An Important Part of a Contractor’s Responsibility

Learning water testing protocols can save time and provide customers with expert service.

By Gary Shawver, MGWC

I mentioned in an earlier column how my father sent me out to take a water test at a new home construction site when I was a young employee working for him.

Not knowing anything about water testing, I grabbed the hose from the hydrant and collected a sample. After doing that twice and not having the water pass the coliform bacteria test, I told my father, “We have a problem with the well.”

Well, the problem was not with the well; the problem was my lack of understanding about water testing. As the years went on, I learned a great deal about water testing, and while I learned a lot, I’m sure there is still more to know. But there are some things I did learn.

Follow Protocol

Coliform bacteria testing requires a precise protocol. While some reading this will not agree with my protocol, I respect whatever standard procedures others use. Here is the protocol I used in my business for years:

  • Find a tap, preferably brass or stainless steel and a short tap. Heat this tap with a small brazing torch to kill any bacteria lingering on the faucet. I like to have a tap close to the well and one that doesn’t have any treatment equipment before the tap.
  • Heat the faucet for approximately 30 seconds or so and uniformly heat it, moving the torch around the entire faucet.
  • Turn the water on and let it run for 4-5 minutes. This allows well pumps to start and purge the water in the pressure tank, bringing fresh water to the tap. Be sure to have a tap allowing water to drain freely without hooking up a hose to it.
  • Slow the flow from the tap to a small, uniform stream.
  • Take the cap off the sample bottle and preferably hold the cap in one hand while collecting the sample in the bottle with the other hand. I don’t like to set the cap down as there is a risk of having the cap pick up bacteria—bacteria is everywhere. Most sample labs request you don’t overfill the bottle and fill it to just below the cap.
  • Put the cap back on the bottle and secure it tightly.
  • Fill out the data sheet and get the sample to a lab as soon as possible. Most labs like to have the sample within 24 hours. Check with your local lab to confirm.

Protocol Is Key

So why do I use this protocol? I do so because as a water well contractor I want to know if the well I have installed has safe water. Getting a tap as close to the well as possible, and before any treatment equipment, gives me confidence I am getting water right from the well without any potential sources of contamination that might affect the outcome of the actual water in the well.

Many agencies overseeing water wells, their construction, or issuing permits, as well as some water testing labs, recommend taking a test from where one might obtain a drink of water. I don’t disagree with that, but while this protocol is important for the ultimate drinking safety of the consumer, it doesn’t tell a water well contractor if the water is safe coming from the well.

We have a state regulation in Iowa stating a sampling faucet be installed as close as possible to the well and prior to any pressure tank or any water conditioning equipment, including any type of cartridge filter. This faucet is also required to have no threaded fittings (to prevent hoses being hooked up to it) and be a distance of 1 foot above any floor.

This allows for a water test to be done in the manner I’ve outlined. I think it is an excellent regulation and encourage all contractors to follow this protocol when installing a new water system.

However, it is important a test be taken from a typical drinking tap to ensure the safety of the water to the final consumer.

Providing Answers

Finally, it is vitally important you become familiar with how to collect a proper water test from a well. The customer is looking at you, the well contractor or pump installer, who has done the work on their well for answers and solutions.

And while there may not be a problem with the water in the well you constructed, if you do not educate yourself and partner up with knowledgeable people who have the background and experience to help you through these issues, you may well find yourself overwhelmed with problems that frankly you didn’t create but are expected to solve.

As the years progressed and I became more familiar with issues on what could cause coliform bacteria to show up in water samples, I got to the point where I always asked a series of questions of the person taking the sample. The questions included but weren’t limited to these:

  • Where did you take the sample from? If from a kitchen sink, I would ask them to go back and retake another sample from a faucet as close to the well as possible that didn’t go through any pressure tank or filter/treatment equipment of any type. If they had a sampling faucet where the water line came into the house, I would ask them to take it there. I would also ask them to flame the faucet and let the water run for a period of time before taking the test.
  • If it was on a well that had been in use for some time, I would ask, What prompted you to take the sample in the first place? Is this a routine test or is there concern something is going on (dirty water after a rain, a lingering illness)?
  • If it was an older well and the owners had lived on the property for some time, I would ask them, Was this the first time they had ever had a problem with coliform bacteria? If they had lived there a while and this was the first positive test for coliform bacteria, this would lead me to possibly believe the structural integrity of the well may be failing.

I would always suggest the person taking the sample take a second test and follow a specific protocol on testing and get back to me with the results from the second test. I never recommended the well owner or contractor chlorinate the well until a second test had been taken to confirm if there was a problem. Depending on the situation, I sometimes did an onsite inspection before making a determination on a course of action.

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In summary, learning the proper protocol for coliform bacteria testing and learning the nuances that can cause coliform bacteria problems in wells is an important part of a well contractor’s expertise. Learn them early in your career and you will save yourself a lot of headaches, and additionally, you’ll have the experience your customers need and deserve.


Gary Shawver, MGWC, is president of Shawver Well Co. Inc. in Fredericksburg, Iowa. He has been in the water well industry for more than 40 years and is a Master Groundwater Contractor. He served on the NGWA Board of Directors. Shawver is semi-retired, having sold his business to his employees. He can be reached at grs@shawverwell.com.

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