Household Well Water Testing

AEX-314
Agriculture and Natural Resources
Date: 
03/02/2016
Karen Mancl, Professor and Extension Water Quality Specialist, Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering

If a home is served by a private well, the owner is responsible for water testing and treatment. While water tests are not required, to protect the health of the home’s residents and visitors, a private water system should be tested at least once per year.

Water testing can be expensive and inconvenient, but it is the only way to ensure a safe, reliable water supply. Building owners served by a public water supply pay for water testing via their water bill. By contrast, private water system owners are on their own to locate a testing lab, collect a sample, and file and act on the results.

Annual Water Tests

At a minimum, a private well should be tested every year for:

  • total coliform bacteria
  • nitrate
  • pH
  • total dissolved solids (or conductivity)

These four tests are reasonable in cost and give the owner a good indication of either good quality water or a problem that leads to more specific testing. Keeping annual records of these four tests also helps track the onset of problems if one of the test results changes dramatically or if a trend is noted through the years.

Testing Water for Nuisance Conditions

Sometimes water is safe to drink but not pleasant to use. Common complaints are stains, off-color, bad taste or odor. If nuisance conditions are an issue, in addition to the annual tests, check the level of the metals listed below before purchasing water treatment equipment:

  • iron
  • manganese
  • copper

Lead and Corrosive Water

Lead is a very toxic metal historically used in pipe, pipe solder and plumbing fixtures. Lead can contaminate water if the water is corrosive and dissolving the pipes and fixtures. Use of lead solder in plumbing was banned in 1986, but many homes still have issues with lead in their plumbing system. Pipes and fixtures are well protected by the scale deposited by hard water, but some naturally soft water and treated water can corrode plumbing.

Careful sample collection is required to test for corrosive water. Allow the water to stand in the pipes overnight or longer before collecting a “first flush” sample. Use the list below to look for indicators of corrosive water:

  • lead
  • copper
  • pH
  • corrosion index
  • hardness

Testing for Suspected Contamination

Testing drinking water for every contaminant will be very expensive. Contact your local health department if you suspect contamination from leaking fuel tanks, landfills or chemical spills. A list of local health departments can be found at odh.ohio.gov/localhealthdistricts/lhdmain.aspx.

Some possible tests for suspected contamination are:

  • leaking fuel tank—hydrocarbon scan
  • landfill—volatile organic scan
  • septic system—E. coli bacteria, surfactants (used in detergents)

Water Testing in Shale Oil and Gas Development Areas

Throughout Ohio, property owners are worried about the impact of shale oil and gas development on their wells. A water test, prior to drilling activity, is a great tool to protect property interests. To learn more, read the Ohio State University Extension fact sheet Testing Private Water Sources and Resolving Contamination Issues Near Shale Oil and Gas Development (ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/SOGD-ENV1).

Collecting a Water Sample

The test report indicates the contents of the sample bottle, so careful sample collection and handling is required for a reliable test result that represents the water quality of the well. Mistakes can compromise a sample, so take care in obtaining the sample container, collecting the sample and transporting it to the lab.

  • Use the sample bottle provided by the lab. It is made of the proper materials and prepared in advance to prevent contamination of the water sample.
  • Follow the lab directions for sample collection and handling. For example, samples need to reach the lab quickly, need to be kept cold and need to be kept in the dark.
  • Check the lab schedule for sample acceptance. Some labs, for example, will not accept samples on Fridays or weekends.

No Testing Needed

Some things are difficult to test for, so a water test will not help in managing the problem.

  • Hydrogen sulfide is a gas that has the distinct odor of rotten eggs. The gas escapes from water quickly, so a sample will likely lose any hydrogen sulfide en route to the lab.
  • Iron bacteria forms a reddish brown slime on the inside of pipes and fixtures. It is a common, naturally occurring bacteria that can create staining problems. To look for it, check places where water stands for hours—like in the toilet tank.

Interpret a Water Test Report

For help in understanding a water test report, use the Well Water Interpretation Tool at ohiowatersheds.osu.edu/know-your-well-water/well-water-interpretation-tool.

File water test reports in a safe place. A water test that proves that well water is good is the best defense against future impacts on the well. 

Ohioline http://ohioline.osu.edu