Safe to drink: App helps solve water problems

Turning on the tap to get a glass of water, brush your teeth or take a shower shouldn't be a guessing game. A metallic taste, sulfuric smell or unsightly residue cannot only ruin a cold drink, but also can be a hazard to health and home.

To combat this water dilemma, a group of water specialists and educators from Penn State Extension developed a mobile app called H2OSolutions to help Pennsylvania homeowners discern the ins-and-outs of managing private water systems: any wells, springs or cisterns not managed by a public water supplier.

Funded through the water-focused Sea Grant network and built by the Skyward App Company, H2OSolutions was released this past summer for the iPhone (an Android version is on the horizon). The app is designed to make it easier for homeowners, real estate agents and home inspectors (among others) to identify water issues, access county water data, determine what tests might be necessary and connect with Extension educators across the state.

"Most people who have a public water supply are used to turning on their taps and knowing their water is tested and treated for bacteria or other contaminants — it's a worry-free process," said Bryan Swistock, a Penn State Extension water resources educator. "But, if you're on your own private water supply — and many people living in Pennsylvania are — it's entirely your responsibility to ensure your water is drinkable and safe."

Though there are 1 million private wells in Pennsylvania serving 3.5 million people, only about half of homeowners across the state actually test their water, according to Swistock. That's a problem, since half of the wells tested have at least one water quality problem.

"Other than Alaska, Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that doesn't regulate its private water systems With no regulatory framework to protect these water supplies, it can be a lot for someone just buying a house to manage. Extension has become one of the few unbiased, research-based resources to help meet the water needs of Pennsylvania's large, rural population."

-- Bryan Swistock, a Penn State Extension water resources educator

"Other than Alaska, Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that doesn't regulate its private water systems," Swistock says. "With no regulatory framework to protect these water supplies, it can be a lot for someone just buying a house to manage. Extension has become one of the few unbiased, research-based resources to help meet the water needs of Pennsylvania's large, rural population."

Though the app can be used by anyone, it was originally envisioned as a quick-start guide to help home inspectors and real estate agents answer questions for prospective home buyers with concerns, for example, about visible calcium formations on fixtures or reddish water stains from iron, according to Susan Boser, a Penn State Extension water resources educator who serves Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties.

By using the app, a real estate agent can alert a home buyer or owner to the tests he or she might want to consider before the sale — just knowing what tests to ask for at a lab can save a homeowner thousands of dollars on unnecessary water tests each year, according to Swistock. So, H2OSolutions offers a comprehensive list of water test data by county, uses GPS to connect users with the nearest Extension educator, and enables people to search for specific problems and access a troubleshooting guide of symptoms, common causes and treatment options.

"People often wait until they have a problem to think about their water," Boser said. "Unless you have it tested you don't know if there's something in it that's going to harm you. We find a lot of private water systems have an issue with bacteria, which can cause serious health issues."

Found in 53 percent of water samples, such bacteria as E. coli and coliform are some of the most common contaminants in Pennsylvania. Swistock and Boser recommend homeowners should test annually for bacteria and every few years for a sampling of common contaminants in a particular area or county.

While Centre County sees its share of calcium-rich hard water and bacteria, the northern part of the state can have iron and manganese issues. In western Pennsylvania, Boser says she gets a lot of questions about how Marcellus Shale drilling can affect private water supplies.

While H2OSolutions is an interactive tool that helps diagnose possible water issues, Swistock’s hope is that after having water tested at a Penn State or commercial lab, homeowners will use the app to contact someone on the Extension water team, like Boser, who can help answer further questions about specific treatment options, equipment and more. The water team also offers a variety of workshops, webinars and online fact sheets that help thousands of Pennsylvanians each year.

Though Boser spends many days each spring playing in creeks and catching crayfish with children as part of her conservation work, it's the one-on-one time she spends talking with homeowners about water that she values most.

"The best part of my job is knowing I helped someone make their water safe," Boser said. "When I talk to someone on the phone and they tell me they're glad they called and they'll recommend Penn State Extension and the app to their friends and neighbors, it makes my day."

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit news.it.psu.edu.

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Last Updated December 12, 2014