector made sure that the unit had an adequate supply of air to operate safely. It may be that the room where the gas burning heater is located is currently very large. If a remodeling project reduces the size of that room by putting up walls, the available oxygen/air supply will be reduced substantially, possibly creating a potentially life-threatening situation.

If the hot water heater is located in a small closet type room, it must have its air supplied through vent pipes from the attic, through louvered doors to the room or a large air vent in the wall.

Note: Vent or breather pipes to the attic must extend above the insulation. One pipe should terminate 12 inches below the ceiling, and the second pipe 12 inches from the floor.

Regulation for hot water heater combustion air.
Unconfined space – minimum 50 cubic feet of space per 1000 btu per hour.
Confined space – two openings 100 square inches each, freely communicating with unconfined space.

NOTE: this is just for the hot water heater if a furnace is in the same room, more air will be necessary.

Hot Water Temperature Settings

Take a moment and check the thermostat on your hot water heater. This is particularly important if there are children or elderly folks in the home. To check the temperature of the water, place a cooking thermometer in the stream of hot water coming from a faucet.

The hot water temperature should not be above 125 degrees Fahrenheit. At 120 degrees, water takes five minutes of constant contact to produce a third-degree burn. At 130 degrees the exposure time is 30 seconds. Increase the temperature to 150 degrees and the exposure time is down to 1.5 seconds

Turning down your thermostat not only reduces the risk of burns, it also makes the hot water heater last longer and saves you money.

Adjusting the temperature.
On a gas water heater it is as simple as dialing down the temperature on the control knob at the bottom of the tank.
Electric hot water heaters generally have two heating elements, one at the top and one near the bottom. To change the temperature, turn off the power to the tank at the breaker panel, remove the inspection plates on the side of the tank, pull back the insulation, lift up the plastic cover and using a screw driver turn the screw towards the plus or minus signs.

NOTE: At 125 degrees, water is still too hot to be used for washing or bathing purposes without adding cold water.

Boiler Hot Water Heater

Many older homes and some new ones have boilers supplying heat using radiators or under floor piping. The boilers usually operate on fuel oil or gas. There are a few electric boilers still in operation. It does not matter which system the house has, they all operate using the same basic principals.

There are two types of system.
The closed type where the water is heated in the boiler and circulated through out the system using a circulation pump, to allow for the waters natural expansion as it heats the system is fitted with an expansion tank. If additional water is needed in the system an automatic filling valve adds the water. This is the most common system found.

The open or un-pressurized system,
found in very old houses, uses a header tank in the attic to allow the expanding water to vent from the system and also to add water to the system as the water level falls in the system. The water in the heating system is separate from the drinking water plumbing in the house. Very little water is added to the system over the course of the heating season.

Difference between hot water and forced air.
A gas furnace and gas boiler, or oil furnace and oil boiler will need the same annual maintenance. Additionally the boiler system should have the expansion tank emptied annually if it is not the newer pressurized type with a bladder. Monthly, the radiators or under floor circuits should be bled for air build up.

A forced air system has a blower to move the air, the boiler uses a pump to move the water through the pipes.

Boiler water pressure should be checked during the heating season, normal pressure for a water system should be in the 12 to 15 lbs operating range when hot, If the system is steam the pressure should be 0 lbs, pressures outside these parameters should be checked immediately.

Bleeding air from the system In houses with hot water heating, air gets trapped in the top of the radiators making them feel cold and reducing their ability to heat. This air must be removed or bled. On the top end of the upright type radiator there is a bleeder valve that accepts a radiator key, with a cup under the protruding nozzle open the key one or two turns. A hiss of air will be followed by a stream of water. Close the valve.

Similarly behind the access cover on one end of a baseboard radiator there is a screw that operates the bleeder valve. Systems that have under floor heating use a distribution pipe with all the bleeder valves beside each other along with flow regulating valves for each circuit, these valves can be adjusted to increase or decrease the heat in each room or zone. Automatic bleeders are available.

Circulation Pump
It is suggested that the circulation pump when installed should be wired in a manner that allows the user to switch it on for constant water circulation. Normal wiring practices have the pump cycling on and off with the boiler. The constant flow maintains a more uniform temperature and takes the start up load off the boiler.

Steam systems do not have circulation pumps or bleeding valves.

Adding a water conditioner (chemical additive) to the water in the enclosed water system to reduce the damage to the pipes and pump caused by the minerals in the water.