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Ramseys: Test your home's drinking water for safety's sake

Barbara Ramsey,Clair Ramsey

Most new homeowners and prospective buyers assume a home has good water quality since previous homeowners drank the water. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, and occupants are not aware until a health problem occurs.  

Since many homes in Alaska have private wells, what can you do to protect your family’s health? The Municipality of Anchorage requires sellers provide a certificate of on-Site systems approval, or COSA, before selling a single-family residence. Most towns or boroughs in other parts of the state do not have any such requirements. As part of the COSA, well-water is tested for fecal coliform bacteria (sewage contamination), nitrates (natural byproducts of the breakdown of organic material) and arsenic. However, other contaminants in the water may also affect your family’s health. Knowing when to be concerned is important.

For example, arsenic is a highly toxic, naturally occurring contaminant that is typically associated with the geology of a water source. Arsenic is frequently found in pocket areas. Areas containing high arsenic levels have been found in Anchorage, Wasilla, Fairbanks, Bethel, Homer, and on the Seward and Kenai peninsulas. Arsenic is a suspected carcinogen that slowly accumulates in the body, increasing the chances of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The EPA acceptable level for arsenic in water is 10 parts per billion.  

If you are concerned about your home’s water quality, consider testing the water using the private individual water analysis. The municipality's portion of the required water test is $250, so for an additional $280 you can add on the more comprehensive PIWA. Done alone the cost is $530. The PIWA tests for many substances including coliforms, nitrates and arsenic, but also chloride, sulfate, lead, copper, aluminum, barium, cadmium, calcium, chromium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, silicon, silver, sodium, zinc, conductivity, total dissolved solids, hardness, alkalinity, and pH -- to name a few.

For a buyer, obtaining a PIWA water test prior to recording gives you a good baseline. If something does happen later to your water quality, you’ll know what factors have changed. The cost is worth getting a professional, scientific opinion.  

When you test is also important.  Water quality can change seasonally. Contaminants in groundwater may become diluted in spring and fall as the aquifer is recharged by spring snowmelt or fall rains. Consequently, during winter months contaminates could be higher without the addition of rain or snowmelt.

If testing discovers a problem, a separate point-of-use system for drinking and cooking water may be all that is needed.  Another option is to install a whole house system. The installation cost varies depending on your needs, the type of system, and the amount of use. The simplest solution would be a point-of-use system at the kitchen sink and fill a water bottle for bedroom and bathroom use.

Once you have settled into your new home, test your water periodically to make certain quality remains within safe limits. If you do it yourself, the water testing facility can help answer questions, as well as provide the proper sampling bottles. Follow the directions very carefully because different tests require different procedures. For example, when testing for lead and copper you need to take water immediately out of the tap as opposed to other tests that require the water to run a while through the pipes. Additionally, to get accurate results, exercise care when taking water samples. Avoid contaminating the water sample with bacteria from your hands.

Drinking water is an important part of our daily routine. Do not take your drinking water for granted -- know what is in the water. 

Barbara and Clair Ramsey are local associate brokers specializing in residential real estate. Their column appears every month in the Daily News. Their email address is info@ramseyteam.com.