When you’re buying a home, it’s easy to get caught up in focusing on things like a property’s appearance, price, and location. But homebuyers also need to carefully consider other factors, like the water you’ll have access to.
Unless you’re a robot or an advanced artificial intelligence algorithm, you need water to survive. After all, water permeates almost every part of our lives. We use it for drinking, cooking, cleaning, growing plants and vegetables, and countless other tasks — which is why it’s critical to have access to clean, affordable, and reliable tap water that comes out of a faucet at your new place.
When you’re buying a new home, you have the choice between whether you’ll be drinking and cleaning with well water or city water. Read on to learn what well water is, how it works, its pros and cons, and important safety considerations.
What is well water?
Well water originates from a deep hole or shaft beneath the surface of the ground. It can come from different underground sources like aquifers, where water sits in permeable rock formations or porous materials such as sand or gravel.
Not everyone in the United States has access to well water. Roughly 43 million people — 15% of the U.S. population — use private domestic wells as their source of drinking water. In most cases, you’ll find well water in rural or suburban areas that lack municipal infrastructure.
While it’s possible to install a well in an urban environment, you’ll likely need to obtain permits, licensing, and inspections to install one.
What is city water?
City water comes from a municipal water system. Such systems contain water that originates from local sources like lakes, rivers, underground wells, and reservoirs. The sources that contribute to each city’s water system vary by location.
Unlike well water, city water goes through several rounds of treatment and sanitation to ensure it’s safe for consumption and other uses.
Some examples include:
- Sedimentation, where water sits in large basins, heavier particles sink to the bottom, and clean water rises to the top.
- Filtration, which involves passing water through sand, gravel, and carbon filters to remove impurities.
- Disinfection, the process of using chlorine and chloramine to kill harmful microorganisms like viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
- pH adjustment, which involves adjusting the pH level of the water to optimize taste and reduce corrosion in the distribution system.
When using public water systems, homeowners have little to no direct say as to how the city stores, treats, and transports water. So, if you’re considering purchasing a home that uses city water, you’ll want to research local water and infrastructure quality to ensure it’s safe. You may also need to invest in private filtration systems to purify the water before use.
For guidance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers abundant water data and reports that you can use to find information about water quality in your community.
How does a well work?
Unlike a municipal water system, a well generates water on-site — meaning it’s a private, decentralized mechanism and the property of the homeowner.
A well contains several mechanisms, including:
- Casing to ensure structural integrity and prevent the well from collapsing; well casing may include steel or PVC.
- Screens, which allow water to enter the well while keeping out debris and larger particles.
- Pumps that collect water and bring it to the surface; the two most common types of pumps are submersible pumps and jet pumps, which rest above ground.
- Holding tanks — or cisterns — which store water before transporting it to the house for drinking, irrigation, or other household needs.
The depth of the well depends on the location of the underground aquifer or water table, or the point where the ground becomes saturated with water.
Three types of wells to know about
There are several types of wells in the U.S. which can vary depending on the region and geology. As you continue the homebuying process, it’s important to have some familiarity with the most common kinds of wells.
1. Drilled wells
Drilled wells — which are built using a drilling rig — are the most common type of well for U.S. homes. They reach deep into the earth to access groundwater. Depending on the location, drilled wells can run from a few tens of feet to hundreds or even thousands of feet.
2. Dug wells
Dug wells are shallow wells that are excavated either by hand or machine. They typically contain a wall of stones, bricks, concrete, or tiles. Most dug wells are less than 30 feet deep.
3. Driven wells
Driven wells use pipes and casing to reach water tables. These are common in areas with sandy or loose soil and in areas with shallow water supplies.
Some less common wells you may want to research a bit include mechanically bored wells, hand-dug wells, and jetted wells, which use high-pressure water or air to force the casing into the ground.
What are the pros and cons of having private well water?
- Well water comes directly from underground sources like aquifers or water tables. Because of this, wells are often free from additives like chlorine and fluoride.
- Since well water doesn’t usually rely on chemicals, it may have a fresher and more natural taste than city water — especially if you use an additional filtration system.
- Well water systems often use little to no energy. As a result, they have a lower environmental impact than large-scale water treatment and distribution systems.
- With proper management and maintenance, wells can be sustainable water sources. However, monitoring your well and practicing responsible water use is essential for ensuring sustainability. This is especially important in areas with water scarcity and high demand.
- Using a well means your home won’t rely on a municipal water system. As a result, you can continue receiving water during local emergencies and outages — as long as your property and well infrastructure remain intact, that is.
- As a well owner, you have control over your own water supply. This means you can test your water for quality whenever you want. You can also make adjustments to improve its quality and monitor its usage — like installing a reverse osmosis system or a UV water purifier.
- Wells are vulnerable to droughts. For example, many wells in Texas are currently running dry following the state’s recent heat wave.
- Contaminants can enter wells from nearby septic systems or agricultural runoff. Drinking contaminated well water can lead to serious illness. Common contaminants include coliform bacteria, microorganisms, radium, heavy metals, organic chemicals, fertilizers, radionuclides, and fluoride. Well systems can also be contaminated by human activities.
- As a homeowner, you must manage and maintain your well water. But not all homeowners want the responsibility of keeping their water supply up and running, and that’s perfectly okay. If you prefer a more hands-off approach, city water may be a better option.
- Owning a well can potentially limit your ability to build other structures on your property. When buying a home, find out where the well resides to avoid construction disturbances and delays down the road. Of course, you can always relocate the well to accommodate construction plans. But that’s about as easy and affordable as it sounds.
- Wells are vulnerable to contaminants from disasters like floods and hurricanes. For guidance, check out the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) safety precautions for disinfecting wells after a disaster.
- If your water has high levels of magnesium and calcium ions, this can lead to water hardness and issues like limescale buildup in appliances and pipes. Well owners with hard water may need to use water softeners; otherwise their pipes and appliances can degrade, potentially leading to catastrophic problems.
Is well water safe?
New homeowners often assume that wells are perfectly safe to drink from. But without the proper treatment, they can contain high levels of harmful substances — like E. coli, pesticides, heavy metals, harmful bacteria, and animal waste. Consuming contaminated water can lead to gastrointestinal illness and other health risks. In fact, a recent United States Geological Survey (USGS) study reveals that roughly 23% of wells contain one or more contaminants at a level that can cause potential health effects.
Considering this, well water can still be perfectly safe to consume and use around the house — as long as you follow the right safety protocols. Well water safety depends on the following factors.
The surrounding environment
It’s important to consider the well’s location. Wells that are near septic systems, hazardous waste centers, and industrial sites can potentially be unsafe due to pollutants. Homeowners in such situations should take active measures to fortify their wells and potentially add additional filtration and purification methods.
The well’s construction
Proper well construction is necessary for maintaining superior drinking water quality. The well must contain a seal to prevent surface water from getting inside and contaminating it.
Wells can degrade over time or break due to movement from the earth or nearby construction. As such, it’s critical to inspect your well periodically and keep up with maintenance. Wells that sit for long periods of time without inspection or upkeep can become unsafe.
Treatment options for well water contaminants
While it’s impossible to completely prevent wells from contamination, there are several things you can do to remove or reduce the presence of harmful substances.
- Reverse osmosis is an effective water purification method for removing contaminants like minerals, nitrates, nitrites, pesticides, bacteria, and viruses. It involves passing water through a semipermeable membrane to remove impurities and cleanse the water. Typically, reverse osmosis systems are located either in the house or near the point of use.
- Aeration is a purification method that involves releasing air into the water. You can use aeration to eliminate radon, which is a naturally occurring radioactive gas.
- Water filtration systems can remove things like sediment, chlorine, and other common contaminants. They come in various forms like sediment, carbon, and multimedia water filters. Filtration systems sit either in the house or at the point of use.
- Well water testing can help identify different contaminants and inform you about your water quality. Generally speaking, it’s wise to hire a professional to test your water in a certified laboratory. It’s a good idea to get test results regularly — and especially in the event you detect a change in water color, taste, or odor.
- Ion exchange systems use resin beads to eliminate ions like manganese, iron, and hardness minerals. An ion exchange system replaces these with harmless ions, like sodium.
- Oxidation and filtration is yet another method to remove things like iron and hydrogen sulfide. This process involves converting substances into solid particles and then filtering them out.
- Chemical disinfection (e.g., with chlorine) can kill microorganisms and bacteria in well water. However, some chemicals can be less effective against things like protozoa and parasites. To ensure safety, always use proper dosing and monitor your water quality.
- Distillation involves heating water in order to create steam and then condensing it back into liquid. This is a great way to remove contaminants like heavy metals and chemicals.
Maintenance costs for wells
One of the nice parts about having a drinking water well is that you don’t have to pay monthly usage fees. On average, residential customers in the U.S. pay around $54 per month for water. But in some areas like California, water can exceed $80 per month.
That said, well owners still need to factor in maintenance costs which can eat into savings over time. Here are some costs to keep in mind.
To ensure your well is functioning properly, you need to schedule routine inspections. During an inspection, a technician will inspect your well and ensure components like casing, pumps, and seals are in proper condition. The cost of a well inspection depends on your location, the well size, and the extent of the inspection.
In addition to inspecting a well system, you’ll also need to test the water regularly. This is necessary for detecting and eliminating harmful contaminants — and otherwise making sure your water is safe to drink and won’t corrode your pipes.
Wells may experience wear and tear as time passes, requiring extensive repairs. For example, you may need to repair or replace pump mechanisms or well casing. If the pump runs on electricity, you might need to replace components like pressure switches or control boxes.
Wells can collect sediment and bacteria over time which can adversely impact water quality. Homeowners should periodically clean their well to keep it running in optimal condition.
Wells that have contamination issues may require resealing or sanitation. Costs for this kind of work can vary depending on the scope of the job.
In some cases, local health departments or other agencies may require homeowners to relocate their wells due to public safety issues, zoning and land use regulations, contamination concerns, or infrastructure development, among other things. This isn’t common, but if it happens, it can require extensive consultations, assessments, and negotiations to address. Unfortunately, in some instances, the homeowner may have to foot part or even all of the bill.
The lifespan of a well depends on its type, local geology, and how well it’s taken care of. For example, a drilled well with proper installation and maintenance can potentially last for around 100 years. On the other hand, a driven well may only last 10 to 30 years.
With this in mind, check the age of a well before buying a house to see if it will require replacement under your care. Replacing a well may be expensive, but it can also enhance your property’s value.
Should you choose well water or city water?
There’s no right or wrong answer. It largely depends on where you want to live and whether you care about having to manage a well after purchasing a property. While maintaining a well might seem complex, it’s actually pretty simple with the right guidance, budgeting, and maintenance strategy.
At this point, you have a decision to make: Take on the responsibility of owning a well or opt for city water and a more hands-off approach to water management.
Struggling to decide which option is right for you? Home Approach is standing by to advise. To receive a consultation from one of our experts, sign up today.