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VA Household Water Quality Program Provides Education / Affordable Testing

Water is essential for life. And for people to thrive, it also must be clean.

To help improve the well-being of communities across the commonwealth, the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Virginia Cooperative Extension provide affordable water testing kits for households that rely on private wells or springs.

These kits, along with testing and guidance, are made possible through the Virginia Household Water Quality Program spearheaded by Erin Ling, senior research associate with Extension in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech.

“We’re providing a service that has immense value beyond its cost,” Ling said. “This information directly impacts people’s health and well-being. If there are issues, we help them understand what they are and how to address them, or that they can trust their water supply and have the peace of mind.

According to Ling, more than 20 percent of Virginians rely on private wells or springs. The Virginia Department of Health regulates how wells are constructed, where they are located, and who can build or work on them. Once constructed, however, the person using the private water source is responsible for managing them and often lacks the knowledge or resources to effectively do so.

The Household Water Quality Program exists to help people get their water tested and then understand the results so appropriate action can be taken. With a network of about 120 trained Extension agents around the commonwealth, the program is offered in approximately 70 counties annually and tests for a variety of water quality issues that can impact human health.

The program relies on two research labs, both located on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus, that test for bacteria, pH, a variety of metals and other elements that could present health concerns, as well as nuisance contaminants such as iron, manganese, and water hardness.

“The biggest health concerns are bacteria getting into the water,” Ling said. “If we find total coliform bacteria, it means that water that has recently been on the surface is getting into the deeper well. Coliform is more of a warning sign, but if E. coli is present, it means that human or animal waste has entered the water supply.”

A packet of Colilert, which tests for coliforms and E. coli, dissolves in water prior to testing for contaminants. Photo by Max Esterhuizen for Virginia Tech.

If contaminants are present, the Virginia Household Water Quality Program works with the residents by providing resources and appropriate next steps.

Water testing kits are $70, which is considerably less expensive than private testing labs that routinely cost more than $300. The program often has funds available to assist households with the cost of testing, if needed.

Use of a private lab is recommended for a real estate sale, if an immediate turnaround is needed, or if additional contaminants are a concern.

To have private water supplies tested, clinics are held in each county across the commonwealth from February through November of each year. Water testing kits may be purchased at these events.  Programs are scheduled this way because he testing is time sensitive: Samples must be analyzed within 24 hours of when they are collected.

The Virginia Household Water Quality Program is a partnership between the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Cooperative Extension. The Virginia Department of Health is a key partner in reaching Virginia’s private well users. The Virginia Water Well Association, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Geological Survey regularly assist with training for the program.

By Max Esterhuizen

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