Photograph of an open spring providing water to an old property. Use of Springs for Drinking Water
How to protect the sanitation of sources of spring water

  • SPRINGS as WATER SUPPLY - CONTENTS: Use of Springs and Seeps for Drinking Water. Is spring water safe to drink? How to make springwater potable. - What's Wrong Using a Spring to Supply Drinking Water to a Building? What's the difference between a spring and a seep? Sanitation Advice for Springs as a Drinking Water Source - Spring Water Contamination
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Drinking spring water? This article describes using springs for drinking water and explains issues with spring water sanitation. We provide advice about what to do when things go wrong with a drinking water spring, and we discuss the differences between a spring and a seep, spring and a dug well, and a spring and other types of water sources. .

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Springs as a Water Supply

Photograph of an open spring providing water to an old property.Open water springs, and similar containers have been used for centuries to supply water to buildings.

If the water tank is located higher than the building it serves the water supply can be fed by gravity.

If the open water tank is in the building or below it the water may be moved to the point of use by a hand pump or an electrical pump.

In the page top photograph my client and we had found the water supply for his home: a spring-fed in-ground cistern located uphill from the house and fed to the house by gravity.

What's Risky if not Downright Wrong Using a Spring to Supply Drinking Water ?

Spring water can be delicious and clean if it is in a protected location. But most residential springs serving homes are not so carefully designed.

Springs and cisterns that are open to groundwater runoff like these are unlikely to provide sanitary drinking water since they are easily contaminated by surface runoff. Where building security and personal security are a special concern, the water source needs to be protected from tampering; in these cases a spring could be deliberately contaminated or poisoned.

In the pictures of springs used as a home water supply shown above, the cover is unsafe or missing completely, and the springs remain vulnerable to surface contaminants such as animal waste, pesticides, fertilizers, or other surface chemicals. Even if a water spring passes a bacterial test we have these remaining concerns:

  • Other chemicals or contaminants may be present
  • The spring is so easily contaminated from surface water that we can't be sure that it will remain as a sanitary water source.

Sanitation Advice for Springs as a Drinking Water Source - Spring Water Contamination

Spring house (C) Daniel FriedmanOPINION: As we discussed Hand Dug Wells, at While 100 years ago or more surface water found in dug wells and springs was often of high quality and potable - at least in some areas of the world.

It is difficult to keep a ground water spring or seep sanitary - a typical residential water-source spring is open to both surface runoff and ground water runoff. When the author was a boy, our water was taken from a cool surface spring at our home in Dunnsville, Virginia.

Dad, helped by Ivory Washington, built a concrete enclosure to keep nearby surface runoff out of the spring. He also built a roof over the enclosure, to that to obtain water we had to dip it out of the springhouse. Later we added a small pump to send the springwater to our house.

The spring enclosure, combined with his observation that water was constantly rising to the surface of the spring from an underground source gave Dad confidence in the water quality - we doubt he ever had it tested. Water rose in the concrete enclosure, filling it to overflowing. We also kept our watermelons cool by tossing them into the springhouse.

But today it is very difficult to find sanitary drinking water where surface runoff and shallow subsurface water enter the water supply such as that provided by a residential spring or hand dug well. This is also true for other types shallow wells such as Driven Point Wells, and even drilled wells protected by a well casing in some cases.

Commercially sold bottled spring water is a different matter and is expected to be sanitary and thus safe to drink. Keep in mind that bottled water sold as "spring water" is typically not only taken from a protected source, but it is also constantly tested by the bottled water producer, and in at least some instances bottled spring water may also be sanitized or treated as well.

Watch out: Shocking a spring water source (WELL CHLORINATION & SHOCKING) in an attempt to "fix" a bacteria problem in its drinking water is almost certainly unreliable.

You can shock the spring at its source - a momentary sanitizing step for spring water that is not durable, but if you are not going to drill a modern sanitary well (costly), in order to assure safe potable drinking water you will probably need to install water treatment equipment to sanitize the water - after testing to see what contaminants besides bacteria (Interpreting the Level of Bacteria) are present.

Spring Water Source Definitions: Seeps, Springs, Drilled Wells & Dug Wells - What's the Difference?

Unprotected spring drinking water source (C) Daniel FriedmanWhat is the Difference Between a Spring and a Seep as a Water Source?

Question: how I can tell the difference between a spring and a seep?

Photo at left: a seep or spring water source in Jalpan, Mexico. Unprotected from surface runoff, this water source supplies a tourist spa, restaurant, as well as local residents.

I was wondering if you could tell me how I can tell the difference between a spring and a seep? What do I look for. I have what looks like the start of a small steam on my property.

It is very small and moving slowly and there are a bunch of heavy rocks near by so I can't tell exactly where it is coming from. Someone had put a well on the property but apparently it is unusable according to the realtor. - J.S.


A "seep" is essentially the same thing as a spring - both are sources of water at or near ground surface.

People use the word "seep" when the flow rate is small, and more importantly, to imply that the water arriving at the point where it is collected has passed through a length of soil near the ground surface, or perhaps even on the surface such as under leaves and moss. Neither source is reliably sanitary for drinking water in most U.S. locations.

To make use of seep water for watering grass or something similar:

  • You will want to do some exploring to see if you can follow the water course back on the ground surface to a source such as a rock face or rock field.
  • The closer you can construct a water collecting cistern to the seep water source the less unsanitary surface materials will affect the water supply.
  • Keep your cost down by keeping things simple: if the property has enough slope from seep and cistern location to point of use you may use a gravity piping system. See our warnings just below.

If you are planning to make use of seep water for more than watering the grass,

you'll almost certainly need to install a water treatment / purification system before it could be safe to drink. Before choosing a water treatment system for your seep water here are some things to consider:

  • If the total flow rate of the seep is quite low - as is usually the case - the water supply quantity may not justify purchasing and installing collection cistern, pump, piping, and water treatment equipment that would be necessary.
  • Seep water supplies are often seasonal - you may have no water in the seep during dry weather.

What's the difference between a spring and a dug well and a drilled well?

Question: I am looking at a home that has its water supply in the basement floor. How do I know if its a cistern or a well?

Hand dug well (C) Daniel Friedman

I have a question, I am looking at a home that has its water supply in the basement floor.

How do I know if its a cistern or a well? I mean...

The water is in the basement of an old house , I'm thinking mid 1800s , the hole is covered with a metal plate.

When we lifted it up the water was moving.

There is a tank used for wells and the pump is also mounted by the tank. Is it possible it is the original water supply way back, and a well was added later? - R.H.

Reply: Photos comparing a cistern, dug well, and drilled well, all sometimes found under or close to buildings

Our photo (above, by your question) is what you see when looking down into a hand dug well that was constructed of stone walls, later sealed with mortar. A dug well can vary enormously in width depending on the number of people who are to depend on it and thus the amount of water people want it to hold in reserve.

But in North America, typically a dug well is less than 10 feet in diameter. Depths of hand dug wells vary, deeper being scarier and more dangerous to dig. Hand dug wells are described in detail

Cistern in a basement (C) D FriedmanCisterns: At left is a typical cistern that was constructed in the basement of a re-1900 home in the Northeastern U.S. A cistern is basically just a water holding tank. So you would see something sending water into it. Like roof downspouts.

Historically cisterns were dug outside of structures, covered and sealed against unsanitary surface runoff, and were or still are today filled by directing rainwater from building roofs into the cistern. A cistern might also be supplied with springwater routed through pipes or an aqueduct.

Typically a cistern will be more shallow than a hand dug well, and larger in cross sectional dimensions so that it can hold a large reservoir of water from another source. For details

Wells in basements: We discuss basement wells in more detail
at BASEMENT WELLS (in our article about the different types of wells) In contrast with cisterns (tanks that hold water from another source), a well well gets its water from the earth, typically by water seeping through soils (shallow wells) or rock fissures (deeper wells) into either a dug opening in the earth or one that has been drilled.

Depending on the well diameter and depth, it may also store a useful volume of water (a large static head) or it may store very little volume of water, relying instead on a fast flow-rate of water into the well when water is being taken out of it. In a basement most likely a well is hand dug - as you'd not normally be able to get a well drilling rig to drill down through the house itself.

Just below are photographs of different well water sources that are sometimes found inside of a building: From left to right,

Left: my clients opening a cover over a dug well in a basement floor. That well was not in use but was a hazard. Center: an antique well pump mounted right on top of a steel well casing for a shallow well that was originally immediately outside the building wall in a well pit, later enclosed as an extension poking out from the basement wall and thus "under the house".

Right: a drilled well in a steel casing enclosed in an extension through the basement foundation wall, also open to the basement.

Antique well pump on steel casing under a home (C) D Friedman Antique well pump on steel casing under a home (C) D Friedman Antique well pump on steel casing under a home (C) D Friedman

From your question you are probably describing a "dug well" or a "constructed spring" It would be unusual but not impossible for someone to build a house over a spring. More often in older homes people dug a cistern or even a dug well in the basement of the home. In neither case can you trust that the water supply is or will remain sanitary.

As you saw water "moving" I infer that you saw groundwater entering the well from one of the source types I described above. Of course it's possible that what you saw is really just a cistern - in which case the flow of water coming into the cistern could be from a spring, a remotely dug or drilled well, roof runoff, a nearby stream, or other source that is either uphill and drains into the cistern by gravity, or is fed by a pump. You'd need to explore the water source and property to figure that out.

At the top of this page is a photo of an access to a spring that we found hundreds of feet away from the home that it served. Water bubbled up into the spring, collected in a concrete chamber that had been built around the spring, and flowed out through a hole near the top of the spring enclosure wall where it entered a pipe that flowed by gravity to a holding cistern in the house itself. From there originally a hand pump drew water into a kitchen sink - later that pump was replaced by a local electric pump and a pressure tank.

Details of dug wells are at DUG WELLS, by HAND. Here are some basics:

From a practical sense, if it's a dug well it's shallow - less than 25 ft deep. (Measure your well dimensions including the height of the water column, total well depth, diameter, and I can say more. If it's a spring it might be more shallow. But in both cases your water supply depends on ground water seeping into the well or spring opening.

And you're pumping it out using probably a shallow well one line jet pump. (If you see TWO pipes running from your pump into the well it's a deep well jet pump and it would hardly be likely to be dug.)

If you are going to rely on this water supply for drinking you'll

  • probably need (I would insist on) a treatment system to assure that the water remains sanitary and potable between tests
  • not want to bet on the water quantity being adequate

And yes, typically a dug well originally provided water by bucket and rope, later by hand pump, and later by an electrical pump and pressure tank.

Drinking Water Spring Protection: Spring Boxes

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