2017-03-23 / Front Page

Overall, county wells safe — but always test

By Patti Brandt Burgess
Of The Enterprise staff

When Kama Ross bought her new house in Centerville Township last year, having her well water tested was a part of an inspection to make sure the house was sound.

But for Ross, the water test was more than routine — it offered peace of mind.

“Living in northern Michigan we just all assume that our wells are healthy and our water is good,” Ross said. “The fact that water testing is built right into the inspection and nothing is overlooked is huge to me.”

By most accounts the quality of the water in Leelanau County is very good — but there have been exceptions. For instance, years high nitrate levels at the old county seat building forced the use of bottled water.

But that’s an exception.

“The truth of the matter is we have excellent water quality,” said Shanna Shea, laboratory manager for SOS Analytical, the Traverse City lab that does much of the area’s water testing. “We’re extra-blessed up here in northern Michigan.”

Problems do arise, including water hardness, that can turn clothes and shower stalls an ugly yellow and plagues many Leelanau residents.

And coliform bacteria and nitrates concentrated in farmland can leach their way into well water.

A routine test offered by many home inspectors checks for coliform bacteria, which comes from human and animal waste. Nitrates usually can be traced to nitrogen-based fertilizers.

Both can be carried by rain, irrigation and other surface waters into an aquifer and eventually through a home’s faucets.

Most lenders do not require water testing for conventional mortgages, said Mollie Hammersley, a mortgage originator with State Savings Bank. But tests are required for governmentbacked loans, such as Federal Housing Administration loans, Veterans Affairs loans or Rural Development loans. Some smaller mortgage companies may also require them, Hammersley said.

“But with a lot of the home inspections that people do, that’s a part of the inspection,” Hammersley said.

A home appraisal is required by a lender to determine market value, while an inspection is meant to protect prospective buyers from purchasing a home with structural defects and other problems.

An inspection is paid for by the buyer and looks closely at mechanical systems and appliances.

Bill Bageris is the owner of Absolute Home Services of Traverse City, which does home inspections.

In about 90 percent of those inspections, clients just want bacteria and nitrates tested.

But in the last year or so he’s had a lot of requests from people wanting their water tested for lead — including people whose water is supplied by a municipal system.

“Since that incident took place in Flint we’ve had a spike in people requesting lead testing,” Bageris said.

Bageris said an appraiser may flag something in a house and will request a well and septic inspection as part of the mortgage appraisal.

“Part of that well inspection is a water quality test, so it’s kind of a trickle down effect,” Bageris said.

Testing the waters

For a little more money, most inspection companies also offer more comprehensive water testing that checks for water hardness, looks for volatile organics that are found in things such as gasoline, solvents and fuel, and identifies metals such as lead, copper, iron and more.

Water testing must be done by a state-certified drinking water laboratory such as SOS Analytical, which tests private wells and municipal systems, including those serving the villages of Northport and Suttons Bay.

Shea said that a home’s water should be tested any time there’s an opening in the system. If the well casing gets hits by a lawn mower or snow plow or if the homeowner installs a water softener, a test is needed, Shea said.

“Any time you have to cut open the pipe the water should be tested, because that’s an opening for bacteria,” Shea said.

SOS charges $40 for the basic test. More comprehensive tests range from $20 to $200 in addition to the standard test, depending on what the water is being tested for.

Coliform bacteria, E. Coli and nitrates found in drinking water can be health hazards and will require treatment, Shea said.

Coliform bacteria are fairly common and are not always harmful, but they can cause fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, most commonly in children or elderly people. Coliform bacteria can be treated by shocking the system with chlorine. Retesting is conducted after several days to make sure the well is safe.

Nitrates are one of the most common contaminants in rural areas and can be especially harmful to infants, causing methemoglobinemia, or ‘blue baby’ disease.

Nitrates often can be removed with a reverse osmosis unit or by digging a new well, Shea said.

“One’s a Band-Aid and one’s a permanent fix,” Shea said.

Many people have their water checked for aesthetic reasons, she said, such as staining or a funky taste or smell.

Water hardness can be caused by calcium or magnesium or iron bacteria. Iron bacteria are naturally-occuring and feed on iron in the water.

“It can’t hurt you,” Shea said. “It’s not a health hazard, it’s an aesthetic issue because it causes odor, staining and slime formation.”

Hard water is common, especially in Leelanau County.

“There are areas that have extreme hardness,” Shea said.

SOS Analytical does not make any recommendations on water softening or reverse osmosis systems and doesn’t sell them, as that is regarded as a conflict of interest by the company, Shea said.

While there are areas where water hardness is a problem, it’s a misnomer that every home needs a water softener, she said. A lot of people who build homes just assume one is needed and automatically install one.

Drilling a well

New wells, both private and commercial, are regulated by the Benzie- Leelanau District Health Department using standards set by the state.

And getting the water tested before the well is put into service is a part of the process.

“We make sure the wells are drilled in the proper location and then we do an inspection on the well when it’s completed and we try to get samples of the water before it’s put into service,” said Tom Fountain, environmental health director for Leelanau and Benzie counties.

The cost of a well permit is $245, which includes water testing. While a well drilling company may take care of water sampling, the homeowner is responsible to make sure that it is done.

Homeowners sometimes skip the water testing so their well never gets certified, Fountain said.

“We send out letters reminding them to test their water, but you’d be surprised by how many people ignore that. It’s unlikely to be bad water, but you never know.”

Well drilling is a muddy, messy business, Fountain said, and the well must be disinfected before water is sampled and the well put into use.

A well is usually one of the first things installed by a homeowner. Water may need to be checked again after plumbing is completed in the home as pipes can pick up dirt and bacteria from the construction site and introduce them into the system, Fountain said.

Wells must be installed by a well driller registered and licensed by the state. A homeowner can install a well themselves — though most people don’t have the skills or equipment needed to put one in — but it’s illegal to have your buddy or neighbor come and do it for you, Fountain said.

“People can’t just go around installing wells for their friends,” he said.

Leelanau County has high quality of water, Fountain said, with the most common problem being nitrates in the water from years and years of agricultural practices.

If a new well is being installed, sometimes companies have to drill in more than one area, or put in a deeper or a shallower well to find water not contaminated with nitrates.

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