Monday, December 2, 2019

Testing the Well Before Purchase

If you are thinking about buying a home with a private water well you need to understand at a minimum the basics about the well and groundwater, and know the quality and quantity of water available from the well. In many locations private wells are not regulated or only minimally regulated. Virginia now has well drilling regulations and standards, but those only apply to wells drilled after 1992. If you buy a home with an existing well- buyer beware. Any well, groundwater or septic problems not detected by the buyer during the sale process become the home buyer's problem upon closing the sale. There is no legal recourse back to the seller. It would be a real shame to discover after closing on home that the drinking water well does not supply enough water for you to do laundry in the summer, goes dry in a drought or that the water is contaminated or has an unpleasant taste or smell.

About 21% of homes in Virginia get their drinking water from a private well, and homes with wells have septic systems. Wells in Virginia are the owner's responsibility. Regulations from the Virginia Department of Health only address the constructions of wells; there are no regulations for the maintenance or testing of wells. Though there are no Virginia regulations to test well water before a sale, mortgage lenders typically require testing for bacteria for a mortgage to be approved. Testing a well for coliform bacteria and E. coli are not enough to make sure that you have a good source of drinking water for a home. Quite frankly, it is fairly easy to cheat the bacteria test.

When you are considering buying a home with a well, you need to understand the water and make sure that it is acceptable to you. As a matter of fact, water test results acceptable to me was one of the two contingencies for my house. For purchase I would recommend a broad stroke water test that looks at all the primary and secondary contaminants regulated under the safe drinking water act as well as pesticides.

These kinds of tests exist. An example is the WaterCheck Deluxe plus pesticides test kit from National Testing Laboratories which is an EPA certified laboratory would work. Buying a package reduces the cost though the drawback is these packages are performed at a lower sensitivity level and this was the most economical test I found. (I paid around 8 times the cost of their WaterCheck with pesticides to test my water before we bought the house.) It comes with sampling bottles, an ice pack that needs to be frozen and a cooler to use when you FedEx the water samples back. Time is of the essence when dealing with bacteria samples. If the home has any water treatment or filters it is important to test both the raw water coming from the well and the water after treatment. This allows you evaluate the appropriateness and effectiveness of any treatment. You will need two water test packages.

The WaterCheck Deluxe with pesticides is a broad stroke test, testing the water for 103 items including Bacteria (Total Coliform and E-Coli), 19 heavy metals and minerals including lead, iron, arsenic and copper (many which are naturally occurring, but can impact health); 6 other inorganic compounds including nitrates and nitrites (can indicate fertilizer residue or animal waste); 5 physical factors including pH, hardness, alkalinity; 4 Trihalomethanes (THMs) and 47 Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) including Benzene, Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE) and Trichloroethene (TCE). The pesticide option adds 20 pesticides, herbicides and PCBs. The package costs $229.99. You will also have to pay overnight shipping cost ($40-$70) to return the package. You may also have to purchase a local Bacteria test if there was a delay in the shipping.

The WaterCheck package compares their results to the The US EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act limits for the primary and secondary contaminants are a good standard to compare water to when testing a well. Since there are no regulation for private well water, that is a reasonable standard to compare the water test results to. However, be alert to anything that should not be in groundwater. The presence of low levels of man made contaminants may be an indication of a bigger problem. Also, make sure you check for residual levels of chlorine. The presence of residual levels of chlorine could indicate that someone had recently chlorinated the well or had tried to cheat the bacteria test- not nice. So, be alert when you review your results.

Not all of the impurities and contaminants in groundwater are bad, some make water taste good. However, any traces of solvents or hydrocarbons or contaminants that are not naturally occurring would be concerning. Penn State Extension has an online tool to compare testing results to EPA Safe Drinking Water Standards and offers some suggestions. Once you have the information the question is when is water acceptable. The water should also taste good. While most contaminates can be addressed using water treatment systems that are properly designed, installed and maintained, but there are tradeoffs that you might not want to make. When I purchased my home, it was important to me to have water that was safe and entirely acceptable to me without any treatment. I particularly dislike water softeners so I needed that my water not be too hard.

The levels of nitrate in groundwater tends to increase over time from the presence of fertilizer and human and animal waste. The Safe Drinking Water Act maximum contaminant level (MCL) for nitrate in public drinking water supplies in the United States is 10 mg/L as nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N). However in recent studies scientists have found a relationship between drinking water with elevated nitrate concentrations and colorectal cancer, thyroid disease, and neural tube defects. “Many of the studies observed increased health risks with ingestion of water nitrate levels that were below regulatory limits.” So, having nitrate concentrations below 10 mg/L is no protection against increased cancer risk or birth defects.

The most common contamination problem for a well is an adjacent septic system. Research done in Duchess county New York identified density of septic systems as an easy indicator of nitrate contamination to groundwater. The Dutchess County study and another study performed in North Carolina found that overall average density of on-site waste disposal (traditional septic or alternative) should not exceed one unit per 2-3 acres for an average size house to ensure water quality and recharge in groundwater supplies. The controlling factor in minimum lot size requirements in the northeast appears to be maintaining water quality, not groundwater recharge. The measure they used to test water quality was nitrate level. Adequate dilution, soil filtration and time are necessary to ensure that the nitrate level did not rise. This is why in 10 Rules for Buying a Home with a Well and Septic System, is state not to buy a home without at least 2-3 acres of land if it depends on a well and septic system.

In most locations you can get some help in interpreting water test results from the department of health.

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