Treating Well Water Supply — All You Need to Know

Getting water from underground aquifers is as natural as it gets. In most cases, it’s healthy and safe to drink—until it isn’t. 

Unregulated industrialization and poor sanitation practices can degrade groundwater quality and introduce impurities and pathogens into your well water. Often, treating well water is the only way to combat this groundwater contamination.

To make the process simpler for you, I’ve gathered all the information related to well water treatment in a single place. Learn why you need it, how it works, and how much it will cost you.

If you’ve already decided to install a water treatment system and just want to learn which system suits you best, click here.

Why Does Well Water Need Treating?

The main sources of freshwater around the world are lakes, rivers, and groundwater. However, according to the National Ground Water Association (NGWA), not all freshwater is safe to consume. It’s a common notion that groundwater is safe to drink, but scientific surveys say otherwise. That’s why you need to have some sort of treatment for well water before letting yourself and your loved ones consume it.

Water treatment systems make water safe for consumption. Their function is more complicated than mere house-water filtration systems. Where filtration systems remove impurities at the point of use, water treatment kills harmful microorganisms and removes toxic chemicals from the drinking water source.

City folks have it easy, as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government authorities regulate the water supply. Public water is treated and made safe to drink by local and state governments. But that’s not the case in rural areas where many people own private wells, the main source of freshwater. As a private well owner, you are responsible for its safekeeping, although the state and local health departments may help you through the process.

Courtesy of USGS

To treat or not to treat

Now you may be wondering, should you treat your well water? In most cases, yes, because water-borne bacteria and disease can wreak havoc on your family.

Check if your water has visible signs of contamination, such as changes in color, odor, and taste. Inorganic elements like iron, manganese, and sulfur can cause this. If you see such signs, immediately stop using the water and send a sample for testing.

There is often no visible problem with well water because harmful microorganisms are odorless and invisible to the naked eye. This is why the Environmental Protection Agency recommends annual testing of water quality for disease control.

According to a study of private wells in Alberta, Canada, 14.6% of untreated private wells tested positive for total coliform bacteria, a frequent cause of gastroenteritis (stomach disease). Meanwhile, a survey of wells in Maine and New Jersey concluded that arsenic and other toxic chemicals are present in a large number of privately owned wells.

So, treating well water ensures protection from contaminants, and I’m sure you don’t want to risk the health of your loved ones.

However, before you splurge on expensive water treatment plants, get a water quality test from a certified lab. Let’s face it. Not everyone can afford such systems, so you can do away with regular testing and inexpensive filtration water systems if the test declares your drinking water healthy.

Causes of a Contaminated Well System

Causes of contaminated well water can range from naturally occurring toxic substances to man-made pollutants. As they say, prevention is better than cure. Similarly, it’s easier to prevent contamination than to treat it. Many families abandon a contaminated well entirely because it costs a large sum to treat the water.

Here are some of the most common causes of well water contamination.

Fertilizers and pesticides

Even though fertilizers and pesticides are crucial for harvesting crops, they still pose the risk of contaminating underground aquifers. Such fertilizers have nitrate in them, which seeps into the ground and pollutes the aquifer.

Nitrate contamination is a serious issue that can cause the infamous blue baby syndrome. It’s a blood disorder that primarily affects children who drink water polluted with nitrate. It’s even known to be fatal. Nitrate also occurs naturally in bedrocks, so be mindful of that.

Ruptured septic tanks and sewage lines

Microorganisms, such as viruses, parasites, and bacteria in human and animal fecal matter can seriously harm a private well. Septic systems in rural areas can become the source of such pollution if not maintained properly. E. coli and coliform bacteria are the major culprits and can cause gastrointestinal diseases and serious illness.

Sewage lines can also leak and cause a similar issue. Make sure you install a high-quality pipeline and conduct regular maintenance.

Microscopic picture of E. coli bacteria

Drilling and mining for natural resources

Unregulated drilling and mining can be disastrous for underground aquifers. A study of private wells in southwestern Pennsylvania found that shale gas extraction polluted around 40% of local private wells. People complained about the change in color and taste of drinking water. Upon testing, they found chloride, nitrate, sodium, calcium, and iron as major pollutants. 

Dumping waste

Improper dumping of industrial and residential waste can harm the groundwater more than any other activity. The toxic chemicals can seep into the ground and affect the aquifer on a larger scale.

Inorganic compounds

These are naturally occurring compounds, and you can’t do anything to prevent such contamination. The most you can do is identify and treat it in time. The EPA has a list of 80 possible contaminants. Here I have listed the most common ones to look out for.

Arsenic

Arsenic naturally occurs in rocks and sediments. It has detrimental effects on human health, so much so that it can cause bladder and lung cancer in 1 of every 333 individuals. If by bad luck your water sample tests positive for arsenic, you either have to treat that well or shut it down completely.

Sulfur

Sulfur is more of a nuisance than a harmful ingredient for humans. It causes an unappealing rotten egg smell in the water.

Chromium

Chromium is an essential mineral found in water, but its hexavalent type is declared carcinogenic by the EPA. It occurs naturally but in some places chromium is introduced into the water through toxic industrial waste.

Calcium and magnesium

These two elements are the main culprits of hard water. Hard water is detrimental to pipes, clothes, and, in some people, even health.

Uranium

Uranium is often associated with nuclear energy, but it’s also a naturally occurring contaminant in groundwater. It can cause kidney and renal infection, mainly in young children. 

Iron and manganese

Iron gives water a reddish hue. Though not toxic to the human body, it’s still aesthetically unpleasing. You might even find red stains on clothing washed in water with high iron concentrations. 

Manganese does the same thing but with black color. 

Modern water softeners are effective in treating well water rich in iron and manganese.

Treating Well Water

As you can see from the above contaminants, it’s essential that you have your well water routinely tested, especially if there’s any question about quality. 

How to go about treating well water is a million-dollar question that many private well owners struggle with, and the answer is not always straightforward. However, understanding the various options might help you choose the best household water treatment system suitable to your budget and needs.

Before moving forward, let’s be clear that we are talking about water treatment systems and NOT filtration systems. Both are water purification systems, but there is a difference.

Water treatment removes and kills harmful chemicals, viruses, bacteria, pathogens, and microorganisms. This is done mostly by using a physical or chemical process.

Water filter systems use physical barriers to remove sediments, or more technically, total dissolved solids (TDS) from water. A water filter can’t target microorganisms and the chemical structure of water contaminants. Hence, filtration systems are inferior to water treatment systems. 

Popular Water Treatment Methods for Private Wells

Water softeners

As the name suggests, this system treats hard water only. Your well water may have an excess of calcium and magnesium in it, which makes it hard. 

Hard water forms limescale deposits in pipes, clogs the plumbing system, and can reduce the efficiency of your water heater as well. Hard water is also hard on your clothing and fades its colors. Furthermore, it can make your skin and hair dry. Drinking it isn’t dangerous, but it’s better to be on the safe side and avoid it.

Many rural homes install ion exchange water softeners to improve water quality. Higher quality softeners can also clear water of iron, heavy metals, selenium, and sulfates. 

A water softener does not require a lot of maintenance. Once installed, it barely needs your attention.

Disinfection systems

There are numerous disinfection systems available on the market. Disinfection is the most important process for removing disease-causing microorganisms. If your water testing report shows signs of viruses and bacteria, then a disinfection system is a must to enhance water quality.

Chlorine

Chlorination is an inexpensive chemical disinfection process and fairly easy to perform. It kills many harmful pathogens, and to add a cherry on top, chlorine is a long-lasting solution.

The process is called shock chlorination, and you can even do it yourself. Some people use bleach to chlorinate the water, which is fine and does the trick. However, chlorine tablets specifically made for disinfection have a higher concentration of chlorine dioxide and are more effective than ordinary bleach. Make sure to not use water for 24 hours after pouring chlorine into the water well.

Ultraviolet radiation treatment

Ultraviolet light treatment is another common disinfection water treatment system. It’s much more convenient to use. A combination of a water softener, a reverse osmosis water filtration system, and UV treatment is the most popular trio when it comes to home water purification systems.

It works by shining UV light through water, which destroys the DNA of harmful bacteria, rendering them unable to reproduce. Though the bacteria still remains in the water, it can’t cause any harm.

UV light targets viruses, algae, mold, E. coli, and coliform bacteria.

Ozone

Ozonation is a process of introducing ozone gas (O3) into the water, which kills dangerous viruses and bacteria. Studies show that ozonation is even more efficient than UV radiation. There are a variety of ozone treatment plants that essentially do the same thing.

Distillation system

Distillation is a unique process, but the science behind it is simple. Water is boiled in a boiling chamber, turning it into a vapor state. The vapors are then collected in a separate container where they’re cooled and condensed into a liquid form, ready to consume.

Since most microorganisms and inorganic material can’t change phase, they remain trapped in the boiling chamber.

However, the process takes a long time and only produces a limited batch of water. It’s only suitable for drinking and cooking purposes.

Finding the Best Water Treatment Solutions

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, as every home has its own specific needs. Finding the best water treatment system depends on the following factors:

  • Water testing report
  • Your budget
  • Daily usage

By understanding the different household water treatment systems, you can make an informed decision for your home. If not, it’s best to contact your local health department or, better yet, call the EPA’s safe drinking water hotline.

Costs of a Well Water Treatment System

Money is the number one issue private well owners face when it comes to installing water treatment systems. The most effective water treatment systems are usually also the most expensive.

Chlorination

Chlorination is inexpensive and will cost less than $100. However, it’s a one-time disinfection process.

Unfortunately, if your groundwater quality is highly compromised and the problem is ongoing, then chlorination is not the most effective option.

Ultraviolet radiation and ozonation 

UV radiation and ozonation water treatment systems cost more than chlorination. Typically, if your water report is not that bad, low-cost filters and UV radiation systems are the best choice.

A combination of water softeners, reverse osmosis systems, and disinfection systems can cost between $3000 to $20,000.

It’s a lot to invest in and needs proper consideration. Even though the upfront cost is high, the maintenance is cheap and easy. You won’t have to do much apart from routine checks to ensure everything is running smoothly.

Treating water for drinking 

To reduce cost, you could also install small water filters and treatment systems only for drinking water and cooking purposes, leaving the tap water untreated at other points of use. Portable distillation systems are also a great way to get pure and disease-free water for drinking. Water filters are less expensive and can cost between $100 to $1000.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have more information about water treatment systems, it’s easier to evaluate the feasibility of installing one at your home. 

There are tons of water purification systems available, giving you the flexibility to choose the right one for your needs. 

Water treatment requires your utmost attention and will help your family remain healthy and safe.