A compound formed when nitrogen and oxygen combine, nitrate is a natural contaminant in many private wells in the US. While nitrogen is essential for survival, elevated nitrate levels in drinking water can have dangerous health consequences.
It goes without saying that if you’re a well owner, you should make sure that your levels of nitrate are minimal. But you won’t know that your drinking water contains high levels of nitrate without testing for this impurity.
In this guide, I’ll be sharing how nitrate/nitrite gets into your drinking water, how to know if you have high levels of nitrate, and the steps to remove this contaminant if you find it in your well.
Table of Contents
⚛️ How Does Nitrate/Nitrite Get Into Well Water?
Nitrate/nitrate is a natural chemical compound that can occur in ground and surface water. There are a number of ways that high levels of nitrate can get into a well, including:
- Poor well construction
- The location of a well itself (i.e. near septic systems, animal feedlots, etc.)
- Improper local waste disposal
- Fertilizer overuse nearby
- Poor industrial practices
Flooding can make wells more susceptible to nitrate contamination from the likes of septic systems, especially shallow wells, or wells that are flooded for a long time.
🧐 How Do I Know if I Have Nitrates in My Water?
Both nitrate & nitrite are tasteless and odorless. This means that you won’t smell or taste nitrate in drinking water, making it all the more dangerous.
Because nitrate has no clear characteristics, you could consume it in high levels without even knowing. The only way to know whether your water contains this contaminant is to test for it.
🧪 Should I Test My Water for Nitrate/Nitrite?
Nitrate/nitrite is a relatively common natural compound. Nitrate levels are on the rise around the world, especially in agricultural areas, as a result of increased inorganic fertilizer use and applications of animal manure.
While it is filtered out of public water supplies, it’s your responsibility as a well owner to remove nitrate from your well and ensure your drinking water is safe for consumption.
A review of studies looking at the health effects of nitrate in drinking water found that nitrate consumption has been linked to thyroid disease and neural tube defects. The majority of studies found that even ingesting water nitrate levels below the current regulatory limits (10 parts per million, or PPM, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA) can increase the risk of these health effects.
With so many potential health effects even from low nitrate consumption, you should certainly look into testing your well water if you want to keep yourself and your family safe from this contaminant.
Note that nitrogen testing is far more important for well owners than for people who get their water from a city supply. While nitrate in water is filtered out in municipal treatment, you don’t have this security as the owner of a private well.
🔎 How to Test for Nitrates in Drinking Water
Because nitrate and nitrite pose the biggest problems in well water, not city or municipal water sources, testing options are limited.
It’s unlikely that you’ll find an at-home water testing kit that can test for nitrite, nitrate, nitrogen, and so on. Testing for nitrate is more complicated, and it’s well worth investing more money into a method of testing that will accurately inform you of how much of this contaminant your water contains. For this, I would suggest accredited laboratory testing.
Accredited Laboratory Testing
You will find plenty of certified laboratories in your state that provide professional drinking water nitrate testing packages.
When getting your water tested by an accredited laboratory, you will need to collect a sample of your water in a vial or container sent to you by the lab. You should then post the sample to the laboratory, and wait up to 48 hours for your test results to be emailed to you.
I recommend using Tap Score by SimpleLab to test your well water for sources of nitrate. The Essential Well Water Test provides information on which common well water contaminants your water contains, including hardness, turbidity, iron, lead, mercury, nitrate and nitrite.
🙋 What Can I Do If My Water Tests Positive for High Levels of Nitrate?
If your private well water tests positive for sources of nitrate, switch to bottled water while you look into the following water treatment solutions:
Ion exchange systems are installed at a home’s point of entry and provide whole-house water softening benefits. These systems are typically used to treat water hardness, but they can also be used to remove nitrate.
Inside a water softener is a resin bed, which is regenerated with sodium ions. Water flows through this resin bed, and sodium ions are exchanged with hardness minerals. This is known as ion exchange.
Anion exchange units follow the same process as water softeners, but they use chloride instead of sodium in the resin. The nitrate ions are attracted to the chloride ions, and the impurities are exchanged in a process known as anion exchange.
When it becomes saturated with nitrate ions, the resin bed will regenerate, replenishing its chloride ions. This allows for anion exchange to continue at the same level of effectiveness throughout the unit’s lifespan.
Ideally, your water should have high nitrate and low sulfate levels for the most effective anion exchange to take place. This is because chloride attracts both nitrate and sulfate, and sulfate tends to be favored, so you may not get the contaminant removal you had intended on.
Reverse osmosis treatment is another popular nitrate removal solution for private well owners. This type of unit is usually installed at a point-of-use location, like underneath your kitchen sink, and on average can remove 83-92% of the nitrates in the water in addition to TDS, or total dissolved solids.
There are several filters inside a reverse osmosis unit, most commonly including a carbon filter, a sediment pre-filter, and a semi-permeable membrane. Water is forced at a high pressure through each filter stage, which work together to trap a broad range of contaminants.
Nitrate and nitrite are removed at the membrane stage of RO filtration. This membrane contains tiny pores that allow only water particles to pass through, while almost every other contaminant is left behind, and is flushed out of the system with wastewater.
Reverse osmosis units rely on filter changes to continue to operate effectively. The pre- and carbon filters will need changing after between 6 and 12 months of use, while the RO membrane can typically last for 2 years. Always check the manufacturer recommendation to get on the right maintenance schedule.
You can buy an RO unit for around $200-$500, depending on the brand and the system’s efficiency. Traditional RO filters waste up to 4 gallons of water for every 1 gallon produced, but the more efficient systems now only waste 1-2 gallons of water for 1 gallon produced.
Distillation takes place in a distiller, a countertopmachine that boils, evaporates and condenses water. Impurities that can’t evaporate – including nitrate – are left behind in the boiling chamber. Water travels out of the chamber and condenses into a clean container, separate from its contaminants.
The distillation process is highly effective, removing almost every single contaminant. Distillers also also cost-effective, as they don’t require filter changes, and they’re affordable up-front (some distillers cost as little as $100 or less).
There are a couple of setbacks of distillation to be aware of. First, distilled water can taste quite “flat”, as distillers remove all impurities, including healthy alkaline minerals. Additionally, distillation is a lengthy method – it can take between 4 and 6 hours to produce 1 gallon of distilled water. If you have a large family and plan to filter all your drinking water, a distiller may not be adequate for the job.