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By Gail Glick Andrews
This article was originally written for the "Ask an Expert" column in the Homes and Real Estate section of THE OREGONIAN, Sunday, October 31, 1999.
Q: I'm considering purchasing a home with a well. Who should be contacted to inspect it?
A: A pump service business can be hired to inspect the overall condition of the wellhead, the pump, and pressure tank. A pump service company can also perform a flow-test and assist with the required water testing discussed below. Prices vary for these services, so shop around.
If the inspector suggests major repairs, it is always advisable to get additional estimates before having the work done.
Q: How do I know if the well will produce enough water for normal daily use?
A:The practical way is to ask around and see if there has ever been a problem with water shortages in the neighborhood. Also, multiple wells on the same property can be a bad sign. If you have reason to think water may be in short supply, a flow-test will tell how much water the well and pump can produce with continuous use. Five gallons per minute (5 gpm) is generally accepted as adequate. If the well has low production, consider water conservation practices, installing a holding tank, or locating an additional source of water.
If you live in an area where water shortages are a concern, and you are thinking of selling your home this winter, make sure you have a dry-season flow-test on file. If you don't have one, you may want to get one now, before the heavy rains begin.
Q: If an inspector determines the well must be dug deeper, how much might that cost? Is a permit required for digging or to determine water rights?
A: First, drilling a new well and sealing up the old one may be a better option. The costs for deepening an existing well or drilling a new one vary greatly depending upon the depth of the well, the geology and the distance the well driller must travel, among other things. Expect such work to be in the range of $1,000 to $5,000. Get bids from several drillers.
No permit is required. The well driller files all the necessary paperwork with the Oregon Water Resources Department. If the well is for household and domestic gardening uses (irrigating no more than ½ acre), you don't need a Water Right. Check the Water Resources Web page at www.wrd.state.or.us for publications on Well Construction and Water Rights, and names of well drillers. On the Web page, you can look up your own well log - the report that was filled when it was originally drilled.
Q: What kind of contaminants should a buyer watch out for?
A: Coliform bacteria and nitrate are the two contaminants regularly tested as indicators of the overall safety of domestic drinking-well water wells. Since 1989, the sellers have been required to supply the results of these tests to the purchaser. Sellers must also file a water-test report with the Oregon Health Division.
After you own a home with a well, test for bacteria and nitrate every one to three years. Check the Health Division's Drinking Water Program Web page at http://www.dhs.state.or.us/publichealth/dwp/index.cfm for a list of water testing labs, fact sheets on bacteria and nitrate, and information on the real estate transaction water testing requirements. You can also request the information from the Drinking Water Program at 503-731-4010.
Q: What water treatments are available, and what are the differences between them?
A: If bacteria are found, a one-time shock chlorination treatment may clean up the problem, assuming you also repair associated problems with the well. You can get directions for the procedure on this web site and from the Health Division, or you can hire a pump service to do the chlorination for you.
For an on-going bacteria problem, most people choose ultraviolet systems, but in some cases continuous chlorination is needed. Reverse osmosis will remove nitrate and some other contaminants. Water softeners do not kill bacteria nor do they remove nitrate. Simple, inexpensive, activated-carbon charcoal filters - the kind that screw on the faucet or are built into drinking water pitchers - can be quite effective at improving the taste of well water but will not remove nitrate or bacteria.
Q: What is the minimal housing required for a working well?
A: None! Wells themselves do not need to be inside a structure. If the top of the well extends at least one foot above ground and is properly sealed with a cap on top, it is safe. If you do have a well house, do not use it for general storage - lawn chemicals, gasoline cans, and paint products in a well house put your drinking water at very high risk of pollution.
Q: Should I expect water pressure and availability to very seasonally?
A: For homes on wells, the water pressure in the plumbing system is maintained by the pressure tank or directly from the pump if there is no pressure tank. A drop in water pressure may result from an older pump or pressure tank that is wearing out. It may also indicate that the water in the well has dropped below the pump. The drop in water level may be from over-pumping locally (you or your neighbors) or may be from a natural drop in the water table which is typically at its lowest in September or October.
In either case, you should not "expect" this - the pump should be placed deep enough for year-round use. Plan on making adjustments to your system so that you don't risk running out of water and burning up your pump.