Water quality is an important topic that most people fail to consider. Thanks to better technology and government regulations, most American drinking water is clean and meets health standards regarding chemicals and toxins. This may explain why potable water is rarely a concern.
In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public drinking water via the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, 13 percent of the population primarily uses private water systems, such as wells. Because these systems are privately owned, it's up to the owner to ensure the well is clean and the water meets quality standards. For well owners, a water quality test isn't just advisable; it's a necessity for health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), unless you have concerns about your water quality, there's no need to test public water since it's highly regulated by the government.
Here's a primer on the conditions under which you should regularly test your water supply, and what such tests entails.
Do you need a water quality test?
The Water Quality Association (WQA), the National Ground Water Association (NGWA) and the EPA recommend annual water quality testing for all homeowners who use a private well for potable water.
Do you have private or public water supply?
If you're not sure whether you have private or public water, it's easy to check. First, do you pay a water bill each month? If so, you probably have public water. Public water systems must meet National Primary Drinking Water Standards. Each year, you should receive a report my mail stating the results of their annual testing. Water utility companies are required to send these reports each July to all public water customers. This is called the Consumer Confidence Report, and it's used to notify homeowners of any contaminants that may affect your water potability. You can also find your CCR online using this tool.
Annual Testing Guidelines
If you aren't using public water, then you're using private water (usually well water). In this case, you're responsible for your own quality testing, which you should conduct yearly.
WQA Government Affairs Director David Loveday states, "Even if your water looks and smells fine, that doesn't mean it's safe to drink. Well water can become contaminated with any number of chemicals or other contaminants, and we recommend yearly tests for the most common ones."
Additional Situations That Warrant Water Testing
However, annual testing is the bare minimum. Some households may need to test their water more frequently. Here are some of the most common situations that warrant a water quality test:
- You have small children, elderly adults, pregnant or nursing women, or other high-risk individuals in the home.
- Your groundwater has been compromised, particularly with flooding, chemical spills or similar issues.
- You've recently repaired or replaced your water system.
- You notice changes to your water, including color, odor, or taste.
- You've had issues with water quality in the past.
- You've had issues with your septic system.
- You've experienced recurrent gastrointestinal illnesses in your household
Regular testing is important for a few reasons. First, your health may be seriously compromised by drinking contaminated water. According to the World Health Organization, "Contaminated water can transmit diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio." Second, contaminated water may adversely affect the structural integrity of your water system. Third, you should have records of your water quality from year to year. If your water system is damaged in the future, you may need this documentation for compensation. A record of water quality can also help you spot any significant changes to your water from one year to the next.
Signs of Poor Water Quality
The most obvious sign of poor water quality is a gastrointestinal illness. If the members of your household experience frequent or recurrent vomiting, diarrhea, or other gastrointestinal-related symptoms, it's worth checking your water supply for contamination.
Sometimes, however, signs of poor water quality are more subtle. You may notice a slight change to the water, such as cloudiness, a change in color, a strange smell, or a different taste than usual.
You might also notice stains on your clothing or plumbing fixtures. Poor water flow may also indicate issues with your water system.
Water Quality Testing Guidelines
Though all of the situations above warrant a water quality test, you don't necessarily need to test for all contaminants each time. In fact, the EPA recommends certain tests depending on the issue. Here are the contaminants you should test for in each situation:
Annual testing should be conducted by a professional and include tests for the following:
- Coliform bacteria
- Total dissolved solids
- pH levels
- Any common local contaminants (check with the local health department or your state regulations for a list)
Taste, Odor, or Stains:
These tests should be conducted by a professional and include the following:
- Any other suspected contaminants
Pregnancy or Infant in the Home:
If you have a pregnant woman or infant in the household, please hire a professional to test your nitrate levels per the following guidelines:
- Nitrate during early months of pregnancy and again when the baby is one to six months old. Nitrate tests are usually most accurate during warm weather after a rainy season.
Water Quality Testing Procedures
The water quality testing procedure is usually fairly simple for homeowners because a lab handles the actual testing process. You simply need to collect a sample and read the results.
DIY Testing Kits vs. Professional Lab Testing
You may find testing kits and directions for DIY testing online or in your local stores. However, these tests are notoriously inaccurate and prone to user error. For this reason, we don't recommend performing water quality tests yourself.
Instead, both the WQA and the EPA recommend using a certified water testing laboratory such as one recommended by WIN Home Inspection. You can find a full list of EPA recommended labs here. You can also find a list of certified professionals on the WQA website.
In addition to these lists, your local health department may assist with water tests, specifically for bacteria or nitrates.
Collecting a Water Sample
Each laboratory or service may have slightly different directions regarding water samples. In general, though, you can expect to receive sample containers from the testing lab.
You should also receive clear directions for collecting the water sample. Remember to handle and preserve the water sample according to directions, as well.
The directions will vary depending on the tests indicated. For example, coliform bacteria tests require sterile containers and collecting procedures. Certain tests require water from different sources, such as an outside faucet vs. an inside faucet. Here's an example of water testing directions from Purdue University's School of Agriculture.
Sometimes, you aren't required to collect samples yourself. Many services offer at-home testing, and a technician will collect the samples and even conduct a test in your home.
While the actual testing process usually requires minimal effort on your part, it's important that you understand the testing results.
Here's an example of a water test analysis from Penn State University. It includes details on how to read the report.
If you're having trouble reading your individual testing results, ask for clarification from the laboratory, your local health department, or your state's environmental department. In addition, the Private Well Owner Hotline is available by phone at You can also use a water test interpretation tool online.
Federal Maximum Contaminant Levels
Of course, your primary concern is whether your water is potable. Any health risks should be addressed immediately. You'll find a full list of federal maximum contaminant levels here.
If your test results don't meet federal standards, a well water system contractor can help you address the problem quickly. These contractors are trained to clean, repair, and maintain water wells.
Addressing Water Quality Concerns
If there are issues with your water quality, you may need to conduct maintenance or repairs on your water system. In many cases, the situation can be addressed with a simple water treatment.
Examples of possible treatments include adding a filtration system, disinfecting the water (with chlorine or a similar chemical), adding a water softener, or using a distillation system. When all else fails, you may need to have your well professionally cleaned by a well system contractor. You can find more information about water treatment procedures here.
After the necessary treatment or repairs, you should test again to ensure the issues are remedied.
For more information about water treatment procedures, contact the National Sanitation Foundation or the Water Quality Association.
Regular water quality testing is important for the health and safety of your household. If you have any additional questions or concerns regarding testing or the potability of your well water, please contact one of the government authorities listed above. You can also contact the Well Water Owner Hotline at In addition, please contact a WIN Home Inspection expert near you if you have any questions about finding a qualified water quality testing service or well system contractor, or if you need help with scheduling a home inspection
Environmental Protection Agency