Layman's lab: Drinking water tests simplified by Extension tool

Unless you are a chemist, arsenic and trihalomethanes are probably of little consequence to you, or so you might think. But what if these are in your water supply? The Water Resource Extension Group in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences worked with several partners to develop a new Drinking Water Interpretation Tool Web page that can help homeowners understand the significance of chemicals found in laboratory water test results of their well, spring or cistern.

"Pennsylvania is one of the few states that does not have any regulations on private water supplies," said Bryan Swistock, extension water resources specialist. "More than 1 million homes in Pennsylvania use private water systems, half of which never have been properly tested."

There are no statewide regulations to monitor the location, construction or testing of private water supplies, leaving homeowners to properly manage their water alone. "As a result, we see lots of wellhead problems with inadequate well caps, wells that lack a seal around the well casing and improper land use nearby that can cause water pollution," Swistock explained.

The Penn State Water Resources Extension Group, along with its Master Well Owners Network and the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, has adapted the Drinking Water Interpretation Tool, which was developed at Colorado State University, for use in Pennsylvania. Users can enter results from any commercial water-test report and the Web tool will "decode" the results. The site addresses bacterial and chemical contaminants; aesthetic issues such as turbidity, color units and odor; and levels of corrosivity, providing a full interpretation of water quality.

The "results" page breaks down the laboratory test figures into a table of information, with links to additional information for any water test results that do not meet drinking-water standards.

Perhaps the most helpful aspect of the results page is a short paragraph answering the question, "Does the sample meet water-safety standards?" This section details each parameter, outlining the nature of the pollutant (bacteria, liquid or industrial solvent, to name a few), its origins, how it enters a private water supply and the associated threats posed when levels exceed acceptable standards. The section also provides information on how to remove or treat contaminants.

"Managing your own water supply can be very challenging," said Stephanie Clemens, Master Well Owner Network coordinator. "Water testing through state-certified laboratories is a critical component in the proper management of a private water supply, but the results can be hard to decipher. This online tool really helps homeowners understand their drinking-water quality so they can make informed decisions to solve problems."

Penn State's Master Well Owners Network is an organization of volunteers who are trained to promote the proper construction and maintenance of private water systems in the state and throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region. The Master Well Owners program is sponsored by the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment and is facilitated locally by Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Find the Drinking Water Interpretation Tool at

For more information concerning drinking water and wells, visit Water Resources Extension online at or the Pennsylvania Master Well Owners Network at This site offers fact sheets, videos and other resources on everything from interpreting water-test results to choosing a well location, safeguarding your well from contaminants and properly solving existing problems.

Last Updated April 13, 2009