Brown well water after earthquake
August 24, 2011 7:09 AM   Subscribe

Our well water is brown after the earthquake -- should I be concerned?

After yesterday's earthquake, I noticed that our well water is brown. I first noticed this in the toilets this morning, both the bowl and tank are filled with a muddy-looking water, and you cannot see down to the bottom.

Water running from the tap looks OK and tastes OK. I did some laundry last night after the quake and took a shower this morning and did not notice any discoloration or odd smells or tastes. I refilled our dogs' water bowls and the water looks clear. It only seems to be brown in the toilet tanks.

A cursory Google search shows me this should be a concern if the water is brown after a rainstorm, however, it has rained several times and there have been no problems.

My gut instinct tells me that some dirt was probably just shaken into the well from the quake, and the water should clear up in a few days. However, if it's not safe to be drinking the water, I'd like to know about it. I'm buying bottled water for now, just in case.

Some background information:

Our house is in north-central Maryland. We closed on the house in May.

The house was built in 1990. According to a sticker on the circuit breaker panel, the well pump was installed in October 1989 and I do not believe it has ever been replaced. The pressure tank and water softener system were replaced in 2008 (according to the previous owner). The turbidity filter was last changed in April (again, according to the previous owner) and is due to be changed in October. I had a well-and-septic inspection done in late March as part of the home buying process; the water quality and pressure passed with flying colors -- no bacteria present, mineral levels normal for the area. There is a new RO filter system (also installed in 2008) which supplies a special tap on the kitchen sink as well as the ice maker in our freezer. We get most of our drinking water from the special kitchen sink tap.

Should I be concerned?
posted by tckma to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Update: I called the company who did our well and septic inspection and explained the situation. I was told that someone would get back to me.
posted by tckma at 7:20 AM on August 24, 2011

Dumb question -- you say that the well water is brown, but it sounds like the only place you're noticing it is in the toilets. Are you certain that it's the well, and not something in the septic system that got stirred up?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:34 AM on August 24, 2011

It probably shook up some sediment, and that took a while to run through the pipes and make it into the house supply.

Your gut instinct is probably right, but i wouldn't run anything off of the RO system until you see the water clear up again so as to avoid clogging up the RO membranes.
posted by gjc at 7:34 AM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

@EmpressCallipygos -- I doubt it's the septic, because the water in the toilet TANK is brown too (as well as in the bowl).
posted by tckma at 7:36 AM on August 24, 2011

Having been through two >7 earthquakes, this was a fairly common issue amongst the people in this area. We had brown water in the Hector Mine earthquake but didn't notice any change immediately after the Landers quake (turns out a mile long fissure tore our water line in 2). Our problems turned out to be harmless sediment, but everyone was initially advised to not use the water until the problem was identified.

And, as a sidenote, we're way out in the middle of nowhere but CA and AZ National Guard helicopters had delivered ice and canned water to us within 12 hours thanks to a county with a great disaster plan. The local breweries switched from canning beer to canning water minutes after the quakes.
posted by buggzzee23 at 7:53 AM on August 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think you and gjc nailed it. Also, you should probably unplug the line to your ice maker for the time being, so that it doesn't automatically draw water through your RO filter.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:55 AM on August 24, 2011

In order to shut water to the ice maker, I need to shut off the kitchen tap as well, they are (stupidly, in my opinion) on the same valve in the basement. It's not a big deal to do that, just annoying.
posted by tckma at 9:03 AM on August 24, 2011

It means you've had intrusion into your supply by something, but until you've checked it out, better safe than sorry. The most common safety issue will be bacterial, usually from sources contaminated by agricultural use (manure spreading on fields, for example). It's impossible to tell visually or by odor/taste if the water is safe or not.

I would want to boil and/or use bottled until it's been tested. Testing isn't very expensive and should be fairly quick.

Even if the water is safe, sediment in the water is very hard on RO systems. They clog really easily and the repair cost (membrane replacement) can be costly. You will want to turn off the system for now and change your prefilter before you start it again.
posted by bonehead at 9:36 AM on August 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Today the water is still brown, but a much lighter brown (I can see to the bottom of the toilet). My well and septic inspector referred me to a water testing company. I called the water testing company and was told that this was happening a lot with wells in the area after the quake. They said I should hook a hose to the pressure tank, run the well out "for a few hours," let the well refill, and check if the water has cleared up by filling the bathtub.

If the water has not cleared up I should call back for a test.

Is there a home testing kit I can pick up at a Home Depot or Lowe's (or local hardware store)? I get the feeling I'm going to have a tough time getting someone out to the house to test the water.
posted by tckma at 6:56 AM on August 25, 2011

There's really no (good) home test kits for what you want.

Does your township or local government offer testing? The ones in Ontario will.

If not, you might try your yelow pages under water quality testing. A decent lab should be able to provide you with a jar or two to bring in to them. If all else fails use a new, clean jam jar and cover with a piece of aluminum foil (then seal as normal). They generally need about 1L/qt of water.
posted by bonehead at 10:47 AM on August 25, 2011

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