CHAMPAIGN — Most people leave the safety of their drinking water in the hands of a local utility.
But for the 15 percent of Americans who depend on their own private wells, a safe drink of water requires some effort and understanding some basics about how wells work, experts say.
"A lot of times people say, 'Oh, my water is fine; it tastes great,'" says Steve Wilson, a groundwater hydrologist with the Illinois State Water Survey. "But that doesn't mean your water is safe."
Well owners come in two basic types, he says: Those who grew up with water wells, and those who just happened to buy a house with a well and have no idea what they're getting into.
For both categories of well owners, the state water survey and the Illinois Water Resources Center at the University of Illinois have put together a free, online well owners' course.
Called "the Private Well Class," it provides 10 emailed lessons on such topics as how water gets from your well to your faucet, how water becomes contaminated, basic well construction, how to maintain a well pump, testing well water and understanding the results, understanding regulations, and what to do in an emergency or equipment failure.
Wilson says one of the biggest mistakes he sees well owners make is assuming their water is safe.
Have it tested for contaminants annually, he advises.
Some other times testing is advisable: anytime the water looks or smells "funny," or anytime someone in the family is sick for no apparent reason, Wilson says.
Another mistake he sees: not maintaining the well system properly to last.
Inspect the well head each year to make sure it hasn't taken any hits with a lawn mower or otherwise been damaged, and make sure all the bolts are in place, Wilson said.
He also tells well owners to keep the area around the cap free of any contamination sources.
And how about that septic system? Are you maintaining it? Improper septic system maintenance could eventually lead to contamination of groundwater, Wilson said.
If you're putting in a new well, locate it as far from the septic tank as possible, he advises.
The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District issues construction permits for wells and does routine inspections for new and modified wells. The district also answers questions for well owners and does water sampling for coliform bacteria and nitrates, according to Jim Roberts, director of the district's Environmental Health Division.
Testing through the health district is free if there's a health concern, and there's a $49 charge for routine well water testing, he said.
Testing is also available through the Illinois State Water Survey.
Roberts agrees a proper seal and water testing are important for well water safety
"I'd think you'd want to think the water you and your family are drinking is safe," he said.
The private-well class was developed under an Environmental Protection Agency grant to the Rural Community Assistance Partnership.
On the Web
To enroll in the class: www. privatewellclass.org
More information about well water testing at Illinois State Water Survey: http://www.isws . illinois.edu/chem/psl/
Or Champaign-Urbana Public Health District: http://www.c-uphd.org/water-wells.html