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What to expect – when you are on a well

Real Estate Agent with CB Valley Broker

Whether you are buying rural property or even are just at the outskirts of a town, chances are your water supply will come from a well.

That by and in itself does not need to be an issue.  The majority of wells are delivering plenty of water of decent quality and treatments are readily available should you have a hardness problem or need to filter Iron etc out.

A problem only arises if the well runs dry. And that is a very serious issue.  The following will attempt to summarize the problems and suggest possible solutions.

What can you do to prevent your well from running dry?

Nothing, unless you are Superman, can X-ray the ground and drill only where there is enough water for the next 10 generations. But you can gather a lot of information before you sign off on your well inspection.

In Oregon the seller has to deliver “potable water”, the mandatory tests are for Coliform Bacteria, Arsenic and Nitrate.  The buyer can add a “Peace of Mind” test, which tests for dozens of additional potential contaminates.

Then there is the well flow test. This test is usually being done for 4hrs and delivers an average flow rate. Lenders accept usually around 5 Gallons per Minute (GPM) for lending purposes.

5GPM are plenty of water for a “normal” household, some plant irrigation and even filling a good size above ground pool once a year. It is when the well production goes down when the trouble starts.

The reasons can be plentiful: A general drought, more development with more residences taping into the same aquifer, or simply the exhaustion of the water at the spot where the well is located.

A user will not necessarily notice any problems – until one day (according to Murphy’s Law usually when you are under the shower fully lathered with soap and shampoo or alternatively while you are preparing for a dinner party ) all of a sudden the water flow first goes down to a trickle and then stops.

Within 10-15 min you now should have a flow again, it just takes a little while until the water level is back to pump more into the system. But this is a serious warning sign.

It could of course be that you have a significant leak somewhere in your irrigation or (even better and much more fun) under the house and are losing water by the gallons, so check for that!

Most likely though, at this point you should call a well company and have a new flow test done. Let’s say your well is down to 2GPM, it is the end of summer and has not rained in 3 months.  Then you might have gotten a warning but have still time to react.

There are measures you can take right now: Building a holding tank and/or explore a site for a new well.

The holding tank is in any case a very good measure. Should you run completely out of water you can call a water trucking company and have water delivered to fill the tank.  That will at least be a last resort in any case.

Now onto the well itself. Obviously if the water level drops significantly that is a warning sign not to be ignored.  But how to find a productive well on your property?

There are numerous ways, from dousing (finding water with a stick, aka well witching) to geological surveys to simple (but enormously valuable) experience.

Dousing I personally would not invest thousands of $$$ in to drill and try if it works but that is just me.

Drilling a new well is expensive, I am betting my money more on geological facts and the experience of a well driller who is in the business for decades and ideally has drilled successfully all around the property in question.

To find the facts look for geological surveys, a map that shows the geological formations in your area. A lot of counties have those online. Then there are companies that perform geological surveys for property or have already performed them and sell the results. Look for “geological survey” or “water survey” and similar categories online to find a company like that.

To find a good well driller go to the county or state well logs for your area and look up which drilling company has been drilling wells around you for decades. Then hope they are still in business. If not try at least to find the guy who owned that company and ask him for his expertise. (In the interest of the usual PC (political correctness) you can also look for the gal..). The company that does your flow test is also a potentially good source for a recommendation.

Ideally your geological research and the well driller’s expertise and advice are coincidental and you agree on a spot that is most promising.

The well logs around you will also tell you how deep the wells in your area usually are. That will give you an indication (not a guarantee, you are dealing with nature and she is not liable or at least not sue-able) of the cost as drilling is charged by the foot.

The well driller also needs a flat and reachable spot so calculate the excavator and (unless you are a DIY arborist) the site clearance.  When the well is drilled and you found water you also need the infrastructure for the new well, a pump, a pressure tank, electricity to the site and pipes to access the water and connect the house.

Overall it seems like a good idea to start a “well fund” when you buy a house on a well unless yours is an Artesian Well (which runs on positive pressure aka water coming up without being pumped) or has a flow like 30GPM.  If you just put $50 per month away for this potential expense and your well runs for 10 years and then needs replacement you might have the drilling cost already in your account. And if your well still runs with 30 GPM after those years, get a vacation!

In any case, when being on a well, I highly recommend

  • having a flow test performed at least every two years. It is an inexpensive way to either have peace of mind or to be able to prepare. 
  • Find the geological facts for the property
  • Talk to a well expert who has drilled wells in your area for a long time and ask for his opinion about the viability of the well in question
  • Consult the well logs around you, see when wells were drilled where and what they yielded. If you see drill attempts that yielded nothing across the street, dig deeper (into the fact finding)
  • Start a savings account in case you need to get a new well one day.

Living on a well is in most cases easy and unproblematic so don’t panic. But being well informed and making decisions based on facts and expert advice is certainly wise when dealing with Mother Nature.

Comments (6)

Scott Fogleman
Richmond, VA

Annette- Great information for anyone wanting to purchase a home with a well.

Jul 20, 2013 06:59 PM
Lenn Harley
Lenn Harley, Homefinders.com, MD & VA Homes and Real Estate - Leesburg, VA
Real Estate Broker - Virginia & Maryland

5 gallons per minute????

Loudoun County Virginia requires only 1 gallon per minute. 

Jul 20, 2013 08:18 PM
Richard Burge Realty/ Burge Homes
Richard Burge Realty/Burge Homes - Conway, SC
Broker in Charge/Owner

Our well water in the area needs a conditioner to  remove rust and salt.  Surface wells at the coast can be only 15 feet deep but the water is not very good to drink only to irrigate. I have seen the inside of dishwasher and showers completely orange from the water stains. 

Jul 20, 2013 09:32 PM
Annette Sievert
CB Valley Broker - Corvallis, OR
Corvallis, Oregon

Iron treatments are not cheap, Richard, but they are not a big deal to install.

Lenn, a 1GPM is something that would deeply disturb me, from there it is a small step to losing water completely


Thanks Scott, feel free to spread it

Jul 21, 2013 01:16 AM
Debbie Reynolds, C21 Platinum Properties
Platinum Properties- (931)771-9070 - Clarksville, TN
The Dedicated Clarksville TN Realtor-(931)320-6730

Annette, You are extremely knowledgeable on the subject of wells. I haven't sold a house with a well in almost 30 years. Most of our properties have available water lines.

Jul 21, 2013 01:20 PM
Annette Sievert
CB Valley Broker - Corvallis, OR
Corvallis, Oregon

Thanks Debbie, it really is a question of the area, in a big city this is of course obsolete, not here though

Jul 21, 2013 01:41 PM