Monday, May 23, 2011

Water became Cloudy or Dirty Looking–VAMWON Notes from the Field

The Virginia Master Well Owner Network (VAMWON) is an organization of trained volunteers dedicated to promoting the proper construction, maintenance, and management of private water systems (wells, springs, and cisterns) in Virginia. The Cooperative Extension Services in Virginia manages the program and have numerous publications and fact sheets that can help homeowners make educated decisions about their drinking water. The volunteers can help homeowners interpret their test results and make educated decisions about what treatment might be appropriate and desirable or appropriate solutions to problems..

VAMWON Notes from the Field are a series of stories of the questions and sometimes the solutions I’ve encountered as a VAMWON volunteer. The VAMWON volunteer or Agent can help you identify problems with the water system and provide information on suggested treatments options and other solutions. You can find your VAMWON volunteer neighbor through this link by entering your county in the search box.

A private well owner located in the Manassas area of Prince William County contacted me through the Master Well Owner Network. I received the following request by e-mail “I am wondering if you can help me in regard to my well. I have concerns regarding the set up/layout of my current well and I would like to become a more educated and responsible well owner. Could you please let me know what assistance if any you may be able to provide.”

I received the e-mail while I was on vacation, but it sounded like a simple request for information and I assumed that I could just send a couple of basic articles to a new homeowner and have handled the inquiry promptly. People rarely contact the VAMWON out of the blue, there is usually a precipitating event. A home purchase, or a change in their water quality. So I called the homeowner to ask why he called. Turns out he had owned the home for several years and suddenly at the end of winter (when the snow melted) his water looked dirty. The homeowner had only tested his well when he purchased his home several years ago. The well test performed at purchase is typically a total coliform bacteria test. Passing is finding no bacteria present. So, either the well had been free of bacteria a few years back, or the seller had chlorine shocked his well ahead of the purchasers water test. Yes, it is easy hide a water problem if all that is being done is a test for total coliform bacteria.

I asked the homeowner, some basic questions to narrow down the problem. The home was an older home and the well was more than 20 years old. I asked him if he had a septic system and he told me no, he was on county sewer r the conversion reportedly happened when the school up the street was built. I confirmed that he was still on well water and that he knew the location of his well. I asked him to describe his well and what the homeowner described to me was a large pit made of cinderblocks or bricks with a well in the center and a metal hood on the well pipe.

In Virginia private wells were first regulated in 1990. The regulations were expanded by the Department of Health in 1993. Prior to that only public water supply wells and private wells constructed during the installation of a new or repaired septic system were regulated by the Department of Health. The vast majority of the private wells in Virginia were constructed before the regulations and there is no requirement that these older private wells comply with current regulations. If your home drinking water is supplied from a private well, you are responsible for ensuring that your water is safe to drink. Unlike public drinking water systems, no one is ensuring your well water is safe to dink but you. Groundwater, the source of well water is a dynamic system and subject to change, if your water tested fine in the past is no guarantee that is free from contaminants now. In addition, several water tests can provide clues to what is happening to your water system.

The old well at my parent’s house was built in an earthen pit with a lid. I used to hide in it when we played hide and seek. Historically, it was common practice to construct a large diameter pit around a small diameter well. The pit was intended to provide convenient access to underground water line connections below the frost line. Unfortunately, wells pits tend to be unsanitary because they literally invite drainage into the well creating a contamination hazard to the water well system. Not having a sanitary cap on a well head was the most obvious problem described to me by the homeowner and remedying that problem might eliminate the infiltration. A second step would be to eliminate the well pit by extending the casing above grade and installing a pitless unit. There are adaptor units available for this and this has been successfully done at many sites. This will only work if the well itself is sound and the water supply unimpaired. If the homeowner’s well cannot be adapted and a sanitary water supply obtained, then in his case it may not make economic sense to drill another well, but instead the better choice might be to connect to city water since the water main runs to the end of his street. Before making a decision the water should be tested to make sure that the only contaminants appear to be from infiltration.

The water should not be consumed until it is tested. In truth infiltration problems are typically happen after snow melts or in the heavy rains of spring and often clear up later in the season. The dirty cloudy appearance of the water might clear up on its own, but the well must be disinfected and at the minimum a sanitary seal well cap installed. After any problems, or work on a well-installing a cap or even an extension to bring the casing above grade, you need to ensure that the well is treated with chlorine to disinfect it, then wait two weeks and test the water again to make sure that the water supply is sanitary without the chlorine shock. Testing your water, chlorine shocking and retesting wells to make sure that your water supply is potable are your responsibilities and essential to your health and the health of your families especially infants.

When I called to follow up, a few weeks later I discovered that the water had “cleared up” and the homeowners were too busy with their new baby to deal with that problem. I did not ask if they were still drinking bottled water, but I did something I do not like to do, I gave him the name, phone number and contact person to speak to at the well driller I use these days. I told him what to ask about and offered to come out to his house and check things out and include his home in the batch of home tests I am taking for an HOA. I negotiated a discount from the laboratory for the group. It is irresponsible as a parent to ignore a water problem.

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