If you’ve just moved into a new house with a disused well, or you’ve got an old unused well in your backyard, then you may be wondering if well water is safe to drink. Or perhaps you’ve been using your well for a while but are experiencing odd side effects, or you have bad-tasting water.
In fact, millions of Americans have lived off the grid for a long time, using private wells instead of municipal water. So it must be safe, right?
We’ve already written extensively about well depth, water filters and softeners for well water, and using well water in aquariums (you’ll find links to those articles below).
But today, we’ll answer the commonly asked question: Is Well Water Safe to Drink?
Can you drink well water safely?
Yes, in most locations homeowners can filter well water into a safe alternative to municipal water sources. Private purification or filtration systems can remove harmful contaminants such as bacteria, chemicals, and other elements. We’ll cover these contaminants in more detail below.
Water quality varies depending on location, so read on to decide what you can do to improve your private well.
Possible problems with well water
Although well water can provide a cleaner source of uncontaminated pure water, it can also contain many contaminants. Most well water contaminants enter the water through the aquifer. The aquifer is the layer of groundwater that wells draw from. 
Some contaminants are naturally occurring. Others are byproducts of industrial, agricultural, residential, and municipal waste streams.
Let’s take a look at the most common contaminants.
- Naturally occurring elements
- Contaminants from human activities
- Human waste
- Engine oils
- Cooking waste like grease
- Chemicals like paints & disinfectants
This might sound scary, but once we’ve covered each of these in more detail, we’ll show you how to reduce them to safe limits or remove them entirely with water filtration or purification.
Naturally occurring elements
The rocks, minerals, and soils that comprise the earth’s surface contain many compounds that can dissolve into the groundwater. Common natural contaminants include iron, chlorides, manganese, and sulfates. The levels of these contaminants are determined by bedrock composition, soil types, and topography.
Contaminants from rocks and seawater
For example, barium is a common contaminant in limestone-prominent regions such as the eastern United States . Saltwater intrusion often leads to high levels of sulfates in fresh groundwater supplies. This makes coastline groundwater much more likely to contain sulfates .
You might also detect heavy metals in your water supply.
Most iron found in drinking water enters the groundwater by coming into contact with ferric (iron-containing) rock deposits. This can lead to pipe corrosion, which changes the taste and color of your water supply.
Manganese is another commonly detected heavy metal. It can give your drinking water an unpleasant look, smell, or taste. Water with high manganese concentration often looks like a black or greenish-black tea.
Most heavy metals are safe to drink at low levels, and many are essential for maintaining healthy body function.
Contaminants from human activity
Human activities also introduce a lot of harmful contaminants into the ground, which can make their way into your well water.
Septic tanks are a very common artificial contaminator. Around 25% of houses in the United States dispose of human waste with a septic tank .
Septic tanks seal a household’s waste underground, separating greases and oils and allowing larger particles to decompose before gradually releasing it back into the soil. The soil acts as a percolator, distributing and filtering the water back to the aquifer.
Improperly placed or maintained septic systems can release viruses, bacteria, and detergents into the surrounding groundwater.
Local authorities strictly regulate industrial chemicals and their disposal because they can easily contaminate groundwater. Products such as mechanical oils, paints, paint thinners, and some disinfectants cannot be disposed of through septic systems or down the drain, even if it is connected to a sewer system .
Despite being found naturally in rocks and soils, a high level of arsenic in groundwater often comes from industrial activities such as smelting. .
In addition, copper, cyanide, and lead contamination in groundwater can almost always be traced back to an industrial source .
Volatile organic compounds are harsh compounds with low water solubility. VOCs enter the water system through improperly disposed paints, thinners, pesticides, and refrigerants.
Harmful bacteria usually reach groundwater supplies from improperly managed human and animal waste . Three common types of harmful bacteria are Escherichia Coli, Giardia, and Cryptosporidium.
Water quality is evaluated by measuring the number of total Coliform bacteria, a group of rod-shaped aquatic bacteria. Many Coliform bacteria are safe to consume.
Fecal coliforms come from, you guessed it, animal feces. These bacteria can enter the water via a failing septic or sewer system or runoff from a farm. The presence of fecal coliforms does not always mean harmful bacteria are present in the water . But, given the risks (and the word ‘fecal’), drinking or using this water is strongly discouraged.
E. coli is a type of fecal coliform. Many types of E. coli do not cause disease. However, detecting it in a water source is the strongest indicator that harmful waterborne bacteria could be present.
Although only a tiny percentage of aquatic bacteria lead to illness and disease in humans, the severity of these illnesses is severe. Diseases such as polio, cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery, and infectious hepatitis can all stem from drinking contaminated water .
Taste, smell & aesthetic problems
As mentioned above, not all contaminants are cause for concern. But regardless of whether your drinking water is actively making you unhealthy, most of us prefer water as clear, tasteless, and odorless as possible.
Metallic-tasting drinking water is widespread in households that use private wells. A water softener will often reduce the metallic taste of rusty well water.
A “rotten egg” smell coming from your tap probably indicates the presence of hydrogen sulfide that is released when the water reaches the air. A ratio of just 1ppm (parts per million) of hydrogen sulfide to water is enough to produce a noticeable smell . It takes much higher levels (around 250ppm) to cause health problems such as gastrointestinal illness.
It is also common for well water to develop black sediment at some point. Many different things can cause black sediment, from new pipes to old pipes. Most sediment is not harmful to human health, but it is important to test this water to see what is causing it.
Health problems related to unsafe well water
Most water wells can be quickly and cheaply treated to provide fresh, clean, and safe water. It’s only usually due to poor maintenance or unforeseen contamination emergencies that any of the following health problems become a risk.
What are the effects of drinking unsafe or contaminated well water?
- Most waterborne bacteria, such as Cryptosporidium, Campylobacter, E. coli, and Giardia, disrupt your digestive system, leading to diarrhea, stomach pain, and vomiting.
- Harmful E. Coli bacteria can lead to serious acute conditions such as polio, cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery, and infectious hepatitis.
- High levels of radon can cause lung cancer .
- Nitrate contamination decreases your body’s ability to carry oxygen, leading to reduced blood pressure, increased heart rate, and headaches .
- Water contaminated with unsafe levels of copper disrupts your digestive system, causing nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
How to make sure your well water is safe to drink
Testing and monitoring your well water is the first step in ensuring that your water supply is safe to drink.
The results of your test will recommend which steps to take next, such as buying water filters.
Testing your water
In the United States, unsafe water has been determined by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) since the introduction of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1972. You can see the EPA standards for various contaminants here. However, some measurements can change depending on location, so it could be good to ask your local health department about well water quality standards in your area.
You should have your water regularly tested, especially if you notice a change in your well water.
You can test your water at home using a test kit. Some test kits measure for specific contaminants only, while others can give information on various properties.
Water test strips
Test kits are simple to use; just follow the instructions to introduce a water sample to the testing strip. In about 10 minutes, you can read the results by judging the color or reading the numerical value.
While they’re cheap, they’re inaccurate and only test for a limited number of contaminants. So we’d only recommend their use for quick results when determining if a professional lab test is needed.
Professional laboratory tests
Professional lab tests can be collected at your home by a trained professional, or you can collect the sample yourself and send it off by post. These tests are much more accurate than strips, and you also receive a complete water quality report rather than having to compare your strip to the color chart.
We recommend MyTapScore due to its reliability, speed, and flexibility. You can either buy a full well water test which tests for over 182 different contaminants (including all that we mentioned above, or purchase test kits for the specific contaminants you are concerned about.
Filters, softeners, & other treatment methods
The next step after water testing is to remove the harmful contaminants. Water filtration systems are multi-step, so let’s start from the bottom (of your well).
Sediment filters for well water
Your well water comes from underground, mixing with mostly inorganic sediments such as sand, sediment, and silt. These are especially sticky and heavy and can interfere with the rest of your water filtration system.
A sediment filter is a physical barrier that keeps these particles out of your drinking water. We recommend the iSpring WSP50ARB Spin Down Sediment Filter for its longevity, effectiveness, and auto-flush feature.
For more options, see: https://homewaterresearch.com/best-sediment-filter-for-well-water/
Iron filters for well water
Contaminant-specific well water filters depend greatly on the composition of your water. Iron filters typically work by injecting gas or chemicals into the well water. The process oxidizes the iron into a solid and then filters these particles from your water.
Check out our post on the best well water filters for iron for recommendations for every budget.
UV filters (purifiers) for well water
Ultraviolet light filters can remove up to 99.999% of viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms from your well system. Use them if your well tests positive for these particles or if it is located somewhere that makes bacterial contamination likely. UV filters do not remove any particles or chemical contaminants, so they are usually placed above other filters.
The VIQUA VH410 is our favorite UV filter for a house with a private well. But we detail several other excellent options here: Best UV Water Purifier 2022 (Boost Your Filtration)
Acid neutralizers for well water
Water acidity poses a great problem for all of the water appliances in your household. Acidic water can corrode these, damaging the appliance and leaching copper, lead, and other metals from the pipes into your drinking water.
There are many other excellent acid neutralizers for well water available.
Water softeners for well water
Water hardness is one of the most noticeable factors regarding water quality taste.
Hard water has high mineral content. It is especially prevalent in regions with a lot of limestone and chalk. Hard water leaves limescale residue in kettles and water heaters and can keep your soap from foaming in the shower.
Water softeners like this Springwell Salt Based Water Softener System boast a high flow rate and Bluetooth connectivity to track water usage and system performance.
If you have hard water, check out our reviews of the best water softeners for more details.
Reverse osmosis systems
One of the final steps in improving your drinking water quality is to install a reverse osmosis water filter. Reverse osmosis uses pressure to force water through a semipermeable membrane. The process separates the water from other dissolved solids that may have made it through your previous disinfection systems .
Most bottled water is purified through reverse osmosis, so you can be sure you’re doing it right (without contributing to plastic waste).
As we’ve seen, only some well water contaminants are outright dangerous, while many others just need to be limited in quantity.
The first step in treating your well water is to get the water tested. A water testing kit will tell you if your water contains any unhealthy levels of contaminants.
From there, it is simply a matter of equipping filters and other private purification systems.
So is well water safe to drink? With a test or two and an appropriate filter system in place, you can be well on your way to a ‘yes!’ But how much does a well cost and do you have to pay for it? – we answered that question here.