David J. Moran
7875 Perry Lake Rd.
Clarkston, MI 48348
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DJM Home Inspections, LLC
Inspected Once, Inspected Right!
Private Water Wells
If your family gets drinking water from a private well, do you know if
your water is safe to drink? What health risks could you and your family face?
Where can you go for help or advice? EPA regulates public water systems; it does
not have the authority to regulate private drinking water wells. Approximately
15 percent of Americans rely on their own private drinking water supplies, and
these supplies are not subject to EPA standards, although some state and local
governments do set rules to protect users of these wells. Unlike public drinking
water systems serving many people, they do not have experts regularly checking the
waters source and its quality before it is sent to the tap. These households
must take special precautions to ensure the protection and maintenance of their
drinking water supplies.
There are three types of private drinking water wells: dug,
driven, and drilled. Proper well construction and
continued maintenance are keys to the safety of your water supply. Your state
water-well contractor licensing agency, local health department, or local water
system professional can provide information on well construction. The well should
be located so rainwater flows away from it. Rainwater can pick up harmful
bacteria and chemicals on the lands surface. If this water pools near your
well, it can seep into it, potentially causing health problems.
Water-well drillers and pump-well installers are listed in your local phone directory. The
contractor should be bonded and insured. Make certain your ground water
contractor is registered or licensed in your state, if required. If your state
does not have a licensing/registration program contact the National Ground Water
Association. They have a voluntary certification program for contractors. (In
fact, some states use the Associations exams as their test for licensing.) For
a list of certified contractors in your state contact the Association at (614)
898-7791 or (800) 551-7379. There is no cost for mailing or faxing the list to
To keep your well safe, you must be sure possible sources of
contamination are not close by. Experts suggest the following distances as a
minimum for protection farther is better:
- Septic Tanks, 50 feet
- Livestock yards, Silos, Septic Leach Fields, 50 feet
- Patroleum Tanks, Liquid-Tight Manure Storage and Fertilizer
Storage and Handling, 100 feet
- Manure Stacks, 250 feet
Many homeowners tend to forget the value of good maintenance
until problems reach crisis levels. That can be expensive. Its better to
maintain your well, find problems early, and correct them to protect your wells
performance. Keep up-to-date records of well installation and repairs plus
pumping and water tests. Such records can help spot changes and possible
problems with your water system. If you have problems, ask a local expert to
check your well construction and maintenance records. He or she can see if your
system is okay or needs work.
Protect your own well area. Be careful about storage and
disposal of household and lawn care chemicals and wastes. Good farmers and
gardeners minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Take steps to reduce
erosion and prevent surface water runoff. Regularly check underground storage
tanks that hold home heating oil, diesel, or gasoline. Make sure your well is
protected from the wastes of livestock, pets, and wildlife.
Dug wells are holes in the ground dug by shovel or backhoe.
Historically, a dug well was excavated below the groundwater table until
incoming water exceeded the diggers bailing rate. The well was then lined
(cased) with stones, brick, tile, or other material to prevent collapse. It was
covered with a cap of wood, stone, or concrete. Since it is so difficult to dig
beneath the ground water table, dug wells are not very deep. Typically, they are
only 10 to 30 feet deep. Being so shallow, dug wells have the highest risk of
becoming contaminated.To minimize the likelihood of contamination, your dug well
should have certain features. These features help to prevent contaminants from
traveling along the
outside of the casing or through the casing and into the well.
Dug Well Construction Features
- The well should be cased with a watertight material (for
example, tongue-and-groove precast concrete) and a cement grout or bentoniteclay
sealant poured along the outside of the casing to the top of the well.
- The well should be covered by a concrete curband cap that
stands about a foot above the ground.
- The land surface around the well should be mounded so that
surface water runs away from the well and is not allowed to pond around the
outside of the wellhead.
- Ideally, the pump for your well should be inside your home or
in a separate pump house, rather than in a pit next to the
Land activities around a dug well can also contaminate it.
While dug wells have been used as a household water supply
source for many years, most are relics of older homes, dug before drilling
equipment was readily available or when drilling was considered too expensive.
If you have a dug well on your property and are using it for drinking water,
check to make sure it is properly covered and sealed. Another problem relating
to the shallowness of a dug well is that it may go dry during a drought when the
ground water table drops.
Like dug wells, driven wells pull water from the water-saturated
zone above the bedrock. Driven wells can be deeper than dug wells. They are
typically 30 to 50 feet deep and are usually located in areas with thick sand
and gravel deposits where the ground water table is within 15 feet of the
grounds surface. In the proper geologic setting, driven wells can be easy and
relatively inexpensive to install. Although deeper than dug wells, driven wells
are still relatively shallow and have a moderate-to-high risk of contamination
from nearby land activities.
Driven Well Construction Features
- Assembled lengths of two inches to three inches diameter metal
pipes are driven into the ground. Ascreened well point located at the end of
the pipe helps drive the pipe through the sand and gravel. The screen allows
water to enter the well and filters out sediment.
- The pump for the well is in one of two places: on top ofthe
well or in the house. An access pit is usually dug around the well down to the
frost line and a water dis-charge pipe to the house is joined to the well pipe
with a fitting.
- The well and pit are capped with the same kind of
large-diameter concrete tile used for a dug well. The access pit may be cased
with pre-cast concrete.
To minimize this risk, the well cover should be a tight-fitting
concrete curb and cap with no cracks and should sit about a foot above the
ground. Slope the ground away from the well so that surface water will not pond
around the well. If theres a pit above the well, either to hold the pump or to
access the fitting, you may also be able to pour a grout sealant along the
outside of the well pipe. Protecting the water quality requires that you
maintain proper well construction and monitor your activities around the well.
It is also important to follow the same land use precautions around the driven
well as described under dug wells.
Drilled wells penetrate about 100-400 feet into the
bedrock. Where you find bedrock at the surface, it is commonly called ledge. To
serve as a water supply, a drilled well must intersect bedrock fractures
containing ground water.
Drilled Well Construction
- The casing is usually metal or plastic pipe, six inches in
diameter that extends into the bedrock to prevent shallow ground water from
entering the well. By law, the casing has to extend at least 18 feet into the
ground, with at least five feet extending into the bedrock. The casing should
also extend a foot or two above the grounds surface. A sealant, such as cement
grout or bentonite clay, should be poured along the outside of the casing to the
top of the well. The well is capped to prevent surface water from entering the
- Submersible pumps, located near the bottom of the well, are
most commonly used in drilled wells. Wells with a shallow water table may
feature a jet pump located inside the home. Pumps require special wiring and
electrical service. Well pumps should be installed and serviced by a qualified
professional registered with your state.
- Most modern drilled wells incorporate a pitless adapter
designed to provide a sanitary seal at the point where the discharge water line
leaves the well to enter your home. The device attaches directly to the casing
below the frost line and provides a watertight subsurface connection, protecting
the well from frost and contamination.
- Older drilled wells may lack some of these sanitary features.
The well pipe used was oftene ight-, 10- or 12- inches in diameter, and covered
with a concrete well cap either at or below the grounds surface. This outmoded
type of construction does not provide the same degree of protection from surface
contamination. Also, older wells may not have a pitless adapter to provide a
seal at the point of discharge from the well.
Hydrofracting A Drilled Well
Hydrofracting is a process that applies water or air under
pressure into your well to open up existing fractures near your well and can
even create new ones. Often this can increase the yield of your well. This
process can be applied to new wells with insufficient yield and to improve the
quantity of older wells.
How can I test the
quality of my private drinking water
Consider testing your well for pesticides, organic
chemicals, and heavy metals before you use it for the first time. Test private
water supplies annually for nitrate and coliform bacteria to detect
contamination problems early. Test them more frequently if you suspect a
problem. Be aware of activities in your watershed that may affect the water
quality of your well, especially if you live in an unsewered area.
What You Can
The first step to protect your health and the health of your
family is learning about what may pollute your source of drinking water.
Potential contamination may occur naturally, or as a result of human
What are Some Naturally Occurring Sources of
- Microorganisms: Bacteria, viruses, parasites
and other microorganisms are sometimes found in water. Shallow wells those
with water close to ground level are at most risk. Runoff, or water flowing
over the land surface, may pick up these pollutants from wildlife and soils.
This is often the case after flooding. Some of these organisms can cause a
variety of illnesses. Symptoms include nausea and diarrhea. These can occur
shortly after drinking contaminated water. The effects could be short-term yet
severe (similar to food poisoning) or might recur frequently or develop slowly
over a long time.
- Radionuclides: Radionuclides are radioactive
elements such as uranium and radium. They may be present in underlying rock and
- Radon: Radon is a gas that is
a natural product of the breakdown of uranium in the soil can also pose a
threat. Radon is most dangerous when inhaled and contributes to lung cancer.
Although soil is the primary source, using household water containing Radon
contributes to elevated indoor Radon levels. Radon is less dangerous when
consumed in water, but remains a risk to health.
- Nitrates and Nitrites: Although high nitrate
levels are usually due to human activities (see below), they may be found
naturally in ground water. They come from the breakdown of nitrogen compounds in
the soil. Flowing ground water picks them up from the soil. Drinking large
amounts of nitrates and nitrites is particularly threatening to infants (for
example, when mixed in formula).
- Heavy Metals: Underground rocks and soils may
contain arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and selenium. However, these
contaminants are not often found in household wells at dangerous levels from
- Fluoride: Fluoride is helpful in dental
health, so many water systems add small amounts to drinking water. However,
excessive consumption of naturally occurring fluoride can damage bone tissue.
High levels of fluoride occur naturally in some areas. It may discolor teeth,
but this is not a health risk.
What Human Activities Can Pollute Ground
Septic tanks are designed to have
a leach field around them an area where wastewater flows out of the tank. This
wastewater can also move into the ground
Bacteria and Nitrates: These pollutants are found in
human and animal wastes. Septic tanks can cause bacterial and nitrate pollution.
So can large numbers of farm animals. Both septic systems and animal manures
must be carefully managed to prevent pollution. Sanitary landfills and garbage
dumps are also sources. Children and some adults are at extra risk when exposed
to water-born bacteria. These include the elderly and people whose immune
systems are weak due to AIDS or treatments for cancer. Fertilizers can add to
nitrate problems. Nitrates cause a health threat in very young infants called
blue baby syndrome. This condition disrupts oxygen flow in the blood.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
(CAFOs): The number of CAFOs, often called factory farms, is growing.
On these farms thousands of animals are raised in a small space. The large
amounts of animal wastes/manures from these farms can threaten water supplies.
Strict and careful manure management is needed to prevent pathogen and nutrient
problems. Salts from high levels of manures can also pollute ground
Heavy Metals: Activities such as mining and
construction can release large amounts of heavy metals into nearby ground water
sources. Some older fruit orchards may contain high levels of arsenic, once used
as a pesticide. At high levels, these metals pose a health risk.
Fertilizers and Pesticides: Farmers use
fertilizers and pesticides to promote growth and reduce insect damage. These
products are also used on golf courses and suburban lawns and gardens. The
chemicals in these products may end up in ground water. Such pollution depends
on the types and amounts of chemicals used and how they are applied. Local
environmental conditions (soil types, seasonal snow and rainfall) also affect
this pollution. Many fertilizers contain forms of nitrogen that can break down
into harmful nitrates. This could add to other sources of nitrates mentioned
above. Some underground agricultural drainage systems collect fertilizers and
pesticides. This polluted water can pose problems to ground water and local
streams and rivers. In addition, chemicals used to treat buildings and homes for
termites or other pests may also pose a threat. Again, the possibility of
problems depends on the amount and kind of chemicals. The types of soil and the
amount of water moving through the soil also play a role.
Industrial Products and Wastes: Many harmful
chemicals are used widely in local business and industry. These can become
drinking water pollutants if not well managed. The most common sources of such
Household Wastes: Improper disposal of many
common products can pollute ground water. These include cleaning solvents, used
motor oil, paints, and paint thinners. Even soaps and detergents can harm
drinking water. These are often a problem from faulty septic tanks and septic
Lead & Copper: Household plumbing
materials are the most common source of lead and copper in home drinking water.
Corrosive water may cause metals in pipes or soldered joints to leach into your
tap water. Your waters acidity or alkalinity (often measured as pH) greatly
affects corrosion. Temperature and mineral content also affect how corrosive it
is. They are often used in pipes, solder, or plumbing fixtures. Lead can cause
serious damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system, and red blood cells. The
age of plumbing materials in particular, copper pipes soldered with lead is
also important. Even in relatively low amounts these metals can be harmful. EPA
rules under the Safe Drinking Water Act limit lead in drinking water to 15 parts
per billion. Since 1988 the Act only allows lead free pipe, solder, and flux
in drinking water systems. The law covers both new installations and repairs of
- Local Businesses: These include nearby
factories, industrial plants, and even small businesses such as gas stations and
dry cleaners. All handle a variety of hazardous chemicals that need careful
management. Spills and improper disposal of these chemicals or of industrial
wastes can threaten ground water supplies.
- Leaking Underground Tanks & Piping:
Petroleum products, chemicals, and wastes stored in underground storage tanks
and pipes may end up in the ground water. Tanks and piping leak if they are
constructed or installed improperly. Steel tanks and piping corrode with age.
Tanks are often found on farms. The possibility of leaking tanks is great on
old, abandoned farm sites. Farm tanks are exempt from the EPA rules for
petroleum and chemical tanks.
- Landfills and Waste Dumps: Modern landfills
are designed to contain any leaking liquids. But floods can carry them over the
barriers. Older dumpsites may have a wide variety of pollutants that can seep
into ground water.
Private, individual wells are the responsibility of the
homeowner. To help protect your well, here are some steps you can
Have your water tested periodically. It is recommended that
water be tested every year for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total
dissolved solids, and pH levels. If you suspect other contaminants, test for
those. Always use a state certified laboratory that conducts drinking water
tests. Since these can be expensive, spend some time identifying potential
Testing more than once a year may be warranted in
- someone in your household is pregnant or
- there are unexplained illnesses in the
- your neighbors find a dangerous contaminant in
- you note a change in water taste, odor, color
- there is a spill of chemicals or fuels into or
near your well
- when you replace or repair any part of your
Identify potential problems as the first step to safeguarding your
drinking water. The best way to start is to consult a local expert, someone that
knows your area, such as the local health department, agricultural extension
agent, a nearby public water system, or a geologist at a local university.
Be aware of your surroundings. As you drive around your
community, take note of new construction. Check the local newspaper for articles
about new construction in your area.Check the paper or
call your local planning or zoning commission for announcements about hearings
or zoning appeals on development or industrial projects that could possibly
affect your water.
Attend these hearings, ask questions about how your water source
is being protected, and don't be satisfied with general answers. Make statements
like "If you build this landfill, (just an example) what will you do to ensure
that my water will be protected." See how quickly they answer and provide
specifics about what plans have been made to specifically address that
Identify Potential Problem Sources
To start your search for potential problems, begin close to
home. Do a survey around your well:
- is there livestock nearby?
- are pesticides being used on nearby agricultural crops or
- do you use lawn fertilizers near the well?
- is your well "downstream" from your own or a neighbor's septic
- is your well located near a road that is frequently salted or
sprayed with de-icers during winter months?
- do you or your neighbors dispose of household wastes or used
motor oil in the backyard, even in small amounts?
If any of these items apply, it may be best to have your water
tested and talk to your local public health department or agricultural extension
agent to find way to change some of the practices which can affect your private
In addition to the immediate area around your well, you should
be aware of other possible sources of contamination that may already be part of
your community or may be moving into your area. Attend any local planning or
appeal hearings to find out more about the construction of facilities that may
pollute your drinking water. Ask to see the environmental impact statement on
the project. See if underground drinking water sources has been addressed. If
not, ask why.
Common Sources of Potiental Ground Water
Animal burial areas
Manure spreading areas/pits, lagoons
Auto repair shops
Cemeteries Process waste water drainage
Dry cleaners fields/wells
Railroad tracks and yards
Scrap and junkyards
- Asphalt plants
- Petroleum production/storage
- Chemical manufacture/storage
- Electronic manufacture
- Process waste water drainage
- Electroplaters fields/wells
- Foundries/metal fabricators
- Septage lagoons and sludge
- Machine/metalworking shops
- Storage tanks
- Mining and mine drainage
- Toxic and hazardous spills
- Wood preserving facilities
- Fuel Oil
- Septic systems, cesspools
- Furniture stripping/refinishing
- Sewer lines
- Household hazardous products
- Swimming pools (chemicals)
- Household lawns
- Hazardous waste landfills
- Recycling/reduction facilities
- Municipal incinerators
- Road deicing operations
- Municipal landfills
- Road maintenance depots
- Municipal sewer lines
- Storm water drains/basins/wells
- Open burning sites
- Transfer stations