Imagine that you are outside working in your garden. You have been out since 6:30 a.m., and now that cool morning air is giving way to the stifling heat and humidity, causing you to break out in a sweat that soaks your shirt. You decide to go inside and slake your mounting thirst with a wonderfully cold glass of crystal clear water. Even before you get there you can imagine the beads of condensation rolling down the glass, and the moist coolness that meets your hand as you grab it. The image is intensely inviting. You grasp an empty glass from the cupboard with the knowledge that because of the miracle of modern plumbing, your thirst will be quenched in a matter of seconds.
Placing your glass under the faucet you reach out and turn on the tap that will bring cold water from your well, holding your glass with expectation.
Now imagine that the water that comes out of your faucet is dingy, muddy brown.
This happened to my mother. For more than a year, every time it rains, her well water turns a murky brown that is unsavory and worrisome. Not only does it come out brown from her taps, she has brown water in her toilets, brown water in her washing machine, and brown water in her dishwasher. The water does not turn brown for a few hours. It turns brown for days or weeks at a time depending on how much rain she gets.
So imagine… What would you do if your shower water were muddy? How would you clean your dishes? What about washing white clothes? Fortunately, before the muddy water problem started, my mom had an osmotic water filter installed that keeps her drinking water purified. Being the resourceful woman that she is, my mother has developed a series of systems using the purified water that allows her, and her house, to remain clean. But maintaining these systems is time-consuming and tiring. Mom’s osmotic water system only holds two gallons of water. When that is depleted, it needs time to fill back up. Every task involving water takes planning and preparation. Attempts to solve the problem have been unsuccessful, expensive, and overwhelming.
Fresh, clean water from Mom’s taps had become a memory. If we knew at the beginning of the problem what we know now, I think we could have saved a lot of frustration and money. Solving well problems can be daunting. Wells are not like cars when it comes to fixing them. With a car you can actually see what is wrong, like in the case of a flat tire; or you take it to the shop and hook it up to a computer, which will then tell you exactly what is wrong. Sometimes mechanics will have differences of opinions, but generally the solutions are rather uniform, even if the prices are not. Wells are not like that.
Many times you cannot see what is going on. You will see a symptom, like brown water, but you may not see its cause very easily. Talk to five different people about what you should do and you will get five different answers. Asking help from agencies gets tricky, too. When I tried to do that, several people were reluctant to talk about possible solutions because of liability issues. When Mom spoke to the health department, they said the only thing that they could do was suggest that she get her water tested for bacteria. To us, that didn’t make sense. It was rather obvious that the issue was mud, not bacteria. So we staggered on trying to find out what to do.
Another issue is that plumbing of any sort can get expensive quickly. This is a real problem for anyone on a limited income. When there are so many different opinions on how to solve the problem things get tricky. People with fixed incomes are likely to try options presented to them that are the least expensive. This is especially true if the options seem simple and if other people had success with them. For example, if a neighbor had success raising a pump or installing a whole-house filter, trying one of those options first seems to make sense. The difficulty with this approach is that it deals with the issue without an understanding of what is causing the problem. So someone might try a series of solutions, thinking that if one works, it would be an inexpensive, relatively easy fix. However, if they don’t work, you soon realize that your money might have been better spent in another way.
The are several causes of brown water in a well. These can range from a rusty pipe to a collapsing well. With such a wide range of possible causes, what are the right steps to finding out what is causing the problem? Here is one possible set of steps that you can take to pinpoint the source of the problem.
First, be aware that if the water to your house was shut off for some time, the brown water may be the result of rust being dislodged from the system when the water was turned back on. Running your taps for twenty minutes might help this to clear up. Brown water resulting from water being turned off to the house can happen with houses that are on public water supplies as well.
If the water to your house was not shut off, check to see if both your hot water and cold water are discolored. If just the hot water is brown, then you may have rust in the hot water heater.
Usually, if this is the case it will only come out of one faucet. However, rust may still be an issue if you have discolored water coming from both your hot and cold taps. Rust may either be in the piping or plumbing fixtures. Occasionally, rust may be in the main water pipe from the well. This could cause all your taps to have brown water.
The other causes of brown water have to do with the well itself. Water can become brown from surface infiltration, iron and/or manganese in the water, well collapse, water level drops, or an earthquake. Getting a complete water test is the first step in figuring out what the problem is, the extent of the problem, and possible solutions or treatments. The test should include assessments of pH, hardness, total coliform, fecal coliform, e-coli bacteria, dissolved solids, iron concentration, and iron bacteria.
Getting this test is where your health department can help; they can point you in the direction you need to go to get the tests. However, make sure that you check that the lab will test for the factors listed above. When your test comes back you may want help in understanding the results. In Virginia, the Cooperative Extension Services directs the Virginia Master Well Owner Network (VAMWON). This program of trained volunteers promotes the proper construction, management, and maintenance for private water systems in Virginia. Checking with your state’s extension service may help you find a similar organization. These volunteers can help you make an educated decision about what treatment or solution might be the most appropriate or the most advantageous for you.
Not getting this water test is where my family made its mistake. A test for bacteria wasn’t going to help what we believed was a structural problem. We weren’t worried about bacteria, we were worried about mud, and the test didn’t test for mud. Besides we didn’t need to worry about bacteria with the osmotic filter, the company that installed it already tested it. The drinking water was safe. So we visually inspected the well and saw cracks in the concrete rings. We filled the cracks with concrete and figured that would solve the problem.
But it didn’t. Neither did the any of the tricks, like raising the pump or installing a filter, that the plumber tried. We all began to figure that Mom’s well was collapsing. The earthquake that cracked the Washington Monument originated about 60 miles from Mom’s house. Her dirty water appeared shortly after the earthquake. We concluded that the earthquake possibly caused her brown water problems. The truth was that we didn’t know what was causing the problem.
In actuality, the test for bacteria would actually have been able to confirm something for us. It could have pointed to two different causes. One cause it would have been able to indicate was surface infiltration from a breached seal. Total coliform bacteria or fecal coliform bacteria is not typically found in deep groundwater sources. These bacteria are indicative of warm-blooded animals. Thus, these bacteria are normally found on the surface and in shallow (less than 40 feet deep) groundwater. If the seal of the well is breached, the bacteria will enter into the well with the rainwater. Similarly, testing for iron bacteria, iron, and manganese would have also helped. Certain kinds of bacteria occur with iron. Iron and manganese can be dissolved as water seeps through soil and rock bearing these minerals and bacteria, tainting the water brown. Thus, a second cause could have been identified or ruled out by finding these bacteria and minerals in the test. So even though these are “structural” problems, the bacteria tests would have been able to help identify them.
Not finding any of these bacteria or minerals in the well would have possibly indicated another cause of the brown water. Changes in the water level or supply could cause the pump to pull up mud, silt, or sand. It could also indicate that the well structure is collapsing. In order to know for certain if the well is collapsing, you can contact a well-driller that has experience in using a well camera. These cameras stand on a tripod and can be lowered several hundred feet into the well. They can help determine the exact structural problem that needs attention. If you can find (and afford) this kind of diagnostic procedure, it could bring great peace of mind in coming to your final decision on how to deal with your brown water issue.
Earthquakes are another cause of brown water not indicated by bacteria. It is uncertain why some wells are impacted and others are not. However, some earthquake affected wells can return to normal after a time.
Because nobody fully explained how identifying bacteria could help us we thought the test was a waste of time and money. In actuality it could have saved us a great deal of time, money, and trouble.
When the last fix, a very expensive (even used) water filter, didn’t work, Mom began to focus on finding someone that could give her definite answers. After much calling around and talking to various people, she finally found a plumber that had a lot of experience with brown water problems and solutions. He was even able to offer references of people that he had helped.
He sent a sample of the water off for testing and inspected Mom’s well.
It turns out that when Mom’s well was built in the 1970’s, it was not built correctly. The concrete collar around the top of the well should have been much wider and deeper than it was. Unfortunately, digging out around the well to install the collar now was a very risky process. If one of the concrete rings were hit by machinery, the well would be lost and a new one would have to be drilled. Mom’s well could not be easily fixed.
So the options ended up being to drill a new well or create a filtration system. When I was told about the filtration system, I was skeptical. The last filter she had didn’t work. Why would this one work?
The answer was simple. It had to do with testing again. Different filters filter out different things. To make sure you have the right filter for the job, will require more water testing. The last plumber didn’t test the water, so the used filter he bought trying to save some money for Mom, didn’t do the trick.
Her new plumber sent the water off for testing and through careful analysis of the data, the company he works for was able to devise a filter system. Now it was decision time: drill a new well or try a water-filtration system.
It boiled down to price. Drillers in this part of Virginia are in high-demand right now. Even though she called at least ten well drillers, Mom could only find one to come to the house to her to give her an estimate. That estimate for the drilling alone was $12,000. The additional electrical and plumbing work that would be needed to reconnect the new well, in its new location, could run another $8,000. The other estimate was acquired by proxy of the plumber. The well-drilling company that he assists sometimes told Mom they were too busy to give her an estimate. The plumber interceded on her behalf, and they grudgingly gave her an estimate over the phone for $15,000. People we talked to said that those estimates seemed very high. However, because of the area of Virginia where she lives, the fact that they are in very high demand right now, in addition to the fact that she could not get anyone to come give her an estimate, left us with little choice. These are the figures with which we had to work.
The filtration system would cost $8,000. This seems high, too, until you consider this question, “What are you willing to pay for clean water?”
Mom decided to go with the filtration system. It had other benefits besides price. With the filtration system, Mom would not have to worry about hitting a sulfur pocket and getting sulfur tainted water, the filing and paying for all the new well permits, or refilling the old well.
In exploring options to pay for this this system, we discovered some resources that might be helpful to people on fixed incomes. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has Rural Development Grants. People who qualify may be eligible for $7,500 in grant money, that does not need to be repaid, plus an additional amount in the form of a very low-interest loan. BUT you have to live in a qualifying area, AND areas served are determined by the last census so they can shift. Be sure to check with the USDA representative and ask them to make certain that your specific physical address is within the eligible area. Do not depend on a zip code to determine your eligibility, as the boundary for people served cuts across zip codes.
Please note that these grants require the recipient to fill out a very involved Fannie May form. People in need of assistance may want to have someone they trust help them to fill out the form and understand the steps of the process in obtaining the grant. It was disheartening to find out that some people, those who qualified for this loan and could badly use the assistance, got overwhelmed near the end of the process and gave it up because they had nobody to help them. Sometimes our neighbors need champions. If you are able to aid someone by helping them through the process, it could be the most generous and effective contribution you could make.
Another agency to check into is Rebuild America. This national program has local chapters that help low to moderate income homeowners with home repairs.
In Virginia, we also found the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, Inc. (SERCAP). This organization offers a $650 grant plus a 1% interest loan to qualifying people that need assistance. Similar organizations may exist in other states.
Even though this experience has been trying for us, it has also been valuable. Access to clean water has become so prevalent in our country that many people take it for granted. Being a canoeist and outdoor advocate, I never thought I took clean water for granted; helping to clean the rivers and promoting clean water sources has always been important to me. However, Mom’s dilemma made me realize that I don’t think enough about the cleanliness of my water every time I use it. I just use it and expect it to be there when I need it.