Private Drinking Water

Private Drinking Water

diagram of groundwater wells

Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada

If your water does not come from a town or city water system, you are using a private drinking water source. Types of private drinking water sources include drilled wells, shallow dug wells and groundwater springs. About three out of 10 Vermont households drink water from private wells. 

You are responsible for testing the quality of your drinking water and maintaining your well or spring. Private wells for household use are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the State of Vermont, except if you drill a new well.

    Private Drinking Water Sources

    The three main sources of private drinking water in Vermont are drilled wells, dug wells and springs. These sources draw drinking water from groundwater. Surface water is another source of drinking water for some, but is not recommended as a drinking water source for private residences.

    Drilled Wells
    drilled wellDrilled wells, also called artesian wells, draw water from aquifers deep below the ground. They are constructed using well-drilling equipment and can range from a depth of less than 100 feet to 1000 feet. Drilled wells are typically 6 inches in diameter and cased (lined) in steel pipe. The only part of a drilled well you see is about 18 inches of the well casing and the well cap.

    Sometimes drilled wells can be flowing artesian wells when the water continuously flows up and out of the well. This is due to pressure within the aquifer pushes the water above the land surface naturally without the use of a pump.

    The casing is installed to seal the well from contaminants that may be in the sand, gravel or till above the bedrock. Typically drilled wells have a lower risk of contamination from surface runoff, but are more susceptible to contamination from minerals naturally occurring in the bedrock. However, if the space between the well casing and the borehole has not been grouted, contaminated surface water may enter the well.

    Inspect your drilled well regularly for cracks or holes in the well casing, corrosion, loose wires, frost heaving and soil settling. The well cap should be attached securely to the well casing with no gaps or holes. Make sure snow, leaves and other materials are not piled on or near your well.

    You can find a list of licensed well drillers and other resources from the DEC. As of April 2019, testing for new groundwater resources for single-family residences is required. Learn more about the new drilled well testing requirements.

    Watch a video on common problems with wells and how to fix them

    Dug Wells
    dug wellDug wells (also called bored wells) draw water from shallow water tables. They are usually about 15 feet deep and are constructed by a shovel or backhoe. Dug wells are about 3 to 4 feet in diameter and are cased (lined) with stone, brick, tile or other material to keep them from collapsing. They are covered with a cap of wood, stone or concrete. 

    A dug well should be cased with watertight material (such as tongue-and-groove precast concrete) and a cement grout or bentonite clay sealant poured along the outside of the casing to the top of the well. This will help keep contaminants out of the well.

    Because dug wells draw from shallow water tables, they are generally more vulnerable than drilled wells to surface water contamination. Common contaminants in surface water could include bacteria, nitrates from farm fields or septic leachate, or road salt from nearby roads.

    It can be difficult to keep dug wells free from microorganisms. We recommend installing an ultraviolet (UV) light, a chlorinator or another permanent disinfection solution. We also recommend more frequent bacteria testing (for example, after heavy rainfall or drought).

    Watch a video on common problems with wells and how to fix them

    Springs
    groundwater springA spring is a place where groundwater emerges from an opening in the land surface, usually along hillsides, at the base of slopes, or in low areas.

    Springs are susceptible to contamination from surrounding land use because water feeding them typically flows through the ground for only a short distance. This limits the amount of natural filtering that can occur.

    It is difficult to keep springs free from bacteria contamination. We recommend installing an ultraviolet (UV) light, a chlorinator or another permanent disinfection solution. We also recommend more frequent bacteria testing (for example, after a heavy rainfall or drought).

    Roadside springs are not considered a safe drinking water source as they are not protected from contamination from upstream land use such as spreading of manure, mining, or dumping of chemicals. Roadside springs are not regularly tested for bacteria or other contaminants.

    Surface Water

    Surface water is the water in rivers, lakes, and ice and snow. Drinking water contaminated by organisms, such as cryptosporidium or giardia, can make you sick. Untreated surface water from rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds is not safe to drink unless it is treated to remove bacteria, viruses and parasites.

    Surface water can easily become contaminated. Many different things can cause it to be contaminated, which can change over time. An area of lake or stream that is fine one day may be contaminated the next. Microorganisms can come from sewers and septic systems, boat toilets, animals, agriculture and other sources. Human-made chemicals — such as gasoline, oil, pesticides and heavy metals — can come from discharge pipes, chemical storage areas, gasoline tanks, oil drums, or anywhere chemicals have been used close to open water.

    Because of this, the Health Department does not recommend using surface water for drinking water for private residences.

    You need to get a permit from DEC to install a surface water drinking system and sign a statement. It can only be for one single-family residence. Strict treatment and construction standards are required. See the Wastewater System and Potable Water Supply Rule for details.

    The only surface waters that may be used as drinking water sources are lakes and ponds that the DEC has approved and Lake Champlain (except for St. Albans Bay, Missisquoi Bay, and portions from the Lake Champlain Bridge south). Do not use streams for drinking water. 

    How to Make Sure Your Water is Safe to Drink

    Test your drinking water regularly. The Health Department recommends testing for bacteria (Kit A) every year and inorganic chemicals (Kit C) and gross alpha radiation (Kit RA) every five years.

    Inspect your private drinking water sources regularly. The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) sets standards for location, construction and water quality testing of drilled wells, dug wells and springs. The DEC also requires all well drillers in Vermont to be licensed.

    Keep chemicals away from your private water supply. Store and dispose of household and lawn care chemicals and change engine or transmission oils or other car fluids as far from your water supply as possible. Check with your town or local solid waste district for the best ways to recycle or dispose of chemical products.

    If you think there is an issue with your private drinking water:

    • Contact the Drinking Water Program for treatment options or for questions about contaminants in drinking water and their health effects. Call 802-863-7220 or 800-439-8550 (toll-free in Vermont).
    • Contact the Health Department Laboratory for a testing schedule, to order test kits, or to discuss your water test results. Call 802-338-4736 or 800-660-9997 (toll-free in Vermont).

    Information for Real Estate Transactions and Rental Properties

    Real Estate Transactions and Private Water Sources

    If you are selling your home and you are not on a public water system, then you are required to give the buyer a copy of Well Water Testing: A Home Buyer’s Guide.

    When buying or selling a home on a private drinking water source, it is important to have the water tested. As a home buyer, you will know your water will be safe to drink, and as a seller, you can avoid delays and problems with selling your home.

    The best time to have the water tested is before a home goes on the market. It will give you a heads up on potential issues with the water, and allows time to treat the water before the sale.

    Real estate agents can help buyers and sellers get the information they need to make sure a home’s private water source is safe. If results show the water is free from contaminants, that can be an added bonus for sellers and peace of mind for the buyers.

    Some mortgage companies require a basic potability test that only tests for bacteria. These tests do not meet the Health Department’s definition of potability. Certain types of mortgages such as a VA or FHA loan will have stricter requirements on testing. Please contact your mortgage company to inquire about the tests they require.

    To meet the requirements of the Health Department’s definition of potable water, test the water using all three test kits in the Vermont Homeowner Testing Package. Be aware that it can take a few weeks to get test results back. If any result comes back high, find out what treatment options are available.

    Rental Properties and Private Water Sources

    Under Vermont’s Rental Housing Health Code, private drinking water provided to tenants must be free from harmful levels of contaminants. This means that state law requires the water to be tested and treated if contaminants are found above the Health Department’s drinking water standards.

    If you are a landlord:

    • Test the private water source provided to your tenants following the Health Department’s recommended private drinking water testing schedule.
    • If high levels of contaminants are found, find out what treatment options are available.

    If you are a renter:

    • Test your drinking water by either asking your landlord to do it, or ordering the test kits yourself.
    • If you are concerned about your private drinking water quality and are unable to ask your landlord to test your water, contact your Town Health Officer for help.
    Free Assessments for Private Wells and Springs

    RCAP Solutions, the northeast affiliate of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, offers free and confidential assistance to Vermont residents to identify potential problems with private wells or springs.

    Through this EPA-funded program, RCAP Solutions will:

    • perform a well assessment at your home
    • help you understand how to protect your private water source from contamination
    • provide personalized recommendations for simple steps you can take to build confidence in your water system.

    RCAP Solutions may also be able to help you sample your water, interpret the test results, and if necessary, review treatment options.

    Fill out a well assessment request form to get started.