We all use water in our homes, but many of us don’t often stop to think about its different sources. Well water comes from a private water supply accessed via a well, whereas city water is supplied by the local municipality. Both types of water have their pros and cons and require testing and potentially, treatment. In this article, we’ll discuss how well water and city water are similar and different, their unique characteristics and how to treat them. Let’s dive in.
City Water and Well Water: Compare and Contrast
Naturally, city water and well water have plenty of notable differences, but they also share a few key similarities. Let’s have a look at these in some detail:
- Water cycle collection: Both city water and well water can be supplied to their respective sources at any stage of the water cycle. This means that, for example, they can be collected as groundwater from sources such as aquifers and as surface water that’s created by precipitation like rain and snow.
- Contaminants: Depending on the treatment solutions in place, city water and well water alike may be susceptible to certain pollutants such as pesticides and microplastics, pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, and more.*
- Plumbing systems: All water — no matter its source — must go through a building’s plumbing system to reach faucets. Issues such as rusty pipes and algae growing on pipes can affect both city water and well water.
- Treatment: Private well water isn’t treated by a third party before reaching its destination, so it’s the homeowner’s responsibility to use a well water filter as needed to improve the quality. By contrast, city water is treated using chemicals such as chlorine to reduce pathogens.
- Testing: Similar to treatment, well water isn’t tested for contaminants by any government authority or regulatory body. Well owners should have it tested at least once a year. On the other hand, city water is regularly tested by government officials to make sure it aligns with federal drinking water regulations, such as those from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or Health Canada.
- Supply journey: While both well water and city water are ultimately led to your faucets, how they get there is significantly different. Well water is typically supplied by drilling into the ground to reach groundwater and then pumped directly to a building. Conversely, city water goes through an underground network of public and private pipes after being treated.
- Cost: There may be an initial investment to build a well on your private property, but then all water supplied from it is free. People using city water typically pay monthly water bills for using water supplied by the municipality.
A Closer Look at Well Water
Because private well water isn’t subject to federal drinking water regulations, it’s the well owner’s duty to test it regularly, especially after environmental events that might affect groundwater quality and composition. It’s also the homeowner’s job to ensure they have enough electricity to pump the water from the well to its final destination.
If built properly, a water well can have a long lifespan that may last for decades, meaning well owners could have access to a private water supply for many years if weather conditions are right. Water wells can also be built in nearly any environment, and because water is pumped from underground water stores, wells are a great way to supply water in almost all locations (if the law permits their construction).
Although well water is often high in good minerals, it can also contain deposits of minerals that can make it “hard” (this is called hard water). It might also harbor pollutants that are already present in the soil or make their way underground, such as fertilizers and waste from failed septic tanks. So, well owners often need to purchase and install a water filtration system to reduce the amount of contaminants in well water, and a water softener system for well water to decrease mineral buildup and produce soft water.
A Closer Look at City Water
As local governments are responsible for supplying city water to residents, they have to follow strict regulations and adhere to municipal by-laws regarding testing and treating water. There are several regulatory bodies that act as watchdogs, including the EPA. As such, residents often assume the water is safe to use and consume without testing it themselves.
However, municipal water is at risk of being contaminated by pollutants such as stormwater run-off and sewage that finds its way into surface water. City water is also at risk of being affected by natural disasters like floods and storms that might affect the water’s safety. In such instances, the local government will usually issue a boil advisory, meaning residents are urged to boil their water before drinking it to kill off pathogens like bacteria. Residents can submit a request to the city council for water testing if they’re concerned about water quality or safety.
City water is supplied to homes and other buildings through an underground pipe network, meaning residents don’t need to worry about water being shut down if the power goes out. However, this also means they’ll be left without water if the city needs to turn off the public water supply for any reason. But, in general, people who use city water can rest assured that they’ll have access to water nearly all of the time. That said, the quality and material of the pipes used to carry water from the treatment center to your home can also impact municipal water quality.
In the interest of public health and safety, chemicals like chlorine and fluoride are often added to city water after it’s been cleaned. However, city water sometimes tastes less “fresh” even after this process because of the chemical treatments used to reduce contaminants. Another downside of city water is that it can become expensive to use in some areas where extra treatment is necessary to make the water drinkable and hygienic.
Your Water Source Questions, Answered
Now that we’ve covered the basics of city water and well water, we can answer some relevant questions:
How do you tell if you have well or city water?
If you pay a monthly water bill, you use city water. If there’s a large water pump or pressure tank nearby, chances are you’re getting well water. And, there will often be signs in the area indicating that you’re using well water.
Is well water cheaper than city water?
Although you don’t pay a monthly water bill for well water, the costs of testing and treating the water — and system installation, maintenance and repairs expenses — can add up. However, if you purchase or live in a building that already has a well water softener installed, those costs can decrease. Generally, well water is less expensive.
Is one water type safer/healthier than the other?
There isn’t really a clear-cut answer to this, as it’s based on a lot of factors. Generally, both types of water are safe when treated properly, but the answer really depends on the filtration and treatment specifics.
Can you have both city water and well water?
Yes. Even if you build a well, you can still be connected to the city’s water supply, as long as you ensure the city’s pipe system does have pipes feeding water to your building.
Can you switch to city water from a private well or vice versa?
Yes. If you have both water supply systems in place, you can choose which water source you want to use at any given time.
Water Solutions for All
Given that both city water and well water have their disadvantages, are there any ways to overcome the obstacles associated with those cons? Fortunately, the answer is “yes.” Let’s unpack them a little:
Solutions for City Water
City water is usually treated through five sequential steps. It begins with coagulation, in which chemicals like iron or aluminum are added to water to neutralize dirt and other unwanted particles. Next, water is gently mixed to create bigger, heavier particles in a process called flocculation.
Then, sedimentation is done to separate solids from liquid water. The fourth step, filtration, removes those solids, leaving only clear water behind. Lastly, the treated water is disinfected with chemicals such as chlorine to reduce the amount of pathogens present in the water.
That said, it is not uncommon for city water to need further treatment after it arrives at the home, whether due to common issues like hard water or any additional water quality issues the homeowner wants to address.
Solutions for Well Water
People who have their own well water supply need to know what systems they should be using. Because of the high potential for excess calcium and magnesium in well water, consider using a water softener to avoid problems caused by mineral buildup, like spots on dishes, faded or stiff laundry, or dry hair and skin.
You also may need a water filtration solution — for example, a whole home water filtration system that’s installed at the home’s water point of entry. These systems are the best fit if you have a specific problem like sediment in your water, rust stains from too much iron, a rotten egg smell from excess hydrogen sulfide gas or other issues.
You could also use a reverse osmosis water filtration system. These are installed at the point of use (i.e. faucets) and are the best solution for a focus on cleaner, safer drinking water. They typically start with the sediment reduction and activated carbon processes. Then, an advanced membrane separates contaminants (even some as small as atoms) from the water. Lastly, additional specialty filtration stages can target contaminants that haven’t been addressed in the previous steps. (As with whole home filtration systems, reverse osmosis filtration systems can be used for city water, too.)
Find Your Ideal Water Solutions
Whether you opt for city water or decide to build and use a private well, it’s almost always a good idea to invest in a water treatment system. The best way to understand what’s in your water and potential issues you may want to address is to have your water tested. Culligan’s free, in-home water test and consultation is a great place to start.
*Contaminants may not be present in your water.
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