Even though the reach of municipal water systems has greatly expanded over the years, there are still millions of households in the USA that depend on wells for their drinking and freshwater needs.
If you are one of them, you will want to pay very close attention to what I am about to discuss regarding well water and testing.
That’s because even though the ground above your well water source acts as a natural filter, there are still many impurities that will make their way into your well water. Many of these are not fit to drink.
In my 26-years in the pool and spa water maintenance industry, I have seen firsthand the types of contaminants that are found in well water and learned useful ways to test for and reduce them.
I will use that knowledge along with other research that I have done to guide you on how to test well water.
Also discussed by me will be the most common contaminants found in well water, how often you should test your well water, and what your well water test results indicate that you should do.
Table of Contents
Why Should You Test Your Well Water?
There are many good reasons to get your well water tested regularly. This is especially true if you drink the well water that comes into your home.
The most important reason is to protect you and your family’s health. Pesticides, bacteria, salts, hydrocarbons, and other potentially harmful contaminants routinely are not removed by water passing through the ground’s natural filters before it gets to your well water source.
Well water impurities can also do such things as stain your clothes during washing, accelerate the corrosion of pipes, lead to unsightly mineral deposits on water fixtures, and make the looks, smell, and taste of your drinking water extremely unappealing.
Almost every impurity that is found in your home’s well-supplied water can be detected by testing and means have been established to mitigate their impact on your family’s health and your home environment.
What to Test for in Well Water
The EPA lists 6 major categories of well water contaminants. This list includes:
This category includes harmful bacteria such as E. coli which is commonly found in soil, human sewage, and animal waste. Viruses and parasites also have been placed in this category as well.
2. Nitrates and Nitrites
The biggest source of nitrates comes from fertilizers. They are also found in human and animal waste. Nitrates when ingested turn into nitrites which can pose a significant health risk especially for children.
3. Heavy Metals
These are introduced into well water through the corrosion process in pipes, mining operations, industrial manufacturing processes, and more. Common heavy metals of concern that are found in well water include cadmium, arsenic, antimony, chromium, lead, iron, copper, and selenium.
Also, see our guides on testing for copper and testing for heavy metals specifically.
4. Organic Chemicals
These are substances that get in water sources through the everyday use of household products and because of their widespread use in industrial and agricultural processes. Such substances as inks, dyes, pharmaceuticals, paints, solvents, sealants, and disinfectants fall under this heading.
These are radioactive elements that can either be naturally occurring or introduced into the environment through man-made processes such as nuclear energy production and mining operations. Uranium and radium are among the two most commonly found in well water.
This substance that is often used to treat municipal drinking can actually be beneficial for your teeth in small amounts. It can, however, lead to several different illnesses if taken into the body in high amounts.
How Often Should You Test Well Water?
According to guidelines established by the New York State Department of Health, you should test your well water at least once a year. The main concern to be looked at yearly in your well water is the threat that dangerous bacteria pose to you and your family’s health.
Other contaminants in your well water should be tested for every three to five years. Of course, if you are going to the trouble of getting your well water tested for bacteria every year, why not find out what other impurities are presently found in that well water too.
You should also be aware that natural and unnatural events can also lead to the contamination of the water that’s found in your well. This includes severe flooding, water runoff after periods of prolonged heavy rainfall, and contamination from nearby chemical spills.
After any of these events occur in your area, it’s recommended that you get your well water tested. This is especially true if you notice any sudden changes in the appearance, smell, or taste of your incoming well water.
How to Test Well Water
There are two types of tests that will help you to determine the purity of your incoming well water. These include:
1. At-Home Test Kits
These present the easiest and fastest way to get the quality of your well water tested. Most often they only require using test strips.
On occasion, some of them may also involve some tests that use drops or other liquid measurements to determine the presence of contaminants in your well water. Bacteria tests are an example of this as they usually are not done using a test strip.
Most at-home water tests also come in the form of single-use kits.
You must be aware that as easy as most at-home testing kits are to use, they do have some drawbacks. One is that the information the test results give you will not be as accurate as getting your well water tested by a lab.
By using strips to test the purity of your well water, it will also limit the number of contaminants that you can test your home’s water for.
Many homeowners just use these rapid at-home test kits as a barometer to determine whether more extensive lab testing of their incoming well water is necessary.
How do you use them? I will give as an example the popular ‘Watersafe Drinking Water Test Kit’. It will test for 10 common contaminants. This includes tests for bacteria, lead, pesticides, copper, iron, nitrates, nitrites, chlorine, PH, and hardness.
Each test strip that is included in the kit is labeled separately and clearly marked. You simply dip these test strips into a sample of your well water that has been placed in an uncontaminated container.
Once you have dipped them into the sample, you simply compare the color that the test strip turns with the corresponding test result chart that is included in the kit.
In this particular test kit, only the test for bacteria is performed without the use of test strips.
Be sure to always read the instructions that come with your at-home test kit before using it and strictly follow those instructions.
2. Professional Lab Testing
Using a professional water test kit is the best way to get very accurate answers as to the quality of your well water. Lab testing will typically test for many more contaminants (often 200 or more) than simple at-home test kits do.
The biggest drawback with lab testing is its cost. Many lab generated water quality tests will cost over 10X the price of at-home water testing kits. You also have to take steps to ensure the container that you place your water sample in will not leak when transported in your car or being delivered through the mail.
Ordering a mail-in well water test kit such as the ‘Safe Home Ultimate Water Quality Test Kit’ is often easier than trying to find a local place that tests well water. Local well water testing options will include such options as swimming pool supply stores and companies that sell water filtration equipment.
Mail-in water test kits will provide you with an uncontaminated container that will seal up nicely for transport.
If you decide to get your water tested locally, use a container for your water sample such as a mason jar. Clean it and rinse it several times to make sure there is no residue left on it that will taint the lab-generated test results.
How to Interpret your Test Results
If testing your well water reveals that you have harmful contaminants in it, then there are several methods you can use to remove or reduce those impurities. This includes installing such devices on your water supply line as bacteria-killing UV light water purifiers.
Reverse osmosis water filters also do a great job removing or reducing such common well water impurities as bacteria, lead, total dissolved solids (TDS), nitrates, radium, and arsenic.
Whole house well water purification systems and under-sink water filters are also a great way to deal with contaminants that testing reveals you have in your well water.
Lastly, simple water softeners for well water will even work nicely if testing reveals the main problem with your well water is the need to remove a large amount of total dissolved solids.
How Much Does Well Water Testing Cost?
Answer: It depends on the type of well water test that you use. At-home test kits typically are in the $25 to $40 range and lab tests can cost over $300.
How long does it take to get lab results?
Answer: In-person lab testing usually takes 2 to 4 hours to generate results depending on how busy the test establishment is. Lab testing by mail usually produces electronically delivered results within 2 to 4 days of the testing company receiving your water sample.
Are well contaminants dangerous?
Answer: Many of them can be if ingested continuously over long periods or taken into your body in higher amounts than are deemed to be safe. If you are interested to learn more specific information about the impact that various well water contaminants may have on your body, you can refer to this EPA webpage.
What should you do if your well water has contaminants?
Answer: You will have to take steps to get rid of any impurities in your well water that are considered harmful or may cause other problems around your home. The most impactful way of doing this is to add some type of well water filtration device to the water supply line that comes into your house from your well pump.
You can also get ideas on how to go about doing this by referring to the well water treatment guide that we have posted on our website.
Some Final Thoughts on Well Water Testing
From all of my experience working with various water sources, there is one thing that I can say for sure and this is that there are not many water sources that are 100% contaminant-free. This certainly holds true for most well water systems.
By drinking untreated or unfiltered well water, you are most likely putting your or your family’s health at risk. This is not information that should be taken lightly.
You can easily put your mind at ease by getting your well water tested. It’s something that can provide you with solid answers regarding the purity of your incoming well water.
So if your home’s water is supplied by a well, at least follow the EPA suggestions mentioned in this article for well water testing frequency.
Then take steps to remove or reduce any problem causing contaminants that have been detected in your incoming well water supply.