Testing The Water

By The Old House Web
Editor's Note: City dwellers tend to take public water supplies for granted. But in rural areas, private wells typically offer the only source of drinking water. This story from Ohio State's University Extension offers an excellent overview on typical wellwater problems.

Karen Mancl

People in more than 750,000 Ohio households depend on their own well,spring, or cistern for drinking water. Individual water supplies ofthis sort are private. Water testing or water treatment is usuallynot required. The exceptions are bacteria tests for new or alteredprivate water systems and dairy water supplies, which must be testedfor bacteria and meet dairy industry standards.

Water testing andtreatment are expensive and inconvenient, but are the only way ahomeowner can ensure a safe and reliable water supply. Individualsusing public water supplies pay for water testing and treatment as apart of their water bill. Individuals operating a private watersystem do not have this benefit and must see to the testing andtreatment of their water.

Choosing Water Tests

Testing water for every contaminant is possible but very expensive andnot necessary. It is more important to test on a regular basis for afew indicators of contamination and to maintain a record of waterquality. This helps to identify changes in the supply, contaminationof the water source, or deterioration of the water system. Goodrecords of water quality are also important should you need to provethat your water has been contaminated by some outside activity suchas mining or waste disposal.

Routine Testing

Standard laboratory procedures identify the amounts of specificbacteria, chemical compounds and other components that affect waterquality. Most important are routine annual water tests, even if noobvious water problems exist.

Household water supplies

Test for:

  • total coliform bacteria
  • nitrate
  • pH
  • total dissolved solids

Livestock and poultry water supplies

Test for:

  • pH total dissolved solids
  • sulfate
  • fluoride
  • calcium
  • magnesium
  • iron
  • copper
  • arsenic
  • cadmium
  • lead
  • nitrate
  • barium
  • total coliform bacteria
  • fecal coliform bacteria
  • total plate count

Testing Nuisance Waters

Other tests identify particular problems and help in selecting watertreatment equipment. Nuisance water may not be satisfactory for alluses but still may present no health hazard. Common complaintsinclude staining of fixtures and fabrics, off-color appearance,unusual taste or odor, and deposits and pitting of metals. Listed onthe next page are useful laboratory tests for nuisance water.

Laboratory Tests for Nuisance Water

SymptomAppearance Test
Stained fixtures and clothes red or browniron
reddish-brown slimeiron bacteria
blackmanganese
green or blue copper
Off-colorcloudy turbidity
black hydrogen sulfide, manganese
brown or yellowiron, tannic acid
Unusual taste and odorrotten egg hydrogen sulfide
metallicpH, corrosive index, iron, zinc, copper, lead
saltytotal dissolved solids, chloride
septic, musty, earthytotal coliform bacteria, methane
alkalipH, total dissolved solids
gasoline or oilhydrocarbon scan
soapysurfactants
Corrosive waterdeposits, pittingcorrosion index, pH, copper, lead

Testing for Suspected Contamination

Water tests are especially important if the supply is threatened bynearby activities. Good records prior to contamination will be neededto prove that the supply was damaged. Listed below are activitiesthat may affect a water supply and useful laboratory tests.

If you suspect/observe Request these tests
Leaking fuel tank hydrocarbon scan
Coal mining total dissolved solids, iron, sulfates, acidity, pH, corrosionindex, manganese, aluminum
Gas and oil drilling total dissolvedsolids, chlorides, sodium, barium, lead, pH, corrosion index,strontium
Road salt total dissolved solids, chloride, sodium
Landfills total dissolved solids, pH, COD, volatile organic scan
Sludge utilization bacteria, nitrate, metals (lead, cadmium)
Septic systems fecal coliform bacteria, fecal streptococcus, nitrate,surfactants
Intensive agricultural use total coliform bacteria,nitrate, pesticide scan, pH, total dissolved solids

Collecting Water Samples

Proper collection and handling of a water sample is critical for ameaningful water test. Sample containers should always be obtainedfrom the testing laboratory because containers may be speciallyprepared for a specific contaminant. Sampling and handling proceduresdepend on the water quality concern and should be followed carefully.If the water is being treated, it may be necessary to sample bothbefore and after the water goes through the treatment equipment.

Bacteria Sampling

Water samples for bacteria tests must always be collected in a sterilecontainer. Take the sample from an inside faucet with the aeratorremoved. Sterilize by flaming the end of the tap with a disposablebutane lighter. Run the water for five minutes to clear water linesand bring in fresh water. Do not touch or contaminate the inside ofthe bottle or cap. Carefully open the sample container and hold theoutside of the cap. Fill the container to overflowing, and replacethe top. Refrigerate the sample and transport it to the testinglaboratory within six hours (in an ice chest). Many labs will notaccept bacteria samples on Friday so check to find out the lab'sschedule. Mailing bacteria samples is not recommended becauselaboratory analysis results are not as reliable.

Iron bacteria formsa very obvious slime on the inside of pipes and fixtures. A watertest is not needed to identify it. Check for a reddish-brown slimeinside of a toilet tank or where water stands for several days.

Chemical Sampling

Sample bottles used to collect water for chemical analysis oftencontain a fixing compound to prevent loss or breakdown of specificchemicals. Always obtain these sample bottles and instructions fromthe testing laboratory. Run water at an inside tap for five minutesto clear the lines and bring in fresh water. Follow instructions forfilling sample bottles and transport samples to the testinglaboratory as quickly as possible via personal delivery or overnightmail service.

Hydrogen Sulfide Sampling

Hydrogen sulfide is a gas with a distinctive odor (rotten eggs). Thegas escapes from water very quickly, so if needed, measurements ofhydrogen sulfide concentrations must be made immediately, on site. Inmost cases this will not be necessary. If the odor is present,hydrogen sulfide is present.

Corrosion Sampling

When sampling for evidence of corrosion, allow the water to stand inthe water lines overnight or longer. Do not let the water run beforecollecting a sample because water held in the pipes will havecorrosion products. Take the sample from an inside faucet with alaboratory container. Deliver the samples to the laboratory in personor use an overnight mail service.

Organic Chemical Sampling

Many organic contaminants are volatile and will escape from solutionwhen aerated. Take extra care when collecting these samples. Removethe faucet aerator and let water run for 5 minutes to clear the pipesand bring in fresh water. Partially close the faucet until a slowsteady, non-aerated stream of water flows. Hold the laboratory samplebottle at an angle to reduce aeration when filling. Fill the bottlecompletely and replace the cover. Invert the bottle and check for airbubbles. If bubbles are present, empty and take another sample. Takethe sample to the laboratory in person if possible or use anovernight mail service.

Sampling for Court Cases

Sometimes water samples are taken for evidence in a court case to showpollution or damage to a water supply. These samples should always becollected by a disinterested third party, trained in proper samplecollection, who can testify as to how the sample was handled. Use anOhio Environmental Protection Agency/Ohio Department of Health(OEPA/ODH) certified laboratory for all water testing. Your record ofroutine sampling provides evidence about your water supply beforepollution or damage.

Test Results

The laboratory sends out water test results anywhere from a few daysto a few weeks after receipt of samples. Water test results oftenlist the drinking water standards to help you interpret the results.Contact your county Extension agent, your county health department orthe Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for assistance ininterpreting test results and determining corrective action. Fileyour water test report in a safe place for future reference.


All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extensionare available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without regardto race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin,gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of May 8 andJune 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture,Keith L. Smith, Director, Ohio State University Extension.



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