By Brian Oram
In the beginning of my career, I worked as a field and laboratory technician. I spent two days a week collecting water samples for real estate transactions and one day a week speaking to the buyers, trying to schedule or review the results of a water sampling event.
Rather quickly, I discovered the following:
- Most real estate professionals and mortgage lenders did not know a lot about drinking-water quality, water wells, public water supplies, or water treatment.
- My state had very few guidelines or standards related to private wells or private water systems, and there was not a central “health department” to recommend a set of parameters. Most testing was limited to checking only bacterial quality and nitrate, even though the region had significant problems with corrosion, nuisance bacteria, iron, manganese, and, in some cases, high total dissolved solids.
Within about six months, I recommended to our laboratory manager that we change our process for collecting samples for real estate transactions and develop an education program. We implemented these changes:
- Compiled a summary of the common drinking-water problems within the area using published data from the state and the U.S. Geological Survey.
- Developed a standard of practice for our assessment that included evaluation of the well and well cap; documentation of the type of water-treatment systems used; collection of both an untreated and a treated water sample; and field-testing of all samples for pH, conductivity, temperature, turbidity, and estimated total dissolved solids. We also trained the home inspectors to use our lab in this process and chain of custody.
- When we provided the third-party collection and chain-of-custody services, we took photos and looked at the aeration devices and in back of the toilet tanks, and we flushed the water heater tank to look for evidence of water issues, such as greenish scale, gray powdery deposits, blue staining, water odors, discolored water, and even gas (methane). Yes, water wells in Pennsylvania had methane gas, and we discovered that some private wells there produced salty water (not road salt, either).
- Over time, we started offering a tiered testing and sampling protocol that included a combination of certified and informational water-quality testing conducted by approved environmental laboratories.
- We did not provide just the sample results, but also a review of the data in plain language that the buyer and seller could understand.
The result of this work was that our initial sales went down, and we were no longer cost-competitive with other companies. But it was more important to help the buyer to make a good decision and the seller to identify problems that could be easily addressed. With time and word of mouth, we became more popular in the water-treatment space because we were able to identify problems and issues proactively.
Dealing with Issues Early
Our laboratory was hired to conduct a basic water test for total coliform, E. coli, nitrate, and nitrite for a real estate transaction. I was told the home was serviced by an on-site well and there was no water-treatment system. I arrived at the property and found several critical issues:
- The on-site well had a cracked cap, and the cap was very loose on the well.
- When the well cap came off, two snakes and a lot of ants came out of the well.
- The system had a whole-house particle filter that was completely black and red, there was blue-green staining on all basins, and slime dripped out of some of the faucets.
I called the client and reported my observations and sent photos. I recommended that the client make basic improvements to the water system before the certified testing was completed.
Because I was able to conduct a visual inspection of the home, and the evidence suggested a problem with bacteria, iron and manganese, and corrosion, I recommended that the certified testing include the detection of heterotrophic bacteria, iron, manganese, arsenic, alkalinity, total hardness, and first-flush copper, lead, and zinc. It was well worth the additional cost, because if these problems had been identified after the sale, the homeowner might have needed to spend an additional $6,000 to $12,000 to address them.
Building a Real Estate Testing Plan
For water-treatment professionals conducting testing for real estate transactions, we recommend these steps:
- Be the solution. Attempt to be the local solution for the residential or commercial real estate buyers and sellers in your area. This may mean compiling local water-quality data and, because we do not know what we do not know, working with other local professionals, such as well drillers or geologists.
- Consider conducting field water-quality assessments as part of the process. At a minimum, offer this service to your clients and look under the aerators, in the basins, and inside the toilet tank.
- Review the data and provide more than just the testing results. The combination of your observations and the results may suggest a problem that requires additional assessments.|
- Document the presence or lack of a problem. Noting that the water does not smell and is not discolored is just as important as noting when the water smells and has a yellow appearance.
- Be sure to follow all local and industry standards of practice, but do not let these processes prevent you from identifying a potential problem.
About the author
Brian Oram is a licensed professional geologist, certified professional soil scientist, licensed well driller, and certified sewage enforcement officer. He conducts certified baseline water-quality testing and trains water samplers in proper sampling and chain-of-custody practices. Oram is the owner of BF Environmental Consultants, Inc. and owns and maintains the Knowyourh2o.com portal.
About the company
BF Environmental Consultants, Inc. is an environmental consultant service related to water and wastewater development and operations, low-impact development, and professional training. It also maintains the Homeowner Outreach Program through its KnowYourH2O Program.