Horrible Private Water System Scenarios

Discussion in 'Pumps and Tanks Well Forum & Blog' started by Dunbar Plumbing, Feb 26, 2009.

  1. This short story will soon get some serious mileage across the net, but I'm sure there are those who have heard of far worse.

    Customers I work for, they are from England. They bought a house 3.5 years ago in my area, had Culligan come out to check inspect a Culligan brand RO system along with a softener.

    Culligan did a on-site water test and once they found out it was cistern water, test proved to be that the water was fine.

    Fast forward 3.5 years, no filter changes on the RO system, cistern never cleaned and never refilled with trucks hauling water in because the cistern is so large, in combination with roof area to compensate/refill during the smallest of rainfalls.

    They've never cleaned the gutters either.

    They told me that about a month ago, the water started to smell like "hot dogs"

    and she took that as kinda comical. Remember, in England they don't have the problems they do here in the states.

    3.5 years that cistern was never cleaned, neither was those RO filters. I lifted that cistern lid and almost puked right into the opening when I flashed a light inside there.

    Inside, was cat's corpse, half floating inside this cistern with a mold pattern growing around where the body is,

    The opening from the gutter that runs into the cistern and down the wall? Black sludge all the way down the wall with green mold edges,

    A yellow haze in the water itself along with debri galore.

    I asked if they poured any chlorine in the cistern.....at any time, no. Never. They went off that statement by Culligan and not once did anyone mention maintenance of this private water system.

    I can't even begin to describe the smell of this water when I opened the lid, but these people have been drinking, and bathing, using this water for cooking all this time.

    The last snowfall when it melted is what triggered the smell change.

    This woman, the more I divulged this to her, the more scared she became, and grossed out. I wouldn't swear to it but I bet she went inside and ralphed after I told her what was in the cistern. You could just tell that she was getting queazie real quick.

    The only thing I've seen somewhat remotely close to this situation was a old lady who was fighting mad about being forced by the state to put a bathroom inside her house, which she thought was absolutely disgusting to do so, crapping inside the home. She had a outhouse she'd been using for years without any problems, and thought it was dead wrong for putting such vile things inside a home. ???

    Her kitchen was built right over top her cistern, the person who put the kitchen sink plumbing in shot it right out the wall, where a gutter picked up the rest of the travelling wastewater and dump it immediately over a hill to the road.

    I was called out to this property to replace a water pump and bladder tank that was strategically placed in this same bathroom where a door with a cutout for a sink was used above it.

    The call was "Soap suds coming out of the faucets" ???? :eek:

    When I walked outside to the front of this house where the kitchen sink drain did a redirect through an old gutter laying on the ground that when they cut grass, never got put back...

    You could see where the ground sunk down 2' right at the wall of this kitchen, the same wall that served as the cistern.

    When I went into kitchen to pull the cistern lid that was covered with a old carpet, a light revealed it all;

    That kitchen wastewater was wicking through that cinder block wall because the water level in the cistern was considerably lower. Nobody ever thought to tar that wall to stop infiltration from the outside in.

    That water was so murky and milk colored, and apparently food particles made their way back into the cistern because cracks in the mortar were clearly evident from the daylight that could be seen from afar.

    This woman prepared meat, food, vegetables, anything you can imagine and when she washed her dishes, cleaned anything in that sink, whether she'd dump poisons or chemicals for whatever reason...

    it was coming right back into that cistern, diluting into the water supply.

    That woman offered me a glass of water that day, 18 years ago and I refused because the glass looked dirty and the water wasn't cold enough, even though it came out of her fridge.

    People can become their worst enemies of themselves when they don't know the specifics of their plumbing systems, and how to correctly maintain them.

    If you have a horrible water quality situation that you've seen heard or witnessed, post it here.
  2. Cass

    Cass Plumber


    So what is going to happen now....are you cleaning out the tank or running away because of libiality issues...
  3. kingsotall

    kingsotall Plunger/TurdPuncher

    Fascinating case studies. This thread is a great idea.
  4. Cass

    Cass Plumber

    I had one case about 15 years ago where the well was getting contaminated from fecal matter...the septic system started flowing in a different direction due to a subdivision that went in near by...the wife was constantly sick but not the husband because he was almost constantly on the road working....they abandoned the well and hooked up city water...I chlorinated the H/C pipes in the house for 24 Hrs. but gave no gaurentee... this type of contamination is fairly common..
  5. valveman

    valveman Moderator Staff Member

    Lubbock, Texas
    This is a good idea for a thread but, a properly installed and maintained private water system is one of the safest form of water supply. I have equally bad or worse stories about public water supply systems that would make good material for another thread.

    However, I do have plenty of stories about private water systems with problems.

    Here is one of them.

    Drilled a 200' well and installed a submersible pump system for a new house in the country. Everything was disinfected, tested, sealed, and producing good water. A few years later I was called because the family was complaining about low pressure. Since I was last there a well house had been built over the well, pressure tank, and controls. Upon opening the door it was immediately evident that someone also had the bright idea that the heated well house could double as a chicken house. The area around the well and pressure tank had been screened off with chicken wire, which did keep the chickens away from the well area. The area around the well was still fairly clean as compared to the rest of the chicken/well house. However, someone had removed the screened elbow from the well seal, leaving a ½" open hole looking down the well. About the time I noticed this, someone in the house started using water, and I heard the pump start. My presence in the well/chicken house had just scared off all the chickens and the commotion had stirred up the air in the room. I noticed little feathers floating in the air and soon also noticed a stream of feathers flying down the ½" hole in the well seal. As the water level in the well was being pulled down, the suction was drawing in dust, feathers, and anything else that was floating in the air. I pointed this out to the home owner, which then started telling me they had noticed a smell in the water, and that the kids had been having frequent illness's.

    Upon pulling the pump we found the intake screen sucked in and clogged with feathers. Bailing out the well we found some really nasty looking stuff. We did not think it possible to properly disinfect the pump, pipe, and wire in the well, so all new equipment was installed, and the well was disinfected and properly sealed. It took several more disinfections to get rid of the contamination but, we finally did get the well back to a usable condition. Just goes to show that even a properly installed and sealed well can turn into a real mess when the well head is not kept in a protected area.
  6. 99k

    99k Radon Contractor and Water Treatment

    Fairfield Co.,Connecticut
    Wow. This thread has made my stomach very queazy. I don't know of anyone who has a cistern in my area ... but I have to question whether it meets code to use runoff from the roof to go into this holding tank? What's there to stop the bugs, mice, bird sh*t, and who knows what from entering? Did these people even use a UV light? The thought of this is repulsive and I can't see any difference to just drinking out of a local pond.:eek:
  7. Gary Slusser

    Gary Slusser That's all folks!

    I have many stories involving drillers, plumbers, water treatment dealers, landlords, tenants and homeowners that created health related problems for their customers or themselves.

    And I've found nasties in wells. One hand dug well about 6' across under a concrete lid had a young skunk and bunny rabbit and 2-3 birds in it. They got in by digging holes under the lid and the family that it was cute and paid no thought to what the rabbits running down the holes could lead to.

    Plumbers installing UV lights backwards trapping a lot of air in them and hard plumbing softener and filter drain lines with no traps or air gaps.

    Drillers inventing home made aeration systems in atmospheric tanks without knowing about slime, bacteria, rust or other problems and not allowing for cleaning/sanitizing the tank. Or drillers, plumbers and homeowners throwing large swimming pool chlorine pucks down wells to sanitize them and then walking away.

    A water treatment dealer or his service guy serviced a greensand filter's settings causing potassium permanganate contaminated pink water and didn't tell the customer of the serious danger and they used it for weeks before hearing it was dangerous and called me.

    But no one got seriously sick or died, so what is the point of the thread?

  8. I'm allergic to bleach/high levels or concentrations of chlorine so I have to find them somebody to do the daunting task of cleaning out the cistern along with everything else.

    I agree with this statement totally, it's just that the "maintained" part was left out in this situation.

    Even though I replace water pumps, install RO systems and water softeners, I couldn't understand why these two components were needed for cistern water. Since it was installed by the previous homeowner, I guess they was overkill in their thinking.

    I'm still on the mend from this event, knowing what I saw inside this cistern. You might as well as called this pond water; a body of water that is going stagnant from no aeration and all types of debri is entering the system without anyone bothering to maintain it.

    AKA disinfectant, the same as the public water purveyor supplies to protect the public from various bacteria and the like.

    This topic will remain for years, with the ability to educate others that their private water systems are not a put it in and forget it type of install.

    I posted this on numerous forums and someone mentioned cleaning a cistern every 7 years? Not a chance in my area, especially knowing the area along with trees and what wildlife that can venture to the rooftops.

    Snakes, mice, insects...lots of creatures can enter these systems because there's numerous points of entry, given the number of downspouts or roof gutters without screening.

    I can pose one true reality:

    Nearby tobacco fields that are constantly sprayed, airborn particulates that could make it to that roof. We had to stop drinking water from a natural well near a tobacco field for this very reason of the chemicals used, along with the dead worms we always found in it. Ice cold water and tasted good!

    Animals and insects don't bother me, until you start talking about those carrying disease.

    If these people are not taking precautions to keep the water sanitary, what excludes this body of water being no different than a mud puddle in the driveway.

    My job as a licensed plumber is to educate the public of these dangers, and I truly believe that if this water condition kept continuing, something in regards to sickness which can lead to death could of brought on a probability real quick.

    Upon my insistance, I'm going to demand that the piping be permanently disconnected and marked to the water softener, holding tank as they are not in use anyway, and the water heater be drained and disinfected to some degree, along with the rest of the water lines.

    I'm also going to ask them to have water brought in which will be city water which will have "safe" levels of chlorine to keep this water potable.

    They from this point on need to do whatever is recommended by a professional to keep that water from allowing harmful bacteria from growing in the cistern. That's where my knowledge base stops, knowing about the bad stuff that can grow in water.

    My knowledge is growing however because I own a second business that uses water in a way that sits in tanks, and I have to do numerous tests to check the quality of this water before broadcasting it into the air where the public is affected.
  9. 99k

    99k Radon Contractor and Water Treatment

    Fairfield Co.,Connecticut
    It would seem like a great business opportunity, if it doesn't exist, to provide a service to pump out these cisterns, powerwash the inside, and install/inspect critter guards, disinfect. Just show a dead cat floating belly up in the literature ... you'd have me as a regular cutomer (lol)
  10. Gary Slusser

    Gary Slusser That's all folks!

    Rugged, the problem with that cistern is that it is a rain water collection system. They are not illegal. The vast majority of cisterns are not collecting rain water from anywhere, they use city water, or delivered water or water from a well.

    BTW, as far as I know, there are no plumbing codes anywhere covering anything to do with water quality. And the rain water collection probably is not illegal, and a private water source is rarely regulated anywhere in the US except at the time of drilling a well, or selling the house.

    Water from most all sources is usually at least hard, that's why softeners are commonly found on cistern water. IMO all cisterns should have some type of equipment to control bacteria and other life forms. IMO no one should use a cistern unless it is absolutely necessary.

    California private well owners and those properties without on site water sources, probably have the most cisterns of anywhere because they are required in many locations for fire suppression. I have sold many of those people water treatment equipment including softeners.

    Your forced air swamp cooler second business runs the risk of spreading bacteria, such as Legionella pneumophila, that causes Legionaire's disease, all over the area you blow air to.

    IMO the best you can do for this customer is to tell them to bring in a water treatment dealer.

    Since this thread will last for years we should insure that it contains correct and knowledgeable information.

    I have two instances of personal experience with contaminated water as a homeowner. The first was shortly after getting out of the USAF in 1965 I bought a house with a well and we had a dog that I noticed wasn't drinking the water. We were told before buying the house that the water might have 'sulfur' (H2S) although when we looked at the house before buying it and we asked about odor we were asked if we'd like to have a drink of it and we said yes, there was no odor. So I related this odor to sulfur but I thought it smelled just a little different. I eventually decided to have the water tested. It came back as contaminated with Coliform bacteria. I talked to a well driller and he said we should shock the well and we did and it didn't help and he said we should drill the well deeper, which we paid him to do and he shocked the well and pumped it off and we retested and the bacteria was still there. Then the septic tank was mentioned and a septic tank guy told me "dummy, the groundwater is going to be contaminated for years, you should check out your septic tank, it may be leaking". I had him come check it out and he found the septic was an old steel tank with little of the steel remaining and, the tank was no more than 10' away from the well. So I paid him to dig up the old one and fill the hole with new dirt and put a new tank about 150' away from the well. I pumped the well for days and kept shocking it and eventually got good test results after about 6 weeks. Had I called a water treatment guy, I wouldn't have drilled the well deeper.

    The second time was a house built in 1991 and I moved in in 1992. The wife eventually mentioned that she had been having stomach distress since then and I joked it might be something in the water but it wasn't bothering me. I tested the water and found Coliform and e-coli. I went to shock the well and about died when a mouse came running up the safety rope and out of the casing as I started to pour the bleach water down the well. I got a light and found a nest on the pitless adapter and a dead mouse floating on the water about 30' deep. I got the nest out but could not get the dead mouse out, so I shocked the well twice and retested and both times found bacteria and installed a softener and a UV light and tested every month for about 6 months. Her stomach cleared up and we used the water.

    Now back in those days and since then everyone I mentioned these problems to all reacted similarly to how you and others are in this thread. I have also treated hundreds of customers' contaminated water' including a few cisterns. So far in this thread I'm the only homeowner and water treatment guy with both types of personal and "professional" experience in living with and treating contaminated water and living with it afterward.
  11. Here's another situation I forgot to mention, and this was a bad one as well.

    Years ago I worked for an owner of a framer, bought this huge house that I swear was added on to a barn.

    Guy was ridiculously tight with money, we had a falling out when he got the bill, even though I was rock bottom cheap. Lesson learned.

    Here was the scenario:

    I was working there during the day, doing all kinds of plumbing work, reworking a cistern pump.

    I knew of the insecticide company that just showed up, could hear him drilling the foundation.

    Well, that sound started getting closer, but coming at me from the wrong angle. The wrong angle meaning he was coming around the part of the house where there was a screened porch sitting on top of a cistern.

    By the time I got to this guy, he had just rounded the last corner of the foundation. He was hick from way down in Kentucky, pretty boy of sorts and became deeply apologetic for the mistake.

    The "mistake" was him drilling, shooting that poison right into the cistern. :eek:

    Of course, I made sure I told the guy I was working for what happened.

    His response?

    "Until I start ****ting yellow, I'm not worried about it.


    I just told this guy that his exterminator just shot lethal injections of poison into his cistern, the water he uses to bathe, drink, and cook food with and he's playing it off?

    What A P.O.S. I thought, having a wife and kids, those who are affected by this.

    Fast forward 8 months later,

    Wife kept complaining of serious pain in her leg, a sore that would never heal. Before she gets home from a bone doctor's appointment, the rush her into emergency surgery to amputate that leg; bone cancer and an aggressive one at that.

    We'll never know if that water, whether ingested or exposed to the concentrations to that poison may or may not of had any relevance to the situation.

    All I know is I did my best to warn the guy, and If I EVER see him or his wife, I'm going to make a total arse out of him in public display, making sure everyone knows how his ignorance probably put the nails in the coffin for his wife, his kids in the future for being so obtuse.

    I'm just naming off 3 that have stuck in my head for years, the last previous one jars the memory of many times where the lack of knowledge has been harmful to human beings.
  12. You da man!
  13. One last one

    And this is very common for many,

    I find that customers who cannot replace their filters, whether it's a prefilter to a private water system or a filter to a fridge, water filtration system under a kitchen sink,

    People just love to get the most bang for the buck in longevity. People never understand that those filters operate by gallon usage and/or time frames. I don't care if you used 45 gallons in a 6 month time period; the filter needs replacement.

    Old lady I worked for years, she kept spreading out the timings I would come and replace the whole house filter, and I couldn't convince her to do otherwise.

    The very last time I did work for her, I pulled a bucket of water out of her cistern that had a black tinge to it, smelled like sewage and you couldn't drink it. The carbon filter I put in months prior had completely dissolved in the canister, and to this day I cannot understand how it was making it back to the cistern. ???

    Had a check at the pump head. No foot valve. I did see her conserve water before and pump buckets of water out of the cistern with the old leather cup hand pumps, then put the water back into the cistern to save it. :eek:

    Last time I was there, I removed the filter and told her she didn't need one anymore and she loved that statement as she stated she didn't like spending the money.

    She constantly had to have water brought to her due to leaks in her cistern, and the prefilter was to catch the dirt and sediment. I was supplied with a carbon filter she gave me and loved the results it provided from that point forward, told me to ditch the common paper/string wound type, made specifically for particulates/sediment.

    I'm glad I don't work around these systems much, even though I've replaced a few pressure switches and a few bladder tanks in the last 3 months.

    A blown bladder tank is no different than a blown thermal expansion tank; once defective it's a dead end in the potable water system and the water loses its protective water qualities due to stagnation of the water from lack of movement.

    I have a customer right now that has a kitchen sink icemaker filter that's 4 years old and has never replaced it. No way that's good. How many summers of ice usage and hardly none in the winter, was having stomach problems last time we spoke.
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2009
  14. sammyhydro11

    sammyhydro11 Previous member

    "But no one got seriously sick or died, so what is the point of the thread?"


    "So far in this thread I'm the only homeowner and water treatment guy with both types of personal and "professional" experience in living with and treating contaminated water and living with it afterward."




  15. hj

    hj Moderator & Master Plumber Staff Member

    Cave Creek, Arizona

    It would be too tedious to read all the postings, but what do you mean by "they don't have these problems in England"? Almost ALL houses have an open cistern in the attic. The float valve keeps the water level constant which means fresh water is being added periodically. But running roof runoff water into and then using it for drinking water, once they knew they did not have a "potable" system, was irresponsible.

  16. The issues with Water Quality here in the states. There's a reason why chlorine is not so heavily used in other parts of the world.

    Some areas in the United States are worse than others.

    We pull our water from the Ohio River. Unbelievably dangerous and there's a reason why my area is called a cancer belt.

    The customer of mine "assumed" that all is well, like where they came from. Big difference since what's found in an attic aside from a large 6-sided concrete room without daylight or water movement is two different things.

    I'm glad I found the problem before it got far worse.
  17. Gary Slusser

    Gary Slusser That's all folks!

    The US has the highest quality and safest water in the world. You can use it from Canada to Mexico and the Atlantic to the Pacific and all over Alaska and it is safe.

    Although decades or just a number of years ago, I've lived in PA, TX CO, England, Holland, Belgium, Germany, FL, NY and I've spent at least a night to 6 months using water in OH, KY, TN, LA, TX, FL, GA, SC, NC, VA, MD, PA, MD, VA, TN, LA, TX,WY, ID, OR, WA, MT, SD, UT and AZ in just the last 2.5 years. That's in temperatures from 100* to below freezing and usually we drain and flush the tank and refill it once every 13-16 days. When we aren't using that water, we are hooked up to campground water; for a grand total of only 6 nights since June 30, 2008. We drink bottled water 'cuz she's scared... but then she is from South Africa and Zimbabwe and lived in both for decades and camped there a lot for 20 years.

    To my knowledge none of the water were I've lived was dangerous to anyone's health. The water I use, a 100 gals at a time, unfiltered but run through a Softsorb mineral unit (6" x 18" tank to help against hardness problems but it doesn't work), into our fresh water tank (100 gals) in the motor home (some might say cistern like and I can not get inside it), is from gas stations, campgrounds, rest stops along highways, truck stops, BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and USFS (US Forrest Service) areas, state parks, WalMart garden centers, convenience stores etc.. I sanitize my tank by disinfecting it with bleach.
  18. hj

    hj Moderator & Master Plumber Staff Member

    Cave Creek, Arizona

    England has birds and rodents in their attics the same as the rest of the world. And their cisterns are open also. The only safe "cistern", and the ones used here as intermediate storage between a lazy well and the house are closed metal tanks, similar to tank cars, which have screened air vents. No tarred concrete "septic tanks" and no acid rain draining into them.
  19. Redwood

    Redwood Master Plumber

    On a recent job I was sent to a home in an out of the way town that in many respects is a bit backwards to even the next town over. There are a few different types of residents in the town these days as the inevitable change is happening. The first is the backward 100 years in the past type. Then we have the wealthy farmer that discovered that property value is easier work than farming. Then we have the hippies that moved to the boondocks for peace and quiet. Finally we have the yuppies that have discovered the last deal on real estate in the area. If Barbie came from this town this is what she would look like.


    The call was no water coming out of the sink faucet. Yea, a quick and too easy job that I wish someone had visited this forum before calling my company. I was familiar with the street and quickly thought about which houses I wish it would be and which ones I hoped it wasn't 3 of the 4 types I listed above are represented on the street. The wealthy farmer would have been smart enough to fix it himself.

    I turned onto the street the first house was numbered too low...
    the second was one of the ones that I was hoping wasn't the call and Damn!
    The third was too high. I turned back and pulled into the backwards looking shack. The old timer with a somewhat toothless grin meets me at the door and brings me in through the kitchen. The kitchen sink has a hot faucet and a cold faucet no aerator there... Into the bathroom where there was a relatively new single handle Delta faucet on the lav sink.

    Sure enough barely a drip coming out of it when full open. I unscrew the aerator and it has a dense chunk of greenish brown fiberous sludge packed against it. I cleaned it off the aerator and ran the water with out the aerator several minutes to flush the line and faucet. a few chunks came out but they seemed to stop. I put the aerator on and ran it about 15 seconds later it was clogged again. I repeated the process several times with the same result. Recognizing that I was flogging a dead horse I ask the old timer about his well...

    He proudly replies that he has a hand dug well! He then points out the back window to his well shed. Oh boy! I explain to him that our company does not do well repairs, or, water treatment, and get on down the road as quick as possible to a profitable job...

    Now for a bit of background on the old timers property. it is surrounded by swamp land on 3 sides and the road on the fourth. Here is and arial photo of the property. About 20' away from the well is an area of flooded swamp maples water a foot or 2 deep dense mats of algae floating around...

    I'm no expert but IMHO these people are drinking swamp water!

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