Testing the Waters
Keeping a domestic well safe and clean doesn’t require a lot of effort
Good drinking water is something often taken for granted, till it’s not available.
For people living in the country, maintenance of domestic wells is something, like good water, that isn’t top of mind until something goes awry.
There are things to consider when it comes to keeping your domestic well safe and sanitary.
The biggest thing, according to Ryan Rieschick, with Rieschick Drilling Co. in Falls City, Neb., and the president of the Nebraska Well Drillers Association, is making sure wells are sealed well with no holes.
Many wells have an electrical connection where the power goes into, and that is a spot where contaminants can get in, Rieschick said.
“Usually if it’s sealed up tight, you won’t have any bacteria,” he said.
Often damage to the pipe or cap on the well comes from being hit with mowers. People try to mow close to them, and the conduit can crack, and “that’s where the bugs get in,” he said.
The two biggest contaminant concerns are nitrates, found in some groundwater, and bacteria, both coliform bacteria and e-coli.
Coliform bacteria is present everywhere in the environment, and usually causes no illness. But its presence in drinking water is an indication that pathogens, like E. coli, could be present, Rieschick said.
“If your water stinks, that’s an indication that you have E. coli,” he said. “If you start to notice a smell, then you have a problem.” Bacteria can be tested for, with the home owner filling test kits with the water and sending them to state or private labs for testing.
Old hand-dug wells are more likely to have contaminants than new wells, mainly because they are not capped as well. The old wells are often three or four foot in diameter and bricked or rocked around them with faulty seals.
Rieschick has seen several cases of animals falling into the well and dying, introducing bacteria. If the wells “don’t have good tops, you’ll get snakes, mice or rabbits in the well, and that’s where you get the bacteria problems.”
Since coliform bacteria is present everywhere, tests can be deceptive, and that’s usually due to error in how the homeowner fills the sample with water. Touching sample bottles with their hands, or having them outside on a windy day, is enough to introduce coliform bacteria not from the water into the samples.
If coliform bacteria tests come back positive, often the lab will ask for a retest, in case the sample was contaminated. Test kits can be obtained from state health departments or private labs and cost about $20 each to test for nitrates or bacteria.
The most common way to disinfect a well of pathogenic bacteria is chlorination, Rieschick said. Chlorine bleach is poured into the well, and, to circulate the bleach, Rieschick suggests using a garden hose to make sure it gets “stirred in.” Then the well is shut off, the bleach sits for a few hours, and the water is pumped to waste. He recommended being careful of the amount of chlorine used. “A little is good, but a lot is not better. You have to watch that you don’t dump too much chlorine in.” Too much chlorine can change the pH of the water, causing iron oxidation in the water.
Homeowners can disinfect their own wells, but that’s not always the best practice, said Mark Graf, a water supply specialist with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. If the owner damages well equipment, “it could be very expensive to replace,” he said. While you may think you are saving money, you could damage equipment that costs thousands of dollars to replace.
One way to fix an old well is to put a cover on it. Old wells “can be retrofitted,” Graf said, but it should be done by a licensed professional. “They know what they’re doing and they know how to keep groundwater safe.” Sometimes it’s just as economically feasible to drill a new well, Rieschick said. On an old well, “you dig around the outside, pull the brick back, put a plate over the top, pour concrete around that, and put an access hole, and by the time you get the labor and concrete, it’s a lot easier to drill a new well.” He also cautioned about how to dispose of the old well. “Then you properly abandon the old well.”
Homeowners can also protect their wells from contaminants by making sure water (flooding or rainwater) runs away from the well and does not pool around it. Home owners “need to make sure the top of their well is twelve inches above the grade of the ground, and that the ground slopes away from it, so if there would be contaminant, it would run away from the well rather than towards it.”
Domestic wells should also be located 100 feet away from hazards, Graf said: septic systems, fuel or chemical storage, and confined livestock pens. “A one-hundred feet separation will give a good buffer area to prevent contamination of a well.”
Both men said that the biggest part of keeping a well safe from contaminants is keeping it sealed, making sure nothing gets in it. “Don’t bury it,” Graf said. Homeowners sometimes bury the cap, because it ruins the looks of the landscaping. “When you cover it, you have more of a chance of bacteria getting in there. Just like anything else, if the breeze and sunshine can get to it, you’ll have fewer problems.”
Graf stressed that if the homeowner notices a change in their water, they should get it tested. “If the water changes in color, gets cloudy all of a sudden, or has a different odor, you need to get your well tested to see what’s going on. We recommend testing your wells once a year for coliform bacteria and for nitrates.”
Another thing to consider is that if the conduit protecting the electrical wires to the well is damaged, the homeowner shouldn’t fix it themselves. There is a chance of electrical shock, Rieschick said. It’s usually not a big enough shock to kill, and it’s usually only electrified when the pump is on, but Rieschick has known of a child standing in water puddled around the well and getting killed by electrocution.
The best advice for homeowners with domestic wells, and the simplest, is to keep the top sealed and the conduit in good repair, Graf said.
“It’s critical, it’s important, to make sure the well is sealed. It’s a direct pathway to groundwater and for bacteria, pathogens, and any contaminants to get into the groundwater they consume.”
More information on obtaining testing for domestic wells in each state can be found here:
South Dakota – https://doh.sd.gov/lab/environmental/privatew.aspx.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News