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Monday, April 14, 2014

First Time Buyers - I’ve never had a well before and it scares me a little. What do I need to know?

First, don’t be scared off by the well. Modern wells and well pumps are very reliable and good sources of water; however, there are things that will be different and you need to educate yourself a bit about life with a well. Here’s a link to a great EPA site for reading about wells. 

If you are used to being on “city water” and “city sewer”, life on a well and septic (they normally seem to come together) will be a little different. I’ll cover the septic system separately. Wells come in many different sizes; however the most common these days is the 4” well. That dimension is the diameter of the well casing – the pipe(not the cap)  that you see sticking up out of the ground.  Common well sizes for homes might be 2, 4, 5 or 6 inch wells, with 6” wells most prevalent locally. 

Most wells in this area are what’s called drilled wells. That means that a truck with a big drilling rig (sort of a miniature oil well type drilling rig) actually drilled down through the soil and bedrock to reach an aquifer. It is not unusual in this area for wells to exceed 100’ in depth. The depth of your well is something that the seller should be able to tell you; however, you can also find out the depth from the “Well Log”, which is a document that well drillers are required to file with the County Health Department to show the location and depth and other information about the well.

Here’s a picture of the components of a typical submersible pump well from the WikiPedia site. At the bottom of that well pipe is a
steel screen called “the point”, which serves to let water into the pipe and keep out debris.  Inside the well casing a smaller pipe with an electric pump is lowered to the bottom of the well and it is that pump that actually delivers the water to the house. Inside the house there will also be a large holding tank called the bladder tank, which as the names imply does hold water and does have a bladder in it. The bladder is like a balloon inside the tank and when the well is running it compresses the bladder to maintain a steady pressure.  
Here’s a very detailed technical article from the State of Michigan on wells and well pressure, if you are really interested.

In normal operation, you’ll probably not notice any difference between being on a well and being on city water. Having said that, here are things that are different that you need to know:

Your well is powered by electricity. If the power to the house is out, due to a storm or other cause you will not have water. You will not have water to drink. You will not have water to bathe. You will not have water to flush your toilets. That can become very inconvenient very fast. Many homeowners with wells end up buying standby generators mainly so that they can have water during prolonged power outages.
The water from your well is untreated groundwater from an underground aquifer. It may (almost always does) contain dissolved minerals like calcium and iron. If may contain minerals that make it taste or smell funny – iron and sulfur for instance.  Most homes on wells have water treatment systems built in-line with the holding tank. These systems are designed to remove the dissolved minerals. Most systems also have a dirt filter in-line to remove any dirt that gets past the point at the bottom of the well. Some homeowners go as far as to place reverse osmosis systems in the water line, usually just a special line off the main system that runs to the kitchen for cooking and drinking water. Reverse osmosis systems eliminate everything from the water. It is possible to have the whole house on a reverse osmosis system but that is hugely expensive to do. 
There is no fluoride added to the water anywhere, so if that’s important to you for dental health, make sure you get enough in you toothpaste.
Your well system, while not overly complex, is an electro-mechanical system and components of it can and do fail over time. Submersible well pumps are usually good for 10-15 years, if they are in low sediment content wells. If there is lots of sediment in your water (you’ll know that because you’ll have to change your dirt filter quite often) that will wear out the well pump sooner, maybe in as little as 5-6 years. Depending upon the size and depth of the well, figure on anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 to replace the well pump.  The second thing that fails most often is the holding tank. It can become “water-logged” which basically means that the bladder (that balloon inside) has ruptured and is no longer functioning to maintain the pressure in the system. You’ll likely notice that the most when taking a shower and feeling the pressure changes as the well pump cycles on and off. 
It is possible for your well water become contaminated by bacteria if the well casing is compromised somehow. The main cause of this is a cracked well cap that allows bugs to get inside and the bacteria that they may be carrying to get into your well water. Don’t worry. This is easy to fix with a well chlorination that any good well company can do.
It is possible that your well could be hit by a lightning strike, especially if it is a steel-cased well. Should theta happen it usually fries the well pump. Fortunately that is normally covered by your homeowners insurance policy, but check to make sure.

If you are buying a house with a well, you should include a well test in the home inspection, as well as doing a water test. A home inspector who tests the well system will essentially do a pressure and well cycling test on the system to see if he can detect any issues with the health of the pump or the pressure tank. I’d only recommend calling in a well company if the inspector suspects a problem from his tests. 

The water test is something that the inspector can do or you can do for yourself. The County Health Department has free water test kits (at least in our area). You take a water sample and turn it in to the Health Department and they will send yo back an analysis of the water if a few days. They look for and report on things like arsenic levels in the water, bacterial levels in the water and levels of nitrates and nitrites. In areas that used to be farms it is not unusual to find higher nitrite and nitrate levels in the water, which is a residual effect of fertilizers and animal waste. Those two won’t normally hurt adults but there are cautions about children and the levels of both. Arsenic is a naturally occurring thing in the water in our area but is usually found in very low and safe concentrations.

Hopefully, I haven’t scared the bejesus out of you with all of this information. For 98% of the time you won’t notice any difference living on well water from your city water days. That 2% difference will involve remembering to change your dirt filter and add salt to your softener and, of course, those times when the power is out to your home. At least you won’t have to worry about the city raising the price of water every year or so.

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