Methods for Testing the Quality of Water at Home

Written by, Samuel K. Burlum, Investigative Reporter
and author of The Green Lane, a syndicated column
Published on 10/30/16, a SamBurlum.com Exclusive

Source: How do you know the quality of water that comes out of your faucet? If you have public water, the quality of the water is monitored and by law, a report must be made available to the public. What if you have your own well? What monitoring is in place to assure your own well is providing quality fresh drinking water? In some circumstances where your well or source of drinking water may be located near a petro hydro-fracking site or landfill, there arise additional concerns related to the quality of the source of drinking water. Here we share a few methods on how you can test the quality of water sources.

Water is well known as the very building block and essence of life. It sustains our existence, and is a necessary tool for manufacturing our majority of needs in modern society. Most of us are generally unaware of all the areas in which water affects our lives, except when we are in our own home, either using water for preparing a meal, or needing clean water for human hygiene. Often we do not question the quality of the water that is delivered until we notice a visible difference in either the color or texture of the water. It is only then that most individuals take action in addressing water quality concerns.

There are several methods with which an individual can test the quality of water coming from the tap on a regular basis. Some methods are complicated and costly, and are required by law when a party is planning to sell their home. Other methods are simple with tests that can be conducted by a landlord, renter or homeowner. Regardless of one’s budget, it is important to explore regular testing and monitoring of your own source of drinking water.

There are a number of at-home do-it-yourself water quality test kits available for purchase at your local hardware store, home supply outlet, and/or online. They cost anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars, depending on the amount of factors the water test kit will review. In choosing the type of water quality test kit, it is vital to know what elements you will be testing for. The most comprehensive at-home water quality test kits will check for heavy metals such as lead and iron, bacteria and harmful organisms, fertilizers and pollutants, and the water’s pH level.

Many of these at-home test kits use a grading system of color strip indicators that identify the levels of each influencing factor. If a test kit only has one test strip, then it is most likely only testing for the water’s pH level. The best at-home water quality kits enable you to test for multiple types of bacteria and pollutants. As you expose the test kit to the water from the tap, the color strips will change according to the mineral and bacteria content, as well as the host of pollutants that may or may not be present. Each test kit is slightly different; however, they use a scale of color coordinated coded keys for you to match the test bars against the test key so you may have a better understanding to what is really in your water source.

There are specific odors to be aware of; this provides additional important information. If the water has a heavy sent of bleach, then your water will have a high concentration of chlorine. The sent and concentration of chlorine usually disappears as the faucet runs, however if it is of a concern, you may purchase a filter which aides in dissolving the chlorine content from the water. If you smell a rotten egg scent, then you have a serious problem. This type of odor indicates either a bacteria and/or sulfur pollutant in your water. To be sure whether the odor is an isolated issue (as it could be just one clogged pipe within the home), or that it is a sign of something more, you will want to turn on and off each faucet throughout the home; checking each water outlet. If the smell continues throughout the entire home, you have a more serious issue; one where the water source itself has been compromised before it has reached your home. If this is the case, contact your municipality water authority immediately. If you notice a musty or earth smell, it could mean you have a clogged water drain and will want to correct this problem.

A visual inspection of water provides valuable information about the quality of your water. The best way to check is to pour water from the faucet into a clear drinking glass (not plastic) or glass container and hold it to a bright light. The light will reflect the contents of the water. If you see dark particles, it is a sign of decaying infrastructure, including metal and clay pipes that may need to be replaced and/or serviced. Cloudy water is a sign of either too much calcium and/or magnesium. If the water has a green tint, it is most likely you have an algae build-up in pipes and waterways. Extreme amounts of sediment, such as grits and sand may be an indicator that your water table and/or well have been compromised and/or is running dry. If your water is foamy, it is a sign that it contains a heavy amount of soap and detergents. Foam will rise to the top of the water sample and have a unique texture to the touch. Some water will have bubbles; however, it is not normal for these bubbles to remain once the water sample has been stabilized.

Other new, unique ways of testing water quality have advanced over the last few years. You can take a small water sample in a glass jar and light a match to it. If the water puts the match out, your water is normal. If the surface of the water begins to take flame and burn, your water has been influenced by a petro spill, or seepage of an underground oil tank. We do not recommend performing a flame test on your own. Leave this one to the professionals. UV light is also used to determine water quality. UV light is used at central water treatment plants to zap bacteria. You can use a black lamp (uv light) to search for specific minerals within a waters content. You will want to pour your water sample in a dish and in the dark, wave the black lamp over the sample. If you notice florescent lights, your water will have a high concentration of zinc and other related minerals in your water.

Another practice of water testing is sampling over time. This is a method in which at-home test kit results are documented over time with an extra step. This requires an individual to have sterile glass jars with lids, where water samples can be taken, tested, and stored. It is important to place a label on each sample stored in glass jars with the date and time in which the water sample was taken and tested Copies of results of each test should be kept on file. If there are ongoing issues or a history is needed to monitor water quality trends, you will have a former reference point when you first discovered the degrading of your water source.

You may hire a professional third party lab to oversee the testing and they will provide you with a report as to all of their findings. In New Jersey, as well as many other states, there is a law enacted called the Private Well Testing Act, which mandates testing of a private well whenever a property changes ownership or leased to a new tenant. This assures the next receiver of the property that they will have water that is healthy and safe for human consumption. If the quality of the water does not meet testing standards, then the seller or landlord is responsible for remedying the situation. This could mean a simple fix from servicing and replacing old plumbing and piping, to a costly endeavor of having to drill a new well. Testing can cost up to one thousand dollars and take up to two weeks to obtain. This is the most comprehensive test a property owner can perform and is a worth-while investment knowing whether or not you have a quality water source.

If you rely upon a public water source and desire to know the results of regular testing, then you may contact your local municipal utilities authority, or the local department of health. By law, all municipalities are required to provide these test results to the public. You can also obtain a Water Quality Report from the actual water provider. Many of these public water sources are under the command of a quasi-government agency or private corporation. A Water Quality Report is very extensive, and lists all the requirements in which a public water provider is responsible. This information can be reviewed by accessing the US EPA website link at: https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/drinking-water-regulatory-information.

In the event you discover your water has a high concentration of bacteria, pollutants, heavy metals, or other types of contaminates, you will want to reach out to a professional to mitigate the issue as soon as possible. Most common water problems can be resolved by adding a series of filters and/or upgrading rusting and degrading plumbing infrastructure. The longer you let these issues persist, the costlier the remedy will be. If your local public water source is not measuring up to the quality within regulatory standards, you may demand the agency and/or public water utility to address the problem at once. You will put them on official notice when you send the water utility a certified letter of your concerns, including requesting a response letter of their intent of action in addressing your complaint. You have a right to clean and healthy drinking water, and it is ultimately your responsibility to assure that the quality of water you are receiving is at its best for consumption.