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Water Testing: What You Need to Know and the Best Time to Do It

Many people may know that water testing is essential but don’t know why or when they should do it.

If you own a private well, you likely know that you are responsible for testing your own water. The Department of Health for Washington State recommends that private well owners test their drinking water for coliform bacteria and nitrate every year. These contaminants could show up in your drinking water and potentially put your family’s health at risk — even with just one drink.

If a municipality supplies your water, your water supply is tested routinely at the source. However, many of these pipes have been in place since the introduction of widespread water treatment, and this aged infrastructure poses its own risk. This is why it is recommended to test the water coming through your taps routinely.

Why is it important to test my water?

Safe drinking water is essential to good health. Drinking contaminated water can cause diarrhea, nausea, headaches, other ailments, affect pregnant and nursing mothers, and cause skin irritations.

To help ensure safe water supplies, operators of public water systems constantly watch for defects that could allow contaminants to enter the system. Water samples are analyzed frequently to ensure water meets federal drinking standards for public water systems. Professional operators do not monitor privately owned water supplies, so it is up to the owner to inspect the system and test for contaminants.

The only way to ensure well water is safe is to test samples for contaminants periodically. Regular inspection of the well system also will help identify potential problems.

How can water get contaminated?

According to the EPA, sources of contamination of well water can come from:

1. Septic tanks or failing septic systems

2. Petroleum tanks

3. Livestock and manure stacks near your well

4. Broken water line

5. Open holes on your well and unmaintained water equipment

6. Flooded wells. (You should avoid drinking water from it until you can test for any contaminants.)

What is the best time of year to test my water?

One of the best times to test is during wet weather. This tends to be January, February, and March here in Western Washington. During this wet period, excess water picks up bacteria, nitrate, and recently-applied lawn and crop chemicals through the soil. When the ground is dry or frozen, a contaminated well could potentially test safe, even when it’s not. However, if your well water tests are safe during the wettest time of year, the odds are that it will be safe during the other seasons.

How do I know if it’s time to get my water tested?

1. If your water has an odor or change in color and taste.

2. If your neighbor reports that their well has been contaminated.

3. If you recently moved into a new home on a well.

4. If someone in your home becomes sick from drinking water.

5. If there is an abandoned well nearby. (An abandoned well that is not correctly plugged can route contaminants directly into your water supply.)

6. If flooding has occurred in your area, you may want to test your private well.

What are common contaminants?

Coliform bacteria: Coliforms are naturally occurring bacteria commonly found in topsoil, surface water, sewage, and animal wastes. They cause no noticeable odor, taste, or color changes in water, and testing is the only way to determine if they are present. Although coliform bacteria generally do not cause disease, one bacteria that could be present is E. Coli. This is really harmful. Otherwise, most other coliform bacteria may not be overly harmful but do increase the risk of disease-carrying organisms entering your water supply. That is why Alcorn Pump runs specific tests to know exactly what type of bacteria is present to help us advise what our customer needs.

That could be as simple as a disinfectant to the well and water system, or the need for filtration. This includes UV or another type of filtration which is referred to as chemical injection. This filtration process kills other types of bacteria that could be present if it is not 100% clear after testing the water.

Nitrate: Nitrate forms by the decay of naturally occurring organic matter in soil, livestock manure, and human waste. Excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers also causes elevated nitrate levels, and when rainfall occurs, it can dissolve the nitrate and transports it deeper into the ground. Shallow aquifers and wells are more likely to be contaminated with nitrate than deeper ones. Nitrate causes no noticeable odor, taste, or color changes in water, and testing is the only way to determine if high nitrate levels are present. When consumed by infants below six months old, nitrate can cause a severe blood disorder known as infant methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby” syndrome.

Manufactured chemicals: Chemicals such as insecticides, herbicides, solvents, and petroleum products also can get into the water supply. Improper storage or disposal, chemical spills, and excessive use or misapplication of chemicals increase the risk of finding unsafe water supply levels. Health effects vary widely with the type of chemical and its concentration. Although some substances (particularly petroleum products) cause a noticeable odor or color in the water. Testing is the only reliable way to determine if most manufactured chemicals are present in drinking water.

Is well water testing required, and how do I get it tested?

As mentioned above, the Washington Department of Health recommends an annual inspection of your water for coliform bacteria and nitrate. If your nitrate level is 5 milligrams per liter (mg/L) or higher, you may want to re-test in six months. It is also suggested to test for arsenic at least twice while you own the well – once in summer and again in winter – to check for any seasonal influences that may occur. You can test by dropping a water sample off to one of many certified labs in Washington or by taking the sample to a water quality lab yourself. Alcorn Pump will test your water for iron PH and hardness at no cost to you. We are happy to receive your water sample for complete water analysis and submit it to a regional water quality lab. The price to test for Nitrates, Bacteria, and Arsenic is about $90, and if there is additional testing that needs to be done, the costs will range from $20-40 per test.

Well sanitation is also advised to help keep your well clean and water safe for your entire family. Alcorn Pump offers well-maintenance and sanitation services.


What if I'm not sure? Who can I contact for more information?

If in doubt, it's always better to have your water tested. Give Alcorn Pump a call today (360-802-8941), or you can contact your local department of health. The Washington Department of Health has additional information for Owners of Private Wells.


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