Thursday, January 28, 2010

Buying or Owning a House with Well Water

My first experience with well water in East Hampton was frightening. We're talking scene out of a horror film frightening. I turned on the outside faucet to water the garden and the water came out BLOOD RED. Needless to say I ran screaming. I could practically hear the neighbors snickering, "city girl."

After 10 years in real estate and dealing with well water, I can now say I think I've seen it all, and I have a few tips to share with those of you considering or new to well water.

Most of us with private wells require water treatment systems. Most commonly in our area, you will find high concentrations of iron in the water, giving it that lovely shade of red. If you don't treat the water, the iron will stain your fixtures, will clog your lines with iron flakes, and probably even stain your clothes in the washing machine. You have the option of either shelling out the money and purchasing a treatment system, or renting one and having the company come out and do the maintenance for you. There are lots of choices and lots of price points. There are lots of mistakes to be made, and we've made them!

This photo shows both a shallow, dug well and a drilled well (the tall skinny well head in the background.)

First things first. Before anything else, you should test the water. Most buyers do a standard water test (including total coliform bacteria) as part of their home inspections, but few are testing for volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) which can also affect the quality of our well water. (You can also test for radon in water, which does not affect the quality of your water, but in effect raises the overall level of radon gas in your home, which we'll discuss on another post.) There are so many things you can test for, including lead in water and fluoride (which you'll probably do at the recommendation of your pediatrician if you have kids.)

The standard drinking water analysis tests pH, color, odor, turbidity, alkalinity, chloride, hardness, nitrite as N, nitrate as N, iron, manganese, sodium and coliform bacteria.

One of the local water labs I use charges $60 for a standard water test, and $90 for the VOC test. Since having children, we actually do both tests every year. Imagine our delight 3 years ago to discover we had coliform bacteria. Lovely. (By the way, no amount of coliform is acceptable. Even if none of us was sick from it, we did not drink the water until we were able to get a negative result.) We test for VOCs because years ago we found MTBE in our water. YES, the additive to gas in the water we drink. So, to recap: blood red water, coliform, and MTBE all rolled into one. Horror movie stuff, right?

So what do you do when you find coliform in your water? In my case, I cussed for a while, debated moving to a town with public water, then got down to business. First we removed the aerators on the faucets and soaked them in a diluted bleach solution, changed the filters (turns out Scott was behind on doing this, which may have been the culprit,) and then looked inside the well to see if there was a dead mouse or something that would obviously contaminate the well. The next step was to shock the well system with bleach, which involves dumping a certain amount of bleach in your well head and running the water on and off for as long as a few days until the bleach smell is gone. Then you test again. I have to admit, it took me days before I would drink the water after that. I've been through this with clients as well as at my own house. The lab I use in Columbia, CT is fantastic and walked us through step by step. They also retested the water samples for free until we were able to come up with a potable water supply.
We were lucky with the MTBE. Our levels were very low compared to neighboring homes, and our water treatment system was able to handle the MTBE. A neighbor who'd always bragged of his crystal clear water had to install a very expensive system to treat his water for MTBE. Our neighborhood was definitely affected by this VOC. Although the town health department says they can't pinpoint where this originates, I know there are homes closer to the nearest gas station who also have contaminated wells.

We've also been lucky with our wells (we have 2 on our property - the shallow well pictured above, plus a drilled well) in that we haven't run dry. That's another thing buyers should have tested - their well capacity and recovery rate - but most don't bother past the gallons per minute test.

I advise all buyers to take the time and do the research on the well of any property you're considering purchasing. Visit the building department to check for any well permits or tests. Stop by the health department and ask to see the file for the property. Actually taste the water at the house. Look at the sinks and in the toilet tank for staining. If there is a water treatment system in the basement, find out exactly what the owners are treating for. If there's a system, there must be a reason why it's there. And lastly, look for evidence of large amounts of bottled water or a water cooler to help determine if the owners are drinking their own water. Suddenly I'm feeling thirsty...

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