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Basic water quality testing

When buying a property is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that any water is good water. Unfortunately we learnt this the hard way. When we bought our property at Nanango, we thought the dam looked good and we would have plenty of water for the cattle, chooks and garden. The day we moved in with all our animals, our neighbour dropped by to tell us that our dam was saline. According to our neighbour, the previous owner had nearly ended up with two dead horses as they had refused to drink from the dam.

We promptly tested the water with an electrical conductivity (EC) meter that we already owned from back when we grew hydroponic tomatoes (pre-blog days) and found that the water was indeed saline. It was OK for the cattle water, but no good for the chooks or garden. The most annoying thing was that we already owned the EC meter and hadn't thought to use it to test the water because we had no idea that dam water could be salty. Since then we have used it on several properties that we were considering buying. Even if you still go ahead and buy the property, at least you know what you're getting.

my helpful lab assistance

The other basic test for water quality that can be useful is pH. I bought the pH meter to use for soil pH, but when I was struggling to calibrate it using our tank water, I realised that the rainwater in our new plastic tanks was actually very low pH due to our proximity to a power station which effectively generates acid rain. We have had to add limestone to the water to increase the pH, which I explained back here.

Our EC meter and pH meter have proved to be very useful in testing water. We regularly test water from our dams, bores and tanks and for other people. You can buy a conductivity meter for around $200, and a pH meter for less than $100. These two meters can tell you an awful lot about your water quality, preferably before you make the mistake of buying a property with poor water quality! If you need to know exactly what is in your water, you can also send a water sample to a laboratory for around $50-200 depending on the tests that you request, they will also be able to advise suitable applications for the water. Other tests can be used to further assess water quality - summaryof water testing.

a pH meter (that's our rainwater!)
a conductivity meter (again, on rainwater)

Ideally good quality water will have low salinity (less than 500 ppm) and pH around 7. Typically rainwater can end up with a pH well below 7, and this can cause corrosion in metal plumbing fittings, as I discussed previously. If pH is higher, you may find that you have dissolved calcium and magnesium, known as “hard water”, which causes soap to form a scum rather than suds (more on soap chemistry and how soap works). For household water, its possible to use a water softener to remove these minerals, but this is impractical for larger applications (stock water or irrigation) (see options for softening water and maintaining a cation exchange resin water softener). As salinity increases, the water becomes unsuitable for irrigation (and this link) and for stock water. It is usually restrictively expensive to remove minerals from water on a large scale, so its best to test your water sources before buying a property, so that you know the water quality and its suitability for various applications.

I recently wrote an article for FarmStyle which gets into more detail on testing for water quality.

What is your experience with water quality on your property?


  1. Thanks so much for writing about this Liz. We are looking around for a rural property and it it would have never occurred to me to have any water holes tested.

  2. Gosh what a nightmare, thanks for the tips. I will be testing our dam water at the new place to make sure its all good, and the rainwater from the tanks too. We were told it is a spring fed dam at our place, with a billabong also. Thanks.

  3. What do you think is causing the saline water? Is it maybe because there aren't enough trees to suppress the saline layer of the water table? Or do you think its the acid rain you speak of?

    There isn't much you can do about acid rain, but there are some plants which can help you deal with the saline, if its in the soil. I've just successfully tried old-man saltbush and its very hardy, and from what I read, can be grown in salty areas. Its used as a fodder plant for livestock, but can become too salty if the soil is, so best as a forage plant, not in isolation to making other feed available.

    As you would know, Peter Andrews has a lot to say about soil hydrology and how salt can move to the edge of a damn, by the sheer weight of the water. Just wondering if something "upstream" is happening to push the salt into your damn?

    We got a whopper of a storm a few days ago, and the back gully was filled. Some of the buffers we put in (dead lantana branches) helped to slow the water and there wasn't any erosion - we got quite a lot of silt dropped that came in though. I could see the water travelling rapidly as it entered the property and then speed up again, once it left. That's about the only "water" we have on the property. We have one small pond that fills with enough rain and becomes a watering hole for the native animals.

    This particular looong dry spell though, before the rain came, I have been putting water out for the birds in a bowl and even the wallabies have been drinking from it. :)

  4. This is interesting to read and learn about! Another reason I love reading your blog, it really offers a different perspective in a different country. In the US, many states require water testing at before the purchase or closing of a home. I live in New Hampshire, which is known for poor quality ground water (a local college actually just received a multi-million dollar grant for water testing around the state).
    Although water quality testing isn't required in our state (many voters aren't keen on high regulation here), it's common practice - along with a multitude of other inspections before purchasing a house. A lot of this became even more common practice during the housing bust, when many Americans had their homes taken from banks due to defaulting on their mortgage - some of these home owners would sabotage the property or home by pouring cement down drains, etc. It doesn't happen as much now, but home inspections have really become common practice because of it.
    We took a water sample from the well before we closed on the home and sent it for a variety of testing to be done (check for arsenic, etc.) and it cost about $80 total. The previous owners also had a water filtration system/water softener installed in the home (cost them around $2000), so we did really luck out with the water quality.


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