When buying a home, prospective buyers should hire a third party to perform water testing to ensure accurate results. Any well can become contaminated, and it can happen for a variety of reasons.
Water testing is encouraged when buying a new home, whether the water comes from a public supply or a private well. It is better to know what is in the water and, if necessary, to install a water treatment system than to drink contaminated water. Telling homeowners their water is contaminated can be the worst part of a home inspector’s job. Water testing for a home purchase takes one to three days, and although it incurs costs for the soon-to-be homeowner, it also provides peace of mind. The following are some common contaminants that should be tested for.
Alkalinity. Alkalinity is a measure of the capacity of water to neutralize acids or hydrogen ions. Alkalinity acts as a buffer if any changes are made to the water’s pH value.
Arsenic. Arsenic is a semi-metal element that is odorless and tasteless. It can enter drinking water supplies from natural deposits in the earth or from agricultural or industrial practices.
Chloride. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified 250 mg/L as the concentration at which chloride can be expected to cause a salty taste in drinking water.
Coliform & E. Coli. Coliform bacteria are present in the environment and feces of all warm-blooded animals, including humans. Presence of coliform can indicate the presence of other pathogens in the water supply.
Conductivity. Conductivity is a measure of water’s capability to pass electrical flow. This ability is directly related to the concentration of ions in the water. These conductive ions come from dissolved salts and inorganic materials such as chlorides, sulfides and carbonate compounds.
Copper. The level of copper in surface and groundwater is generally low, but high levels of copper may enter the environment through mining, farming, manufacturing, and municipal or industrial wastewater releases into rivers and lakes. Copper can get into drinking water either by directly contaminating well water or through corrosion of copper pipe if the water is acidic. Pipe corrosion is the greatest cause for concern.
Fluoride. Water fluoridation is the controlled addition of fluoride to a public water supply to reduce tooth decay. Fluoridated water contains fluoride at a level that helps prevent cavities.
Hardness. Hardness is a measure of the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in water.
Iron. High iron in water may lead to a metallic taste. The water also may be discolored and appear brownish, or even contain sediment. Iron can leave red or orange rust stains in the sink, toilet, bathtub and shower. It also can enter into the water heater and can get into laundry equipment, causing stains on clothing.
Lead. Lead enters water through contact with plumbing containing lead. It leaches into water through corrosion of brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures connected with lead solder. This is more common in plumbing components installed before 1986.
Manganese. Manganese is an element that naturally occurs in rocks and soil, but also may enter groundwater due to pollution. It is seldom found alone in a water supply; rather, it is frequently found in iron-bearing waters, but is rarer than iron.
Nitrate. Nitrate is one of the most common groundwater contaminants in rural areas. It is regulated in drinking water primarily because excess levels can cause methemoglobinemia, also known as blue baby syndrome.
Nitrite. Nitrites are a salt or ester anion of nitrous acid, which can naturally or artificially occur in water. Nitrites come from fertilizers through runoff water, sewage and mineral deposits. Nitrite also is used for curing meat products because it inhibits bacteria growth. Unfortunately, it also can stimulate bacteria growth when introduced in high levels into a body of water.
pH. The pH of pure water is 7. Water with a pH lower than 7 is considered acidic, and a pH greater than 7 is considered basic. The normal range for pH of water is 6.5 to 8.5. Low pH levels can cause damage to a home’s plumbing and lead to leaks if not corrected.
Radon. Radon can be found in water and air. Radon in the air is the more serious health concern, but radon in water can add to the levels in the air if not removed. If radon levels are a concern, test the air first. If those levels are high, follow up with a water test. Radon mitigation systems can be installed for air and water separately.
Sodium. Sodium can enter wells from salt that washes off the road into the well in the winter.
Uranium. Naturally occurring uranium is present in some areas of the country, including the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Radon is a byproduct of uranium, so if a radon water test comes back high, testing for uranium is a good idea.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are carbon-containing compounds that evaporate easily from water into the air at normal temperatures. VOCs are found in some commercial, industrial and residential products, including fuel oils, gasoline, solvents, cleaners and degreasers, paints, inks, dyes, refrigerants and pesticides.
Some people will choose not to have a water test if the home is connected to a municipal water supply. That is their choice—there is no law that requires testing before purchasing a home. It is still a good idea to test the water, however, due to the risks posed by copper and lead pipe leaching contaminants into drinking water. A water test also can help identify bacteria buildup that may be inside a house.
Those using a Veterans Affairs or Federal Housing Administration loan to purchase a new home with a well will be required by the lender to get a water quality test. If the results of a water test come back less than desirable while under contract, the real estate agent can negotiate the installation of a new filtration system or a financial agreement to install one once the new homeowner takes over the property.
If the pH balance in the water is outside the acceptable range, it could lead to premature wear to the house’s plumbing, resulting in costly repairs in the future. This includes water heaters, boilers, dishwashers, sinks, showers, clothes washers and any other plumbing.
If the home is near a busy road, there could be road salt contaminating the well.
Anything that is found in the water can be removed with the proper filtration system. It is not the end of the world if a new home has high levels of radon or lead—it just needs a high-quality filtration product that is serviced regularly.