Is that old drinking well safe?

By: Shannon Dauphin Lee , Contributing Writer

When you buy an old house, there are plenty of interesting new-to-you features to explore. An old drinking water well can be one of the most charming, intriguing, frustrating and confounding elements of your old house. How old is that well? Is there even any water there at all? And if there is, why in the world is it not flowing well? And if it is flowing well, is the water safe to drink?

With a little tender loving care (and sometimes, serious elbow grease), you just might be able to get that old well going again. But there are a few things you need to know first.

How to handle the old house well

Wells were time-consuming to dig and required a great deal of effort, so they were always built to last. That's why even homes from the 1800s might still have original wells that hold plenty of clean, clear water. There are two big questions that come into play when you discover an old well: First, does it work, and second, is the water clean for drinking?

If the well hasn't been used in many years, you can determine whether or not it will work by shutting off all pumps and other devices that might be attached to the well. If the water level of the well stays the same or goes up during the next 48 hours, you can likely get the well working again. If your well has a modern pump, you're in luck -- it might require just a bit of cleaning to get it to work. An experienced plumbing contractor can try many different options for cleaning out the pipes and priming the pump, and soon the water could be flowing again.

As a rule of thumb, your water flow should be between 100 and 120 gallons per person per day, and a flow rate of 6 to 12 gallons per minute, according to the National Groundwater Association. But even so, you might find that water pressure drops when you use several water-drawing appliances and fixtures at once; for instance, be prepared to get a shower only when the dishwasher is done, and don't count on a quick fill for your bathtub when your washer is running!

Once the question of whether the well works is answered, then the most important consideration comes into play: Is the water safe?

In many cases, you can tell immediately whether the water will be safe to drink. Water that is cloudy, murky, or has a strange smell is likely contaminated. But some of the most dangerous substances that can contaminate groundwater leave no trace of any kind, and so the water must be tested to ensure that it can be safely used. Microbiological testing might be offered by your local county health department, and you can get further testing through private laboratories. In addition, tests for water hardness, pH level, arsenic, radon, pesticides and more should be done from time to time to help ensure that the water stays at high quality. The Environmental Protection Agency and NSF International both offer more information on well water safety.

Should you close up your old well?

In some cases, you might choose to close up the well. This is most common if the well water is irreversibly contaminated, if there are problems with the well structure, or if you have stumbled upon a well that is in a place on the property that might create a hazard. If you do choose to close up the old well, you can do it in a few safe ways: Some areas require that you fill in the well with dirt, sand and clay. Others simply require a strong seal, such as concrete slabs, over the top of the well. No matter what approach you take, make sure it suits local guidelines and it's sturdy, safe and worry-free.

If you can keep the well in place and simply seal it properly, it is usually a good idea to do so. This will allow future generations to explore it and possibly get it back in shape. As with anything historical, preserving is always better than destroying.