Sunday, January 31, 2021

Don't Buy the House Without a Septic Inspection

If you are buying a house with a septic system, you need to have that system inspected to make sure you are not buying a problem that could cost you thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars to fix.  Septic inspections are excluded from the standard home inspection, and Virginia is a buyer beware state with regards to septic systems and wells. So, you need to take care to make sure that the septic system has been properly maintained, not at the end of its useful life and is operating properly. Have any necessary repairs made to the system before closing or you are out of luck.

There are two basic types of septic systems- conventional and alternative. Site, soil conditions and age determine the type of system that was installed. A conventional system consists of a single chamber septic tank and drain/leach field with the related piping. The tank receives the wastewater from the house and allows the solids to settle down to the bottom of the tank where the anaerobic bacteria that live in the tank digest the organic materials while the effluent (water around all that stuff) flows out to the leach field to be purified by passing through soil until it reaches the groundwater. Scum consisting of oil and grease floats on top of the water layer in the tank and if the tank is too full can be pulled into the leach field limiting its effectiveness and clogging the leach field. In the the leach field  the effluent it percolates into the soil, which provides final treatment by removing harmful bacteria, viruses, and nutrients. In many cases the components of a septic system are not visible from the surface, but their proper installation and location should be documented at the local health department office.

Other types of septic systems are grouped together and called alternative on-site sewage systems, AOSS. All alternative systems have a secondary treatment system. One example of an AOSS is an aerobic system consists of a multi chamber tank or several tanks. After separation of solids in the first tank waste is forced through a filter into a second chamber or tank where air is pumped in to enhance aerobic bacteria which decomposes the organic material. The waste then flows into a third chamber or settling chamber which collects the bacteria and passes the liquid on to the leach field or drip field. Other type of AOSS include traditional septic tanks followed by treatment with tanks filled with peat, or sand mounds, or other soil absorption system that provide the secondary treatment. These types of secondary treatment tanks are visible in the yard. There are many different types of AOSS. The cost and type of maintenance, repair or media replacement is directly related to the components of the AOSS system. Peat modules can cost more than ten thousand dollars to replace each 10-15 years, while a blower on an aerobic tank can cost about a thousand dollars to replace every few years. 

In Virginia all AOSS are required to have a licensed operator maintain the system and be inspected at least annually and are required to be sampled if the system was permitted after December 7th 2011. The septic tank or tanks should also be pumped regularly and the need for pumping assessed at each annual inspection. For more information on AOSS regulations and requirements see the Guidance Document from the Virginia Department of Health.

Having a septic tank pumped and alternative onsite sewage system maintained at appropriate intervals is as critical to keeping the system functioning properly and not polluting the groundwater. VDH recommends that the average household conventional septic system be inspected at least every three years by a septic service professional (licensed by the DPOR). However, alternative onsite sewage systems are required to be inspected at least annually by a licensed operator. Household septic tanks should be pumped every three to five years. Four major factors influence the frequency of septic pumping:

  • Household size
  • Total wastewater generated
  • Volume of solids in wastewater (garbage disposal system)
  • Septic tank size

Pump outs are legally required in some localities. In northern Virginia, pump outs are required at least every five years for systems located in Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas (although some localities may accept an inspection report performed by a licensed or certified expert in lieu of a pump out). Compliance with the regulations for pump out and inspections has been poor. The most likely source of contamination to a drinking water well is a nearby septic system failure, and typically, the nearest septic system is your own. The homeowner is responsible for maintaining it.

If you are considering buying a home with a septic system you need to do two things:

  1. Have the system inspected by a licensed operator and septic service company to come out and inspect the operation and condition of the system. You should accompany them on the inspection to ask questions and hear their comments.
  2. Use the historical records to verify that the system was installed under permit from the health department, has been maintained and regularly inspected and the septic tank pumped regularly. All this information can be obtained from the local health department. Their electronic files will contain information on the original installation, the type of system that is on site and any permitted repairs. You can call the health department or make the realtor work and print out the information for you. Look over the file carefully. Also, the county maintains a list of the most recent recorded septic tank pump-out, and inspections for AOSS systems. If the home has an AOSS and it has not been regularly inspected, it is probably not working properly. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Salting Roads

The ICPRB has been working with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission to decrease salt levels in area streams. The plan is to implement a voluntary management of the use of salts for roadways and walkways through the implementation of the Salt Management Strategy just published by the ICPRB and VDEQ.

Analyses from three different studies at multiple locations have found increasing freshwater salinization in Northern Virginia. Salts are very effective at deicing roads; however, after application, the salts are washed off into local waterways or seep through soils into groundwater systems with negative impacts on water quality and the environment. Salts pollute drinking water sources and are very costly to remove. The only available technology to remove salt from the source water is reverse osmosis which is cost prohibitive and requires a significant amount of energy to run.   

Due to their corrosive nature, salts increase the costs of maintenance, repair, and replacement of infrastructure like roads, sidewalks, driveways, bridges, and pipes; similar effects are seen on vehicles and other property. Improved management and use of salts during winter weather events can maintain public safety and minimize the negative impacts of salty runoff.

For the past year the VDEQ and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission have gathered together stake holders to develop a Salt Management Strategy and has been holding public meeting to hear community concerns. Last week VDEQ virtually presented the Salt Management Toolkit to the public. It is a guide for the use of salt to increase public safety and reduce environmental impact.

The Salt Management Toolkit is Virginia’s first comprehensive and integrated strategy to improve the balance between the impacts and benefits of salt application. The toolkit is designed to encourage the continual improvement in winter maintenance practices, tracking salt use, evaluating implementation of best practices, monitoring improvements in water quality and increasing public awareness of the benefits and the unintended impacts of salt use. The Salt Management Toolkit establishes a solid foundation for the beginning of area-wide adaptive implementation of better salt management in the future by expanding the progress already made by VDOT in anti-icing of area roads by the use of brine solution.

For the past several years VDOT has sprayed a salt solution that is only about 23% salt to pretreat the interstates (66, 95, 395 and 495) and the major roads (for example Routes 1, 7, 28, 50, 15 etc.) In total VDOT only applies brine to pretreat 2,150 lane miles of interstates, major roads and bridges. You’ve seen the brine as light white lines sprayed in roadway lanes before storms. The anti-icing treatment is most effective during the first hour when it prevents the snow from bonding to the roadway. This makes it easier and more effective to plow a road and has been effective in reducing salt use.

Take a look at the Salt Management Toolkit. The 30-day public comment period: runs from January 22, 2021 through February 22, 2021. Following the comment period, VDEQ will address community comments and transition into the implementation of the Salt Management Strategy.  

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Act Now to Ensure the Rural Crescent will have Water

We are at a crossroads in Prince William County. The Board of County Supervisors is considering plans for development of the Rural Crescent, an area completely dependent on groundwater to supply its homes. The groundwater level in the only monitoring well in the Rural Crescent has been falling since 2004. This is a warning that we are depleting the aquifer.

The Tidewater area of Virginia, dependent on the groundwater from the Potomac Aquifer, has had falling groundwater levels for decades. In some areas groundwater has fallen up to 200 feet and are at risk of running out of water. In the 1990’s a law was passed to control groundwater use by regulating withdrawals of groundwater in the Tidewater. This program regulates withdrawals while monitoring the aquifer through nearly two thousand wells and boreholes used to measure water level and quality. They are still working to reach sustainable water use.

The Rural Crescent has one monitoring well to monitor the water supply to more than 7,800 dwellings in the Rural Crescent. The data is publicly available, but that well is not part of any state or local program. The groundwater level in that one well in the Rural Crescent has been falling since 2004, and again this is a warning that we are using up the groundwater.

Adding development to the Rural Crescent without a program to measure and monitor the groundwater that the whole Rural Crescent depends on is like driving with your eyes closed. There is no surface water to turn to if the wells fail, groundwater is all that is available. The public water suppliers in the Washington area are already struggling near the limits of their capacity and facing extraordinary costs, and so cannot be expected to come to our rescue.

In 2018, the Virginia Legislature amended the comprehensive planning process (§§ 15.2-2223 and 15.2-2224 of the Code of Virginia) to include the requirement that county the Comprehensive Plans plan ensure the continued availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater and surface water resources on a County level. Prince William needs to carefully carry out that goal process as we plan for the future of our county.

Groundwater levels are determined by how much groundwater is being used and by how much groundwater is being recharged. Development of an area impacts both use and recharge. Increases in impervious cover from roads, pavement and buildings reduces recharge, and development brings more people and water use. Slowly, over time, the water table falls as it has been doing since 2004, because the water supply is inadequate to the current demand.

The Prince William County Board of Supervisors should immediately begin a program of measuring groundwater levels and flow in the Rural Crescent. New monitoring wells need to be added to the rural area to assure adequate and sustainable groundwater for current residents as required by law before approving any new development that would put the Rural Crescent groundwater at greater risk.

Once we have a program and monitoring data, Prince William County needs to:

  • Develop a rural area water-sustainability model of the groundwater systems;
  • Identify the relationships between groundwater withdrawals and base flow in streams, and the effects of new or increased groundwater withdrawals;
  • Develop tools and data for the preservation of water resources within the Rural Crescent.

 It is not too late to prevent an Eastern Shore type of problem from befalling the water supply of the whole Rural Crescent, but we need to act now to ensure that we have sustainable water.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Preserve at Long Branch the Crack in the Dam

In the early hours of January 20th 2021 the Prince William County Board of Supervisors approved the development of the Preserve at Long Branch, rezoning a portion of the Rural Crescent. 

The Democrat majority all voted in favor of an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan that would remove 146 acres out of the Rural Crescent to build 100 homes, without replacing a single acre. Over objections from the three Republicans who represent the western part of the county that includes Rural Crescent and the rezoned parcel, the board voted 5-3 to amend the Comprehensive Plan and allow developer Mark Granville-Smith to build with increased density at this site which is part of the Occoquan Watershed.

There are so many questions raised. Is this development in the best interest of Prince William County? Is there adequate water supply for the future? Will this development impact the quality and quantity of water in the Occoquan Reservoir? We are dangerously ignorant of the limits of our water supply and the answers to those questions. Prince William County is doubling down on the past. The County is driving into the darkness without headlights and picking up speed. 

This project was approved without data and without public support. At last night’s meeting the majority of comments were in objection to this development. When  the Planning Office and Planning Commission rejected this proposal, County staff reported that they received comments from:
  • 228 individuals in opposition
  • 55 individuals in support
The County Board of Supervisors was unmoved by the objections of the community. 

No analysis was done as to the potential impact of this development to the hydrology of the Occoquan Watershed.  There is no understanding what the impact  might be to the quality and sustainability of the drinking water supply of adjacent property owners and the 2,100-acre Fairfax Water Authority Occoquan Reservoir. 

Prince William land accounts for 40% of the Occoquan watershed. The portions of the Lower Occoquan watershed in Fairfax County is part of the Watershed Protection Overlay District created  in 1982 to protect the Occoquan Reservoir, and the streams draining to the reservoir from contaminated runoff, nutrient and sediment pollution.

The Occoquan Reservoir is an important part of our drinking water supply. The Occoquan supplies about 40% of the clean drinking water for 1.7 million people and, in an emergency, can supply all for a short period of time. The reservoir’s current storage capacity is estimated by ICPRB to be 7.85 billion gallons. Water from the Occoquan Reservoir is treated at Fairfax Water’s Griffith treatment plant and then distributed to customers in Fairfax Water’s and to Prince William County. This water is essential. 

Homes in the development will start at $750,000. This vote will increase the number of homes that can be built  by Mr. Granville-Smith  on the land with no consideration of the impact to water quality and sustainability for us.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

2020 Tied for Warmest Year

From NASA and NOAA news releases:

According to an analysis of global temperatures by NASA, earth’s average surface temperature in 2020 tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record. A separate analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded that 2020 was the second-warmest year in their record, behind 2016. Scientists from the United Kingdom Met Office ranked 2020 as the second-warmest year on record while scientists from Copernicus have 2020 tying with 2016 as the warmest year on record.

Either tied for warmest or second warmest, our planet continues it’s long-term warming trend. This year’s average planet wide temperature was 1.84 degrees Fahrenheit (1.02 degrees Celsius) warmer than the 1951-1980 mean temperature, according to scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. NASA scientists had 2020 edging out 2016 by a very small amount, within the margin of error of the analysis, making the years effectively tied for the warmest year on record.

“The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend,” said NASA’s Goddard Director Gavin Schmidt. “Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.”

NOAA scientists use much of the same raw temperature data in their analysis but use a different baseline period (1901-2000) and methodology. Unlike NASA, NOAA also does not infer temperatures in polar regions that do not have direct measurements, which accounts for much of the difference between NASA and NOAA records.

Tracking global temperature trends provides a critical indicator of the impact of human activities – specifically, greenhouse gas emissions – on our planet. Rising temperatures are causing a loss of sea ice and ice sheet mass, sea level rise, longer and more intense heat waves, and shifts in plant and animal habitats.

NOAA listed these indication of climate change:
  • A total of 103 named storms occurred around the world in 2020, tying the record number seen in 2018. The North Atlantic played an unusually large role in the global activity in 2020, accounting for about 30% of the global accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) and named storms — which is more than twice its usual share.
  • The 2020 annual global sea-surface temperature was the third highest on record at 1.37 degrees F (0.76 of a degree C) above the 20th-century average — only 2016 and 2019 were warmer. Record-high sea surface temperatures were observed across parts of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.
  • The average annual Northern Hemisphere snow cover for 2020 was 9.31 million square miles. This was the fourth-smallest annual snow cover in the 1967–2020 record.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Plastic Pollution Starts with You

The ubiquitous use of plastic in our modern world and inadequate management of plastic waste has led to increased contamination of freshwater, estuary and marine environments. Over the past two decades, researchers have documented and studied microplastics contamination of earth’s oceans. In recent years, scientists have turned their focus to study the microplastics in freshwater and land. Though oceans represent the largest sink of persistent plastic waste, an estimated 80% of the microplastics pollution in the oceans comes from the land. Stopping this pollution is essential.

The plastics flow to the oceans and lakes from our rivers and streams but begin their journey in our hands. Plastics are responsible for a vast array of ills from poisoning and injuring marine life, disrupting animal and human hormones, littering beaches and landscapes and clogging our waste streams and landfills. Scientists are on the verge of being able to study the impact of plastics on human health and determine if these nano-sized plastic particles are able to cross the blood-brain barrier. Plastics are threatening our planet and possibly mankind itself. It will take a multi-prong approach to reduce this threat.

Plastics are durable and designed to last. This can be a useful characteristic that has a place; however, plastic’s durability is also one of the characteristics that make plastic debris so damaging. Plastic items do not biodegrade like many other items do and never truly go away. Instead, as plastics are exposed to elements they break into smaller and smaller pieces. Unfortunately, once these small particles of plastic are in our waters, these microplastics are really difficult to remove. We all need to participate in the solution.

Prince William County Soil and Water Conservation District has named 2021: The Year of Plastic Pollution Awareness in Prince William County. Begin by following the “4Rs”— Refuse unnecessary single-use items, Reduce the amount of waste you produce by choosing products with less packaging; Reuse items and choose reusable items over disposable ones; and Recycle as much as possible— learn how to properly recycle your trash. Then teach this to your children by example.

During this difficult year of the pandemic, the Conservation District’s volunteers continued to engage in waterways cleanup (Adopt-A-Stream/pond), biological and chemical monitoring. The monitoring programs grew this past year even when the large regional river cleanups were cancelled last spring. There are outdoor socially distant opportunities for you to volunteer in your community. In 2020, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, 586 Conservation District volunteers collected close to 17,440 pounds of debris from Prince William County waterways. These cleanups are great one day volunteer opportunities.

Also, in 2020, the Conservation District added chemical monitoring to its existing biological monitoring program. This upgrade in chemical monitoring added 91 new monitoring sites. There was increase in the number of water quality monitoring sites from 19 biological sites to 110 citizen science monitoring sites in Prince William County. All these programs also promote more water quality education among residents and students. This data collected in the program goes to the Virginia Save Our Streams (VASOS) and the Chesapeake Monitoring Cooperative databases (CMC) under supervision of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), helping to promote water quality awareness and education in our communities.

You can join the Conservation District Water Quality Volunteers. Contact;

Sunday, January 10, 2021

State of the Bay 2020

 In January the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) released their bi-annual State of the Bay health indextscore.  In 2020, the score they gave the Bay declined one point to 32, a D+ in their system of scoring. Of the 13 indicators they assessed, four declined. Nitrogen and phosphorus scores; however, improved. They state in the report that long-term data shows a shrinking of the annual dead zone; and state large-scale oyster restoration is working.

The 2020 State of the Bay Report scores the health of the bay at 32 out of 100, a D+ according to their scoring system which measures the current state of the Bay against the unspoiled Bay ecosystem described by Captain John Smith in the 1600s, with extensive forests and wetlands, clear water, abundant fish and oysters, and lush growths of submerged vegetation would rate a 100 on their scale. That was a time when this region was 95% old growth forests and sparsely populated. It is unlikely that vision is compatible with the vision for population growth that the region has embraced.

The Chesapeake Bay TMDL, what the U.S. EPA and Chesapeake Bay Foundation are now calling “the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint” appears not to be working to restore the health of the Bay if you are to judge by the scores that are awarded by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The current goals of “Clean Water Blueprint” is a grade of 40, by 2025. The Clean Water Plan is the newer and better name for the enforceable pollution limits for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay (formerly called the Bay TMDL) mandated by the EPA to the six Bay states and the District of Columbia. Each of the jurisdictions created a plan (approved by the EPA) called Watershed Implementation Plans or WIPs, to meet those limits by 2025. The states agreed to have the 60% of the needed programs and practices in place by 2017, and to complete the job by 2025.

 Despite making progress on the pollution limits for nitrogen and phosphorus the score went down! I am officially discouraged and question their scoring strategy and weighting. The TMDL is working, even the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says so, but this year’s State of the Bay report says “the system remains dangerously out of balance, the road ahead is steep, and the clock is ticking.” Despite the discouragement their report generates , continue to support the TMDL and its goals and do everything you can to help restore the Bay.

From CBF

Here is the summary comments from the report:

Pollution knows no state boundaries. (I love that line.) That’s why the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint requires each of the six Bay states and the District of Columbia to reduce pollution flowing into the watershed’s rivers, streams, and coastal waters.

Record-setting rainfall events in both 2018 and 2019 continued to impact the survival of underwater grasses, which reached a 40 year peak in 2018. Changing climate creates more challenges for the “Clean Water Blueprint.”

One bright spot is the work to restore large-scale oyster reefs in more than 10 targeted tributary rivers in Maryland and Virginia, which is showing promising results and has paved the way for new investments—especially in Virginia. The blue crab population also remains healthy, though water quality improvements that reduce dead zones and expand underwater grass habitat are important to help numbers fully rebound. Rockfish (striped bass), however, were well below sustainable levels in 2019, and there has been below-average spawning activity in the Bay over the past two years. That is primarily responsible for the falling score.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Water Bought and Sold

 The last chapter of “Water for Sale,” a book by Fredrik Segerfeldt begins:

“Excessively low prices fixed by politicians have led to waste, lack of caution, and misallocation of resources-in short inefficient use of water... In addition, the lack of property rights and water trading has resulted in water being pent up in less productive activities..;”

Mr. Segerfeldt was talking about the water supply in the developing world, but much of this appears very pertinent to the allocation of water rights in the west. The problem has been complicated by growing demand for water and shrinking water resources as the west becomes more arid.

As the New York Times reported last weekend private investors have been buying up water rights in Colorado and selling them to developing communities. The most valuable water rights were grandfathered under the 1922 Colorado Compact which for almost a century has controlled the allocation of water of the Colorado River. Today, the river provides water to 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California, 29 Native American tribes and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California.

Overuse of water, drying out of the West due to changing climate, and growing demand for water by growing populations throughout the basin are creating a water crisis. Under the Colorado Compact the Upper Basin States must deliver 7,500,000-acre feet of water each year for the Lower Basin States and 1,500,000-acre feet for Mexico. The Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada were first to address their growing problem by creating a Drought Contingency Plan to address California’s use of the shrinking excess of the Lower Basin allotment.  

The Upper Basin States of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have agreed to create their own Drought Contingency Plan. This plan is needed to prevent a “Compact Call” under the Colorado Compact which would simply cut water to users across the Upper Basin States proportionally if they are unable to deliver the water, they are required to send through Lake Powell under the Colorado Compact.

Colorado want do use Demand Management - a temporary, voluntary, and compensated reduction in water use in the Colorado River Basin. Each of the Upper Colorado River Basin States are conducting their own investigations to determine whether a potential program would be feasible in their states as well. The goal is to create a 500,000 acre-feet “insurance” pool in Lake Powell reservoir contributed by the Upper Basin States to prevent a “Compact Call.”

This effort began years ago in Colorado.  Initially they envisioned that eastern slope municipalities would be willing to trade water diversion rights with Western Slope irrigators, allowing senior water rights holders to deposit their water rights into a “bank” from which junior water rights holders could lease these rights instead of curtailing their consumption. However, Colorado has not been able to develop a sustainable way to make this idea work, and now investors are trying market mechanisms to determine what price best allocates water to competing agriculture, municipal and industrial demands that is fair and equitable and minimizes cost which letting Colorado meet their of the 500,000 acre-feet of water storage in Lake Powell.

Back in December a new water futures contact on the still small California spot water market began trading on Wall Street. Stay tuned to see how that works out. Envisioned as a hedge for large water consumers who cannot curtail demand, such as almond farmers and electric utilities, against water prices fluctuations as well a gauge of scarcity for investors in water resources. I look forward to seeing how that mechanism works out.  Water availability and need is usually very local, but in California about half of all rain and snow melt flows naturally in the state- primarily for human use and to maintain the environment. Forty percent of the water goes to agriculture through the Central Valley Project (CVP), State Water Project (SWP), the Colorado allocation, local reservoirs and groundwater basins. The final 10% goes to cities. So, water moves between water basins and water rights under the SWP and CVP can be bought or sold depending on need. This might make the market large enough to be efficient and effective at allocating water. Likewise water rights can move along the Colorado River between water basins.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The house has a well, should I buy it?

Private wells are not regulated in most states. Here in Virginia only the construction of a well is regulated, and that only went into effect in April 1992. Virginia is a "buyer beware" state. Any problem with a well, the groundwater or septic problems not detected by the buyer during the sale inspection process becomes the home buyer's problem. There is no legal recourse back to the seller. Well inspections are not part of the home inspections and testing for the presence or absence of coliform bacteria as required by mortgage lenders is not enough to know what you are buying.

Well owners are responsible for managing their water supply and may have little understanding of the quality and sustainability of their water supply.  Without testing a well might seem completely fine when in reality it is going dry and contaminated. Some contaminants are colorless, odorless and tasteless, while others effect taste and/or smell. They can all have health impacts.  Private wells can be safe and great tasting, or problematic and only research and testing before you buy a home with a well will enable you to tell the difference.

Start in the house. Look in the basement. If you see more equipment than a blue pressure tank you need to know what water treatment equipment is being used, why it was installed and if it is working properly. It is not always obvious what a particular piece of equipment is just by looking at it because manufacturers tend to use the same casing style for all their products. You will need to test the water before the treatment equipment and after the equipment and determine if you can or want to live with the findings.

my pressure tank

Home treatment is typically either Point of Use (POU) or Point of Entry (POE). POE treatment is at the point where water enters the home and provides whole home treatment. This type of treatment is generally more expensive because you are treating more water. It’s necessary, however, if you are treating for a contaminant that impacts health or renders the water aesthetically unusable (E. coli, hydrogen sulfate, radon come to mind). POU units are typically used to treat water for drinking and cooking at a specific tap or faucet. These systems are used to treat a contaminant that is a health risk if ingested, or that might cause taste issues. They only treat a portion of the water coming into your home. Look under the kitchen sink and attached to the faucet for POU systems. Household water treatment equipment has improved and changed over the years, but it does not fix water, it treats water and must be maintained and occasionally replaced. Often treating water for one problem creates other issues that must be ameliorated with additional equipment. Wells get old and sometimes need to be replaced, too. The life of a well is dependent on the geology and design. Rule of thumb is 30-50 years.

What you can live with in terms of water treatment equipment is really a personal decision once you understand the condition of the aquifer and the effectiveness of the treatment. When we bought our home I tested the heck out of the well, spending a lot of money. Still, I didn’t test for everything. I wanted to make sure that the well was drawing from a groundwater aquifer that was not contaminated. In addition, I wanted a well that was fine without any need for water treatment to address naturally occurring contaminants. I ended up testing for all the contaminants in the Safe Drinking Water Act and for a group of common pesticides because the home was on the site of a former farm.  There was no treatment equipment in the house, so I was able to do only one set of water tests. There are packages available from National Testing Laboratory and others to test your water.   If you are buying a home, you should test the raw, untreated water for all the primary and secondary contaminants in the Safe Drinking Water Act as well as nuisance substances like iron bacteria and tannins in certain geologies the water should be tested for both dissolved and total iron. The treated water should be checked for the same contaminants.

Water chemistry is a tough category to give rules of thumb. However, do not buy any home where E. Coli is present in the raw water. If there is E. coli, there is a failed septic system nearby (probably the home’s own) and it needs to be repaired and potentially the well replaced. That should all be taken care of before you purchase the home. You do not want to buy someone else’s problem.  Water with nitrate significantly above the background level (around 2 mg/L in northern Virginia) is also problematic and tends to be related to septic performance

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). This concentration is slightly below the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline of 11.3 mg/L NO3-N. The regulatory limit for nitrate in public drinking water supplies was set to protect against infant methemoglobinemia, but other health effects were not considered. In 2018 Dr. Mary Ward was lead author on a review of more than 30 epidemiologic studies on drinking water nitrate and health outcomes. According to their study, the strongest evidence for a relationship between drinking water with elevated nitrate concentrations and adverse health outcomes (besides methemoglobinemia) is for 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. Most septic systems do not remove nitrate and studies performed in New York and North Carolina found that overall average density of traditional septic or alternative septic systems should not exceed one unit per 2-3 acres for an average size house to ensure water quality and recharge in groundwater supplies. Adequate dilution, soil filtration and time are necessary to ensure sustainable water quality. Note that nitrate was used as the tracer of contaminants, many traces of household cleaners, soaps, pharmaceuticals, and other contaminants present in septic waste water. You need to make sure that these issues have been corrected and the water quality issues resolved by the homeowner since total costs to address these problems can be tens of thousands of dollars.

You do not want to buy a home with very corrosive water because of the possibility of lead exposure from the well components ahead of any neutralizer you can install.   During periods of stagnation, in water that is corrosive (with a pH less than 6) a chemical redox reaction occurs that dissolves and leaches lead into the water. Lead present in well and plumbing components is leached into the water. This lead comes from brass fittings and galvanized pipe (which has a lead- zinc coating), and plumbing components produced before 2014 when "lead-free" fixtures could have up to 8% lead. In Virginia, the Blue Ridge, Piedmont and shallow wells in the Coastal Plain have a high risk for corrosive water and lead contamination in their water. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Lead and Copper Rule action level for lead of 15 μg/L. However, there is no safe level of lead exposure, as even low water lead levels-those less than 5 μg/L- can increase a child's blood lead level. Most of the eastern seaboard states has areas at high risk for corrosive water.

In Virginia these are the rules for buying house with a well (and septic system).  These rules should help you to avoid properties that are potential big problems before you close on a house.

  1. The house must have 2-3 acres of land.
  2. There must be a well completion report on file with the county health department
  3. The well stabilized yield should be greater than or equal to 6 gallons/minute
  4. The well should be drilled and more than 100 feet below grade (deep)
  5. The well should be a 6 inch diameter pipe with a bolted cap sticking at least a foot out of the ground
  6. Do not buy a home with a shared well
  7. The well was drilled after April 1, 1992 (under the current regulations).
  8. The well head must be at least 100 feet from the nearest edge of the septic drainfield and at least 50 feet from the nearest corner of the house.
  9. Health Department records show regular septic pump outs at least every 5 years. Annual inspections for alternative septic systems should be on file.
  10. Don’t buy a house with a well in Karst terrain.
  11. Don’t buy a house with a well that found E. Coli is present in the water or nitrate at more than three times background levels (of 2mg/L).
  12. Don’t buy a house that found lead present in a flushed sample.
  13. The well water must have a pH > 6.0
  14. Draw a glass of water from the cold tap in a bathroom sink and taste it.