When buying a home, part of what you’ll need to understand is what kind of potable water and wastewater systems come along with the house. If you have well water or a septic system, there are some factors you’ll need to prepare for.
In this article, we’ll cover the differences between your potable water choices (well water vs. municipal water systems) as well as your wastewater systems (septic vs. sewage systems).
More than 15 million US homes use well water (source: BankRate.com), while the rest are on municipal water systems. Generally, wells and septic systems are more often found in rural areas. Depending on resources (financial, labor, etc) in a given area, some water and sewage systems may operate better than others.
Well Water vs City Water Systems
How Wells Work
According to Kay Plumbing, a great way to picture how well water comes into your home is to picture what happens when you dig a hole at the beach: “(The hole) starts filling up with water from the underlying sand… The upper surface of this hole that contains water is what’s known as the water table…The saturated area below the water table is known as an aquifer.”
Water from the aquifer fills the well and then moves into your home via a pump system. A nearby neighborhood pump-house (often looks like a little storage shed), will house the pump system and any electrical or other aspects of the system.
- Wells are drilled as deep as 1,000 feet into rocky layers of the earth.
- Pipes are installed down the hole with a sealant (concrete or clay) that protects the pipe from contaminants.
- The well pump will then use gravity or electricity to direct water up the pipe and into the well system.
- From the well, water enters your home via a pressure tank, which finally diverts water through your home faucets.
Does Well Water Have to Be Filtered?
Well water can be considered “hard water,” which means it could have more minerals such as calcium and magnesium in it (Water-Right Group).
Because some ground contaminants can be found in well water due to local pollution and road run-off, farm/animal waste run-off, factory run-off, etc, it’s a good idea to invest in a filtration system of some kind for your well water.
Just because it’s a good idea to filter well water doesn’t mean well water is any less safe than city water. Municipal water also goes through a filtration system before it reaches your home.
In this way, municipal water is not inherently safer or dirtier than well water systems. To make any water potable and completely contaminant free, it needs to go through some kind of filtration system.
That could mean anything from a small filter you use while backpacking, a filter for your home’s entire water system, or the filtration and treatment managed by a government-body.
Keeping Records About Your Well Water System
As suggested by the Clean Water Store, it’s wise to find information on the year, manufacturer, model, and other specs about your system. Having a record of this information can save you and your neighbors a headache when your well/pump system breaks or needs upkeep.
If you or your neighbors are interested in a water tower, Clean Water Store recommends a tank big enough to hold at least one-day’s water usage for the area.
How City (Municipal) Water Systems Work
Municipal water systems (also known as “city water”) are government-controlled water management systems.
Paid for by local taxes, municipal water systems are managed by an overseeing group who is responsible for keeping water clean and safe to drink. In exchange for clean city water, homeowners on these systems pay a water bill that can be higher than the water bill for homeowners on well water, depending on the area you live in.
Pros & Cons: Well Water vs City Water Systems
|Well Water||City Water|
|Features||Filtration and distribution is handled either at a local neighborhood level (via a neighborhood co-op for example), and/or on a personal level (via a home filtration system).|
More often found in rural areas.
|Filtration and distribution is handled by a government body, depending on local laws (i.e., some areas add fluoride to water while others do not)|
|Pros||Often cheaper than city water. |
Filtration is closer to home, creating a quicker journey for clean water moving from the sanitation process to your kitchen sink.
|Repairs can often be handled more quickly than well systems. |
The overseeing body is subject to taxes, votes, and other local community opinions, which can mean more streamlined spending if run properly.
|Cons||Co-op or local community group must manage their own records and organize/pay for repairs. |
May have slower/fewer resources for repair or upkeep than city water systems.
Not available in all areas for all homeowners.
|Can be more expensive than well water. |
Filtration/sanitation happens far away from the home, leaving homeowners vulnerable to contaminants that may occur in the pipes between the municipal filtration system and their homes. (Doubling up on a home filtration system can be a wise move!)
If your home is on a city water system, you don’t have the ability to remove yourself from it, which could be a “con” for homeowners who would prefer to be more self-sufficient.
Considerations for Home Shoppers
If you’re home shopping in a rural area, make sure you ask about being on well water or city water. Ask to speak to neighbors about their experience with the local water co-op organization.
Homes in more urban/city-connected areas will almost always be on city water. In general, this means your water is managed in exchange for a regular water bill. Ideally, your city will consistently deliver clean water to your household.
However, consider extreme instances such as the clean water crisis of Flint, Michigan. What began in 2014 is still not yet fully resolved as of a September 2022 report announcing: “Flint Moving to ‘Final Phase’ of Lead Pipe Replacement Program,” which is expected to be completed by the end of 2022.
Septic Systems vs. Sewer Systems
The key difference between septic and sewer systems is where wastewater is treated. With a septic system, wastewater is treated onsite in your septic system (i.e., underground in your backyard).
With a sewer system, wastewater travels away from your home via city-maintained sewage pipes where the wastewater is then treated at your local water treatment plant.
How Septic Systems Work
A drainpipe directs household wastewater into your septic tank underground. From there, wastewater is allowed to settle where a biochemical process begins to break down the contaminants and pathogens.
Every few years, a septic system needs to be pumped, which means a service company will pump out a few years’ worth of “sludge” (as gross as it is, that’s what it’s officially called!) to create more space in the tank for more years of use. (HomeServe.com)
How Sewer Systems Work
A city-wide sewer system manages not only wastewater from homes and buildings but also from rain and storm runoff from the streets. Sewer systems are designed to be large enough to catch all wastewater that needs to be treated and to send to through pipes to your local water treatment plant (New Flow Plumbing).
Pros & Cons: Septic Systems vs. Sewer Systems
|Septic System||Sewer System|
|Features||A storage and treatment system that lives on your property and is 100% your responsibility to maintain.||A city-wide sewage removal and treatment operation that is serviced and financed by your local government.|
|Pros||More environmentally friendly. |
Less infrastructure to maintain.
No monthly sewage bills from the city.
|Your local municipal governing bodies will manage the care, cost, and maintenance of the city-wide sewer system.|
Very little homeowner maintenance required.
|Cons||You are responsible for the care, cost and maintenance of your septic system.|
Septic tanks take up a certain amount of space on your property, which you must maintain free of vehicles, tree roots, or building new structures on/around.
|Sewer systems are regularly maintained, repaired and updated as needed, given the financial resources of a city-managed system. (Primer Tech Water & Analysis)|
“Groundwater and the Rural Homeowner” from The U.S. Geologic Survey