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Passing a water test requires know-how

Times metro editor has first-hand experience with task

POSTED: November 8, 2013 1:00 a.m.

Every day you turn on the faucet in your house and clean water comes out.

It’s something most Americans take for granted. You use it to wash your hands, rinse vegetables, pour yourself a glass of water. It’s when you don’t have it that you realize what a wonder it is.

I recently found out the water coming out of my tap wasn’t exactly clean.

We have a well and hadn’t had a bacteria test done on the water since we moved in almost five years ago. When I got the results back last month from the City of Gainesville, I was surprised to see a big red stamp — failed.

My husband and I hadn’t noticed anything strange about our water or experienced any sickness that might be caused by viruses sometimes found in untreated water.

Brooks Corley, chemist with the city, said a number of things can cause the water to fail. But the issue isn’t anything to “freak out” about.

“I grew up on a hand-dug well, and we used to have to lower my brother down with a rope to get critters out that had fallen in and died,” he said. “And we didn’t just run around with stomach problems all the time. But, you know, it’s not the best thing in the world, I’m sure.”

He said he recommends proper maintenance of the well system but doesn’t necessarily recommend people have the test done unless they notice a problem. Sometimes a test is required though, for example if you’re going to sell your house or for something like an application to become a foster parent. Corley said the city does about 160 tests a year.

If the water does fail, he said if it were him, he’d get the issue taken care of.

So, my question was — how?

The packet of information I received when we picked up the kit to do the test included a sheet detailing instructions for disinfecting a well.

First step, open well.

Seemed simple.

My husband and I grabbed some supplies and headed out to the woods where our well is located. A large pipe, 7 inches in diameter and reaching at least 200 feet into the ground, is topped with a metal circular plate with four large bolts, a little plastic blue piece and a small pipe coming out of it and going back into the ground.

We’re not exactly experts on wells. We started unscrewing some bolts but quickly got confused about just how we were supposed to “open” the well. After unscrewing most of the bolts and not comprehending what the next step would be, we gave up for the day and decided to call a well expert.

Phil Cowan of C & S Well Service told me to send him a picture of the well and he’d try to help.

Turns out, we just had to unscrew the blue thing. Not knowing exactly how deep our well was, Cowan told us to pour about 2 gallons of bleach down the well.

Yes, bleach. Into our drinking water.

I told my parents I was pouring bleach into my well and they gave me a funny look. But that’s what the City of Gainesville instructs.

So, we unscrewed the blue cap, poured 2 gallons of bleach through a funnel, followed by 5 gallons of water to “disperse” the bleach.

The next step is to run the water through the tap until you smell bleach.

Corley said that can take quite a while. It took at least a couple of hours for us, with the hose outside going full strength.

Once you smell the bleach, you turn on each tap, cold and hot, and run the water until you smell the bleach.

Then you let it sit for at least four hours; we did eight.

This was the very inconvenient part.

If you’ve ever had your water shut off for maintenance or a pipe burst, you know what I’m talking about.

A couple of hours after you know you have no water, you think to yourself, “I’m thirsty,” and you head toward the faucet. Then you remember. Or you get a little bit of jelly on your hand after making a sandwich and reach to wash it off only realize you’ll have to find some other option to get the sticky stuff off. And forget cooking.

After that annoying waiting period, it’s back to running the water full blast out of the hose. This time it is until you don’t smell the bleach. It’s important to run it out of the hose and not the tap because a large amount of bleach water entering a septic tank could cause problems there.

This process took hours for us — more time during which we couldn’t use the water inside.

Once the water finally stopped smelling like bleach, we had to empty the hot water tank since it was full of bleach water.

Finally done, we waited a few days before taking another sample to make extra sure all the bleach was out of the system. We dropped off the little bottle of water from our tap and waited 24 hours to hear back.

Failed. Again.

That’s not typical. Usually the bleach takes care of the problem, Corley said. If not, though, try again with more bleach.

So we did. And we let it sit in the system for 24 hours.

Failed. Again.

At this point, we were pretty frustrated. So we called Cowan again to come check out the problem. He determined a bad tank was stirring up sediment that was getting into the water coming out of our tap and causing the problem.

After replacing that tank and going through the troublesome disinfecting process a third time, we finally passed.

Corley said animals getting into the well, a well that has a casing cracked allowing surface water to enter it or leaky septic lines can all cause bacteria to show up in the water. Of course bleach can’t remove a dead mouse, so if the disinfecting process doesn’t work, one of these problems might be the reason.

He also noted the process takes time. Many who are getting the test done are doing so to sell their house. Corley urged that people understand the process can be lengthy and not wait until the last minute to have it done.

After four tests, we’re pretty ecstatic to finally be done with it.


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