How Clean is Well Water?

Private well water goes completely untreated. Find out what could be coming through the pipes...

By: Aditi Pai

Water wells, to many, are a thing of the past. When someone references a “well,” the average city dweller will perhaps think of Jack and Jill fetching a pail of water or a similarly idyllic scene set in the countryside.

Contrary to this imagery, as of 2009, approximately 15 percent of the US population still uses private wells to source their water.

Some use wells as a backup to their existing plumbing system, while others still rely on wells as their primary source of water. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a full list of private drinking water well programs in the US.

How safe is well water?wellWater_body2

Modern wells don’t employ a pail attached to a pulley system (instead using a jet system to propel the water up), and many wells connect directly to an indoor tap. That said, one of the primary differences between well-sourced water and modern indoor plumbing is the regulatory landscape. Unlike tap water sourced from a public utility, well water is not regulated by the Safe Water Drinking Act, which allows the EPA to set national standards for good drinking water.

It’s important for people who have a private well to test water regularly. Not only does the burden fall on the consumer to keep their drinking water devoid of contaminants, but also, according to a study conducted by the United States Department of Interior, 23 percent of private wells contained a level of water contaminants high enough to cause health concern. The most prevalent contaminants in these wells include radon, arsenic, uranium, manganese and nitrate. While the first four contaminants come from natural sources, like rocks and sediment, the latter is usually a result of nearby septic tanks and fertilizer.

Don’t Drink Bacteria

There are a few factors that may influence the drinkability of well water. First, the EPA has set recommendations for where a well should be placed.

Wells should always be:

  • 50 feet away from septic tanks, livestock yards, silos septic, and leach fields
  • 100 feet away from petroleum tanks, liquid-tight manure storage, and pesticide and fertilizer storage
  • 250 feet away from manure stacks


Other factors to watch for include when the well was built, if the well is maintained regularly, and where the water comes from.

Of course, even if the well is maintained properly and placed a significant distance from potential water contaminants, the water may still contain bacteria and water-borne diseases like giardia, cholera, and E. coli.

These diseases could lead to nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, loss of appetite, and if left untreated, these diseases could be fatal.

While not a health risk, keeping track of the “hardness” of well water is also a notable step in well maintenance. When calcium and magnesium in the ground interact with well water, it causes “hard water.” This may not cause health problems, but if the water source is connected to a house’s indoor plumbing, it leads to the formation of soap curds and deposits on the pipes.

The best way to ensure your well water doesn’t contain dangerous levels of bacteria is to test it regularly. Some of the best times to test well water include springtime, after heavy rainfall, following plumbing work, and changes in the taste or smell of water.

Let’s nip this in the bud

In addition to testing water quality, it’s helpful to perform water treatment regularly. On top of the health concerns discussed, well water has common annoyances as well. Sulfur can cause water to have an awful rotten-egg smell, iron can cause rust on appliances and stain clothing, and hard water that’s full of sediment leaves spots on dishes and shower walls. The most popular ways to treat well water include:wellWater_body3

  • Filtration systems: There are filtration systems designed specifically for wells. These systems run the water through a series of steps that catch sediment; soften the water; reduce iron; remove sulfur smell; and reduce the levels of chlorine, bacteria growth, herbicides, and pesticides. After moving through the contaminant-specific filters, a UV filter does one final pass over to protect against bacteria and viruses.
  • Water softeners: Treating your water with sodium or potassium will replace the calcium and magnesium. This is helpful for pipes and for removing those spots on dishes and shower walls but can be wasteful and bad for the environment. People who have heart or circulatory health concerns should consult a physician about drinking water with excess sodium or consider a Salt-Free Water Conditioner instead of a water softener.
  • Distillation systems: Water is boiled and the steam is trapped in a separate container. This process separates the water from solid contaminants.
  • Disinfection: Certain chemicals, including chloramines and chlorine, are used to rid the water of bacteria. In the process, though, people will likely consume chlorine and chloramine. These chemicals, over a long period of time, could cause health concerns of their own.