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Is water testing a marketing ploy?

By Al Cooke
Posted Thursday, February 12, 2004

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A chatlist member mentioned that they had a call regarding water testing. We have had similar calls at the office. I recently shared the following information with a number of folks who subscribe to my E Letter. (If you'd like to be added to that list, send me a request with your email address in the body of the message.)

For the second time in less than six months someone has left near my driveway a plastic bag containing a small bottle and what appears to be an information form for having a water test performed. Different companies, different addresses.

They give me no idea what they are testing for

But the forms are similar. And in my skeptical, cynical mind the forms look rather like a market survey. But what they really have in common is that they give me no idea what they are testing for. I can conceive of someone holding the water sample up to a light, "testing" it for clarity, rating it on some scale, and telling me that further testing is advised. And I suspect that's where the cost scale begins to develop.

I hear from a lot of people who seem to think there is some universal "water test" that will tell you if your water is safe. There is no magic machine that will tell you everything that is in your water. Water seldom exists in a pure state unless distilled under rigorous conditions. There are usually impurities, some even added as water treatment to deal with less desirable impurities such as bacteria.

So if you want to have your water tested or analyzed, you have to determine for yourself what you want it tested for. Are you concerned about bacteria? Nitrates? Metals? Pesticides? Solvents? Each of these requires a different analysis and each will have a different price. What should you do?

For any health parameters such as those mentioned above, the Chatham County Health Department can help you. They can arrange a test for most of the items mentioned. There is a cost, and they can explain that if you call 919-542-8220. My recollection is that they will look for bacteria and nitrates for less than $50. The cost may be higher for other tests.

For agricultural, non-household water uses the North Carolina Department of Agriculture analyzes samples for $4.00. These samples are analyzed for pH and plant nutrients and are not suitable for determining if the water is suitable for drinking. Your local Extension office can help you understand how to take and submit a sample for agricultural analysis. Email me or give me a call at 919-542-8202.

Not all tests are created equal. Just as spelling tests and algebra tests are different, testing for bacteria and testing for pesticides are different. To get the answers we want, we have to know what we're looking for.


Al Cooke is a Chatham County Extension Agent

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Is water testing a marketing ploy?

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Extension Agent Al Cooke

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