The what, why, and how of well water quality testing. Know what’s in your water.
There are a bunch of reasons (discussed below) why you’d need to test your water. But whatever the reason for testing, you first need to know how to test your well water.
In this article, we discuss the following:
1. How to test your well water
There are basically two ways you can test your well water. There are the at-home DIY kits you can get for as little as $20 bucks on Amazon (some cost up to $300), and the other option is send-away kits which can cost up to $300 (the most expensive I’ve seen for well water is $800).
DIY water testing kits
While I don’t always recommend DIY kits for reasons I will discuss below, they have their place in water testing.
They are affordable. They are quick. They are accurate.
They’re best when you have an immediate concern about a specific contaminant, for example, lead, Ecoli, or Nitrate.
They’re also good for initial screening, that is, if your water tests positive for some contaminants then this might signal the need to run a more comprehensive test. If the results are all negative, then you probably don’t need to take further action.
Some issues I have with some DIY kits, especially the more expensive ones are:
1. Results can be difficult to read and therefore subjective.
2. With DIY kits, you don’t get exact contaminant levels but rather color-coded estimates.
3. Results are time-sensitive. The longer (or shorter) you take to read might affect the final results you see.
Because of the above reasons, using DIY kits can sometimes leave you less confident (and more confused) with knowing what’s in your well water.
Here are the best DIY kits we recommend:
There are few contaminants you can test reliably at home. For example, if you’re concerned about one (or a few) particular contaminants, then you can use at-home test strips.
This varify test kit can be used to test for contaminants that are pretty common in well water - bacteria, hardness, sulfate, nitrate/nitrite, iron, copper, and more. Plus, it's really cheap!
In cases where your results come up positive, it might be wise to get a lab test that can then tell you in how much quantities these contaminants are. But if it comes negative, then you have a piece of mind and also saved at least $150 bucks.
Important: Use these DIY test kits for occasional screening, and not for your annual water testing or when you move into a new home.
Send-away lab testing kits
Unlike DIY at-home test kits, these kits are sent to you and then once you’ve taken the samples, you send them back to the lab for testing.
It’s always best to make sure these labs are EPA certified so you can have peace of mind with what’s in your water.
But to find which labs in your area are EPA-certified you’ll have to jump through a few hoops.
To avoid all this, you can use companies like Tap Score, Watercheck, or Springwell where you can send your water sample and they handle the rest.
The process is as follows:
1. Order the test kit online: Select and purchase the right water test kit. The well water kit will be different to tap water kit.
2. Collect the sample: They send you a test kit with everything you’ll need to collect the sample.
3. Ship back for testing: You send it back to them (a mail label sometimes is included).
4. Get your lab results: In 3 to 10 business days, depending on the service, they send the report and results back to you.
Aren’t there free water testing services I can use?
There are plenty of free water services, probably you’ve seen some ads in your neighborhood.
Often these free water testing services are used as a tactic by salesmen to get into your home and sell you expensive treatment systems that you might not even need.
Heck, even Home Depot does that.
So it might be better to pay for accurate and thorough water testing initially than be duped into spending thousands later on an expensive system without necessarily improving water quality.
Though I have to point out that there are some municipalities (we’re still putting a list together) that test your well water for free, but these tests are usually for E.coli or lead or Chlorine or any other common water contaminants – its hardly ever a comprehensive test kit.
Can I use non-EPA-certified labs for my water testing?
Yes, you can but probably shouldn’t. Certification means the lab is capable of producing valid and correct results. For non-certified labs, you have got no piece of mind and reasonable assurance that your results are accurate.
Here are the EPA-certified water testing kits/services we recommend:
Tap Score takes away the complexity of water testing. The whole process of buying the testing kit, sending it back, and getting your results is really easy.
What I found even more helpful is how clear their water reports are – they explain, in very simple terms, what contaminants are in your water, and suggest ways to reduce them. Have a question about your water report? They have experts on the line ready to explain the report further – nowhere else we’ve seen this level of customer support.
For the majority of well owners, their essential well water test kit, which tests up to 52 contaminants, will suffice.
Unlike Tap Score, a comparable test kit offered by SpringWell starts at $129 (a little cheaper) and they also test 53 contaminants in your water. SpringWell is the middleman but they offer the same prices as the ETR laboratories, which is the certified lab that handles the testing.
Only measure 50+ contaminants in your water, including the most common such as coliform, lead, iron, nitrate/nitrite, hardness, TDSs, and many more.
2. When to test your well water
Often times well owners make the mistake of changing their filtration system without first understanding what’s in their water – do not make that mistake.
Before you buy any filtration system or replace your old one, you first need to know what’s in your water. You cannot remove what you don’t know.
If you don’t, either one of two things will happen:
1. You may buy a system that removes contaminants that don’t exist in your well water.
2. Or you may buy a system that cannot remove contaminants in your well water.
To know what’s in your water is to conduct a water quality test.
Once you get your results back, then the fun begins – analyzing what the report is telling you about your well water.
Now, when do you need to conduct a well water quality test?
- Annual water testing: At a minimum, you should conduct a well water test once a year, even if you don’t notice any issues with your water.
- Replace or repair part of your well system: A leaking pipe or a broken valve is not gonna warrant water testing. However, for major items such as a filter, you’d do well to test your water to confirm it’s working properly.
- Change in water quality (odor, taste, or color): Have you noticed a change in your water quality lately? Maybe it started acquiring some metallic taste to it or you see some nasty brown stains in your bathtub? Time to get your water tested.
- Moving into a new home: It’s always a good idea to conduct a thorough water quality testing when you move into a new home, even if previous owners confidently tell you that the water is safe to drink – it might be safe for them but not for you.
- Recent problems with well water in your area: Few of your neighbors complaining about changes in their water quality might be indicative of possible contamination in the area. Get your water tested to be safe.
- Change due to environmental events: Have you recently experienced flooding, land disturbances, or problems with nearby waste disposal sites? These events can compromise your water source.
- Change in lifestyle or life event: Maybe you’re now on a sodium-restricted diet or there is a new baby in the house, these life events might require you to re-test your water. For example, nitrate can be bad for newborns.
3. Understanding your test results
For many first-timers, this is the point where they begin questioning the wisdom of setting up camp in a well-water neighborhood.
It doesn’t have to. In fact, some reports like the one for Tap score, are so refreshingly easy to understand.
For those that aren’t, that’s why we’re here and we’ll help you through that.
Every water quality testing report will have the following:
When you see the name of a contaminant, sometimes called analyte, it’s just telling you the name of a particular element or substance that was tested (e.g. lead, iron, bacteria, PFAS, etc.).
This section tells you the concentration of the contaminants in your water. It’s like the “how much” is in your water part of the report.
The results are usually measured in units like parts per million (ppm) or milligrams per liter (mg/L).
Here is a relatable example:
A pinch of salt is about 0.5 grams. Take that pinch and throw it in a bathtub (~150 liters) and you have a concentration of about 3 mg/L.
To put this into perspective, the EPA’s limit for chlorine is 4 mg/L. So every water in the US should contain no more than a pinch of chlorine in a bathtub-sized quantity of water.
3. EPA Limits
In other reports it might be called national standards or Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL), it’s all the same thing.
If any of your contaminants results are above or close to the limit in this section, you have to take immediate action.
This section is the “baseline” you use to determine whether your water is safe or not.
In some cases, the EPA might not cover all concerns. For example lead, the EPA limit is 15 ppb but if you have your water measuring 10 ppb you might still wanna act, especially if you have a pregnant woman or small children at home.
4. Other sections
Other reports will have a “description” section where they offer more info on each contaminant while others will have a glossary or legends to explain terms such as Minimum Detection Level (MDL), Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG), action levels, and plenty of other acronyms.
You can learn more on how to read test results on the resource below:
4. Well water contaminants
Whether it’s rotten eggs smell or bathtub rings or metallic water taste, contaminants can manifest themselves in different ways.
Some contaminants, however, are not so easily discernible and they are the ones that pose the highest health risks. Take for example lead, you cannot smell or taste it, but can cause quite a health scare (remember Flint, Michigan?).
Here are the most common contaminants found in well water:
Total coliform bacteria are found in soil and vegetation and are generally harmless.
The problem is E.coli and fecal coliform which are found in human and animal feces.
If your system is confirmed to have E.coli (through testing), fixing the bacteria problem in your well should always start with trying to locate the source of contamination (bad seal, low casing, nearby leaking septic tank, etc.).
If the inspection doesn’t help, you might consider shocking the well with chlorine and testing again. Filtration, especially UV filtration, is expensive in initial and maintenance costs, and should typically be your last resort.
2. Heavy metals
There are plenty of heavy metals in water. They’re naturally occurring and some are also formed as by-products of industrial activities.
The ones you can smell or see are usually the dangerous ones (read: lead, arsenic, chromium) but the rest typically manifest in color or taste (manganese, iron, copper, etc.) and aren’t immediately harmful.
Lead and copper traces are mostly found in tap water caused by corrosion and leaching of old pipes. While contamination can happen in wells, it’s not very common though.
Read more below on how to remove these heavy metals in your water:
Hard water is not dangerous, it’s just a nuisance but can be a pretty costly one if not treated (can clog and damage water appliances).
When water contains high levels of dissolved solids (magnesium, calcium, etc.) it’s considered “hard water”, that is, for any concentration above 75 mg/l.
Using water softeners can deal with the hard water problem. Water softeners work through a process of ion exchange where “hard” minerals (magnesium and calcium) are replaced with “soft” minerals (potassium and sodium).
Some common sources of nitrate/nitrite ions include animal manure, fertilizers, and pesticides, leaking septic tanks, or even plant roots can release these ions into your water source.
Now, why should you care?
Too much nitrate and nitrite in your water, 10 mg/L and 1.0 mg/L respectively, is unsafe, especially if you have a baby or are pregnant.
The first step to a solution is to stop drinking the water, don’t even boil it – it doesn’t remove, if anything it does the opposite, increase their concentration.
Reverse osmosis, ion exchange, or distillation are filtration systems used to remove these nitrate and nitrites compounds.
Arsenic is another heavy metal that’s toxic to your health, even in small quantities. You cannot smell it, taste it or see its color.
It occurs naturally and through erosion and agricultural runoff, it can sip into your well water source.
How common is it? According to one study, 77 million Americans receive drinking water from systems that violate federal regulations for arsenic (> 10 PPB).
There are different types of arsenic (III and V) so depending on which one you have, that will determine how you remove it from your well water. For example, while RO systems are effective with arsenic V, they don’t do so well with arsenic III.
Wondering why your well water might taste a bit bitter or have a baking-soda-like taste? One possible reason is pH, a measure of how acidic or basic your water is.
The EPA recommended range is 6.5 and 8.5, anything below or above that might need to be treated.
Low pH (acidic) can also cause corrosion in your pipes while high pH (basic) can be a hard water problem on your hands.
There are ways to raise your water’s pH and there are also ways to lower it.
You don’t need to know what “PFAS” stands for or be able to pronounce their tongue-twisting names, but you do need to know that they’re also called “forever chemicals” because of their staying power and are often caused by industrial waste.
If you’re concerned about nearby industrial spills, then you might wanna test for this contaminant in your next water test.
A lot is still unknown about these compounds and their true health effects.
To remove or reduce these chemicals, EPA recommends the use of a granulated activated carbon filter, reverse osmosis, nanofiltration system, or ion exchange resins.
9. Total THMs
Chlorine is used as a disinfectant in water treatment and when it reacts with organic matter they create THMs.
For well water users, this shouldn’t typically be an issue unless under very rare circumstances.
5. Know what’s in your well water
Changing or replacing your water filtration system is an expensive exercise. So you don’t get pressured to spend thousands of $$$ on a filtration system you probably don’t need, you need to know what’s in your water so getting objective test results from a water lab, while it’s not cheap, will be well worth it.
You don’t need a $10k system for, for example, fixing hardness or removing bacteria but you wouldn’t know that if you don’t test your water first before you go on a shopping spree.
Once you’ve tested your water, then the next step is figuring out how to remove any contaminants that exceed the acceptable EPA limit, and that my friend, that’s a whole lot easier when you know what’s in your water.