Water Well Journal Q&A


The fifth-generation contractor works in a testing laboratory and on the back of a drill rig.

By Thad Plumley

Shawn Lyons has been a part of the water well business as long as he can remember.

Shawn Lyons

On occasion he tagged along on jobs of his grandfather, Glenn Lyons, and was introduced to customers of Lyons Well Drilling Co. Inc. as the “fifth generation helping today.”

When he was 14 years old, he spent a summer helping disassemble a laboratory the family business had purchased from a blacksmith shop, applied new paint to the loose pieces, and then rebuilt it so the company could have the only state-licensed water testing laboratory in Stockton, Illinois.

Lyons now has more than 30 years with the company, does work in that laboratory every day, and often behind the company’s drill rigs and truck cranes.

The multi-generational company drilled its first well in 1885. The laboratory was built in 1998. Much of the work in the lab is microbiology testing, speciating, and chemistry work relating to nitrates, nitrites, arsenic, inorganic contaminants (IOCs), volatile organic contaminants (VOCs), and synthetic organic contaminants (SOCs). A wastewater lab was added in 2003.

It’s a whole lot.

“I’ve kidded myself about leaving a futon in the back to sleep on,” Lyons says. “A normal week for me would be 40 hours-plus in the lab. I run two rotary drills and have two truck cranes that keep me busy as well.”

Lyons in the lab, where much of the work includes microbiology testing, speciating, and chemistry work relating to nitrates, nitrites, arsenic, inorganic contaminants (IOCs), volatile organic contaminants (VOCs), and synthetic organic contaminants (SOCs). Photo courtesy Lyons, Lyons Well Drilling.

His grandfather, Glenn Lyons, was the National Ground Water Association president in 1995 and given the Association’s highest honor, the Ross L. Oliver Award, in 2003. Shawn’s father, Larry Lyons, the president of Lyons Well Drilling, was NGWA’s president in 2005. Shawn is now on the Illinois Association of Groundwater Professionals Board of Directors himself.

“I am the third generation to have served on the IAGP board, so it is an honor but scary thing too,” Lyons says. “When I look at new and old pictures, I see the same faces and last names. We are a rare breed in that we follow in our fathers’ footsteps. I bet one, if not both, of my sons or my daughter will be on the board someday realizing the same thing.”

Water Well Journal: Which water quality questions do you hear most from your customers?
Shawn Lyons: Is my water safe to drink? Most calls consist of a bad taste or odor coming from the water. I always ask what the toilet tank looks like because I can usually determine what treatment would be best.

But not much further into that discussion do I suggest a bacteria and nitrate test. If you’re spending money on a filter or conditioner, let’s make sure the well is worthy of such spending. Most wells in my area are more than 100 years old.

When I meet with a customer to drill a well, I tell them to wait one year before treating the water. That’s always helped make a solid foundation for spending dollars on a treatment system that works the first time. We have glacial deposits in some areas that left behind heavy minerals that can take a while to show up in the well water.

WWJ: What’s the general water quality in your service areas in Illinois and Wisconsin?
Lyons: It’s hit and miss with high-ferrous iron, hundreds of IRBs (iron-related, non-coliform bacteria) or non-gram, negative-type sulfide gas, magnesium, and calcium. The closer you get to the Mississippi River or any manmade lake with a subdivision, you’ll have elevated nitrate levels. I have a few country towns that have the lower clay and shale layers loaded with E. coli bacteria.

All in all, what I deal with in the tri-state area is similar to the wheel of fortune every day. It’s bank or bust with the water sample analysis.

WWJ: What is one of the most challenging water quality issues you’ve solved in the last five to 10 years?
Lyons: One was getting a positive for total coliform on a known good well and plumbing system. We found that peroxide at a certain percentage helped dissolve the slime we encountered plus oxidized the iron bacteria as well. It’s my little go-to option when someone comes to me with five or six well shock failures in a row.

WWJ: What is a challenge facing customers with water well treatment needs?
Lyons: Where customers are led astray is when a lab tells them what’s in the water, but that lab has no idea how to remove it or what caused the problem in the first place. Customers want to find a treatment specialist who knows what to test for or has a good lab that can recommend certain tests.

WWJ: What are the first steps a contractor should take when looking to offer water treatment as a service to their customers?
Lyons: Test that water at the source! If you offer water quality testing, don’t collect a sample and send it off to a lab to be analyzed.

Once that water hits atmospheric pressure, it changes dramatically. Your pH starts to change in less than five minutes; sulfur content changes by the seconds; I could go on and on.

Spend the money on a good base line field test kit. We do all of ours onsite from the customer’s tap.

WWJ: What does effective water treatment mean to you?
Lyons: A one-stop shop is what we all like, right? It’s the same with designing a system. Customers don’t want to change that basement bedroom into a filtration room loaded with multiple resin tanks, brine filters, and injector pumps galore. Keep it simple. I always set up a single stand-alone system with no detours to other filters or injectors.

Far too often I’ve walked in on these so-called Cadillac water systems that don’t do anything but take out a third mortgage on the homeowner and need 100 square feet of space.

WWJ: How are you handling the detection and treatment of PFOA and PFOS in your service areas (Illinois and Wisconsin)?
Lyons: The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has been following what the U.S. EPA has set and the state is wrapping up on a program of testing the municipalities. This took 12 to 15 months to complete, and as of now we have several municipal wells that have been forced to shut down due to these contaminants being present. I keep a close eye on it. Nothing is being said about private water and I haven’t had any calls about testing for it yet.

WWJ: What trends do you seem coming to those working in water treatment?
Lyons: What I see in the not-so-distant future for all of us is a ban on or limit to what we do with our waste lines from regen filters.

Take for instance an arsenic filtration system: when it cleans itself, where is that waste going? On top of the soil? Sump pit into a drain tile? Waste treatment facility? It doesn’t matter because it’s sending high levels of arsenic or whatever is being filtered out down the waste line to creeks and streams and entering our soils and contaminating our surface waters.

Studies have shown where if it’s concentrated enough, it can even weaken the limestone! It’s the same with these RO filters; I think they’ll soon be categorized as biohazard waste and we’ll have to take them to a special dump or recycle center.

Some waste treatment farms are being overrun with high levels of chlorides or other issues. Some people have been forced to seek other options like citric acid filters or ion exchange systems in response. Personally, I have never worked with these yet, but I’m sure those days are coming. So, start thinking of how and where we will have to go with all this highly contaminated backwash. Think of it like a catalytic converter, but for our softener instead of our gas engines.

Thad Plumley is the editor of WWJ and director of information products at the National Ground Water Association. He can be reached at tplumley@ngwa.org, or (800) 551-7379, ext. 1594.