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Testing for Water Quality


The question of whether or not to have your water tested is a serious one. It concerns the health of you and your family. Your water should be safe to drink and acceptable for all other household uses. In addition to illness, a variety of less serious problems such as taste, color, odor and staining of clothes or fixtures are symptoms of water quality problems. Even water that appears problem-free may not necessarily be safe or acceptable. Not everyone needs to test their water and it is impractical and unnecessary to test for all possible contaminants. This publication provides a few guidelines for deciding whether or not to have your water tested, and if so, what tests would be appropriate for your situation. Your Cooperative Extension Service agent can offer you further assistance and information.

Public versus Private Water Supplies

Consumers get their drinking water primarily from two sources: public water supplies and private wells. Public water systems draw water from rivers, reservoirs, springs or groundwater wells and have at least 15 year-round connections or serve more than 25 people. Most private drinking water comes from wells, although springs and ponds are sometimes used.
If your water comes from a public or municipal water system, it is regularly tested for contaminants regulated by federal and state standards, such as microbial pathogens, radioactive elements and organic/inorganic toxic chemicals. In most cases, water testing for health protection is not necessary for a person serviced by a public or municipal system. However, since water tests are conducted at the source, it is possible to have a problem in the municipal delivery line or in the home plumbing system that could contaminate the water.
If your water supply is a private well, you alone are responsible for assuring that it is safe. So set up routine testing for a few of the most common contaminants. Even if you currently have a safe, pure water supply, regular testing can be valuable because it establishes a record of water quality.

When to Test

Whether you have a public or private water supply, have your water tested in any of these situations:
If family members or house guests have recurrent incidents of gastrointestinal illness - test for Coliform bacteria, nitrate and sulfate.
If household plumbing contains lead pipes, fittings or solder joints - test for pH, corrosion index, lead, copper, cadmium and zinc.
If you are buying a home and wish to assess the safety and quality of the existing water supply - test for Coliform bacteria, nitrate, lead, iron, hardness, pH, sulfate, total dissolved solids (TDS), corrosion index and other parameters, depending on proximity to potential sources of contamination.
If a water softener is needed to treat hard water - test for iron and manganese, which decrease the efficiency of cation exchange softeners, before purchase and installation of this type water treatment system. (Cations are calcium, magnesium and other positively charged metal atoms used to soften water.)
If you wish to monitor the efficiency and performance of home water treatment equipment test for the specific water problem being treated on installation, at regular intervals after installation and if water quality changes.
If water stains plumbing fixtures and laundry - test for iron, manganese and copper.
If water has an objectionable taste or smell - test for hydrogen sulfide, pH, corrosion index, copper, lead, iron, zinc, sodium, chloride and TDS.
If water appears cloudy, frothy or colored - test for color, turbidity and detergents.
If pipes or plumbing show signs of corrosion - test for corrosion index, pH, lead, iron, manganese, copper and zinc.
If water leaves scaly residue and soap scum and the cleaning action of soaps and detergents is decreased - test for hardness.
If water supply equipment (pump, chlorinators, etc.) wears rapidly - test for pH, corrosion index, sand and silt.

Where Can You Have Water Tested?

Municipal water supply systems regularly test for primary contaminants, monitor levels of sodium and certain unregulated chemical contaminants and look for corrosion in the water distribution system. They will provide water quality reports upon request.
County health departments will usually conduct a bacteriological test.

How to Collect Test Samples

Before collecting water for testing, contact the laboratory or agency which will perform the test. It should provide you with a set of instructions and a bottle in which to collect the sample. Use the containers provided, and carefully follow instructions for collecting, preserving and handling water samples. Instructions may vary depending upon the type of test being conducted. Samples for Coliform bacteria testing must be collected using sterile containers and under sterile conditions. Some procedures require letting water run from an inside faucet (aerator removed) for several minutes before filling the sample containers. Other instructions ask you to collect samples in the morning, after water has been confined in the pipes overnight. Sometimes the laboratory will send a trained technician to collect and/or analyze the sample in your home. Ask if this service is available because you may obtain better samples and more reliable test results.
The laboratory will conduct the tests and return a report indicating what, if any, contaminants exceed minimum standards. Many testing laboratories will also recommend the type of water treatment system needed to correct the water quality problem.
Keeps a record of all your water test results as a reference for future testing. Even slight changes in contaminant concentrations may be indicators of new water problems you may not detect yourself. By comparing recent test results with original results, you may discover that a change in treatment is needed or that a treatment device is not working as it should.

Home Water Treatment Systems

Water quality problems can be treated in the home with water filters, distillers, softeners, reverse osmosis units and chemical treatment. Before you purchase a system invest time reading about water quality and health "risk" factors. Understand the difference between harmful "contaminants" and the minerals found in our water supply which pose no health risk. Gain a basic knowledge about the functions and limits of each water treatment system.
Being an educated consumer will help you choose a water treatment system for your specific water quality problem and allow you to speak knowledgeably with sales people and water treatment specialists.
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