Private Well Testing Act (PWTA): Everything a Homebuyer or Home Seller Needs to Know

By August 8, 2018
Private Well Testing Act | ATS Environmental

The Goal of the Private Well Testing Act

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Private Well Testing Act (PWTA) states what is required when selling or leasing a home or multi-unit dwelling with a private well. The goal of the PWTA is to ensure that purchasers and lessees of properties served by private potable wells are fully aware of the quality of the drinking water source prior to sale or lease of a home or business. The PWTA was signed into law in March of 2001 and became effective in September 2002. State lawmakers were prompted to pass the PWTA because of private well contamination discovered throughout New Jersey.

The PWTA requires the buyer or the seller of real estate property to test the well water prior to sale, and review the results prior to closing of title. It also requires landlords to test the private well water supplied to their tenants, and provide their tenants with a written copy of the results.

Summary of the New Jersey Private Well Testing Act

Beginning September 14, 2002, certain contracts of sale involving real properties with private wells, and some public wells, were required to have the well water tested before going forward with the real estate closing. The buyer and seller are notified of the test results prior to the closing and both must attest to the fact that the test results have been reviewed. The well water must be tested by a laboratory certified for the parameters listed in the Private Water Testing Act. Once the sample analysis is completed, a copy of the test results must be given to the person who requested the test on a standardized form and must be submitted electronically to NJDEP. Specific information about individual water tests, such as results, address or other location information is confidential as mandated by the Act.

The data obtained from this program is given to the homeowners by the laboratory that performs the water testing. That laboratory analysis data is then sent to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), Bureau of Safe Drinking Water. Then the NJDEP notifies local health agencies when a well within their jurisdiction is tested under the PWTA. The data from the PWTA is used by NJDEP to assess the quality of the water from private wells throughout the state of New Jersey.

Who is required to test, and when, under the PWTA?

Real estate transactions subject to the PWTA are those which involve real property where:

  1. The potable water supply at that property is from a private well; or
  2. Property (such as commercial property) where the water supply is a well that has less than 15 service connections or that does not regularly serve an average of 25 people daily at least 60 days out of the year. What this means is that certain public water systems must also test.

The Act mandates that the sale of real estate cannot occur until testing of the water supply has taken place, and until both the buyer and seller have received and reviewed a copy of the test results. 

The buyer and seller must certify in writing that they have received and reviewed the test results. Neither the Act nor the regulations, specifies whether the buyer or the seller is financially responsible for the fees for the PWTA testing or possible treatment. Therefore, it is up to the buyer and seller to negotiate who pays for the test, as well as what actions, if any, will occur if the test results indicate a contaminant is present in the drinking water supply that exceeds an applicable standard. The Act and subsequent regulations, do not require water treatment if any test parameter standard level is exceeded. However, the NJDEP does provide information regarding various treatment alternatives and potential funding sources. The Act is considered a “notice” of potable water quality for interested parties involved in the real estate transaction.

PWTA testing requirements also apply to certain lessors (landlords) in New Jersey. The lessor of a property where the water supply is from a private well must also test the water for the same PWTA contaminants as a buyer or seller. In addition, the well water must be tested at least once every five years thereafter, as long as the well is not required to be tested under any other state law. The lessor is required to provide a copy of new test results to each rental unit within 30 days of receiving those results. The lessor must also provide new lessees with a written copy of the most recent test results. Providing new lessees with recent well test results also functions as a type of “notice” provision.

Who does the testing and what are acceptable test results?

Once the buyer and seller determine who will pay for the test and hire a New Jersey certified laboratory, the well sample is collected by an employee of the certified laboratory or by the laboratory’s authorized representative. Samples must be collected from an untreated (raw), cold, non-aerated spigot or tap. If a treatment device (water filter or softener) is on the spigot or tap, the device must be disabled before a sample is collected, or it must be collected from a spigot or tap prior to the treatment device.

The water is analyzed for the various contaminants listed in the Act and regulations, using specific test methods. The test methods have been established and certified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and have been approved by NJDEP’s Office of Quality Assurance. As part of the test requirements, the sampler must record the lot and block of the property, as well as the X and Y coordinate locations of the well (or at a minimum the front door) using a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. The person who requested the private well water test should receive their results from the laboratory on the New Jersey Private Well Water Test Reporting Form.

How does the data get submitted to the New Jersey DEP?

The PWTA regulations require that the laboratories electronically submit test results, including additional pertinent information, as one complete analytical package to NJDEP within five business days after completion of the analyses. The laboratory does this by creating a data file that contains the test results and other pertinent location information (i.e., lot, block, etc.) described in the regulations. The data file is sent by email to a database at NJDEP, which is setup to store all of the PWTA test results.

What if contaminants are found?

If the results indicate that one or more analytical standards have been exceeded, then the PWTA database automatically forwards an electronic copy of the well test results and well information to the appropriate county or local health authority within five business days of receiving the results from the laboratory. A well test “failure” is defined as any result that exceeds a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for primary drinking water standards or a Recommended Upper Limit (RUL) for secondary drinking water standards, with the two exceptions of lead and arsenic. Laboratories are also required to directly notify the county or local health authority of well test failures for nitrate and fecal coliform or E. coli because they are considered acute contaminants and may pose immediate health concerns.

Once the local health authority is notified electronically by NJDEP, or directly by the laboratory, the health authorities may (but are not required to) notify property owners within the vicinity of the failing well. However, because these individual tests are considered confidential, the exact location of the well test failure cannot be identified.

Primary and Secondary General Potability Contaminants of the PWTA

What contaminants are required in the testing of the property well water? This will depend on the location of the property. The table below is a list of required parameters for private well testing in the counties throughout New Jersey. This is a table showing all contaminants that must be tested under the New Jersey Private Well Testing Act (PWTA).

PWTA: List of Required Parameters for Private Well Testing

 Total Coliform*Fecal Coliform or E.coliNitrateIronManganesepHVOCsLead ArsenicMercuryGross Alpha Particle Activity
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*Fecal Coliform or E. Coli testing is required only if a sample tests positive for total coliform.

All wells must be tested for the following contaminants:

Primary Contaminants

  • Bacteriological:
    • Total coliform bacteria – if total coliform bacteria are detected, a test must also be conducted for fecal coliform or E. coli.
  • Organics:
    • All 26 Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) with established Maximum Contaminant Levels
  • Inorganics:
    • Nitrate
    • Lead
    • Private wells located in certain counties will also have to test for:
      • Arsenic
      • Mercury
    • Radiological:
      • 48-hour rapid gross alpha particle activity
        • Note: Not all wells require radiological testing. Only in specific NJ counties: Hunterdon, Monmouth, Mercer, Burlington, Ocean, Salem, Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Gloucester

Secondary Contaminants

  • With Optimum Range:
    • pH
  • With Recommended Upper Limits:
    • Iron
    • Manganese

The test results from the PWTA testings are compared to the Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) that have been established by the Federal and State drinking water regulations. MCL is the highest level of a contaminant that is allowed in drinking water.

Primary Contaminants – Protecting Human Health

Primary drinking water standards are established for contaminants that have either an immediate or long-term effect on human health. Results were obtained from testing 51,028 wells between September 2002 and April 2007. The following are the results of those well tests for primary contaminants:

  • 88% of the wells “passed” (did not exceed) all of the required primary standards for drinking water.
  • Of the 12% (6,369) wells that exceeded a primary drinking water standards (“failed”), the most common exceedances were for:
    • gross alpha particle activity (2,209 wells)
    • arsenic (1,445 wells)
    • nitrates (1,399 wells)
    • fecal coliform or E. coli (1,136 wells)
    • volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (702 wells)
    • mercury (215 wells)

Secondary Contaminants – Measuring Natural Water Quality Characteristics

The PWTA requires testing for three naturally occurring Secondary drinking water parameters: pH, iron, and manganese. Secondary drinking water parameters are contaminants that cause aesthetic problems, such as, corrosion of plumbing pipes and fixtures, along with taste and odor problems in the water. Secondary parameters also affect the water’s suitability for doing laundry, plumbing systems, and taking showers or bathing. MCLs have not been developed for secondary parameters, but instead the NJDEP has adopted Recommended Upper Limits (RUL). Testing for secondary parameters is used to determine if any treatment is recommended to make the well water aesthetically pleasing to the consumer.

The following are the results of the 2002 – 2007 well tests for secondary contaminants:

  • A total of 32,530 (64%) of the 51,028 wells tested exceeded one or more of the recommended upper limits for secondary parameters.
  • Due to the nature of soils and geology, the groundwater in the southern part of the state of New Jersey tends to be acidic (pH below 7), while groundwater in the northern part tends to be neutral (pH = 7) to basic (pH above 7). Of the wells tested, 22,699 wells (45%) had pH values outside the recommended range of 6.5 to 8.5.
  • Both iron and manganese are inorganic ions that occur naturally in soils and rocks throughout New Jersey.
    • A total of 14,751 (29%) wells reported iron levels above the recommended upper limit of 0.3 mg/l.
    • A total of 9,890 wells (19%) were above the recommended upper limit of 0.05 mg/l for manganese.

New Jersey PWTA does NOT test for all water contaminants and pollution!

Important Note: Water wells may be contaminated with pathogens or chemicals that were not among the tested parameters. The list of tested parameters for the PWTA was selected based on known or potential broad-based contamination concerns in New Jersey. However, the list is by no means comprehensive in terms of contaminants that have been identified in ground water in New Jersey or elsewhere! The presence of some of the parameters in excess of the standard may be considered as an indicator of the possible presence of other non-tested contaminants. For example, if fecal coliform or E. coli are detected, the well is considered to be contaminated with fecal wastes from either humans or animals. Such wastes may include one or more of a variety of potentially pathogenic microorganisms, such as, Salmonella, Shigella, enteric viruses, Giardia or Cryptosporidium. The presence of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) may indicate a higher likelihood that some other man-made chemical contaminants may be present.

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About the Author

ATS Environmental
ATS Environmental

ATS Environmental offers environmental solutions for residential properties as well as compliance testing and inspections of underground and aboveground storage tanks for commercial enterprises.

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