•  Water Well Check:
  • Inspections include Well water analysis for coliform bacteria. FHA/VA water and chemical analyses. Water sampling for led contamination.  
  • How To Safely Seal Old Wells

    IMG_0736.JPG (699565 bytes) IMG_0744.JPG (355337 bytes) IMG_0745.JPG (215318 bytes) IMG_0746.JPG (225234 bytes) This well house had leaks at the tank and several serious electrical wiring code violations. 

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    Water System Overview  

     

    Have you ever had your shower reduced to a trickle because someone started the washing machine or turned on the dishwasher? This nuisance happens because your private water well system or public utility water system doesn't have enough water pressure.

     

    Private water well systems are usually configured as shown below:

     

    Water is incompressible, so the air inside of the tank is what compresses as the pump runs. The pump will be set to turn on when the pressure falls to a certain level (often 20 PSI), then run until the pressure reaches a higher level (often 40 PSI). A waterlogged tank means the bladder inside of the tank is damaged, air in the tank has been absorbed into the water, and the tank is almost full of water. The small remaining volume of air compresses quickly, so the pump only runs a very short time once it starts. The air also decompresses quickly, so the pump kicks in quickly, too. If you're running the water, the pump will cycle very quickly, resulting in a quick death.

     

    Using a bigger tank means a larger volume of water between the cut in and cut out pressures. That means slower cycling, and longer pump life.

     

    Checking for a broken bladder inside of the air tank

    • Shut off the pump switch, close the valve in the water piping just after the water tank, drain the water out of the tank using the drain valve in the piping where the water tank is connected to the water piping.  When the water has been drained, close the drain valve, open the valve in the water piping and turn on the pump switch.  If, after the pump pressurizes the water tank and shuts off, the pressure does not drop quickly and restart the pump, the bladder in the tank has failed and the tank must be replaced.  This is the case because, before the tank was drained, it was totally filled with water due to a failed bladder.  When the tank was drained, air was allowed to enter the tank and be compressed when the pump was restarted.  Unfortunately, with a failed bladder, this air is absorbed into the water and gradually disappears until the tank is again without any air inside.

    Improving well water pressure

    • A constant pressure valve can be installed between the pump and the pressure tank. It will automatically adjust flow from the well pump to a preset pressure. It is relatively easy to install and a good, economic solution. It will solve many problems, however it does not increase pump flow rate.
    • Additional pressure tank capacity can be added to meet high demands for water that are in excess of the pump's capacity. Ensuring that two tanks and the existing pump will work compatibly will require a professional, but this will aid in the short-term demands. However, it will not permanently solve the problem of the shower, dishwasher, washing machine, and other heavy appliances all running at the same time.
    • The pump can be replaced with a variable speed pump. The motors of variable speed pumps can run up to two times faster than those with constant speeds can. The speed of it is regulated by the demand for water. A device measures the demand for pressure, and adjusts the pump's flow rate. Some variable speed pumps have a slow startup, which eliminates power surges and reduces torque on the pump and well piping.

    Other reasons for low water pressure

    • If you receive your water through a public utility pipeline, your location and the age of the utility can impact water pressure. If you live near the end of the line or if the utility's infrastructure is old, you may have to install your own booster pump and pressure tank.
    • A buildup of scale inside of the water pipes in a home can cause increased friction in the pipes and hamper water pressure.  

     

    The following text is By American Ground Water Trust

    Each parcel of land has a history as old as the earth and sky.  It is common for properties to have had many owners through the years.  Among the land use changes that may have occurred is the construction of one or more water wells.  Wells may have been constructed by drilling, auguring, jetting or even by digging a hole or excavating around a spring or seepage. Out-of-service wells of any type may pose potential safety hazards and/or threats to ground water quality if not correctly maintained or abandoned (decommissioned).  There may also be liability issues to consider if an old well on your property is proven to be a conduit for contaminants that reach neighboring ground water. The biggest problem is that old wells can be forgotten.  Casings may deteriorate and rust and new owners or property developers can build over or unknowingly create a hazardous land use.  For example, wastes associated with stables, chicken houses, dumps etc. that are right over an out-of-service old well hole, may flow straight down to the aquifer.

    In an area where wells penetrate more than one water-bearing layer, contaminants may reach the ground water zone of the old well and then travel on to other portions of the aquifer. If the contamination connects with another abandoned well it could impact other aquifers and threaten operating wells and water supply sources.  Abandoned dug wells do not typically lead to contamination risk for deep aquifers, but their wide diameter, usually 3 to 5 feet, creates a physical safety hazard for construction equipment in addition to the danger to people and animals that may be injured falling into the well.

    Landowners should find the location of any old or out-of-service wells.  Clues to the location of these wells include:

    • Pipes sticking out of the ground
    • Small buildings that may have been a well house
    • Depressions in the ground
    • The presence of concrete vaults or pits (perhaps covered by lumber or metal plates)
    • Out-of-use windmills (wind pumps) are likely to be located near an old well

      Other clues and information can be obtained from:

    • Old maps, plans and property title documents
    • Information from neighbors
    • Additions to an old home: In the past, wells were commonly constructed in basements or under porches to keep the water pumps from freezing and to ease access in the winter.
    • Water utility history:  What was the source of water for your home before utility water was available?

      Once a well is determined to have no current use or potential future use, a water well contractor should be contacted to give advice about the most appropriate well decommission method.  The water well professional will have knowledge of well decommissioning code requirements. Wells should be sealed from the bottom up.  In most cases only well contractors have the right equipment to do this. Any pumps, pipes, related equipment or blockage should be removed from the well so that it may be filled-in and sealed properly.

      Approved backfilling and well sealing procedures vary from state to state. They generally require the use of special sealing material, usually cement-bentonite grout or bentonite clay chips.  The use of straight Portland cement is usually discouraged because cement shrinks in volume during curing, which creates very small fractures and gaps through which water may continue to penetrate.

      In most cases, homeowners are required to notify their local Department of Environmental Protection or Water Quality Division to document the decommissioning of the well.  Homeowners are urged to contact these environmental agencies to learn what procedures are required in their region.



      American Ground Water Trust is a not-for-profit organization that promotes public awareness of the environmental and economic importance of groundwater. 


      � This article may be reprinted for non-commercial educational purposes provided it is used in its entirety and that reference is made to as an article originally appearing in THE AMERICAN WELL OWNER, 2000, Number 1

      Nitrate In Ground Water

      By American Ground Water Trust

      Nitrate is found naturally in air and soil and is an essential nutrient for plant and animal growth.  Nitrate sources in the environment include the decomposition of plants and animal wastes, human sewage and the application of fertilizer.  Nitrate (NO3) is a common constituent of ground water.  It is made up of nitrogen and three oxygen atoms.  The median level of nitrate in ground water in the U.S. is generally less than 2 parts per million.  The recommended maximum level for drinking water is 10 parts per million, more accurately described as milligrams per liter (mg/L).  The American Ground Water Trust recommends that you check the level nitrate in your well water.  If the level is more than 5ppm, test again in a few months to check if the level is increasing.

      The amount of nitrate in ground water is typically related to the land use activities in the upstream watershed or on the land over the aquifer.  Nitrate levels are generally highest in agricultural areas or downwind of coal-fired power plants.  About 11 million tons of nitrogen is applied annually in the agricultural industry as commercial fertilizer.  Another 6.5 million tons of nitrogen is applied each year as manure. Septic systems may also be a source of nitrate in ground water.  The level of nitrate in ground water generally decreases with depth below ground, indicating that deeper ground water is somewhat insulated from surface conditions by intervening rock layers and/or that the deeper ground water resource resulted from precipitation that entered the ground before the widespread use of fertilizers.

      High concentrations of nitrate may cause a disease know as "blue baby syndrome" or methemoglobinemia.  Methemoglobinemia is a blood disorder that impairs the ability of the blood supply to carry oxygen throughout the body.  It primarily affects infants less than 6 months of age.  Most instances of this problem can be traced to babies drinking milk formula mixed in water with very high nitrate levels.  The most serious problems often result from dug wells or drilled wells that have casing that is not sealed properly for the first 20 feet down from the surface.  It is virtually impossible to keep nitrate contamination out of dug wells.

      The Environmental Protection Agency has determined an enforceable Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 10 mg/L for nitrate (reported as nitrogen, N) in public water supplies.  This would be equivalent to 44 mg/L of nitrate reported by a laboratory as NO3.  (Check how your lab has reported nitrate levels before you rush out and buy conditioning equipment). Private well owners with high nitrate levels should ask their local health departments or their family doctor for advice. The presence of nitrate in ground water may also indicate that there is a potential for other contaminants to be present.

      Nitrate levels in ground water are easily treated through ion exchange, reverse osmosis (RO) or distillation processes to provide safe drinking water.  Before choosing a treatment option, a homeowner should explore the benefits of each system.  Ion exchange systems are usually best for "whole-house" systems, but require special resins in contrast to typical "water softener" exchange units to be most efficient.  RO systems are very effective, but typical residential systems can treat only a limited volume of water.  Distillation is also effective, but has a relatively high operational cost.


      American Ground Water Trust is a not-for-profit organization that promotes public awareness of the environmental and economic importance of groundwater. 

      � This article may be reprinted for non-commercial educational purposes provided it is used in its entirety and that reference is made to its source as an article originally appearing in THE AMERICAN WELL OWNER, 2000, 

      Contamination of drinking water can be even subtler than air. Pollutants that can enter a water supply are frequently odorless, colorless and tasteless. A major concern for infants is nitrates, which can cause serious illness. Other pollutants come from septic tanks, drain fields or other on - site wastewater systems that are not functioning properly. When individual or community wells are used along with on-site wastewater systems, pollution can occur if one of the systems is in disrepair.

      Most large, public water supplies are regulated by a State agency. The operators - usually a city - must test and report frequently. Any failure to report or meet the purity requirements is dealt with quickly.

      Private systems may or may not be regulated, depending on the laws in your State. While water quality requirements generally fall under the federal Clean Water Act, many States are allowed to set their own criteria and methods for regulating small suppliers. It is these private systems that often have the most problems. To compound the problem, small systems don't always have the money needed to make major repairs.

      The challenge for the homebuyer is learning whether the water supplied to the home is actually fit to drink. The system operator may not reveal this information unless under a State or court order. The seller may not be aware of it, or may have simply forgot: you can imagine the impact on the seller if they have to say the water supply is bad. Large municipal systems are usually reliable, but it never hurts to ask, particularly if you are moving into an unfamiliar area. Private systems deserve a great deal of research.

      The best place to find this information is the State agency responsible for monitoring water supplies used for residential developments.

      If you take no other advice, you would be wise to determine the quality of your drinking water, particularly if you plan on living in the country where the system is private and drain fields or other individual wastewater systems are in use.

Have Health Dept. Test Water

Be wary of any door to door water treatment salesmen.  I used to work for a state agency that dealt with contaminated private and public wells.  You should contact your local health department and state agency that deals with private wells (or public water supply, if you receive a water bill) and request info on ground water contamination in your area.  If you do receive a water bill, you can also contact that company and they should be able to provide you with their latest water test results, as well as tell you how often and for what contaminants they test for.
You can also ask for copies of the state and federal Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) that are regulated by those agencies, from your local or state agency.  Compare these with what the salesman is claiming is in your water.  What type of Point-of-Entry of Point-of-Use treatment system you might need depends on what MCL is exceeded.  
Lisa S.

Boiling Eliminates Contaminates

This is in response to the person inquiring about ways to get cleaner, purer water:
You don't have to purchase a filter, or any fancy systems. I've studied the water conditions of all of the cities in the U.S., and the fact is that if you simply BOIL your tap water before you drink it, you will eeliminate 98% of the bacteria that can contaminate water. This is especially important to those who are pregnant, or have immune deficinancy problems.
Jenniferin Philadelphia

Do-It-Yourself Advice from a Plumber

I have been in the plumbing industry for 15 years. One of the best filters I have seen is a whole house filter that is put out by Omni or Ametek. This filter is available at most plumbing supply and home centers (ie. ,Lowe's, Home Depot, etc.) It retails for under $30.00 and if installed where your water supply enters your house, it will filter the entire house. This will save your appliances also. Change the filters about 4 times a year.

The Salesman's Trick

    Water treatment company presentation is just a sales pitch. Those who work for a large public water utility are constantly dealing with unethical sales tactics. What the salesman is doing is demonstrating the 'hardness" of your water. Hardness is just the amount of minerals in your water, mainly calcium and magnesium (both good minerals for the body). Hardness has no adverse health effects associated with it. In fact, health studies have shown that drinking hard water help reduce heart disease.
    The salesman will then show a long, long list of contaminants that could be found in your drinking water. It usually lists everything ever detected in water. There are no in-home test that can measure real contaminants of concern such as bacteria, Cryptosporidium, nitrates, or THMs.
It is true that very hard water can leave annoying white mineral deposits in your sinks, tubs, and pots & pans. And, if you are accustomed to "softer" waters, it may not taste very good. Chilling the water in a closed container in your refrigerator will definitely improve the taste. However, your should be aware that softened water is much more corrosive to your plumping and fixtures and can actually dissolve your pipes and leach harmful minerals such as lead.
    Since you are new to the neighborhood, the salesman assumes you don't know anything about where your water comes from or how it is treated to make it safe. If you still have lingering doubts, call you local water supplier. The new Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996 requires all public water suppliers, starting in 1999 to provide an annual Consumer Confidence Report which contains information about all contaminants found in your drinking water and what the utility is doing to remove the contaminants. Even before this new requirement, most water companies will supply a complete water quality report free of charge to their customers, simply by asking. Be a wise consumer, get all the facts before spending those hard earned dollars.
If one is really concern, he/she can purchase the Britta (pitcher-style) filters for drinking purposes to improve taste and appearance. I could also recommend bottled water. However, it should be use right away or stored it in a cool, dark place. Otherwise algae and bacteria will grow! Bottled water has the advantage of not having to travel through miles of water mains or your home plumbing, so it does not contain much THMs (trihalomethanes- a by-product of disinfection with chlorine) or lead.

Construction water and drainage issues

Essentially, here's what happens when water flows over a construction site and into the storm water drainage system. Because construction activities produce many different kinds of pollutants, like nails, roof shingles, lumber, sediment and other construction debris, these materials are picked up by storm water runoff. Grading activities remove protective ground covers and expose the underlying soil to the elements, also making the soil vulnerable to erosion by storm water. And if the construction of roads and buildings requires the use of toxic or hazardous

materials such as solvents, asphalt, or points, these materials can be mobilized, as well. Unless we closely monitor all construction activities, any of these materials can end up in our storm water drainage system and be carried by area bayous and rivers into Galveston Bay. Then we may swim in it, boat in it, fish in it. The combination of construction debris and sediment creates a downstream dumping ground, chokes stream channels, and disturbs the environment for our fellow creatures. Storm water receives no treatment.

We Need to Control Our Sediments.

Fortunately, storm water discharges from construction activities are unlawful in the United States unless authorized by a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. Construction activities that are regulated include clearing, grading, and excavation activities that disturb five or more acres of land, or that are part of a larger, common plan of development.

By requiring construction activities to have an NPDES storm water permit, the Environmental Protection Agency monitors and manages these discharges, which reduces the amount of pollutants. There are two permit options, an individual permit or a Notice of Intent to seek coverage under the NPDES general permit. But erosion and sediment control at construction sites can still be a problem.

As operators of the local storm water drainage system, Harris County, the Harris County Flood Control District and the City of Houston are required to develop a program to reduce the discharge of construction storm water pollutants by requiring management practices, control techniques, engineering methods, and other appropriate controls. They have developed a handbook, Storm Water Management Handbook for Construction Activities, that gives general guidance on sediment controls and other measures to control storm water pollutants from construction activities. These controls are based on Best Management Practices that include diverting flow, managing overland flow, trapping sediment, proper storage of hazardous construction materials, and other source controls for construction sites. Remember, when dealing with construction activities, clean water is, clearly, our choice.

 

Home is Where the Hazards Are.

Toxic substance storage facilities aren't located only at Houston�s many massively polluting refineries and chemical plants. Just look around your house and in the garage. Under the kitchen sink, for starters. Oven cleaners, toilet cleaners, disinfectants, drain cleaners, ammonia, mothballs, the list goes on and on. And in the garage. Motor oil, paint and paint thinners, anti‑freeze, insecticides, and fertilizers. Many of the products we use in our homes and routinely discard are similar to regulated hazardous waste produced by business and industry: corrosives (cleaners), flammables (paint), and reactive or toxic materials (chlorine bleach). Did you ever stop to think that you also store hazardous materials in your own house?

When you dump left over point into a storm sewer or change the oil in your car without collecting it, these toxic substances can make their way into the City of Houston and Harris County storm water drainage system. And those substances flow directly into our bayous, rivers, and ultimately, into Galveston Bay. if storm water is contaminated, then that's how it stays. Storm water receives no treatment.

 Reducing Hazards

Dumping of used oil and toxic chemicals, including Household Hazardous Waste (HHW), into storm sewers, ditches, bayous, streams, or other bodies of water is strictly prohibited. Contamination of storm water by these materials can be reduced by decreasing your use of toxic chemicals in the household and by proper disposal of discarded materials. When using household cleaning products, buy only the amount needed. Follow the directions on the product's label, and clean up any spills immediately. If possible, purchase nontoxic, biodegradable and

recyclable products. Or substitute simple household alternatives, such as a vinegar, salt, and water mix for clean‑up of surfaces. When you change your oil, put the used oil in the empty container and take it to a collection site. When using point or solvents, use according to label directions and offer unused portions to others who can use them. Recycle used paint thinner by storing it in a closed jar until the particles settle, then strain off the clear liquid for reuse. Remember, clean water is, clearly, our choice. The government agencies that deliver water and control quality and pollution bares a huge responsibility.

Storm Sewers Under Siege

0pening day at your beautiful new apartment development is finally on the horizon. The landscapers have just spread the last loads of topsoil, and soon you'll be putting up those "open for occupancy" signs. Then one of our famous flash floods hits. Your topsoil is now a thick mudslide running into the nearest storm sewer. Urban development can cause short‑term land disturbance and intensify land use long‑term. Post‑construction

storm water discharges from residential, commercial, industrial and public sites of new development or significant redevelopment can be a large source of storm water pollution and can stress the local storm water drainage system. Owners, developers, engineers, and architects involved in planning a development project must include long‑term storm water quality features in their planning process.

 We're talking about Storm Water Quality Management Plans, or SWQMPs, not swamps. The goal of a SWQMP is to reduce the discharge of pollutants into the storm water drainage system from a new development or redevelopment project. The steps for preparing a SWQMP to manage storm water for new development and significant redevelopment projects are found in the Storm Water Quality Management Guidance Manual developed by the City of Houston, Harris County, and Harris County Flood Control District. These steps include everything from collecting site information to preparing the final inspection and maintenance plan. The Guidance Manual also details pollution prevention strategies to consider when developing the physical site plan for a project.

Like the use of ground cover for natural filtration of runoff, and minimizing the amount of land disturbance. The Manual also includes guidelines for both structural and non‑structural Best Management Practices (BMPs) for permanent storm water quality management. These BMPs include catchment facilities, low impact development, street sweeping, fueling station practices, spill prevention and response, and other topics. It is the responsibility of Project sponsors, designers, and operators to have a thorough understanding of storm water quality regulations and guidelines as they are adopted and promulgated by the agency or agencies with jurisdiction.

Facts for Consumers from the Federal Trade Commission

Water Testing Scams -- December 1993

Worried about the safety of your drinking water? You are not alone. Fears about the purity of our water have increased dramatically in recent years, along with news reports of leaking landfills, corroding lead pipes, and crumbling gasoline storage tanks tainting water supplies. These reports paint a gloomy picture of toxic wastes, pesticides, and other chemicals seeping into both well and ground water.

Although most households using water from public sources should have few concerns, potentially harmful contaminants have been found in some water supplies. If you have serious questions about
the safety of your drinking water, you can take the suggestions described in this fact sheet to have your water tested and, if necessary, buy a water treatment unit. This fact sheet also warns you about some home water testing scams, where unscrupulous salespeople use scare tactics and fraudulent methods to sell their water treatment devices.

Some Fraudulent Promotions

Not all companies offering water tests are legitimate. For example, fraudulent sellers that advertise "free home water testing" may only be interested in selling you a water treatment device, whether you need it or not. Because there is no charge for the "testing," you may be willing to allow a company representative into your home to check your water for impurities.

In doing the test, the representative may add tablets or drops of chemicals to your tap water, telling you the water will change color or particles will form if it is contaminated. When your water changes before your eyes, the representative may warn you that the water is polluted and may cause cancer. The best solution, you are told, is to buy the company's water treatment device. You should understand, however, that even spring mineral water would "fail" the company's test.

Others will try to sell you a water treatment device without testing your drinking water or without even suggesting it be tested. They may offer water purifiers as part of a prize promotion, notifying you, either by mail or telephone, that you have been selected to win an expensive prize.

To qualify for the prize, you are required to buy a water treatment device, costing hundreds of dollars. Unfortunately, you may discover later that both the prize and the water purifier are of very little value. And you probably cannot cancel your order or return the prize and water purifier for a refund.

If you are invited to participate in such a prize promotion, do not be pressured into making a decision on the spot. Ask for a copy of the offer in writing and read it carefully. Sometimes sellers will tell you that they need your credit-card number for identification or verification, while in reality they want your number to make unauthorized charges to your account. Remember, never give your credit-card number over the telephone to someone you do not know.

Some FTC Cautions

The Federal Trade Commission suggests that you take the following steps before you have your water tested or you purchase any type
of water treatment system.

Avoid "Free" Home Water Tests

Offers to test the tap water in your home for free are almost always part of a sales promotion. More important, in-home testing does not provide the specific, in-depth analysis that is required to determine if your water needs treatment and what kind of system is suited to your needs. For example, in-home water tests may only check for acidity/alkalinity, water hardness, iron, manganese, and color, but none of these is harmful. Avoid dealing with salespersons who tell you strictly on the basis of their in-home testing that your drinking water is polluted, contaminated, or bad for your family's health.

Be Wary of Claims of Government Approval

Fraudulent sellers use many different sales techniques. Some fraudulent sellers claim that certain government agencies require or recommend widespread use of purification systems. Others claim that the government has approved a particular method for in-home water testing. Still others claim that the government has approved or licensed a particular water treatment unit or purification system. All of those claims are false.

The government does not endorse water tests or water treatment products. If you see an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registration number on a water treatment product label, it merely means that the manufacturer has registered its product with the EPA. A registration number does not mean the EPA has tested or approved the product.

Determine the Quality of Your Water Independently

To learn about the quality of your water, ask your local water superintendent for the latest test results of the public water supply and then compare them to state and federal standards available from your state government and the EPA. If you use well water, ask your local or state health department if it offers free water testing. Most will for bacterial contaminants.

Arrange for An Independent Test

If you are concerned about the results you got from your local water superintendent or are worried about possible contaminants in your water supply, have your water tested by a private laboratory that is certified by your state health department or environmental agency. To find out where you can get a list of state-certified laboratories, call the EPA's Safe Water Drinking Hotline at 1-800-426-4791.

When having your water tested, deal with the laboratory directly. Some fraudulent sellers ask for a sample of your water to send to
an Independent laboratory for testing, and then alter or misrepresent the laboratory's test results.

You should understand that the costs of different water tests vary widely. Tests for bacteria range from $15 to $45, while tests for chemical contamination can cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars, depending on the depth of the analysis.

Decide What You Need

If tests on your water indicate problems, the next step is to determine what type of system you need to treat the water. This can be a difficult decision because there is a wide variety of water treatment devices on the market today. Water purifiers range from relatively low-cost, simple filter devices for a kitchen faucet to more expensive, sophisticated systems that treat water from its point of entry into a home.

Keep in mind, no one water treatment device can solve every problem. Some systems only soften water by removing calcium and magnesium, while others eliminate virtually all minerals and other foreign matter present in the water. Ask the testing firm or local government officials what kind of water treatment or purification system will suit your needs.

Comparison Shop

Remember, first you need to identify the water problem, and then you need to shop for the right device or filter to correct the problem. Once you decide to purchase a particular type of water treatment system, you will have to make choices in terms of price, installation, maintenance, and warranties. To become familiar with the most commonly available treatment methods and devices, ask for a free copy of the FTC's brochure "Home Water Treatment Units," developed in cooperation with the EPA. Contact: Public Reference, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580; 202-326-2222. You also may request Best Sellers, which lists all of the FTC's consumer publications.

If You Have a Complaint

To report problems about fraudulent sales practices, call:

National Fraud Information Center
Consumer Assistance Hotline
1-800-876-7060
9 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. EST, Monday _ Friday

You also may file a complaint with the FTC. Write:
Correspondence Branch
Federal Trade Commission
Washington, DC 20580

Although the FTC cannot intervene in individual disputes, it needs to learn about home water treatment sales practices you believe to be deceptive.


Clear choices for clean drinking water

Concerned about your water's safety? We'll help you check your tap water.

Water pouring out of a faucet into a glass.

Nearly 30 years after the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the safety of the water we drink is still in the news and on consumers' minds. In March 2003, the nation's water utilities will begin reporting to the federal government on their preparedness in the event of terrorist attack; water-system vulnerability assessments are required by an antibioterrorism bill passed by Congress last year.

This year, too, water companies will be required to tell consumers whether they measure up to new, more stringent standards for the poison arsenic. The standards were approved by the Bush Administration in 2001 after a 10-month delay rife with political controversy.

Absent vague threats of bioterrorism, should you be worried about the quality of your drinking water? No, say officials of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which monitors drinking-water quality. "By and large the drinking water is safe," says Cynthia Dougherty, director of the EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. "In the U.S. we have some of the most reliable water systems in the world."

In reality, our systems may be reliable, but they're not perfect. Incidents of contamination do occur.

You're particularly well-protected if your water company serves more than 20,000 people. In recent years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has seen fewer outbreaks of waterborne disease in such communities, says Dennis Juranek, a senior scientist. A 1993 outbreak of disease caused by the parasite Cryptosporidium in Milwaukee prompted some water-treatment facilities to beef up their filtering to levels stricter than what the EPA requires, he adds. The outbreak killed over 50 people.

But localized incidents of tap water contamination or poor taste occur often enough to spook consumers. American consumers spent more than $1 billion on all manner of home water-filtering gear last year, according to Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm. One-third of the water they drank was bottled.

How can you tell whether your water is safe? Federal law requires utilities to provide consumers each year with a water-quality report, also called a consumer-confidence report. By and large, the reports portray an optimistic picture. In 2001, 91 percent of the public served by community water systems drank water that met federal health-based standards, according to the EPA. Yet a 20-state study of consumer-confidence reports conducted in 2000 by the Campaign for Safe and Affordable Drinking Water, a coalition of environmental and consumer groups, indicates that the reports fall short. An EPA spokesperson said the agency has been "working with the utilities to improve their compliance with our consumer-confidence report standards." As a result, "most annual reports now provide the information the consumers need to make informed decisions about their drinking water."

But Consumer Reports' examination of a number of reports underscores the importance of reading these documents thoroughly. Here's why:

While within allowable limits, levels of some contaminants cited in the reports may not be appropriate for vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, infants, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Reports must state that fact prominently, but not all do. Only 26 percent of the reports prominently stated that warning, according to the 20-state study.

Your report may indicate that your water had safe levels of a contaminant, when it actually experienced potentially harmful spikes. Water utilities monitoring contaminants like nitrate must note such spikes in the report. But the report might not list it as a violation when, say, spring rains raise nitrate levels above the maximum allowable level. That's because compliance is generally based on an annual average measurement, not on individual samples.

A report can't tell you about problems in your own individual home, such as lead solder on pipes.

Whether you'd like to improve the taste of your water, are concerned about possible contamination, or you simply want to learn more about the water in your home, our report can help. Based on interviews with government officials, manufacturers, and consumer groups, and drawing upon our own tests of 19 water-filtering systems, it provides a comprehensive guide to clean drinking water.

This report describes some of the most serious contaminants in drinking water and what to do about them.
REASONS FOR CONCERN

Under the sink water filter.
UNDERSINK ISSUES Unless your counter has an extra opening for a spigot, installing a second faucet for an undersink filter may mean drilling a hole through the sink or counter. Or, you can plumb the filter directly into your faucet�s cold water line. But that may slow the flow of water through that tap.

While most drinking water is safe, the EPA says that in 2001, about 3,200 water systems in the U.S.--mostly systems that serve small populations--reported at least one health-based violation. Here are some of the most widespread problems:

Total coliform. These are bacteria whose presence in high numbers indicates that potentially harmful bacteria may be present. Last year, residents of Irwin, Wash.; Bonanza, Ore., Littleton, Mass., and other cities were told to boil water or drink bottled after their water was found to contain Escherichia coli (E. coli), bacteria that produces diarrhea, cramps, and vomiting.

Lead. High lead levels in water have been linked to lower IQs in children. Last year, in South Knox County, Tenn., and The Pines, Ind., some residents were put on alert that their well-water was tainted with lead and arsenic. The presence of lead in your water supply should prompt you to further test your tap water. A low lead level on the water company's consumer-confidence report does not guarantee low levels of lead in your home. Very old homes can have lead or galvanized water piping; new homes can have lead as well--in the lead-based solder used on copper pipes or in faucets.

One way to reduce lead in your water without filtering is to let the tap run cold for up to 2 minutes before the first use each day. This wastes water, but it flushes out water that has become concentrated with lead while sitting.

Trihalomethanes. THMs--including chloroform--are byproducts of chlorination suspected of causing bladder and other cancers. The current EPA safety limit for total trihalomethanes is 80 parts per billion (ppb).


READING INTO YOUR WATER REPORT

If you are among the 264 million consumers served by a community water system, you should receive a consumer-confidence report by July of each year. The report reflects how safe your community's drinking water has been and the problems it may have experienced in the prior year. Many water suppliers mail reports to homeowners. If you're a tenant, look for the report on your building's bulletin board or at the public library. Or contact your local health department or the water company itself. Systems that serve 100,000 or more consumers must post their reports online; some publish monthly updates.

At the heart of the consumer-confidence report is a list of contaminants detected in the local drinking water over the last year, and which levels of those contaminants have violated the accepted standards. Besides total coliform, lead, and total THMs, these other contaminants may be mentioned in your report:

Arsenic. This poison shows up mainly in water supplies drawn from wells. It has been linked to several cancers and has been found to harm nerves, heart, blood vessels, and skin. Water systems have until 2006 to comply with new EPA guidelines of 10 ppb.

Cryptosporidium. If your water system detected Cryptosporidium, the report will note it. This parasite from animal waste takes a dormant form, called a cyst, that can be filtered out or killed by boiling water you use for drinking, cooking, bathing, or brushing teeth.

Read your consumer-confidence report carefully, even if it says your water is safe. The consumer-confidence report issued last year by Hanover (N.H.) Water Works, for instance, says on its first page: "We are pleased to report that our drinking water is safe and meets federal and state requirements." Further on, however, the report notes violations in total coliform and lead levels. "That's the language the EPA gives you to say," says Peter Kulbacki, Hanover's director of public works. "They're basically saying the water is safe to drink, but here are the issues."

That kind of equivocating is something environmental groups would like to see addressed when, later this year, hearings are scheduled on the reauthorization of the Safe Water Drinking Act. "If your report says on the cover that your water is safe, probably 9 out of 10 people toss it," says Eric Olsen, a senior staff attorney at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. "It concerns us that people who are vulnerable may never see the information they need to see."


WHEN YOU NEED MORE TESTS

If your annual report notes any seasonal elevations in levels of a contaminant, consider taking further action, such as ordering a test of your own water at the appropriate time of year or installing a filtering system, to address the particular issue. Even minor spikes can cause problems. For example, a 1997 study in the Philadelphia area by Harvard School of Public Health researchers linked small increases in water cloudiness--an indirect indicator of elevated bacteria levels--to a rise in gastrointestinal infections.

If there are immune-compromised individuals in your home--those with HIV or undergoing chemotherapy--we recommend additional tests for microorganisms. (If tests turn up bacteria, consult your health department. Filtering systems won't remove those.) Fetuses, the elderly, and infants are at a potential risk of harm even from contaminants at around the legal limits.

If you suspect that your pipes may be leaching lead, get your water tested.  We found lead-only home-test kits online ranging from $25 to $40. Tests for various combinations of other common contaminants ranged from $24 to $115.

 

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