How to Remove Nitrates from Well Water
If you stay in a rural area and are using a private well, it is very likely that your water has traces of nitrates. Nitrates are one of the unwanted contaminants in the water that you consume because they can induce health problems in humans and animals when consumed in excess. The worst part is, that nitrates are tasteless, colorless, and odorless.
The best way to identify the nitrate levels in your drinking water is to have your well water tested on a regular basis, ideally once every year. After checking for nitrates in water, you should know how to remove them and this guide is the right place to learn how to remove nitrates from well water.
Before we discuss the methods for nitrate removal, it is important that you learn more about the relevant information like what nitrates actually are and the importance of clean, nitrate-free water.
What Are Nitrates?
Time for a little chemistry lesson, the structure of nitrates is one part nitrogen and three parts oxygen. Nitrates are a type of inorganic compound that usually occurs naturally in our environment, including the soil, the atmosphere, and obviously, water. They could also be a byproduct of human activities. Nitrates are also highly water-soluble, so they can almost fully dissolve in water.
Some examples of how nitrates are produced are from the decomposition of plants and animal waste. Nitrates in water can also be produced from agricultural processes. There are a few ways that nitrates are able to get into groundwater and that is through flooding, soil erosion, and, usually, rainwater and snow. As such, a shallow well will have a higher risk of having a small amount of nitrate entering your water.
Nitrates are commonly associated with farming activity because nitrogen is a crucial element for crop growth since chlorophyll requires nitrogen to stimulate photosynthesis (an essential process carried out for plants to survive). Due to this reason, nitrates are easily found and used in fertilizers, which will be sprayed on plants to promote growth.
In the event of rain or flood, the fertilizer that carries nitrates may be transported into bodies of water, causing the groundwater nitrate levels to rise. From there, it will likely pass into wells through aquifers. While every life requires nitrogen for healthy growth, consuming nitrates in excess can be quite dangerous, and let’s take a look at health problems that you might face.
Health Risks Associated with Nitrates
As humans, the consumption of water that is contaminated with nitrate can bring many detrimental health risks, especially for babies, children, infants, and pregnant women. If the concentration of the nitrate level is high, it can affect the red blood cells in infants. When the red blood cells in babies are affected, it prevents them to carry oxygen properly to different parts of their body.
When the cells of infants are unable to transport oxygen properly due to nitrogen, they will experience a condition called methemoglobinemia, also known as “blue baby syndrome”. What happens to an infant going through this condition is the hemoglobin in his/her red blood cells may be converted to methemoglobin. Unlike hemoglobin, methemoglobin is unable to carry oxygen.
The reason that methemoglobinemia is called “blue baby syndrome” is because infants that were found to have this condition have blue nail beds, and a blue nose, mouth, and lips. Fever, diarrhea, and vomiting are also associated with this condition.
It is slightly safe for adults because their bodies contain enzymes that prevent the said condition from happening. However, babies and the elderly are not protected because they do not have this defense mechanism against methemoglobin. The risk of methemoglobinemia for adult men and women might be lesser, but it doesn’t mean that they should drink tap water carrying higher levels of nitrate and nitrite.
Although it is less detrimental for adults to consume water with nitrate, pregnant women should avoid drinking untreated water that has high levels of nitrate because the nitrogen might pass on to their infants. Any baby formula that contains high-nitrate water should also be avoided at all costs.
Other health conditions for adult men and women such as nausea and headache, rapid heartbeat and gastrointestinal disorders are also associated with consuming nitrates in drinking water.
A World Health Organization (WHO) research has also suggested that there’s a high chance that nitrate is carcinogenic in both adults and children. However, it is only thought that excessive nitrate levels can cause increased risk of cancer.
All in all, there should be more research done before we can truly understand the dangers of drinking levels of nitrates in tap water.
How Do Nitrates Get Into Drinking Water?
Both nitrates and nitrites usually get into water supplies through industrial and agricultural (farm) runoff. The unwanted contaminants may also enter water through damaged disposal, septic tanks or a sewage plant.
One of the biggest causes that nitrates and other organic and inorganic minerals get into drinking water is rainwater. What happens is the rain carries manure from farm livestock which contains nitrates, and fertilizers from crops, into lakes and streams and into the earth. From there, the nitrates will be able to enter wells through aquifers.
Thankfully, you won’t have dangerous levels of nitrate if you are within city drinking water supplies. It is a more prominent problem in wells, especially in rural areas where agricultural activity takes place and a high use of fertilizers is present. The operation of farming such as using fertilizer and septic systems as well as growing livestock, are two of the major causes of nitrate in drinking water.
Since the people staying in rural communities do not have access to city water, it makes it more crucial that the water from their wells is not contaminated with more than the maximum contaminant level of nitrogen. If in any case the maximum contaminant level is reached, the impurity has to be removed.
Moreover, industrial activity may also contribute to feeding nitrates into groundwater. For example, nitrates are typically used as oxidizing agents for ceramics production and food processing, and these industrial processes are also some of the ways for nitrate contamination to happen.
What is a Safe Level of Nitrates in Drinking Water?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is a Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLS) for a number of common drinking water contaminants that cause health problems when we’re consuming it in excess. The recommendation by EPA is that your well water should not exceed 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of nitrates. If it’s anything less, then it’s considered “safe”.
Another way to measure 10 milligrams per liter is 10 parts per million (PPM), where 1 PPM is the same as 1 mg/L. With this in mind, it will be much easier for you to convert one to the other.
What Can I Do To Prevent Nitrates Getting Into My Well Water?
Prevention is better than cure, and preventing nitrates from getting into the water you drink can be done in several ways. For starters, you can protect the area around your water source from nitrates, but if a well is already built, then you might need to consider constructing a completely new well or look for systems that can control or remove nitrates, rather than preventing it from contaminating your water in the first place.
For homeowners with an old well, you can make sure the casings are watertight and aren’t damaged. If they weren’t watertight or are damaged in some way, it would make it easy for nitrates to enter your water.
If you want to prevent nitrate contamination in your water when you’re constructing a new well, be sure that the well isn’t shallow. In addition, do not install it in a sand aquifer, if possible. The two factors that were mentioned are some of the main factors that make a well more vulnerable to nitrate contamination.
Other methods that allow you to avoid nitrate contamination are to construct your well far away from any nearby irrigation applications, septic systems, and animal waste. You should also perform an inspection of your well on a regular basis to check for damages, and test the water for nitrates once every year.
How to Test for Nitrate in Well Water
To test for well water nitrates, you can use one of these two methods: private laboratory testing and DIY testing kits. For a better understanding of your water quality, we would recommend you go for a lab test. Not only does a lab test show you whether your drinking water has nitrates or not, but it also indicates the exact nitrate level in your water.
If your water supply exceeds the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL), which is 10 mg/L of nitrates, you should start thinking about getting nitrate control and removal as soon as possible. But even if your water is below the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL), which is considered safe, you might still want to remove nitrate from your water supply.
In between each lab test, you can also periodically test the concentrations of nitrates in the water source on your own. This is to check if there are any abnormal increases in nitrate levels. The test kits can be bought online and are usually dipped into a still water source to identify whether specific contaminants are present or not.
For tests that are made to detect nitrate, it will usually cause the testing strip to change its color. If the color shows that you have too much nitrate in your water, you should arrange for lab testing as soon as you can and use bottled water in the meantime.
How to Remove Nitrates from Water
Nitrate removal can be done in several ways and one of the more common ways is using water filters. However, not all of them are able to remove nitrates, so be sure to do your research first and check out the available options. Besides that, you can also keep an eye out for systems like ion exchange, reverse osmosis, and distillation to remove nitrates.
The first way to get rid of nitrates in water is using a process known as ion exchange. Ion exchange usually happens within water softeners that are installed in your home’s point of use for whole-home softening perks. Even though the ion exchange process that happens in a household water softener is used to eliminate hard water problems by treating calcium and magnesium ions, the ion exchange process can actually remove nitrate too.
Water softeners have a resin bed that is loaded with sodium ions, which is essentially salt (sodium chloride). When water passes through the tank that contains the resin beads, the hard water minerals will be replaced with sodium, giving you softened and treated water that is safe for drinking. This is essentially the process of ion exchange.
For removing nitrate from water, the ion exchange process uses chloride rather than sodium in the resin bed. As such, when water flows through the tank, the resin bed will release chloride ions and attract nitrate ions to its surface. This is also known as anion exchange.
In order to get rid of nitrate from your drinking water successfully, it is crucial that you pay attention to the resin and make sure that it’s regenerating on a regular basis to spare up space for new nitrates. This is because the surface of the media will eventually become saturated with contaminants and you need to make sure that it’s flushed.
Do keep in mind that you will need to replace the ion exchange cartridge frequently, depending on your water quality. The worse your water quality, the faster you’ll need to replace the media cartridge.
For ion exchange to take place effectively, it will require high levels of nitrate and low levels of sulfate ions in your drinking water. The reason behind it is that this operation will usually attract both contaminants together, but it favors sulfate over nitrates. As such, if you have high sulfate levels, nitrate removal cannot be carried out effectively.
One other well-known method to eliminate nitrates in water is using the reverse osmosis water treatment process. Reverse osmosis systems are good for eliminating over 99.9% of all total dissolved solids in an effective manner. This type of filtration system is normally installed at a specific point of use in your home, or you can also install a whole-house system.
The reverse osmosis filtration system usually comes with multiple filters, namely a sediment filter and a carbon filter, and the highly effective semi-permeable membrane. What happens is the RO system will force water through each filter and membrane stage at high pressure. The filters will trap specific contaminants like sediment and chlorine, while the RO membrane will be in charge of reducing nitrates.
The filtration works because of the tiny pores that allow water particles to pass through only, while other contaminants such as nitrates, nitrites, and hundreds of others including bacteria, lead, and chlorine, will not be able to pass through. Instead, they will be flushed out of the RO system with waste water. You should be aware that reverse osmosis systems are great for reducing nitrates, but they won’t eliminate them completely.
These types of water systems typically need maintenance regularly and we’re talking about changing the reverse osmosis filters every six months to one year for ensuring a long-term and effective filtration, and replacing the reverse osmosis membrane should be done every two years. Most systems also have their own storage tanks to allow you to have access to water immediately.
If you wish to operate an RO filtration system, regardless of whether it’s a whole house system or not, you should expect it to require high pressure. So, it is recommended to get a pressure pump if your incoming pressure is quite low, to begin with. RO systems typically cost around $200 to $600, varying based on the type of system you opt for.
You should also bear in mind that this type of system creates some wastewater, which means it might not be as efficient in comparison to other methods.
Finally, you can remove nitrates in drinking water using distillation technology. What this technology uses is something known as a distiller and what it does is that it utilizes a traditional way of boiling for the removal of unwanted contaminants, including nitrates in your water.
In this procedure, water will be boiled in a chamber until it evaporates and what’s left behind will be the impurities that can’t turn into a gaseous state. The water then moves out of the boiling chamber and condenses into a liquid state in a carafe. The water also passes through a carbon filter before it leaves the distillation system, so you can expect the unwanted contaminants to be removed.
Do note that a distiller is extremely powerful and it is also a cost-effective water treatment solution. Not only does this treatment remove nitrates and nitrites, but it is also an effective treatment to eliminate other high concentration naturally or artificially occurring impurities, including illness-causing bacteria, chemicals, and heavy metals like lead which are commonly found in a well or a city water source.
This type of water treatment process effectively reduces nitrate in drinking water and is also meant for thorough contaminant removal, improving the overall water quality. However, there is a slight setback for this type of water treatment because a high concentration of contaminants is removed and it leaves the water with a “flat” or “plain” taste.
Moreover, using this system to treat water is a time-consuming operation and it usually takes up to 6 hours to provide a single 1-gallon batch and up to an entire day if you want it to produce enough gallons of water for an entire family. As such, this might not be the best way to treat water and stay below the maximum contaminant level if you want to have on-demand water or water for whole-house use.
With the advancement of technology and water filtration systems, removing nitrates from well water to stay under the maximum contaminant level is easier than you might have imagined. Any one of the three systems that we’ve recommended is a good treatment process for reducing nitrate levels in your water. So, just pick one that suits your water usage and you’ll get to drink water with minimal worries.
Does boiling water remove nitrates?
No. Unfortunately, boiling water will not be able to get rid of nitrate, but instead, it increases the concentration of the nitrates present in a source of water. This is why it is not a good idea to treat your water using this method if you want to reduce the nitrate level in your water.
When you boil water, some of it will evaporate and you will be left with the same concentration of contaminants, but now in a smaller amount of water. This means that the nitrate levels have actually increased slightly.
The water that I am drinking has more than 10 PPM of water nitrates. What should I do?
In this case, you should drink bottled water and use it for cooking and drinking for the time being, especially if you are using the water with baby formula. If possible, try to identify how high concentrations of nitrates have entered your groundwater.
Check to see if there are any human commercial or industrial activity such as food processing in your vicinity that could’ve caused this. You should also take manure, sewage, wastewater, and improper disposal of animal waste into account. Since there are some places in the United States that have higher levels of natural, organic nitrate deposits in the soil, it is possible that your home is located nearby.
If your water has more than 10 mg/l of nitrate, which is the maximum contaminant level (MCL), you should get it treated as soon as possible. Do contact your local authority for support if you require more assistance.
Does using a water softener reduce nitrate level?
Yes. A standard household water softener is a good choice to reduce nitrate level because its technology is meant to reduce concentrations of nitrate ions. However, it doesn’t eliminate it entirely.