The Basics of Treating Well Water

by Kate Drexler

While the majority of Americans get their tap water from municipal water sources that are tested and treated regularly, millions upon millions receive their drinking water from a private well source, in which testing and treating water rests solely in the hands of the well owner. For those private well owners, here are the basics of how to manage well water.

The first thing to know is that no one expects private well owners to actually perform well testing and treatment themselves. County Health Inspectors or accredited private contractors can be commissioned to test and treat well water.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that private well owners get their wells tested at least annually. Here are some of the most common things that should be tested:

  • pH levels – pH tests help determine the acidic concentration of water. If water is found to have pH levels lower than 7.0, this could indicate that the presence of lead or copper, usually the result of antiquated plumbing systems. A bluish-green stain points to copper, and a separate analysis would be required to rule out lead.
  • Arsenic – According to the NSF Consumer Information Center, areas that are known to have high arsenic levels in groundwater should be tested for arsenic at least annually. Arsenic is odorless and tasteless and commonly enters a well water source either from naturally occurring deposits or from agricultural or industrial run-off.
  • Microbes – The presence of microbes, like coliform, typically come from human and animal fecal waste, which can cause immediate health effects, such as diarrhea, vomiting or cramps. In some cases, the National Ground Water Association points out that microbes themselves may not be harmful, but instead serve as indicators that other harmful bacteria is present.
  • Pesticides – Pesticides may be a particular problem for well owners that live close to agricultural operations or golf courses. To test for pesticides, inspectors measure the level of nitrates and nitrites in the water system.
  • Volatile Organic Compounds – For wells that are proximate to gas stations or other industrial operations, which is defined as within a quarter of a mile by the NSF Consumer Information Center, a BTEX and MTBE test should be performed annually.
  • Hard Water – Hard water tests may only need to be administered if water users notice acutely dry skin or a shiny build up on metallic surfaces near a shower or sink. While having hard water is not necessarily a health hazard, can damage pipes overtime and just simply be uncomfortable to end users. What makes water “hard”? Basically excess calcium and/or magnesium ions in the water.

While testing well water is the best way to identify water quality issues, well owners should be cognizant of signs that may alert them to problems even earlier on. For example, well water users often detect problems by noticing changes to the odor or color of their well water. For instance, a rotten egg odor may indicate the presence of hydrogen sulfide or methane. A musty or moldy smell could mean there are high levels of iron bacteria. If fixtures and pipes are stained red or orange, this could point to iron. Finally, brown or black stains on clothes from washing with well water may indicate that there are unsafe levels of manganese.

If the test results come back positive, don’t take matters into your own hands. According to the National Ground Water Association , “a common misconception by homeowners is that chlorine alone will clean a well — the more chlorine, the better.” However, chlorine can only treat the water effectively after debris and other source particles are removed from the well. Point being, properly testing and treating a well is best done by a well water professional.


Environmental Protection Agency – Basic Information for Well Water

National Ground Water Association  

NSF Consumer Information Center — Well Water

Water Quality Association