The vast majority of Americans receive potable water in their homes from municipal water supply systems. The remaining 15 percent of households, including some people who live in our area, my family and our neighbors included, must rely upon privately owned wells. Operators of private wells are solely responsible for ensuring that their well water is safe. Environmental Protection Agency regulations protect only public drinking-water systems. The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 does not include private wells.
Although most groundwater is safe, some waters may contain harmful microorganisms, metals and other contaminants. Therefore, it is wise to test well water periodically and, when in doubt, to drink and cook with bottled water. Water should be tested at the tap and at the source at least once a year, and seasonally if the water comes from shallow wells and surface water because water from these sources is more likely to be contaminated. Water can usually be tested at county health departments—usually for bacteria or nitrates—or at a state-certified lab. You can call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline, 800-426-4791, or go to www.epa.gov/safewater/labs.
Well water should be tested each year for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels. Sulfate, chloride, iron, manganese and hydrogen sulfide may be present. The best time to test for nitrates is in the spring or summer following a rainy period. You may notice that your well water has a taste, that it has a color, and that it is staining fixtures and your clothes in the wash. Is your water soft or hard? (My water test disclosed the presence of “aggressive water,” but so far, no one in my family has been injured!) You might also want to consider other factors that impact the water supply: the composition of your home’s plumbing materials (lead?), proximity of the well to your septic system, the presence of radon in radon-rich areas, industrial activity on adjacent lands in proximity to your well, etc. Depending on test results, if needed, you can install various kinds of filters and water-treatment systems in your home.
That said, it should be noted that some proponents of well water claim that contaminant-free private well water is healthier than water from municipal systems because well water contains minerals but lacks the chlorine and fluoride that are inserted into municipal systems. Rainwater is soft water, but as it progresses through the ground it acquires minerals, mainly compounds of calcium and magnesium, such as chalk and lime. Hard water contains essential minerals, so some people prefer it as drinking water.
Unlike municipal water systems that usually charge for water, well water is free of charge. But you do have to maintain the system that supplies your water and, if you do not find a well on your property, then you must create one.
You may spot picturesque wells out in the country—there is one across the road from us and it reminds me of Jack and Jill who went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Indeed, for years a bucket hung from the top of the well. These wells were dug by hand shovels to below the water table. The well was prevented from collapsing by lining it with stones, tiles, bricks, etc. Some of these wells are bored so that they can go deeper into the water table than hand-dug wells. However, they are shallow, thus making them susceptible to contamination from surface sources. They can go dry during droughts if the water table drops below the well bottom. Homes with modern conveniences do not feature the need to exit the house, lower the bucket into the well, and carry buckets of water to the house!
Driven wells are built by driving small-diameter pipe into shallow water-bearing sand or gravel. These wells are also shallow so they may be contaminated by surface sources and, like dug wells, run dry during periods of drought.
Drilled wells: Some wells flow under artesian pressure but most require a pumping mechanism, such as a submersible pump for wells that are deeper than 25 feet. A sanitary seal covers the top of the well to prevent the influx of dirt, insects, small animals and other debris and contaminants that will contaminate the aquifer. The well might also have an access port to permit water-level measurements and a screened breathing tube to allow air pressure to equalize as well water levels rise and fall. Casings hold the well-hole open and also support pumping mechanisms where required. The casing seal, made of grout or clay, keeps out surface water and shallow groundwater so that deeper waters are not degraded. Casings may extend for the entire depth of the well to prevent collapse (for example, in sand or gravel areas) while in hard formations (for example, in shale or basalt) only the top part of the well may be cased. Screens in the casing filter out sand and gravel while allowing water to flow into the well.
In addition to the provision of a cost-free water supply, private well water systems may have other benefits. I have noticed that our village’s municipal water system sometimes experiences decreased water supply, leaks and other malfunctions while our private system has functioned without interruption for many years. During my lifetime, we have had to drill only one new well, which continues to provide lots of water at excellent pressure. Of course there are trade-offs, but for those of us who like to manage our own water and septic systems (see my article in the June 7 Jewish Link) without depending upon the larger community, a private well system is the way to go!
By Vivian J. Oleen
Vivian J. Oleen is an associate broker at Sopher Realty.