Drinking water wells are often private property, which means they aren’t regulated by the government.

As a result, homeowners are responsible for making their water safe to drink and free of bad tastes and smells.

Unfortunately, well water is more vulnerable to contamination than other water sources.

Minerals and metals from the earth can leach into the water supply, while runoff from the environment can wash bacteria and chemicals into a well.

Drinking water in the test tube for chemical and microbiological analysis


With regular testing, it’s easy to find out which contaminants are the biggest threat to your well water quality.

Once you get the test results, choose a filtration system that targets the relevant contaminants. Read our rankings of the best whole-house water filters for well water to choose the right filter for your well.

How to test your well water

To test the quality of your private well water, you can:

  • Use a home water testing kit
  • Have a professional carry out state-certified lab test

Home testing kits

Home testing kits are sold online or in many hardware stores. They’re designed to be accessible to anyone and are easy to operate. They’ll give you reliable results within a short period of time.

Most test kits require a small sample of unfiltered water from your faucet. A strip of card coated with indicator chemicals is submerged into the water sample, which reacts with any contaminants present.

The results of the indicator strip can then be checked against reference materials included in the kit.

Home test kits will give you a good idea of the biggest risks to your water quality. However, most only indicate the presence of contaminants – they won’t give you an exact measure of contamination.

Where can I buy a home test kit?

How do I read the results?

Each test kit comes with a booklet to help you interpret the results of your test.

Depending on how many contaminants the kit is able to identify, there will be several results to analyze.

Most kits use color-coding to indicate the presence of substances. Compare the color of the sample with the color listed in the booklet.

State-certified lab tests

For professional well water testing, you can reach out to a certified lab within your state that offers domestic well services.

While professional labs are more expensive than home kits, the results are more detailed and include exactly how much of each contaminant is in your water.

All homeowners are required to do is collect and mail a water sample. Often, labs will allow you to select which contaminants you want to test for. They may offer different test packages.

Testing with a licensed lab will provide you with an official certification for your well water.

How do I get my well water professionally tested?

  • Check with local water authorities for listings of licensed labs

How do I read the results?

Labs will send you a report of your water quality. It should show exact quantities of contaminants within a small range of error.

Most reports will also tell you if your water complies with safe contamination levels.

Visit the EPA’s national primary drinking water regulations for more on federal recommendations over water quality.

What contaminants are in my well water?

In general, well water quality depends upon three things:

  • The depth of a well
  • the geology of an area, and
  • local environmental features

In shallow wells and areas with industry or agriculture, water may contain pesticides, nitrates, and industrial chemicals.

In areas with high rainfall, surface water can wash into wells, carrying dead vegetation, sewage, bacteria, and parasites.

Wells drilled into porous rock or connected to old pipes may contain more sediment, minerals, and metals.

To remove contaminants, several filter stages are often required. Find out which system you need in our article, The Best Whole-House Water Filters for Well Water >

With industry, urban activity, and natural events affecting so many wells across the country, the EPA has developed a clear idea of the major threats to water safety. Here’s a rundown of:

  • The most common contaminants in well water
  • The conditions associated with those contaminants, and
  • What may happen if you don’t filter for these contaminants

Coliform bacteria

These unwanted bacteria are not necessarily harmful in themselves, but they do suggest the presence of sewage and other organic waste.

Test for coliform bacteria if the environmental conditions include:

  • Recurring gastrointestinal illness

If left unfiltered:

Sewage or animal feces can accumulate, leading to bacterial growth, sickness, diarrhea, and disease.


Lead

Lead corrosion happens when water acidity changes, causing the metal to leach from pipes or surrounding bedrock. Lead pollution is often associated with public water supplies – but wells are still vulnerable.

Test for lead if environmental conditions include:

  • Pipe corrosion
  • A sudden change in water source

If left unfiltered:

There is no safe level of lead consumption, especially for growing children. Over time, ingesting lead can cause developmental, nerve, and reproductive issues.


Nitrates and pesticides

The chemical solutions farmers use to feed and protect their crops are washed into surface waters, unbalancing ecosystems and contaminating wells.

Test for nitrates and pesticides if:

  • You live near agricultural land

If left unfiltered:

High consumption of nitrates can damage red blood cells, while pesticides and fertilizers can cause fertility issues.


Sulfates

When organic matter and other garbage decompose, they off-gas sulfates into the surrounding environment.

Test for sulfates if:

  • You live near a dump, junkyard, or landfill

If left unfiltered:

Over long periods sulfate consumption can cause stomach issues. Sulfates also affect the palatability of water.

Sulfates give off nasty odors when dissolved in water. To learn how to remove bad smells, try our article: How to Get Rid of Sulfur and Other Well Water Smells >

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) come from household cleaners, industrial agents, and can occur organically when vegetation and dead leaves come into contact with disinfectants.

Test for VOCs if:

  • Your water smells of gas, gasoline, or pungent earthy aromas

If left unfiltered:

Long-term VOC ingestion can cause an impaired immune response and an increased risk of cancer.


Iron, manganese (hard minerals)

Dissolved metals and minerals are termed ‘hard’ when they change the feel and taste of water. They can be abrasive on skin and hair and leave a scaly residue on plates.

Test for hard minerals if:

  • You live in a hard-water area or notice staining on appliances and laundry.

If left unfiltered:

Iron, and manganese change water appearance and taste, and may make it an off-putting brown color. A build-up of scale can also reduce the lifespan of appliances.

How Often Should I Test My Well Water?

Many well water health risks can’t be detected by taste or smell. Because of this, it can be difficult to judge water quality. So we recommend you test your water supply at least once per year. 

Like almost all well water topics, however, things always depend upon the specifics of your induvidual well.

Local environmental groundwater issues should always determine when and how often you test your water. 

For example, if you live in an agricultural area with high rainfall, you may need to test for pesticides and nitrates several times per year. States and local authorties often offer this kind of testing guidance.

The bottom line: can my family get sick from well water?

Tests for well water are a simple and effective way to check for drinking-water dangers. If you find something wrong, it’s easy to introduce a filter solution and protect your supply.

Many contaminants are not health risks in themselves. Minerals and traces of organic chemicals often only affect how water tastes and smells.

However, some contaminants like lead and pesticides are real safety concerns, especially regularly consumed over time.

Because of this, it’s best to get your water tested so that homeowners can take full responsibility for their well water.