Photograph of  this open well in a home basement - many concernsDrinking Water Testing Advice

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Well water testing guidelines for home buyers and home owners.

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SHOULD YOU TEST YOUR WATER? - Should You Have Your Water Tested?

Tub stains can indicate water contaminants (C) Daniel Friedman"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 other household uses." -- Water Quality Fact Sheet #4, Cooperative Extension System, Cornell University, University of Maryland - advice about deciding when to test water and what sorts of testing should be used to check home water supply for contaminants.

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Article Contents

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 other household uses. in addition to illness, a variety of less serious problems such as taste, color, odor and staining of clothes or fixtures are symptoms of water quality problems. Even water that appears problem-free may not necessarily be safe or acceptable.

Not everyone needs to test their water and it is impractical and unnecessary to test for all possible contaminants. This fact sheet provides a few guidelines for deciding whether or not to have your water tested, and if so, what tests would be appropriate for your situation. Your Cooperative Extension agent can offer you further assistance and information.

PUBLIC vs PRIVATE WATER - Supplies, Should You Test Your Municipal Water Supply?

Home distiller for water purification (C) Daniel FriedmanMany homeowners get water simply by turning on the faucet and making a monthly payment to a municipal water system. others provide their own water.

Your water supply is either public (you and others are connected to the same water system) or private (you supply your own water). Public water systems draw water from rivers, reservoirs, springs or ground water wells. Most private drinking water comes from wells, though springs and ponds are sometimes used.

If your water comes from a public or municipal water system your water is regularly tested for contaminants regulated by Federal and state standards, such as pathogens, radioactive elements and certain toxic chemicals.

Watch out: However, some public water supplies may have water quality problems caused by inadequate municipal water treatment facilities or distribution systems. For example, at PUBLIC MUNICIPAL WATER TESTS we include research citations describing Cryptosporidium and Giardia contaminants found in some public water supplies in various countries.

Some rural water supply districts do not have enough money to hire trained specialists or to immediately comply with expanding government requirements. In addition, corrosive water or deteriorating pipes in the house may add contaminants to municipal drinking water after it enters your home.

[DF-note: excluding the cases cited above by the authors, if your home is served by municipal water, regular tests by the municipality or its agent are required by federal, and possibly state and local law such as the Federal Clean Drinking Water Act (available at the US EPA). Barring cases of concern for inadequate or under-funded municipality testing, or reports that testing is being performed improperly, my opinion is that additional, and more limited in scope, testing by individual home owners is generally not warranted.]

If you obtain drinking water from your own well, you alone are responsible, for assuring that it is safe. For this reason, routine testing for a few of the most common contaminants is highly recommended. Even if you currently have a safe, pure water supply. regular testing can be valuable because it establishes a record of water quality. This record can be helpful in solving any future problems and in obtaining compensation if someone damages your water supply.

For more details about municipal water supply testing and FAQs about testing the municipal water supply see

WHEN TO TEST - When Should You Test Your Water?

Photograph of  this open well in a home basement - many concernsWhile it looks disgusting, the water in this photograph was colored from rust. We ran this fixture after water had been shut off in the building for months.

Rust in water can be a problem, for example if it is at high levels it may stain laundry or even contain enough iron to be a health concern for some people. It might also indicate that the water supply is particularly corrosive or "aggressive."

Whether you have a public or private water supply, you should have your water tested if the following situations arise:

Iron stains on tub (C) Daniel Friedman

HOW OFTEN to Make A Routine Water Potability Test or other Water Tests

The testing frequencies in this fact sheet are general guidelines. Test more often if you suspect there is a problem with the quality of your drinking water.

Once each year test for coliform bacteria, nitrate, pH and TDS. it is best to test for these contaminants during the spring or summer following a rainy period. These tests should also be conducted after repairing or replacing an old well or pipes, and after installing a new well or pump.

Every 3 years test for sulfate, chloride, iron, manganese, lead, hardness and corrosion index.

If a new baby is expected in the household it is a good idea to test for nitrate in the early months of a pregnancy, before bringing an infant home, and again during the first 6 months of the baby's life.

Drinking Water Contaminant Levels - New York State Maximum Allowed for examples of typical allowable limits.

Water Treatment for Contamination, Hardness, Odors, Sediment, Etc: choices of systems, recommendations

How to Conduct A Well Water or Drinking Water Test

This topic has been moved to a separate article. See WATER TEST PROCEDURE

Water Test Costs for Testing Private Water Supplies, Typical Tests, Costs, Suggestions for Test Packages

Most water testing labs, both those run by your local health department and private water testing labs offer packages of tests for clusters of common private water supply contaminants. If you want water tests not offered through your local health department don't hesitate to use a private water testing laboratory, provided the lab is licensed by your state. Beware - a few labs offer water tests in states where they have no license to do so, possibly using methods which are not approved by state authorities. Remember to ask.

If you are moving into a home and are testing water for the first time, we recommend ordering one of the more extensive test packages, typically costing $200. to $300.

If that test detects no problems, we recommend follow-up testing of the water supply annually, using a less costly minimum screen for bacteria or coliform bacteria, typically costing less than $50.

Another tip: if a home is new to you, ask the neighbors, the local health department, and local labs if they are aware of any special contamination issues on your street or near your home. On rare occasions I've learned about and thus could order tests for unusual contaminants which otherwise no newcomer would have thought to look for.

Choices of Water Tests & Fees: A Summary of Types of Water Tests, Degrees of Comprehensive Water Testing, Details of Water Test Parameters

Drinking Water Contaminant Levels - Maximum Allowed

Special Situations Deserving Water Testing

Where you live, or what you are living next to, can sometimes affect the quality of your well water. If someone in your family becomes ill, or the taste, odor or color of your water changes, your water supply may be contaminated.

If your well is in an area of intensive agricultural use: Test for pesticides commonly used in the area, coliform bacteria, nitrate, pH and TDS.

If you live near a coal or other mining operation: Test for iron, manganese, aluminum, pH and corrosion index.

If your well is near a gas drilling operation: Test for chloride, sodium, barium and strontium.

If your water, smells like gasoline or fuel oil, and your well is located near on operational or abandoned gas station or buried fuel storage tanks: Test for fuel components or volatile organic compounds ('OC's).

If your well is near a dump, junkyard, landfill, factory, or dry cleaning operation: Test for volatile organic chemicals (such as gasoline components and cleaning solvents) pH, TDS, chloride, sulfate and metals. -

If your well is near seawater, a road salt storage site, or a heavily salted roadway and you notice the water tastes salty or signs of corrosion appear on pipes: Test for chloride, TDS and sodium.

Also see Choices of Water Tests& Fees: A Summary of Types of Water Tests, Degrees of Comprehensive Water Testing, Details of Water Test Parameters. And also check out CHEATING ON WATER TESTS

Water testing advice based on information from Cornell University of Maryland with extensive edits, text additions, and additional references by DJF New York State License #16000005303

Judith C. Stawan Extension support aide, Ann T. Lemisy associate professor, College of Human Ecology Cornell University, Sharon 1. Hogan communications consultant, Richard A. WeIsmiller soil end water resource specialist Department of Agronomy, The University of Maryland. [Edits and comments added by Daniel Friedman, [researcher/author] 5/22/2009 4/25/2007, 11/2006, 4/2006]


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