Drinking Water Testing: Information for Private Use


Drinking Water should be safe to use and aesthetically pleasing. It should be clear and colourless, with no unpalatable taste or odour, and it should contain no suspended matter, harmful chemical substances or pathogenic micro-organisms. The main sources of drinking water are from mains supplied water (tap water), groundwater (bores), surface water (dams, lakes) or rainwater tanks. Any water intended for human consumption should be tested for microbial and chemical quality.

Mains Supplied Water (Tap Water)
Municipally supplied water providers are responsible for supplying safe, high quality drinking water to their customers. They undergo extensive water quality monitoring programs which are regulated and have to comply with the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines and state health departments. However, unusual events can contaminate water supplies that are usually clean and tap water can be contaminated at the site of the tap itself.

Ground Water (eg: Bores and Wells) and Surface Water (eg: Dams)
Groundwater and surface water does not have the same level of water quality management and treatment as that provided to domestic households connected to public mains. It is not practical for private owners to constantly test their groundwater or surface water and although water quality may be good on the day of testing, it may change over time. After the initial analysis it should be checked periodically and monitored by the owner. If at any stage there are changes in appearance or odour of the water, additional water quality testing is advised.  Groundwater and surface water can be contaminated by sewage, animal wastes, agricultural runoff, industrial pollution, seepage from rubbish tips or polluted stormwater.

In most areas of Australia, the risk from consuming rainwater is low, providing it looks clear, has little taste or smell and is collected and stored in a well maintained tank and roof collection system. However, the collection and storage of rainwater introduces the potential for chemical, physical and microbial contamination from sources such as contaminated roof runoff, atmospheric pollution, the tank itself and microbial pathogens from animals.

Microbiological Tests
The microbiological tests will identify the total bacterial loading found in the water sample and the level of faecal contamination in the water, which will give an indication of how safe the water is to drink.

Sampling for Microbiological tests typically involves:

  1. Taking the sample in a sterile bottle leaving an air gap (do not rinse bottle prior to sampling)
  2. Chilling the sample to less than 6°C (ice bricks are preferred to ice)
  3. Ensuring the sample arrives at the laboratory within 24 hours of collection
  4. Labelling  the bottle/s with a sample ID and sample date (ensure multiple bottles from the same sample point have the same sample ID to avoid confusion)

Samples not meeting these requirements may deem the sample unsuitable and therefore accuracy of results cannot be guaranteed.

Chemical Tests
The chemical quality tests are made up of a range of chemical elements and compounds. Some of these are ones that may pose a risk to your health while others may only affect the taste, odour and appearance of the water.

Sampling for Chemical tests typically involves:

  1. Taking the sample in a bottle leaving no air gap
  2. Chilling the sample to less than 6°C (ice bricks are preferred to ice)
  3. Ensuring the sample arrives at the laboratory within 24 hours of collection
  4. Labelling the bottle/s with a sample ID and sample date (ensure multiple bottles from the same sample point have the same sample ID to avoid confusion)

Samples not meeting these requirements may deem the sample unsuitable and therefore accuracy of results cannot be guaranteed.

Sampling Techniques
When sampling from a tap, open fully and let water run to waste for 2-3 minutes or for a time sufficient to permit clearing of the service line.  Fill up the sample bottles and cap tightly. Do not touch the underside of the cap. If tap cleanliness is questionable, clean tap with isopropyl alcohol prior to sampling and allow enough water to flush it away.

Reservoirs (eg: Tanks, Dams)
Hold the closed bottle near its base and plunge it below the surface.  Remove the top and turn the bottle until its neck points slightly upward and mouth is directed toward the current.  If there is no current, create one by pushing the bottle forward away from the hand.  Replace cap before pulling the sample out.

What to Test For?

 Water Analysis

 Basic Testing:


 Total Coliforms, E.Coli and Thermotolerant Coliforms
 Nitrate and Nitrite
 Total Dissolved Solids
 Cations (Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium and Sodium)
 Total Metals (Cadmium, Copper, Iron, Manganese and Lead)
 Dissolved Metals (Iron and Arsenic)

      Extended Testing:

 Basic testing plus:
 Total Suspended Solids
 Volatile Organic Compounds
 Metals – Aluminium, Antimony, Barium, Beryllium, Boron, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper,  Mercury, Molybdenum, Nickel, Selenium, Silicon, Silver, Titanium, Tin, Strontium,  Uranium, Vanadium and  Zinc.

If you suspect a particular contamination or are unsure where your water is being sourced from, please contact your State Health Department to obtain further testing requirements and information.

Bottle Requirements


 Bottle Type

 Total Coliforms, E.coli and Thermotolerant Coliforms

 1 x Sterile 500mL PET, air gap, keep chilled

 Fluoride, Sulfate, Nitrate, Nitrite, Chloride, Alkalinity and  Colour

 1 x 500mL HDPE no air gap, keep chilled

 pH, Conductivity, Total Suspended Solids, Turbidity and  Total Dissolved Solids

 Volatile Organic Compounds

 2 x 40mL HCl preserved Glass vials, no air gap, keep  chilled


 1 x 125mL Acid Washed HDPE, no air gap, keep chilled

If you have a bore or tank that is used for commercial or public purposes the testing requirements may be different. Please contact your State Health Department to obtain further information.


To Proceed with Testing
Please contact your local Envirolab Services laboratory via phone 1300 42 43 44, email or order your required bottles, eskies and ice bricks for sampling.

Return the attached Chain of Custody Form, along with your samples to your local laboratory within 24 hours of collection. A printable version of our fact sheet on drinking water and the chain of Custody Form is also available for you to download.

Sydney Lab
12 Ashley St, Chatswood, NSW, 2067.
Contact us on 02 9910 6200 or email us at enquiries@envirolab.com.au
Visit our contact page for further details including business operating hours.

Perth Lab
16-18 Hayden Ct, Myaree, WA, 6154.
Contact us on 08 9317 2505 or email us at lab@mpl.com.au
Visit our contact page for further details including business operating hours.

Melbourne Lab
25 Research  Dr, Croydon South, Vic 3136
Contact us on 03 9763 2500 or email us at Melbourne@envirolab.com.au
Visit our contact page for further details including business operating hours.

Brisbane Office
20a, 10-20 Depot St, Banyo, QLD, 4014
Contact us on 07 3266 9532 or email us at Brisbane@envirolab.com.au
Visit our contact page for further details including business operating hours.

Adelaide Office
7a The Parade, Norwood, SA, 5087
Contact us on 08 7087 6800 or email us at Adelaide@envirolab.com.au
Visit our contact page for further details including business operating hours.

Important disclaimer
While all advice and recommendations are made in good faith, Envirolab Group does not accept any liability or responsibility for the actions taken by an individual as a result of information provided. You should satisfy yourself that any information you rely on from any source is appropriate for your own particular circumstances. View our Terms and Conditions for further details.

Result Interpretation
The results of the analysis of water intended for human consumption are compared to the Australian Drinking Water Guideline values. Some chemical parameters however, may not be regulated by the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.

Please contact the Department of Health in your state for assistance with interpretation of your test results.

Australian Drinking Water Guidelines can be accessed http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines/publications/eh52 (Chapter 10, page 181, Monitoring for specific characteristics in drinking water).

Further information
For assistance in the development of a drinking water management plan, access the Community Water Planner at: www.nhmrc.gov.au/publications/synopses/eh39.htm


Australian Drinking Water Guidelines Summary


 Guideline Level




 E coli

 Not detected in any 100ml  sample

 If detected in drinking water, immediate action should be taken including  investigation of potential sources of faecal contamination.

 Thermotolerant  coliforms

 Not detected in any 100ml  sample

 If detected in drinking water, immediate action should be taken including  investigation of potential sources of faecal contamination.




 Based on appearance turbidity should not exceed 5 NTU. If bacterial  disinfection is in place, less than 1 NTU is the target for effective disinfection.  Less than 0.2 NTU is the target for effective filtration of Cryptosporidium and  Giardia.

 Turbidity in water is caused by the presence of fine suspended particles.  Depending on the size and density of these particles, turbidity can be reduced  by either filtration or settlement. Water from new bores will often decrease in  turbidity after a period of bore use.


 pH 6.5–8.5

 While extreme pH values (<4 and >11) may adversely affect health, there are  insufficient data to set a health guideline value.

 <6.5 may be corrosive.

 >8 progressively decreases efficiency of chlorination.

 >8.5 may cause scale and taste problems.

 >11 may cause corrosion



 Important for ion balance check. Used to calculate TDS.

 Total dissolved solids


 Based on taste:

 <600 mg/L is regarded as good quality drinking water.

 600-900 mg/L is regarded as fair quality

 900-1200 mg/L is regarded as poor quality

 >1200 mg/L is regarded as unacceptable.



 Hard water can contribute to the formation of scale in hot water systems and  fittings, and makes lathering of soap difficult. Hardness is the measure of  calcium and magnesium in the water and comes from the dissolving of these  materials from soil and rocks.




 From natural mineral salts, effluent contamination. High concentrations more  common in groundwater and certain catchments. High chloride levels in water  are usually caused by high salt (sodium chloride) levels. High chloride is not  thought to cause health problems but high sodium levels that usually  accompany it (may cause health effects).

 The recommended maximum of 250 mg/L is based on taste considerations.



 Fluoride is important for preventing dental decay, but can also be harmful at  high concentrations. It is found naturally in rocks and waters, and is  sometimes present in industrial air pollution.


 500 Health,

 250 Asthetic

 Natural component of water, and may be added via treatment chemicals.

 The aesthetic value is based on a taste threshold. >500 mg/L can have  purgative effects such as dehydration and diarrhoea. It can also contribute to  corrosion of plumbing fixtures.

 Nitrate  50

 Occurs naturally. Increasing in some waters (particularly groundwater)
 from intensive farming and sewage effluent. Guideline value will protect
 bottle-fed infants under 3 months from methaemoglobinaemia. Adults
 and children over 3 months can safely drink water with up to 100 mg/L

 Nitrite  3  Levels of Nitrite above 3 mg/L may cause health problems by interfering with  haemoglobin in the blood. Nitrite levels in water can be reduced by oxidation.  Nitrite contamination is often associated with sewage contamination as it is  generated nitrate reducing bacteria.
 Silica  80  An important characteristic for both aesthetics and treatment processes. Can  form films on glass and can also affect reverse osmosis filters where levels  exceed 5mg/L.
 Volatile Organic  Compounds   0.001 – 0.1 Vinyl Chloride  0.0003 There are a variety of contaminants of concern that are covered by this list of compounds that can be found in groundwater in highly populated,  urban or industrial areas. Some VOCs are dangerous to human health or cause harm to the environment. VOCs are commonly found in products produced by the petroleum industry, paints, solvents and plastics and may be present in groundwater through contamination of water sources by spills or discharges. 




 Antimony is a metal that can be harmful in high concentrations. Its harmful  effects are limited at lower concentrations. It is rare in source waters, but may  leach from antimony solder or be deposited in pollution from smelters.
 Arsenic  0.01  Arsenic is a harmful element. Long term consumption of water with a high  arsenic concentration (greater than 0.3 mg/L) has been shown to increase the  likelihood of skin cancers and other diseases. Arsenic is found in soil and  rocks, but is also released by the burning of fossil fuels, and in drainage from  old gold mines and some types of sheep dip.
 Barium  2  Naturally occurring in groundwater.
 Boron  4  Low levels of Boron can occur naturally in groundwater. High levels of Boron  may be associated with seawater intrusion.
 Cadmium  0.002  Cadmium is a toxic metal that, in cases of long exposure, can cause kidney  problems. Cadmium may enter water supplies from impurities in the zinc of  galvanised metal, from solders, or from some fertilisers.
 Chromium  0.05  Chromium is a toxic heavy metal, which can cause cancers. Chromium is  found in small amounts in most rocks and soils, and has been used in many  industrial processes.
 Copper  2 Health, 
 1 Asthetic
 Copper in household water usually comes from corrosion of copper pipes
 caused by low pH water. The taste threshold for copper is 3 mg/L.
 High concentrations colour water blue/green.
 >1 mg/L may cause blue or green stains on fittings, wires
 >2 mg/L can cause ill effects in some people such as nausea, abdominal
 pain and vomiting.
 Iron  0.3  Iron occurs naturally in water, usually at <1 mg/L in groundwater.
 The guideline of 0.3 mg/L is based on taste and appearance.
 Above 1.0 mg/L most will consider the water to be of poor quality for drinking.
 Levels above 1 mg/L can produce brown staining on laundry and fittings.
 Lead  0.01  Lead is a toxic heavy metal. It may enter a water supply from natural sources  or from lead plumbing, solder, or roof flashings.
 The amount of dissolved lead will depend on a number of factors including pH  and water hardness. In humans, lead is a cumulative poison that can severely  affect the central nervous system. Infants, foetuses and pregnant women are  most susceptible.
 Mercury  0.001  Mercury can occur naturally in groundwater or enter drinking water as a result  of industrial emissions or spills.
 Molybdenum  0.05  Molybdenum occurs naturally in soil and groundwater and is used in  agriculture and mining.
 Manganese  0.5 Health, 
 0.1 Asthetic
 Manganese occurs naturally in groundwater and is likely to enter water
 supplies from natural sources or from contaminated sites.
 >0.1 mg/L causes undesirable taste, black staining of laundry and plumbing.
 Nickel  0.02  Long term exposure to nickel can cause kidney problems. Nickel may enter  water supplies from coal-fired power stations, metal alloy manufacturing or in  small concentrations from nickel-plated tap and plumbing fittings.
 Selenium  0.01  Selenium can occur naturally in groundwater or enter ground water as a result  of burning coal. Selenium is also a by-product of the processing of sulfide  ores, chiefly in the copper refining industry and is widely used in industry for  the manufacture of electronic components, some insecticides, in hair  shampoos as an anti-dandruff agent, and as a nutritional feed additive for  poultry and livestock.
 Uranium  0.17  Uranium can occur naturally in groundwater as a result of leaching from soils,  rocks and natural deposits or from the release of mill tailings, combustion of  coal and other fuels, and use of phosphate fertilisers (which can contain as  much as 150 mg/kg uranium). Naturally occurring Uranium consists almost  entirely of the U-238 isotope, with other isotopes being less than 1%  abundant. Uranium is used primarily as a fuel in nuclear power plants.
 Zinc  3  The aesthetic guideline value is based on taste threshold. In groundwaters,  the concentration of zinc from natural leaching is usually less than 0.01 mg/L.  Tap water can contain much higher concentrations as a result of corrosion of  zinc-coated pipes and fittings. Zinc concentrations in galvanised iron rainwater  tanks are typically 2 mg/L to 4 mg/L but have been reported as high as 11  mg/L. plants.
To convert mg/L to µg/L you need to muliptly the figure by a 1000.  For example: 0.001mg/L is the same as 1µg/L.
To assist you with your water sample collection, you can download the Envirolab Services fact sheet on drinking water with the chain of custody form

News list