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Homes of all shapes and sizes require running water in some form. Water can either be gathered through a well, or via connection to a city water source. But ultimately, these two water sources lead to the same question, is it safe to drink? Is the water potable? While answering that question ought to be easy, it's not always the case. Getting to know the equipment, well types and overview of a well is important for any homeowner or prospective homebuyer when evaluating any property. Be informed and know what to look for when it comes to life's most necessary element, water.


One of the most common concerns involving a home’s water well is the water's potability. Water that is not potable may pose serious health hazards. Have you recently evaluated the condition of your water well? 

Irrigation Wells
Irrigation wells are for the purpose of watering lawns, washing cars, etc. This well is separate from the domestic water supply and the water should be potable, however, some municipalities are lax when it comes to enforcing regulations on irrigation wells.

Community Wells
A community well is a private well that is shared by two or more properties.  These wells are often found in remote developments.  There may be a central water treatment plant very often regulated, tested and supervised by the municipality.

Well Springs
These are a naturally flowing source of water. Their source is a water table that is higher than the surface exit point of the water. This is referred to as an artesian well. It is becoming rare to find a spring in use in a private residence; because they are easily contaminated from surface sources and not allowed in most municipalities. Spring water should be tested frequently by the municipality to ensure that it is potable.

Properties converted from wells to public water - When a property is converted to a public water source from a well, the well is sometimes retained for irrigation purposes.  The well water must be physically separated (i.e. the pipe completely separated) from the domestic water supply.  The water from the well should still be potable and tested periodically, in the event that it is inadvertently used for drinking water.

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A driven well is a pipe with a special point that is driven into the ground to a source of water.  Driven wells are normally less than 25 feet deep, although they can be as deep as 100 feet.  Driven wells are limited to areas of sandy, rock-free soils that allow the pipe to be driven without significant interference.

Drilled wells are the most common and are either shallow (25 feet or less) or deep (more than 25 feet). Well pumps typically cannot lift water higher than 34’, and because air may be introduced by leaks or design, and the altitude of the pumping site above sea level creates limits, shallow wells are limited to 25’. When wells are deeper than 25’, a venturi is a necessary part of the ejector and lift pipe. Some of the water from the pump is diverted through the venturi, which creates a low-pressure zone. The well water that enters the low-pressure zone and the velocity of the water coming through the venturi nozzle pushes it upward, where it is captured and lifted by suction to the pressure/storage tank. The presence of the venturi gives the pump the ability to lift water hundreds of feet.

If a jet pump (not a submersible pump) is present in the basement or crawl space, and it has one pipe, it is a shallow well. If there are two pipes, it has a venturi that will allow it to draw the water up from deeper wells. Submersible pumps are located in the well, near the bottom of the drilling.

Dug wells are open bodies of water, normally 2 to 3 feet in diameter.  Dug  wells are not allowed any more due to their vulnerability to pollution from surface sources.

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Check for corrosion at the plumbing fittings and the pressure/storage tank. The galvanized steel tanks may develop rust warts or growths on the tank when they are failing. This rust is corrosion developing from inside the tank.

Pressure Gauge
Check the pressure gauge. The low limit should be 20 to 35 psi, and the high limit should be 40 to 60 psi. The delta should be about 20 psi. Turn the water on at a laundry tub or sink and note the pressure when the pump comes on and when it goes off. These pressures will be the low and high limits, respectively.

Measure Time
Measure the time it takes for the pump to go from the low limit to the high limit with no water running in the house. Depending on the size of the pressure/storage tank and the pump, it should take 1 to 2 minutes. If it less than 45 seconds, there is probably less air in the tank than there should be, however, it could also be the size of the tank and/or the pump. This is called short cycling, and the cycles may take as little as a few seconds. A well contractor with a mobile air compressor will have to figure out what is causing the short cycling, and add air or correct other problems, as may be necessary. If the cycles take too long, and there is no water running in the house, the problem may be more severe. It could be a break in the water supply line from the pump to the house, a failing pump, broken pump impellers or mud and debris clogging the pump screen. It may also mean that the well is drawing down or that there is an inadequate water supply or significantly reduced head pressure. These problems will require the services of a knowledgeable well contractor.

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The pump is located in the casing, well below the water table.

Normally located in the basement, this type of pump is a centrifugal pump with an electric motor.

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Standard Tank
Tank without a bladder or diaphragm - This storage tank is normally made of galvanized metal.  It has a pressure gauge and valve on the top for pumping air into the tank. Compressed air in the tank is what creates pressure in the system. Air is compressible, but water is not. The life expectancy of a galvanized water storage/pressure tank is approximately 18 to 22 years. These tanks are generally found in older systems; very few are discovered in modern housing.

Diaphragm Tank
Tank with a bladder or diaphragm - A diaphragm tank is a storage/pressure tank that functions the same way that a standard tank functions, however, it has a diaphragm or bladder that keeps the water and air separated. This is the most common type of tank.

A cistern is a storage tank. It is typically used to hold rainwater for irrigation, hold water  situations where the well does not produce water fast enough, or hold water that is trucked in, probably due to poor water conditions or supply at the site.  Generally, cisterns are not covered; this creates concerns for insects, debris and dust that  may affect the water.

Well Head
The well casing is normally a 6-inch steel or PVC pipe with a cap that is sealed. The head for all modern wells should be 18 inches above grade to prevent the infiltration of surface water. The well is drilled 5' to 10' into solid bedrock, then the casing is grouted with a slurry of 5% bentonite and 95% cement. These procedures are necessary to provide a proper base, stabilize the well and keep water from entering the casing from the bottom. Lightweight steel pipe is 13 pounds per foot; medium weight pipe is 15 pounds per foot; and heavy weight steel pipe is 19 pounds per foot. The PVC piping is a thick-walled pipe, designed for wells. State or local authorities dictate the piping that may be used.

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Flow and Yield

Functional Flow
One way to determine functional flow is by the amount of water that you can get from the water system at the fixtures. This is true whether it is a public or private water system. Determine whether or not there is an adequate amount of water by turning on two or more faucets. Turn on 1, 2 or 3 faucets until you get the maximum flow from each faucet, then determine if the water coming from the physically highest fixture has adequate flow. If possible, the fixtures being checked should not have flow restrictors.

For example, go to the highest bathroom in the home and turn on the water at the bathtub spout, the bathroom sink, and flush the toilet. The reason you use the tub spout is because the supply pipe is not restricted, which means that you could be drawing 3 or more gallons of water per minute from the tub spout, and possibly 1 gallon a minute from a water-saving shower head.

Functional flow, which is often confused with pressure, is related to altitude. 1 psi will lift water 2.31 inches or about 28 inches. If the bathroom is on the second floor and the water service is in the basement, it may take about 7.5 to 8 psi just to lift the water to the second floor fixtures. For water to flow out of the fixtures, more altitude pressure is needed. When you turn on these fixtures, you should see adequate flow out of the bathroom sink, because that is the highest fixture, as compared to the height of the toilet and the bathtub. This is a dependable indicator, however, if there is not adequate flow at the sink, be sure it is not related specifically to the sink. To get a sense of the systemic flow in the house, check the fixtures throughout the house.

Yield is the amount of water that flows into the well from the aquifer.  This is provided by the well driller. The well driller will use a high volume pump to draw down the well, and then measure how fast the water flows into the well from the aquifer. A yield test is not conclusive; it is only to be used as a guide as to how much water the well may yield. This is because it is a snapshot of the well, not a long-range test. There are many variables, such as the amount of rainfall the area has recently received; the level of the water table at that time; the type of aquifer; and the specific usage or demands on the well. A yield test is expressed in “gallons per minute.”  A flow rate of 1 gallon per minute would yield only 60 gallons per hour.  Therefore, to meet the requirement of the average household, you would need a storage tank with a capacity of approximately 150 gallons. Most jurisdictions have a minimum flow rate requirement.

Non Intrusive Evaluation
The quantity of water needed in the house varies widely, particularly with the number of occupants. The most demanding time for water is in the morning, prior to the business day.  It is assumed that each occupant of the property may flush the toilet twice, using 1 to 5 gallons per flush, depending on their toilets.  Each occupant of the property may typically take a shower, requiring 20 to 25 gallons of water.  A load of wash may be done, which may require approximately 35 to 40 gallons.  And a load of dishes may be washed, which may require approximately 15 gallons of water.  Therefore, prior to leaving the house on a business day, the average family of 5 may use 300 and 350 gallons of water.  This is the amount of water that we attempt to draw from the well within about 2 hours. The totals for the day may typically average 350 to 500+ gallons, depending on cooking and eating habits, the number of people and the amount of time that is spent in the home.

To measure quantity of water, you must determine that enough water is coming from the well within 30 minutes. Note: This is subject to all the variables outlined above, and should only be considered as an indicator. The water requirement could be 4 to 8 gallons per minute, depending on the municipality. If the amount of water coming from the well is not adequate, it may be necessary to install a cistern or an additional storage/pressure tank. Some authorities may not allow you to run large amounts of water for extended periods of time because there may be some situations where you could draw down the well and/or overload an on-site waste system.

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Depth and Pressure

The following is a list of the variables that can affect the production or the quantity of water that a well may be able to provide.

  • The type of soil that the well goes through. The less porous the soils are, the slower the ground water will travel to get to the well, even if there is adequate supply.
  • The availability of an aquifer in the area of the well. Higher elevations will typically have less available ground water. You may find water at 40', but have to drill 400 or more to be able to accumulate and store an adequate amount of water.
  • The weather impacts the amount of ground water that may be available for the well. Rainy seasons impact the ground water positively; dry seasons impact it negatively.
  • The head pressure in the well may resist or reduce the flow of the aquifer into the well casing, if the well is deep. The head pressure also affects the rate of water that the pump can produce. The higher the head pressure, the easier it is for the pump to lift the water.
  • The depth of the well is a significant factor, based solely on its storage capacity. A 50' deep well with a 5 GPM flow rate is not as good as a 200' well with a 5 GPM flow rate.
  • Occupancy impacts the well because the higher the demand, the more difficult it is for the well to keep up. When there are only two people and they both work, it is unlikely that there may be a problem. When the house is not occupied, it may be even more difficult to identify a problem.

The depth of any well is dictated by the following:

  • The level that the aquifers are located in the ground.
  • The amount of storage that the well contractor calculates is necessary.
  • The type of soil and the level of activity that the aquifer exhibits.
  • The depth  that the casing is embedding into bedrock (5 to 10 feet, depending on the municipality).

Water pressure varies widely.  On a well system, the normal pressure is 20 to 60 psi, with a delta pressure of approximately 20 psi.  The delta is determined by the pressure difference between when the pump comes on and when it is switched off again.  City water pressure is normally 40 to 60 psi.  In mountainous terrains, such as Pittsburgh, you may frequently find pressure-reducing valves on municipal water, as the pressures in these locales can get exceedingly high.

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Usage Profiles

Flush water closet - 1 to 5 gallons

Shower - 15 to 25 gallons

Operate dishwasher -12 to 15 gallons

Wash load of clothes - 40 to 55 gallons


  • Highest usage rate at awakening-- normally a 1 to 2 hour period in morning.
  • Each person takes a shower and flushes the water closet twice; total 25 to 35 gallons/person.
  • Each household washes a load of dishes and clothing, 50 to 70 gallons.
  • Two people per bedroom.
  • Assume a 30 to 40 gallon storage tank.

Domestic Water Required (2-hour period)

1 Bedroom/2 People
70 gal
+ Basic, 65 gal
Total 135 gal
- Storage 40 gal
95 gal
Flow Rate 1 ½ gal/min 

2 Bedroom/4 People
140 gal
+ Basic, 65 gal
Total 205 gal
- Storage 40 gal
165 gal
Flow Rate 3 gal/min

3 Bedroom/6 People
210 gal
+ Basic, 65 gal
Total 275 gal
- Storage 40 gal
235 gal
Flow Rate 4 gal/min

4 Bedroom/8 People
280 gal
+ Basic, 65 gal
Total 345 gal
- Storage 40 gal
305 gal
Flow Rate 5 gal/min

5 Bedroom/10 People
350 gal
+ Basic, 65 gal
Total 415 gal
- Storage 40 gal
375 gal
Flow Rate 6 gal/min

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Common Defects

  • Water not potable. (1 ppm of coliform bacteria is not acceptable)
  • Iron above acceptable levels
  • Manganese above acceptable levels
  • Copper above acceptable levels
  • Nitrate and/or nitrites above acceptable levels
  • Odor above acceptable levels
  • Turbidity above acceptable levels
  • Chlorine in well
  • Distance between septic system improper (<100 ft.)

Well Contamination

Sanitary water system components (well, pump, pipes, tanks and treatment equipment) are as essential to a hygienic drinking water supply as clean cooking and serving utensils are to wholesome food.

A properly designed well and water distribution system incorporates sanitary features that keep contamination from entering under normal operating conditions, but there are occasions when contaminants will enter the system. During well construction, or when pumps and other water system components are being installed, soil, grease's joint sealing compound, and other foreign materials that carry bacteria, adhere to interior surfaces of the equipment. Furthermore, most water system repairs must usually be accomplished in trenches, well pits, or other locations where opportunities for contamination are numerous.

To combat disease-causing bacteria and viruses that remain in a water system following construction, repair, or maintenance, some means of disinfecting the interior surfaces is necessary. Shock chlorination is a convenient method for doing this through the use of a concentrated chlorine solution.

Shock chlorination is occasionally confused with the type of chlorination provided in public water systems, but the two processes differ substantially. Public water supply disinfection is accomplished with a continuous application of small amounts of chlorine. The major purpose is to disinfect the water itself, and water from community water supplies commonly contains less than 1 part-per-million (PPM) of chlorine. Shock chlorination of private water supplies, however, uses chlorine concentrations ranging from 50 to 200 PPM, and the primary purpose is to sanitize wells, piping, and other equipment that the water passes through rather than disinfect the water going through the system.

Shock chlorination in private water supplies is not a continuous process and it will not protect a defective well or plumbing system from continuous entry of contaminants. Only water systems that are protected against further contamination will benefit from shock chlorination. Poorly designed or deteriorated water system components that allow contamination to enter should be repaired or replaced, then shock chlorinated.

Control of nuisance organisms that can live in a water system is another use for shock chlorination. Iron bacteria, for example, are commonly found in water supply equipment. This type of bacteria is not known to cause disease, but it thrives in some iron-bearing waters and forms large amounts of rust-colored slime that clogs wells, pipelines, and water filters. Iron bacteria growth is extremely difficult to eliminate from a water system, but it can be controlled with periodic shock chlorination treatments.

Only the surfaces that are contacted by the chlorine solution will be disinfected. The following recommendations will help to accomplish a thorough job.

Avoid adding more contaminants to the well during the disinfection procedure, clean up the work area around the top of the well. Remove grease, mineral deposits, and other encrustation from accessible parts of the well interior and scrub these surfaces with a solution of 1/2 Cup of laundry bleach in 5 gallons of water. Be sure to wash pumping equipment and piping with the chlorine solution as it is lowered into the well.

Newly constructed wells, or those that have been submerged by floodwaters, may contain substantial amounts of sediment that cloud the water and interfere with disinfection. Pump the well until the water clears before proceeding with shock chlorination.

Mix the required amount of dry compound with a small amount of water and stir thoroughly to dissolve. Let the undissolved calcium carbonate particles settle. Pour off the clear chlorine solution and use this to disinfect the well.

Place the required amount of chemical in a weighted cloth sack or in a section of perforated pipe that has been capped on both ends. Attach a rope and alternately raise and lower the chemical throughout the water-bearing portion of the well to dissolve the compound and distribute the disinfectant.

Pumping will help to mix the disinfectant with the water standing in the well. Use a garden hose to recirculate the strong chlorine solution directly back into the well. Direct the return flow onto the pump piping and interior portions of the well casing that are above the water level.

Open the faucets and hose bibs on each water line, one by one, and allow water to flow until a strong chlorine odor is detected. If a strong chlorine odor is not detectable, add more chlorine at the well. This will be necessary if the water contains substantial amounts of iron, hydrogen sulfide, or organic materials that deplete the chlorine in solution.

Drain water heaters and bleed the air from pressure tanks so that chlorinated water can completely fill and sanitize them.

  Water softeners, sand filters, and iron removal filters should be backwashed with the strongly chlorinated water. Do not chlorinate carbon or charcoal filters because this will deplete their capacity.

It takes time for the chlorine to do a thorough job of disinfecting. Allow the chlorine to remain in the water system for at least 2 hours - longer, if possible.

Before using the water supply, thoroughly flush the remaining chlorine from the system.

Minimize the amount of chlorinated water that enters a septic tank by flushing the well, pressure tank, and other large volumes of disinfecting solution through outside hose bibs. The strongly chlorinated water may harm vegetation; dispose of it on ground where damage will be minimal. Pipes that serve indoor plumbing fixtures can be flushed after the well and pressure tank have been filled with fresh water.

All concentrated chlorine solutions are corrosive, and care should be taken to avoid splashing them onto skin or into eyes. Rubber gloves, goggles, and protective aprons are recommended when handling chlorine solutions. Skin areas contacted by the disinfecting solution should be flushed immediately with clean water.

Never mix chlorine solutions with compounds containing acids or ammonia to improve their cleansing ability because toxic gases will form.

Both liquid and powdered chlorine sources lose strength with time. Exposure to heat, light, and moisture (if the compound is powdered) accelerates decomposition of the materials. Accordingly, buy fresh chemicals in small quantities to avoid storage losses. Always read and follow the manufacturer's recommendations for handling and storing powdered and liquid chlorine compounds.

Strongly chlorinated water may damage the elastic air-water separator or air bladder used in some pressure tanks. Check the manufacturer's recommendations if your pressure tank is equipped with this feature.

Follow-up testing for bacteria is an essential part of the shock chlorination procedure. Wait a few days after shock chlorinating before collecting the water sample. If bacteria are still entering the water system, it may take several days for detectable amounts to show up in a water sample.

Do not drink the water until results from the water test indicate the supply is safe. It's a good idea to retest a few weeks later to be sure that all points of entry for contamination have been blocked. Bacterial contamination is most likely to enter a well during wet weather when the water table is high and excess surface water seeps into the ground. A well that shows little or no signs of bacterial contamination during dry weather may be heavily contaminated during wet seasons.

If a water system continues to show bacterial contamination following shock chlorination, it may be necessary to hire a plumber or well driller to help locate and repair places where contamination enters.

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Water Softener

What is a water softener?
The typical water softener is a mechanical appliance that's plumbed into your home's water supply system that helps eliminate minerals in the water that make it “hard”.

How does it work?
All water softeners use the same operating principle. They trade the minerals for something else, in most cases sodium.  Water passing through the mineral tank loses positively charged calcium and magnesium ions to negatively charged plastic beads. The brine tank holds a salt solution that flushes the mineral tank, replacing calcium and magnesium ions with sodium. A meter at the top of the mineral tank regulates recharging cycles. The valve assembly routes water flow for each phase of the regeneration cycle.

What does it do?
Water comes from the ground. it picks up soluble bits of whatever it passes through.  This basically means that the water contains minerals found in the earth. Of these, calcium and magnesium are of particular importance because they affect the water's ability to function in our homes. These minerals make our water hard.

One effect of hard water is that soaps and detergents lose some effectiveness. Instead of dissolving completely, soap combines with the minerals to form a coagulated soap curd. Because less soap is dissolved, more is required. And the sticky insoluble curd hangs around-it clings to the skin and may actually inhibit cleansing. Washed hair seems dull and lifeless and you still feel dirty after your bath or shower.

In the laundry, things aren't much better. The soap curd can work its way into your clothes as they're being washed in your automatic washing machine. This can keep dirt trapped in the fibers, and it can stiffen and roughen the fabric, as well as cause allergic reactions.

In addition to affecting the actual washing process, insoluble soap deposits leave spots on everything you wash-from your dishes to the family car-and a soap film will build up in your bath and shower.

Another reason to be concerned about hard water is its effect on your plumbing system. Calcium and magnesium deposits can build up in pipes, reducing flow to taps and appliances. In water heaters, these minerals generate a scale buildup that reduces the efficiency and life of the heater.

What does it look like and what are the parts?
Water softeners are usually comprised of two tanks, the mineral tank (full of small negatively-charged plastic beads) and the brine tank (full of salt crystals), and a control system that recharges or regenerates the system.

Recharging the system typically involves three phases;  A backwash phase that removes dirt from the mineral tank. A recharging phase that recharges the mineral tank with sodium from the brine solution displaces calcium and magnesium, which is then washed down the drain. The final phase rinses the mineral tank with fresh water and loads the brine tank so it's ready for the next cycle.

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