A hand-pump installed over a deep, drilled well provides water for a Windsor homestead. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

If you’ve only lived in populous areas, you might only be familiar with municipal water systems where water is piped into homes from municipal water facilities. But here in Maine, a very rural state, well water is a popular way to bring plumbing into a home. But it’s not as simple as just piping water in. Well water requires proper management to make sure your water supply is safe to drink and use.

Though having a well water system saves you from paying municipal water bills, wells come with significant upfront costs, as well as the cost of electricity to run the well, filtration systems and any required maintenance.

“The cost of drilling and construction of wells to obtain sufficient usable yield and quality is dependent on location and geologic conditions,” said Thomas Brennan, senior geologist at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. “The cost may be substantial in some locations.”

Homeowners who rely on well water are also in charge of managing the systems. Wells require management that having a municipal water system does not. Here’s what you need to know about the basics of well water management.

Do: get to know your well system

Make sure you know how much water is generally available in your well system. A water level gauge will help with this. You should also have a general idea of how much water you use.

“When they drill your well they will do a pump test and they will tell you what your water yield will be,” said John Jemison, extension professor at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “It’s a good idea to have a sense of what you have in your well, monitor it and don’t overdo it.”

Also be prepared for levels to change in different seasons. Understand the “safe yield” of the well, or how much water will be available for practical uses without risking depletion of the water consistently available to the well for use.

“This regional water level that’s going to go up and down throughout the course of the season,” Jemison said. “If you don’t have a good recharge, you can definitely run out of water and you can burn out a pump.”

Don’t: allow contaminants to run amuk on your land

Make sure you use your land in a way that prevents contaminants like fuel, pesticides, fertilizers and livestock waste from seeping in. Also read up on the history of your area to determine if there are any contaminants in particular to look out for.

“When contaminants are applied to the ground surface, those compounds can infiltrate into the soil or bedrock fractures that supply water to the well,” Brennan said. “Try to understand the history of land use on the property and in the surrounding area. Some sources of contamination may no longer exist but residual water quality impacts may exist.”

For example, do not allow activities that could represent risk to water quality in the vicinity of the water well, such as agricultural activities. Also do not store fuel, oil and other potential contaminants from vehicles that may leak in the vicinity of the well.

“Protect the surface in the vicinity of the well from activities that might represent risk to water quality, for example limit application of fertilizers, presence of animals, control presence of leaking motorized vehicles,” Brennan said.

Don’t: put your well close to your septic system

The distance between your water and your septic system, if you have one, is important to assuring the continued quality of your well water system.

Maine has rules about where well drillers can put new wells in relation to septic systems. Having an idea of the lay of your land will also help you cite a well in relation to your septic system.

“Any well driller will ask, ‘Where is your septic going to be?’ and they will mark off the appropriate space away from that,” Jemison said. “Trying to look at the lay of the land will give you a sense of where the water is going to typically run. Always put a well on the uphill side, septic system on the downhill side and follow all the state rules and you should be fine.”

Do: make sure you get your well water tested

Well water requires regular testing to make sure that it is safe to drink — otherwise, it will require flushing, filtration or another treatment method. This is especially true in Maine.

“The rocks in Maine have a lot more junk in them, particularly iron and manganese,” Jemison said.

Brennan said that it is a good idea to test your water annually, even if there are no signs that contamination or degradation has occurred. Use your senses and pay attention to any changes in the water, including sight, smell and taste. If something is off, you will want to try and ascertain the problem.

“Off odor or taste are good indicators that a water test would be a good idea,” Brennan said. “Visual changes in the clarity or color of the water may also indicate the effects of contamination and that a water test is warranted.”

Don’t: forget arsenic

Arsenic is Maine’s well water is something of a silent epidemic. Brennan said that, according to the Maine Geological Survey, around 10 percent of private wells in Maine have arsenic levels above the drinking water standard. It may require a separate test than your regular well water testing.

“Arsenic in water has no taste, odor or color,” Brennan said. “The only way to understand if it is present is through a specific water test.”

Though there are serious long-term health impacts of arsenic exposure, Jemison said not to panic if you find trace amounts of arsenic in your well water.

“Arsenic concentrations that you find in water supplies it’s a long term problem not a short term problem,” Jemison said. “A lot of people get their knickers in a knot because they think, ‘Oh my god, I have arsenic, I’m going to be dead tomorrow.’ You’re not going to be dead tomorrow.”

If you have arsenic in your water, you will eventually have to get a water treatment system, which incurs its own cost, management and maintenance.

“I would recommend anybody to talk to several water treatment companies before you purchase anything and have them install something for you,” Jemison said.

Do: pay attention to frost

In Maine, frost heaves — a phenomenon where the freezing and thawing cycles cause the ground to lift — can cause problems for well systems by allowing additional foreign materials that can compromise quality.

“If that casing can lift out of the ground by the soil rising it’s no longer sealed,” Jemison said. “Water can trickle down and no longer filter out.”

Well systems affected by frost heave may require additional testing.

Do: be prepared to flush your system

If the water from a water well is shown to be affected by bacteria, there are techniques for disinfecting the well. Chlorine bleach is a commonly used disinfectant, in a process known as “shock chlorination,” which is similar to the process that water treatment plants use.

“For a disinfectant to be effective, the proper volume of disinfectant relative to the volume of water in the well must be applied,” Brennan said. “In addition, the appropriate contact time must be allowed in order for the disinfection to be effective.”

If you need to flush your system, first purchase bottled water to use for cooking and drinking while your system is being cleaned. To properly conduct the flushing process, Brennan said to follow guidelines from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Do not discharge large amounts of heavily chlorinated water into a septic system, nearby aquatic waters or onto lawns or gardens.

After about two weeks, it is advisable to get another test to see if the bacterial issue has been resolved.

Jemison noted that a lot of homeowners do not like the taste of chlorine in their water. You could try to disinfect the system using an ultraviolet disinfection system, though this will be more costly than shock chlorination.

Make sure you also ascertain the source of the problem to prevent future contamination.