According to the Virginia Department of Health, about 1/5 of the state’s population or 1.6 million people rely on drinking water from a private water well. Unlike public water supplies that are routinely tested and treated to remove contaminants, private water wells are completely the responsibility of the owner.
There are many different types of water wells in Virginia. Most wells installed since 1990 are drilled deep into water-bearing formations and have either steel or PVC casing like these.
Older wells can be bored into the shallow aquifer and are typically larger diameter like these.
Some older drilled wells can be in a pit or inside a basement like this one.
No matter what kind of well you have, it is important to have it inspected before you buy a house to make sure that it is properly permitted, inspected and meets current construction standards. This is the first step to ensuring your water is safe to drink.
There are no codes or regulations in place that require routine testing of private water wells after the initial construction. You, as the owner of your own water supply are responsible to ensure your water is safe for drinking and other uses in your home. Virginia is a buyer beware state so this is particularly important when considering the purchase of a home served by a well.
The Virginia Department of Health recommends that a water sample be checked for Coliform Bacteria, E-Coli, Nitrates, and Lead at a minimum prior to purchase. Other tests may be recommended depending on surrounding land uses that may impact water safety or quality. These might include gas stations, heavy industrial uses, golf courses, or other Agricultural uses.
Let’s take a look at how a water sample is collected and follow it through the lab analysis process. The Virginia Department of Health recommends that raw water samples be collected as close to the well water source as possible. Acceptable locations are near the well pressure tank, inside the house, or an outside spigot. Any source prior to treatment is the best indicator of the true water safety and quality.
Prior to collecting the sample, any screens or aerators should be removed and the area cleaned with alcohol. Samples should be collected with care taken not to introduce contamination from the sample collector or container. Remember that samples being tested for lead should be a first draw sample from a fixture that has not been used for at least 8-12 hours. Samples are placed on ice for transport to the lab
All samples should be analyzed by a licensed laboratory. Samples are tracked by a registration form or other suitable chain of custody. This documents the time, date, location, water source, and sampling location. The registration is signed by the collector and then signed by the person receiving it at the lab.
Samples are processed, assigned a tracking number, and receive a bar code. Samples from water wells are checked for the presence of chlorine and temperature. Some samples have short holding times and must be received and set up for testing within 6 hours. Others have a 24 – 30 hour hold time and some more than a week. So the time and date of collection are checked to make sure the sample is still viable for testing.
Depending on the lab, some tests are performed in-house and some more specialized tests are sent out to larger regional labs.
Samples are tested by EPA standardized methods with numerous quality assurance and quality control checks. Each step is carefully documented and must be reviewed by at least two people before being reported back to you.
Water that is safe to drink is not always clear and may not taste good. Likewise, clear good tasting water may not be safe as bacteria is invisible to the naked eye. This water sample was collected from a house in Stafford County that was a foreclosure and hadn’t been lived in for three years. The system was purged for 30 minutes and just wouldn’t clear up. Believe it or not, the sample passed and did not contain coliform bacteria or E-Coli. The water is safe to drink but obviously needs some water treatment to make it more pleasing to use.
Remember that the Virginia Department of Health and USEPA recommend testing for coliform bacteria, E-Coli, Nitrates, and lead before purchasing a home with a well. A retest for coliform and E-Coli is recommended annually and a full retest every three to four years or sooner if you notice a change in color, taste, or odor. Your well is your responsibility and we are here to help you.