Tips: Private water well dos and don'ts

If you're one of the millions of Americans who get their drinking water from private wells, National Ground Water Awareness Week, March 13-19, is an ideal time to give your well a checkup that includes a maintenance inspection and water testing.

"Public water supplies are regulated by the government, but for the nearly 15 million families with private wells it is the homeowner's ongoing responsibility to make sure the well is properly maintained and the water is safe," said Ann Marie Gebhart, Global Business manager, Environmental Sciences, for Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), the not-for-profit product safety testing organization.

"While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises testing private wells annually, only a small number of well owners are aware of this annual testing recommendation," said Gebhart. "An annual water test helps private well owners ensure a safe supply of water. It's like checking your smoke alarm's batteries or furnace seasonally."

EPA suggests that you test your water every year for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids and pH levels. If you suspect other contaminants, EPA recommends that you test for these also. Local experts can tell you about possible impurities in your area.

"Sometimes water quality problems are obvious by the water's taste, smell or appearance. But because many contaminants are not detectible without a lab analysis, private well owners should get their water tested if there is a noticeable change in the water quality.

"It's important to use a qualified laboratory that can identify naturally occurring or man-made contaminants in your water. That is the first step toward taking appropriate corrective action and protecting your family," Gebhart said.

Proper well maintenance also plays a vital role in keeping contamination out of a well, according to Kevin McCray, executive director of National Ground Water Association (NGWA).

"When wells are not properly constructed or maintained, it sometimes allows contamination to enter the well. This is particularly true of bacterial contamination," McCray noted. "An annual well checkup is critical for your family's safety. It's far better to catch problems through a checkup than to experience a well breakdown or drink contaminated water.

"A qualified contractor can identify problems which, when fixed, may prevent breakdowns and minimize or prevent contamination. As with any other service provider, do your research, ask questions and check references if necessary."

The well and safety experts from the National Ground Water Association and Underwriters Laboratories Inc. offer the following guidelines for maintenance and water testing of private wells:

Test your well water if...

It hasn't been tested in 12 months.

  • There's been a change in taste, odor or appearance.
  • Your well has been flooded.
  • Your well has been serviced.
  • There has been a chemical spill or contamination incident nearby.

Do:

  • Get an annual well maintenance checkup and water test by a qualified professional.
  • Maintain proper separation between your well and buildings, septic systems and hazardous substances. Check with your local environmental health office.
  • Keep the top of your well at least 1 foot above ground. Slope the ground away from your well for proper drainage.
  • Take care in working or mowing around your well. A damaged casing could jeopardize the sanitary protection of your well.
  • Keep your well records in a safe place. These include the construction report as well as annual water well system maintenance and water testing results.

Don't:

  • Put the hose inside a tank or container when mixing pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals to avoid back-siphonage into the well.
  • Neglect old, unused wells. They provide a contamination pathway into the aquifer and should be sealed properly by a qualified well contractor.
  • Remove the well cap except for servicing the well. A secure, locking cap is best to prevent tampering with the well.
  • Pile snow, leaves or other materials around your well.
  • Service your well without the help or guidance of a qualified professional. If you introduce contamination into the well, it also can get into the aquifer.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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