As a private well owner, you are responsible for ensuring that your water is safe to drink. What do you know about where well water comes from? Do you know how well water can become contaminated? If you want to learn about steps you can take to help ensure your drinking water is safe to consume and about what you can do to help protect groundwater quality, join us at our upcoming workshop. We will cover how private wells and septic systems work, maintenance, protecting drinking water quality, and disaster preparedness for this upcoming hurricane season.
The workshop will be offered on Thursday, April 13, 2023, from 5:00 pm – 7:30 pm at the Jackson County Agriculture Offices, 2741 Penn Ave., Marianna. You can also attend virtually viaZoom. Registration is $5.00 per person. Facilitated water screening for total coliform and E. coli bacteria is available for FREE! Please register using this Eventbrite link, or you can also register by visiting the Jackson County Extension Office, 2741 Penn Avenue, Suite 3, Marianna (850-482-9620). This workshop is being presented by UF/IFAS Extension Bay, Calhoun, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington Counties.
For lead and nitrate testing prices and additional details, visit our Eventbrite page or call the Jackson County Extension Office at 850-482-9620. Pre-registration is encouraged as seating is limited, but as mentioned previously, a virtual option is also available. For persons with disabilities requiring special accommodations, please contact the Extension Office (TDD, via Florida Relay Service, 1-800-955-8771) at least ten working days prior to the class so that proper consideration may be given to the request. UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.
Are you a Florida homeowner connected to a private well and/or septic system? Do you know want to learn more about your water and wastewater management systems at home?
If so, please join the UF/IFAS Central and Northwest Florida water resources regional specialized agents Yilin Zhuang and Andrea Albertin, in our four free private well and septic system webinars in February and March:
Thursday, February 9 at 2:00 p.m.: Private Wells 101
Thursday, February 16 at 2:00 p.m.: Septic System 101
Thursday, February 23 at 2:00 p.m.: Private Well Care Before and After Storms
Thursday, March 2 at 2:00 p.m.: Septic System Care Before and After Storms
After completing the webinars, attendees will also receive free mail-in well water screening for total coliform bacteria and E. coli.
Many residents in the Florida Panhandle rely on groundwater from private wells for home consumption. While public water systems are regulated federally to ensure safe drinking water, private wells are not regulated. Well users are responsible for ensuring the safety of their water.
Recommended practices to protect your well water quality
Basic care at and around your well will reduce the risk of contaminating your well water.
Make sure that the well is properly sealed at the surface to keep pollutants from getting directly into your well and groundwater. A sanitary seal or sanitary well cap (which caps the surface end of the well casing) keeps surface water, pathogens, insects and other animals, chemicals, liquid fuels, and debris from getting directly into your well. Grout, which works as a sealant, is used to fill the space between the well casing and the edge of the borehole when a well is drilled. It prevents surface water from flowing down along the outside of the well casing directly to the groundwater being drawn by the well.
Keep the area around your well clean and accessible.
Make sure there is at least a 75 ft separation distance between your well and your septic system (this is required in Florida).
A well shouldn’t be close to (no less than 75 ft) or downhill from an animal enclosure.
Don’t store chemicals, fertilizers, or fuel near your well or in a well house.
Don’t use a well (residential or agricultural) as a chemical mixing station.
What should you test your well water for and where can you have it tested?
At a minimum, the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) recommends testing drinking water annually for bacteria (total coliform bacteria and fecal coliforms, usually E. coli). Other contaminants that they recommend testing for include nitrate, lead, and pH.
Depending on where you live and current or past activities in your area, other contaminants may affect your well water quality. Call your local health department to see what they advise testing for. It’s also important to reach out to them for testing recommendations when:
There is a change in the taste, appearance, or odor of your water
There is recurring gastrointestinal illness or other unexplained illness in the household
Your well is flooded or damaged
You have a spill of oil, liquid fuels, solvents, or other chemicals into or near your well
Any time services or repairs are done and the sanitary seal on your well is opened
Many county health departments provide testing for bacterial contamination at a minimum. If they do not offer testing for a particular contaminant, they can help point you to commercial labs in the area for testing. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) also maintains a list of certified water testing labs, which you can search by county. Through good maintenance practices and annual testing, you can help maintain your well water quality.
If your private well was damaged or flooded due to hurricane or other heavy storm activity, your well water may not be safe to drink. Well water should not be used for drinking, cooking purposes, making ice, brushing teeth or bathing until it is tested by a certified laboratory for total coliform bacteria and E. coli.
Residents should use bottled, boiled or treated water until their well water has been tested and deemed safe.
Boiling: To make water safe for drinking, cooking or washing, bring it to a rolling boil for at least one minute to kill organisms and then allow it to cool.
Disinfecting with bleach: If boiling isn’t possible, add 1/8 of a teaspoon or about 8 drops of fresh unscented household bleach (4 to 6% active ingredient) per gallon of water. Stir well and let stand for 30 minutes. If the water is cloudy after 30 minutes, repeat the procedure once.
Keep treated or boiled water in a closed container to prevent contamination
Use bottled water for mixing infant formula.
Where can you have your well water tested?
Contact your county health department for information on how to have your well water tested. Image: F. Alvarado Arce
Most county health departments accept water samples for testing. Contact your local department for information about what to have your water tested for (they may recommend more than just bacteria), and how to collect and submit the sample.
You can also submit samples to a certified commercial lab near you. Contact information for commercial laboratories that are certified by the Florida Department of Health are found here: Laboratories certified by FDOH
This site includes county health department labs, commercial labs as well as university labs. You can search by county.
What should you do if your well water sample tests positive for bacteria?
The Florida Department of Health recommends well disinfection if water samples test positive for total coliform bacteria or for both total coliform and E. coli, a type of fecal coliform bacteria.
You can hire a local licensed well operator to disinfect your well, or if you feel comfortable, you can shock chlorinate the well yourself.
You can find information on how to shock chlorinate your well at:
Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension Service also provides detailed instructions on shock chlorination in both English and Spanish: Shock chlorination brochure in English and Spanish
After well disinfection, you need to have your well water re-tested to make sure it is safe to use. If it tests positive again for total coliform bacteria or both total coliform and E. coli call a licensed well operator to have the well inspected to get to the root of the problem.
Well pump and electrical system care
If the pump and/or electrical system have been underwater and are not designed to be used underwater, do not turn on the pump. There is a potential for electrical shock or damage to the well or pump. Stay away from the well pump while flooded to avoid electric shock.
Once the floodwaters have receded and the pump and electrical system have dried, a qualified electrician, well operator/driller or pump installer should check the wiring system and other well components.
Remember: You should have your well water tested at any time when:
A flood occurred and your well was affected
The color, taste or odor of your well water changes or if you suspect that someone became sick after drinking your well water.
A new well is drilled or if you have had maintenance done on your existing well
There has been any type of chemical spill (pesticides, fuel, etc.) into or near your well
The Florida Department of Health maintains an excellent website with many resources for private well users: FDOH Private Well Testing and other Reosurces which includes information on potential contaminants and how to maintain your well to ensure the quality of your well water.
Contact you local county health department office for information on how to test your well water. Image: F. Alvarado Arce
Residents that rely on private wells for home consumption are responsible for ensuring the safety of their own drinking water. The Florida Department of Health (FDOH) recommends private well users test their water once a year for bacteria and nitrate.
Unlike private wells, public water supply systems in Florida are tested regularly to ensure that they are meeting safe drinking water standards.
Where can you have your well water tested?
Your best source of information on how to have your water tested is your local county health department. Most health departments test drinking water and they will let you know exactly what samples need to taken and ho w to submit a sample. You can also submit samples to a certified private lab near you.
Labs commonly test for both total coliform bacteria and fecal coliforms (or E. coli specifically). This usually costs about $25 to $30, but can vary depending on where you have your sample analyzed.
Coliform bacteria are a large, diverse group of bacteria and most species are harmless. But, a positive test for total coliforms shows that bacteria are getting into your well water. They are used as indicators – if coliform bacteria are present, other pathogens that cause diseases may also be getting into your well water. It is easier and cheaper to test for total coliforms than to test for a suite of bacteria and other organisms that can cause health problems.
Fecal coliform bacteria are a subgroup of coliform bacteria found in human and other warm-blooded animal feces, in food and in the environment. E. coli are one group of fecal coliform bacteria. Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but some strains can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, and respiratory illnesses among others.
Why is it important to test for nitrate concentration?
High levels of nitrate in drinking water can be dangerous to infants, and can cause “blue baby syndrome” or methemoglobinemia. This is where nitrate interferes with the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. The Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) allowed for nitrate in drinking water is 10 milligrams nitrate per liter of water (mg/L). It is particularly important to test for nitrate if you have a young infant in the home that is drinking well water or when well water is used to make formula to feed the infant.
If test results come back above 10 mg/L nitrate, use water from a tested source (bottled water or water from a public supply) until the problem is addressed. Nitrates in well water can come from fertilizers applied on land surfaces, animal waste and/or human sewage, such as from a septic tank. Have your well inspected by a professional to identify why elevated nitrate levels are in your well water. You can also consider installing a water treatment system, such as reverse osmosis or distillation units to treat the contaminated water. Before having a system installed, contact your local health department for more information.
In addition to once a year, you should also have your well water tested when:
The color, taste or odor of your well water changes or if you suspect that someone became sick after drinking well water.
A new well is drilled or if you have had maintenance done on your existing well
A flood occurred and your well and/or septic tank were affected
Remember: Bacteria and nitrate are not the only parameters that well water is tested for. Call your local health department to discuss your what they recommend you should get the water tested for, because it can vary depending on where you live.
Flooding along the South Prong of the Black Creek River in Clay County on September 13, 2017. Photo credit: Tim Donovan, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
As hurricane season is upon us again, I wanted to share the results of work that UF/IFAS Extension staff did with collaborators from Virginia Tech and Texas A&M University to help private well owners impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey last year. This work highlights just how important it is to be prepared for this year’s hurricane season and to make sure that if flooding does occur, those that depend on private wells for household use take the proper precautions to ensure the safety of their drinking water.
About 2.5 million Floridians (approximately 12% of the population) rely on private wells for home consumption. While public water systems are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ensure safe drinking water, private wells are not regulated. Private well users are responsible for ensuring the safety of their own water.
Hurricanes Irma and Harvey
In response to widespread damage and flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida in August and September 2017, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VT) received a Rapid Research Response Grant from the National Science Foundation to offer free well water testing to homeowners impacted by flooding.
They partnered with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension’s Well Owner Network (run by Diane Boellstorff and Drew Gholson) and us, at UF/IFAS Extension to provide this service. The effort at VT was led by members of Marc Edward’s lab in the Civil Engineering Department: Kelsey Pieper, Kristine Mapili, William Rhoads, and Greg House.
VT made 1,200 sampling kits available in Texas and 500 in Florida, and offered free analysis for total coliform bacteria and E. coli as well as other parameters, including nitrate, lead, arsenic, iron, chloride, sodium, manganese, copper, fluoride, sulfate, and hardness (calcium and magnesium). Homeowners were also asked to complete a needs assessment questionnaire regarding their well system characteristics, knowledge of proper maintenance and testing, perceptions of the safety of their water and how to best engage them in future outreach and education efforts.
Response in the aftermath of Irma
Although the sampling kits were available, a major challenge in the wake of Irma was getting the word out as counties were just beginning to assess damage and many areas were without power. We coordinated the sampling effort out of Quincy, Florida, where I am based, and spread the word to extension agents in the rest of the state primarily through a group texting app, by telephone and by word of mouth. Extension agents in 6 affected counties (Lee, Pasco, Sarasota, Marion, Clay and Putnam) responded with a need for sample kits, and they in turn advertised sampling to their residents through press releases.
Residents picked up sampling kits and returned water samples and surveys on specified days and the samples were shipped overnight and analyzed at VT, in Blacksburg, VA. Anyone from nearby counties was welcome to submit samples as well. This effort complemented free well water sampling offered by multiple county health departments throughout the state.
In all, 179 water samples from Florida were analyzed at VT and results of the bacterial analysis are shown in the table below. Of 154 valid samples, 58 (38%) tested positive for total coliform bacteria, and 3 (2%) tested positive for E. coli. Results of the inorganic parameters and the needs assessment questionnaire are still being analyzed.
Table 1. Bacterial analysis of private wells in Florida after Hurricane Irma.
Number of samples (n)
Positive for total coliform (n)
Positive total coliform (%)
Positive for E. coli (n)
Positive for E. coli (%)
Of 630 samples analyzed in Texas over the course of 7 weeks post-Hurricane Harvey, 293 samples (47% of wells) tested positive for total coliform bacteria and 75 samples (2%) tested positive for E. coli.
What to do if pathogens are found
Following Florida Department of Health (FDOH) guidelines, we recommended well disinfection to residents whose samples tested positive for total coliform bacteria, or both total coliform and E. coli. This is generally done through shock chlorination by either hiring a well operator or by doing it yourself. The FDOH website provides information on potential contaminants, how to shock chlorinate a well and how to maintain your well to ensure the quality of your well water (http://www.floridahealth.gov/environmental-health/private-well-testing/index.html).
UF/IFAS extension agents that led the sampling efforts in their respective counties were: Roy Beckford – Lee County; Brad Burbaugh – Clay County; Whitney Elmore – Pasco County; Sharon Treen – Putnam and Flagler Counties; Abbey Tyrna – Sarasota County and Yilin Zhuang – Marion County.
We at IFAS Extension are working on using results from this sampling effort and the needs assessment questionnaire filled out by residents to develop the UF/IFAS Florida Well Owner Network. Our goal is to provide residents with educational materials and classes to address gaps in knowledge regarding well maintenance, the importance of testing and recommended treatments when pathogens and other contaminants are present.
Remember: Get your well water tested if flooding occurs
It’s important to remember that if any flooding occurs on your property that affects your well and/or septic system, you should have your well water tested in a certified laboratory for pathogens (total coliform bacteria and E. coli) and any other parameters your local health department may recommend.
Most county health departments accept samples for water testing. You can also submit samples to a certified commercial lab near you. Contact your county health department for information about what to have your water tested for and how to take and submit the sample.