Drinking water clinic highlights drilled wells, cisterns and springs

University Park, Pa. -- Ben Franklin wrote, "when the well is dry, we know the worth of water." But even when the well is pumping steadily, it's still worthwhile to regularly test private water supplies.

Public water systems are required by law to protect customers and regularly test for impurities. But in Pennsylvania, 3.5 million residents are served by private water systems, such as wells, springs and cisterns, and they have no such legal oversight.

"If you own your own private supply, it's all your own responsibility to provide clean water to yourself, the people in your family and the people who come to visit," said Peter Wulfhorst, educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension in Pike County.

Wulfhorst will be the featured speaker in the next Penn State Extension Water Webinar, titled "Safe Drinking Water Clinic," which will air at noon and again at 7 p.m. on April 28.

He said two types of water standards concern homeowners: primary standards pertaining to health, and secondary standards that pertain to the water's aesthetics -- its taste or smell, its appearance, or whether it stains plumbing fixtures or laundry. He said the webinar will cover both of these subjects, as well as how to protect a water supply from contaminants, which contaminants to test for and what treatments to use if contaminants are present.

Contaminants known as total coliforms include bacteria that are found in the soil, in water that has been influenced by surface water and in human or animal waste. Fecal coliforms are a more accurate indicator of animal or human waste because they are specifically present in the gut and feces of warm-blooded animals. Escherichia coli, or E. coli, is a major group within the fecal coliform group, and certain strains of these bacteria can cause severe illness.

"We can live with coliforms," Wulfhorst said, "but E. coli can make you sick. That's usually found with wastewater. Many supplies have at least one water-quality problem. Groundwater is in contact with the rock material it flows through, so it picks up potential contaminants." He said groundwater is typically not a host for coliform bacteria, but surface water can be.

Wulfhorst warned that any time water supplies come in contact with surface water, whether by runoff or because a cracked well casing admits surface water into groundwater, water is likely to contain bacteria.

Cisterns, typically underground tanks for collecting surface water runoff, definitely need to be treated for bacteria, according to Wulfhorst. Water that runs off a roof or through gutters comes in contact with many contaminants, and any kind of surface water is likely to contain bacteria, he said.

Springs are simply groundwater sources that come out at the surface, he said. If the source is an open spring, it is very likely to have bacteria, either from animal waste, contact with dead animals or simply from having an animal swim in it, Wulfhorst explained. A spring is more susceptible to coliform bacteria, so experts recommend piping spring water and enclosing the spring itself with a spring box.

Drilled wells are by far the most common private water source in Pennsylvania. They number more than 1 million, and an estimated 20,000 new wells are drilled each year.

Most wells have a standard well cap, which doesn't do a very good job of excluding insects or mice. A sanitary well cap -- a rubber gasket used to seal the well casing -- is a little more expensive, according to Wulfhorst, but he said it does a much better job at keeping out vermin. He said a recent survey showed that only 16 percent of Pennsylvania wells have sanitary well caps.

In terms of treatment for various water conditions, Wulfhorst said that each treatment option offers some solution, and that these vary according to the specific water problem. Solutions can include purifying water with UV light, using water softeners to condition water, employing filters to remove certain impurities, and carefully disinfecting wells with proper handling of chlorine additives.

"Testing can be expensive, but it's a good precaution," he said. "I've heard horror stories of people erroneously being sold certain equipment. One customer was told she had hard water and that it was corrosive. In fact, she already had soft water -- and she'd spent about $800 for a water softener. She was shocked."

Wulfhorst warned homeowners to be skeptical of treatment system vendors who perform home tests on the spot while making a sales call. "Bacterial tests have to be done in an incubator and need 24 hours," he noted.

He said he is also wary of instant visual tests for hardness range or pH. "When it changes color, it gives a range, but not an exact numerical figure. Everybody's eye is a little different." He instead recommends having water tested through a certified lab.

Wulfhorst also advised all well owners to consult Penn State's water website at http://water.cas.psu.edu. "The website has all our publications, information about our portable classroom, videos, water conservation suggestions and lists of face-to-face programs that individuals can attend -- and some of those offer water testing through a certified lab."

The safe drinking water webinar is part of a series targeting the most common water questions and concerns people have about water resources on their own property, whether those are water wells, septic systems or ponds. The series covers water resource types, threats to water quality and quantity, and how to manage them.

Participants must preregister for the webinars, but only one registration is required for the entire series. To register, visit http://water.cas.psu.edu/webinars.htm. Once participants have preregistered, they may visit this website on the day of the presentation and simply click on the link with the title of that day's webinar.

The final Penn State Cooperative Extension Water Webinar of the season will be held at noon and again at 7 p.m. on May 26. "Managing Your On-Lot Septic System" will be presented by Dana Rizzo, Penn State Extension educator from Westmoreland County.

For more information, contact Peter Wulfhorst at 570-296-3400, or by e-mail at ptw3@psu.edu.

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Last Updated October 11, 2010