Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet

Ohio State University Extension

Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering

590 Woody Hayes Dr., Columbus, Ohio 43210

Water Testing


Karen Mancl

People in more than 750,000 Ohio households depend on their own well, spring, or cistern for drinking water. Individual water supplies of this sort are private. Water testing or water treatment is usually not required. The exceptions are bacteria tests for new or altered private water systems and dairy water supplies, which must be tested for bacteria and meet dairy industry standards.

Water testing and treatment are expensive and inconvenient, but are the only way a homeowner can ensure a safe and reliable water supply. Individuals using public water supplies pay for water testing and treatment as a part of their water bill. Individuals operating a private water system do not have this benefit and must see to the testing and treatment of their water.

Choosing Water Tests

Testing water for every contaminant is possible but very expensive and not necessary. It is more important to test on a regular basis for a few indicators of contamination and to maintain a record of water quality. This helps to identify changes in the supply, contamination of the water source, or deterioration of the water system. Good records of water quality are also important should you need to prove that your water has been contaminated by some outside activity such as mining or waste disposal.

Routine Testing

Standard laboratory procedures identify the amounts of specific bacteria, chemical compounds and other components that affect water quality. Most important are routine annual water tests, even if no obvious water problems exist.

Household water supplies

Test for:

Livestock and poultry water supplies

Test for:

Testing Nuisance Waters

Other tests identify particular problems and help in selecting water treatment equipment. Nuisance water may not be satisfactory for all uses but still may present no health hazard. Common complaints include staining of fixtures and fabrics, off-color appearance, unusual taste or odor, and deposits and pitting of metals. Listed on the next page are useful laboratory tests for nuisance water.

Laboratory Tests for Nuisance Water

SymptomAppearance Test
Stained fixtures and clothes red or browniron
reddish-brown slimeiron bacteria
green or blue copper
Off-colorcloudy turbidity
black hydrogen sulfide, manganese
brown or yellowiron, tannic acid
Unusual taste and odorrotten egg hydrogen sulfide
metallicpH, corrosive index, iron, zinc, copper, lead
saltytotal dissolved solids, chloride
septic, musty, earthytotal coliform bacteria, methane
alkalipH, total dissolved solids
gasoline or oilhydrocarbon scan
Corrosive waterdeposits, pittingcorrosion index, pH, copper, lead

Testing for Suspected Contamination

Water tests are especially important if the supply is threatened by nearby activities. Good records prior to contamination will be needed to prove that the supply was damaged. Listed below are activities that may affect a water supply and useful laboratory tests.

If you suspect/observe Request these tests
Leaking fuel tank hydrocarbon scan
Coal mining total dissolved solids, iron, sulfates, acidity, pH, corrosion index, manganese, aluminum
Gas and oil drilling total dissolved solids, chlorides, sodium, barium, lead, pH, corrosion index, strontium
Road salt total dissolved solids, chloride, sodium
Landfills total dissolved solids, pH, COD, volatile organic scan
Sludge utilization bacteria, nitrate, metals (lead, cadmium)
Septic systems fecal coliform bacteria, fecal streptococcus, nitrate, surfactants
Intensive agricultural use total coliform bacteria, nitrate, pesticide scan, pH, total dissolved solids

Collecting Water Samples

Proper collection and handling of a water sample is critical for a meaningful water test. Sample containers should always be obtained from the testing laboratory because containers may be specially prepared for a specific contaminant. Sampling and handling procedures depend on the water quality concern and should be followed carefully. If the water is being treated, it may be necessary to sample both before and after the water goes through the treatment equipment.

Bacteria Sampling

Water samples for bacteria tests must always be collected in a sterile container. Take the sample from an inside faucet with the aerator removed. Sterilize by flaming the end of the tap with a disposable butane lighter. Run the water for five minutes to clear water lines and bring in fresh water. Do not touch or contaminate the inside of the bottle or cap. Carefully open the sample container and hold the outside of the cap. Fill the container to overflowing, and replace the top. Refrigerate the sample and transport it to the testing laboratory within six hours (in an ice chest). Many labs will not accept bacteria samples on Friday so check to find out the lab's schedule. Mailing bacteria samples is not recommended because laboratory analysis results are not as reliable.

Iron bacteria forms a very obvious slime on the inside of pipes and fixtures. A water test is not needed to identify it. Check for a reddish-brown slime inside of a toilet tank or where water stands for several days.

Chemical Sampling

Sample bottles used to collect water for chemical analysis often contain a fixing compound to prevent loss or breakdown of specific chemicals. Always obtain these sample bottles and instructions from the testing laboratory. Run water at an inside tap for five minutes to clear the lines and bring in fresh water. Follow instructions for filling sample bottles and transport samples to the testing laboratory as quickly as possible via personal delivery or overnight mail service.

Hydrogen Sulfide Sampling

Hydrogen sulfide is a gas with a distinctive odor (rotten eggs). The gas escapes from water very quickly, so if needed, measurements of hydrogen sulfide concentrations must be made immediately, on site. In most cases this will not be necessary. If the odor is present, hydrogen sulfide is present.

Corrosion Sampling

When sampling for evidence of corrosion, allow the water to stand in the water lines overnight or longer. Do not let the water run before collecting a sample because water held in the pipes will have corrosion products. Take the sample from an inside faucet with a laboratory container. Deliver the samples to the laboratory in person or use an overnight mail service.

Organic Chemical Sampling

Many organic contaminants are volatile and will escape from solution when aerated. Take extra care when collecting these samples. Remove the faucet aerator and let water run for 5 minutes to clear the pipes and bring in fresh water. Partially close the faucet until a slow steady, non-aerated stream of water flows. Hold the laboratory sample bottle at an angle to reduce aeration when filling. Fill the bottle completely and replace the cover. Invert the bottle and check for air bubbles. If bubbles are present, empty and take another sample. Take the sample to the laboratory in person if possible or use an overnight mail service.

Sampling for Court Cases

Sometimes water samples are taken for evidence in a court case to show pollution or damage to a water supply. These samples should always be collected by a disinterested third party, trained in proper sample collection, who can testify as to how the sample was handled. Use an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency/Ohio Department of Health (OEPA/ODH) certified laboratory for all water testing. Your record of routine sampling provides evidence about your water supply before pollution or damage.

Test Results

The laboratory sends out water test results anywhere from a few days to a few weeks after receipt of samples. Water test results often list the drinking water standards to help you interpret the results. Contact your county Extension agent, your county health department or the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for assistance in interpreting test results and determining corrective action. File your water test report in a safe place for future reference.

All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extension are available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without regard to race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.

Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and Director, OSU Extension.

TDD No. 800-589-8292 (Ohio only) or 614-292-6181

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