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Water Testing for Private Wells and Springs

   Homes in different areas obtain water from different sources: a home within the city limits may draw water from a municipal source, while homes in rural areas often obtain water from a well or spring.
   Water taken from a municipal system is usually monitored closely by the municipality for various bacteria and contaminants. If the bacteria count reaches a certain level due to spring runoff, heavy rains or a heat wave that explodes the bacteria count, a "boil water advisory" is issued.
   People in rural areas do not have the luxury of continuous monitoring of their water source. Their water may be contaminated in a number of ways: agricultural runoff can deliver pesticides, nitrogen and coliform bacteria to their well, rodents may find their way into the well or spring, or colonies of insects may set up camp in their water source.
   For this reason, it is important to have the drinking water tested for bacteria and contaminants when buying a home that draws it's water from a private well or spring.

What Type of Water Testing Should I Get?

   That depends upon several factors.
   If the home will be financed with an FHA or VA loan, the lender will most likely require a Standard Scan or an FHA Scan at the very least. The FHA Scan tests for coliform, lead, nitrates and nitrites. However, it may be best to order a more complete water test if you have any concerns about nearby sources of water contamination.
   Ask yourself if you have any concerns about the water source as it relates to it's proximity to agricultural areas, major highways that are heavily salted in winter, gas stations, industrial facilities, landfills, and the home's septic system. Water can become contaminated with bacteria, e coli, and any number of heavy metals and industrial pollutants if the water source is near any of these influences.
   Another concern may be the material used in the plumbing system of the home: some of the water distribution piping in the home may be made of lead, which could contribute to elevated levels of lead in the drinking water. Ask your home inspector to identify the plumbing materials in the home, including the main water inlet, to determine if lead contamination may be a concern.

   Look around the property and note any other concerns. Nearby sources of pollutants will influence your choice of water test, so it is important to note anything that may find it's way into your water source. Drive around the neighborhood to look for anything that raises an alarm as it relates to your water source.
   Determine whether the home's septic system is "on-property", or whether the home's waste is handled by a municipal waste system. If the septic system is located on the property, then locate the septic tank, distribution box(es), and the leach field. If you cannot locate these waste components, have your home inspector locate them for you.

   Once you see where the septic system is located, make sure that all of the system's components are located at least 80 feet from the water source. Additionally, if you notice anything about the septic system that may indicate that it is not functioning properly, then make a note of this as well. Things like a sewage odor, sewage or discoloration of the lawn over the septic tank, leach field or distribution box(es) could indicate a malfunction that may potentially contaminate the water supply. A home inspector or septic company can test the septic system using fluorescent dye or specialized video equipment if you have any concerns about it.

   Draw a water sample into a clear glass and hold it up to the light.
   Is it cloudy? Stained? Does it contain sediment? Is there an odor? Any of these things could indicate contamination and affect your family's health.

Other Types of Water Tests

   Water testing laboratories offer a number of tests, each having a different cost, and each testing for a progressively wider spectrum of contaminants.

BACTERIA SCAN - the most basic water test. It is a good choice of tests if you have NO other concerns about the water supply.

STANDARD SCAN - this is a more basic test, as I mentioned, and tests the levels of Lead, Nitrates, Nitrites and Coliform in the water sample. FHA and VA approved water test.

HEALTH SCAN - a good choice of tests to determine overall water quality.

COMPREHENSIVE SCAN - tests for 61 compounds and is another good choice of tests to determine overall water quality.

COMPREHENSIVE plus PESTICIDE SCAN - order this test if you have concerns about nearby agricultural runoff, farming activity, or aerial spraying in the area.

ENVIRONMENTAL SCAN - tests for a wide range of industrial pollutants and heavy metals. This is a good water test to odor if you have concerns about industrial activity or unauthorized dumping in the area.

ADVANCED ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH SCAN - the most inclusive testing available.

Who Can Test the Water for Me?

   A home inspector can draw a water sample from the home and get the sample to the laboratory for testing. In most cases, FHA / VA will require that the sample is drawn by a home inspector or county health department official to ensure the chain of custody is followed, and to ensure that the sample is tested using the proper testing protocol. This also ensures that the water sample is tested in a timely manner, which prevents any bacteria in the water from multiplying and corrupting the test results.
   If you are getting a simple Bacteria Scan for your own peace of mind (not lender-required), then you may be able to obtain sterile water sample bottles from your local health department in which to draw your water sample. Sampling bottles can also be obtained from water testing laboratories for the simple Bacteria Scan.

   The testing laboratory will usually report the results to you (or your home inspector) within 2 days of receiving the water sample. Some of the more inclusive water tests will take longer, naturally, since they are more involved and report on a much wider array of contaminants. Test results can be reported by email in many cases, and normally is reported in PDF format,  which prevents anyone from changing or tampering with the test results. This PDF report can then be forwarded to your real estate agent or lending institution. Most labs will also mail the water test results to you or your home inspector within a week. Testing results are also reported to your local health department.

How To Draw The Water Sample

   A water sample should be drawn from the tap where the majority of the family's drinking water will be taken from. This is usually the kitchen cold water tap.
   Samples should never be drawn from a hose, a tub faucet, laundry room tap, or a water tap that runs through a refrigeration unit.

   The reason is simple: these water taps often contain contaminants that will alter the test results, making it unreliable. Water taken from a refrigerated unit is already cold, which may inhibit bacteria growth and thereby alter the test results. Filtering units in the refrigerator can also hold contaminants that may corrupt the sample.
   Any water filtering devices or faucet screens should be removed prior to drawing a water sample to prevent any sediment or trapped contaminants from entering the bottle. The water should be run a minimum of 10 minutes before taking the sample so that the plumbing supply line has been flushed, and the water sample is being drawn from the water SOURCE, not from water that has been sitting in the supply line or water pump holding tank.
   The sample bottle should be opened immediately before filling, not left open on the counter while the water runs. Care should be taken to prevent the bottle from contacting the faucet or anything else that may cause foreign matter or contaminants to get inside.
   The bottle should be capped and labeled immediately with the property address, sampling location, time and date. In most cases, water testing laboratories require that the sample be delivered to them for testing within 24 hours of drawing the sample. The report will indicate the date and time that the sample was received by the lab for testing.

The Water Test Results

   When you receive your water test report, look it over carefully. The report will usually indicate, at the very least, the total number of bacteria colonies present in the sample, and whether or not the sample contained e.coli, coliform and lead. The more inclusive the test, the more perameters will be listed on the test report.
   A report indicating a high number of bacteria is not reason to panic. A well can be treated using an EPA-approved Well Disinfection Kit from any number of laboratories that will bring the contaminants under control. Most real estate agents can advise you what to do to treat the water source as well...they know what the acceptable levels of contaminants are and each has their own little "formula" for treating a well or water source.
   If the testing was performed as an FHA or VA requirement, and the sample fails, then the water will need to be re-tested after the water source is treated to ascertain that the water source is safe and in compliance with lender requirements.
   Consult the EPA if the water sample is found to contain industrial contaminants or heavy metals.




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