Take a look at the faucet. The toilet. The clothes washer. The lawn sprinkler. People use these household fixtures day after day and probably don't have a second thought about how the water gets into the home and flushed out.
For most homeowners, it's a take-it-for-granted government service: public water, public sewer. Many home hunters won't accept anything else. Yet, buying a home -- usually on large lots -- with a well and septic system doesn't have to be all that intimidating and mysterious.
"The vast majority don't understand their tests, their water treatment system, or what it means," said Baltimore County geohydrologist Kevin Koepenick. "They buy their homes with a false sense that it's OK. They don't know what they tested for, when, or how often they should test."
But homeowners with well and septic systems were reawakened when drought conditions this summer forced them to wonder about the condition and strength of their well.
Although recent rains have washed away fears, some wells in the area may have suffered from the drought. Nevertheless, most experts believe in the durability of the systems.
Water production, or yield, is one of most critical factors involved in a well. If the yield is too low, you may run out of water in the middle of a shower or a load of wash -- and have to wait hours for the well to replenish itself.
Yield must be tested for all new wells. The state has stipulated a yield rate of one gallon per minute on new residential wells. That means that after the well's reservoir, or water standing in the well shaft, is drawn down by a licensed contractor, the well must still pump a gallon a minute for six hours.
This shows that water is replenishing itself from fissures in the surrounding area at that rate. The more and the bigger the fissures, the better the flow. In addition, new wells (not drawn down) must be able to deliver at least 500 gallons over two hours.
Is the state mandate too low? Many homeowners fear that it is, and even attach addendums to their purchase contracts demanding higher yields. Yield has become a suburban status symbol -- sort of a macho thing among homeowners.
Even so, most water authorities say a gallon a minute is a safe minimum. That flow produces 1,400 gallons per day. Most individuals use only 50 to 75 gallons per day, according to county and state statistics.
A good yield
"People think five gallons a minute is better than one. But that's not a guarantee that the [higher-yielding] well will produce forever," said Susan Farinetti, supervisor of the well water program of the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management. "I had a well that went from 10 gallons a minute to nothing. Now they're nursing it along and looking at redrilling."
Predicting water flow often rests with the driller's knowledge of the area's geology, said C. Wayne Caswell, a Jarrettsville-based driller for 40 years in Baltimore and Harford counties.
Drillers work along with scientists to study aquifers (water-producing rock and rock fissures), the history of the area and topography. Ridge tops -- if your house is on top of a hill for example -- often produce lower yields than valleys. Coastal plains, found in areas closer to the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore, yield up to 100 gallons per minute.
"In schist [the rock beneath much of Baltimore and Harford counties] you can miss water by a few feet," Caswell said. "Churchville [in Harford County] has a lot of water -- much more than there is on Falls Road [in Baltimore County]. That's the injustice of it."
Peggy Watson knows that injustice all too well. Every few weeks a water truck pulls into her driveway to deliver a new load to her cistern. That's because her family spent thousands of dollars trying to drill eight wells on their property. No luck. They use the cistern water for washing -- and bottled water for drinking.
"It gets expensive. I'd rather have well water, but we can't," she said.
"I've heard of 5-foot differences in hitting 50 gallons per minute," Koepenick said.
Because dry weather has been troubling Maryland the last three years, drillers such as Paul Fabiszak, president of J. Edgar Harr Co., have been bombarded by questions from concerned homeowners and real estate agents.
Fabiszak says normal, conservative use is the best strategy. Just don't leave the water running when you brush your teeth or take half-hour showers. And beware of faucets, which can also waste water. If your faucet pumps two gallons per minute and your well yields one per minute, it's easier to deplete the water.
"Be sure you listen for water running. Even if there's a toilet running shut it off," Fabiszak said.
Baltimore County alone uses less than 6 percent of the estimated 70 billion gallons of water that replenishes underlying aquifers each year through precipitation. This yearly recharge is more than three times the capacity of Pretty Boy Reservoir.
Out of about 30,000 wells in Baltimore County, for example, 10 to 15 are replaced each month. Just half of those are for dry wells -- even fewer for dry wells due to drought conditions, Farinetti said. Other causes for redrilling include contamination or low yield because of real estate development -- or simply a natural shift in underground water flow or rock fissures.
Statewide numbers do show a rise in well replacements. During August, 439 wells were replaced; again, not all due to being dry from drought conditions. That's nearly double from an August average of 280 from 1994 to 1998.
As wells can run dry because of drought, they can also refill due to extensive rains -- such as what Hurricane Floyd brought to the area. However, water officials say that replenishment usually occurs over a period of years.
Farinetti, the Baltimore County well-water official, warned that droughts do have a cumulative and delayed effect. Usually in September through November, counties experience a higher number of well problems or dry wells, because it can take a few months for a dry winter or dry summer to show up in the yield.
"We're not out of the woods yet," Farinetti said.
It costs about $5,000 for a new well and pump. And, if the new well doesn't pass, you may have to shell out thousands more to try again.
You do have options. One is hydro-fracing, where water is pumped under high pressure down the existing well to widen rock fissures so more water can flow into the well.
You can also try to link two existing wells that may produce below the designated limit alone but suffice when linked. This can be successful and is approved by law. You can also switch from well to well, to give one a rest.
"The advantage is that there's a lot of stored water to use," Farinetti said. "You have two columns of water."
Wells must also be "potable," so you can "put the water in a pot and cook with it."
Many water-testing laboratories recommend testing well water once a year -- not just when you're buying or selling a home.
"People think that because they're not sick, so why test it," said Sharon Cassell, president of Cassell Testing Inc. of Hunt Valley. "They don't realize it, but the well could be contaminated. Clients even drink sewage and aren't sick because they're used to it."
Various local and state laws require that new homes have a water test for bacteria, nitrates, sand and pH or acid levels -- and that owners maintain them as potable. Again, Baltimore County is most stringent, governing new wells and existing wells on resale property.
The state accepts a maximum of 10 milligrams of nitrates per liter of water. Nitrates come from fertilizers and get into the water table, or from cow manure.
Labs also look for bacteria, one being Escherichia coli. Some types of bacteria can come from the well pump or well cap. E. coli bacteria come from fecal matter and is the more serious. In that pass-fail test, bacteria are either present or not. If it is, the well must be sanitized.
To avoid bacteria, experts suggest homeowners maintain a balanced pH level with a neutralizer in the water treatment system. Avoid dumping poisons, pesticides and oil-based paints in your drains or yard. Make sure the well cap is clean and well secured, so it doesn't allow insects inside. Insects falling into the well are a chief source of bacteria. If the well does become contaminated, it must be disinfected. Often, that involves chlorination.
Higher bacteria rates usually occur in the warmer months because there are more bugs, Cassell said, adding that the recent drought hasn't had a significant impact on the number of failing tests.
"But people don't listen. You can't tell by the odor or taste," she said.
There are other pathways to better drinking water. Filters can remove water sediment. Neutralizers can be used to balance pH, which is a measure of how corrosive or acidic water is. Drinking water that measures a pH of 5.5 is undesirable because it is too corrosive. Activated carbon removes tastes and odors.
Scum and sludge
After water comes into your home, it must go out. The secret to a good relationship with a septic system is maintenance.
Pumping out the tank every other year (experts recommend every year if there is a garbage disposal), and making sure the drainage field is in working order are the most critical points.
"The biggest mistake people make is not pumping. You need to pump often. People forget," said septic contractor Earl Preston Jr., president of Earl Gene Preston Jr. Inc. of Fallston.
At a cost of $3,000 and life expectancy of about 20 years, the septic system consists of the tank itself, which receives solid waste from sinks, toilets, showers and tubs; the plumbing to link the tank with the house, and a seepage system, usually called the drain field, that filters waste water into the soil.
Before installation, a certified soil percolation test is required. This determines the ability of the soil to handle the sewage. A few pits are dug to find soil characteristics, ground water levels and depth to bedrock.
The tank then holds the settled solids and traps floating wastes such as grease and paper products. Lighter materials form a floating layer of scum, while the solids form sludge in the bottom of the tank.
It costs about $120 to pump out a septic tank and $2,000 to $3,000 to repair a drain field. Preston recommends that septic tanks be pumped out through an opening or manhole so that the tank interior can be observed -- rather than sticking a suction hose into the tank without looking for back flow or corrosion.
If the septic tank does have water dripping back from the drain field, it may mean the field is saturated. Drain fields usually last up to 30 years. Green patches at the surface and odors are other symptoms of a saturated drain field.
The future promises more variety for septic systems. Counties are asking for filters on some systems now, though it's not mandatory. The tank can filter liquids before they reach the drain field. It's like a huge mesh sock that fits over the tank to collect particles. Every few months you have to clean the sock, like a dryer's lint stocking.
So far, the state and most counties regulate only new wells and new septic tanks. Laws initiated in 1945 stipulate detailed building and installation instructions -- in addition to required yield and potability levels. The state can require well abandonment if it is deemed a public health threat. When it comes to existing residential wells, however, legislators have opted to leave that in local hands.
"The state is responsible for new drilling because it taps into the state's natural resources. That's where our responsibility stops," said John Verrico, spokesman for the state Department of the Environment. "If something happens to the well later, it's out of our hands."
Baltimore County says it's the only Maryland county that has adopted the gallon-per-minute law in its own building codes and took it a step further to extend the laws to existing wells. That makes it among the strongest yield-testing counties in the nation.
In addition to state and local laws, most lenders now won't make loans on a resale home whose yield falls below state limits. Real estate agents must disclose yield information and laws to prospective buyers. Buyers may waive yield tests, but not bacteria tests.
Though it has no written policies on existing wells, Harford County has adopted many of Baltimore County's policies into recommendations for the building and real estate industry to follow.
Lenders demand tests
"It's not easy to get laws passed. As policy, it's working. Nobody sees a reason to change it. The policies are being respected," said Woody Williams, chief of environmental water quality for Harford County.
So can someone move to Harford from downtown Chicago and, unbeknownst to them, buy a dry well if everyone keeps mum?
Williams says it's highly unlikely. Real estate agents working in the county are well aware of the regulations and disclose well-yield levels and potability to their clients. Most lenders also demand tests.
"A lot of contracts cover yield and those things. I feel good that it's evolved," Williams said. "It would help to have it in law, though. It's great to have laws, but the enforcement requires staff. Most people are for less government."
"It's a question of the public want. Most people would prefer things to be in the private sector. Banks require the property be inspected. People are well-protected," said Ed Singer, assistant director of environmental health with Carroll County.
"We need no more legislation and regulations," said Republican state Sen. Larry E. Haines, a real estate broker in Carroll County. "The majority of Carroll homes are on wells and there's been no significant problems in the 33 years I've been in real estate."
*Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management. 410-887-2762
*Maryland Cooperative Extension at the University of Maryland. 410-631-3784
*Maryland Department of the Environment Public Drinking Water Program. 410-631-3706
*U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Safe Drinking Water Hotline. 800-426-4791
*American Ground Water Trust. 603-228-5444