Bacteria come in three basic shapes (there are a few exceptions) and their descriptive classification is based on those shapes:
The table below includes some examples of the various bacteria types and diseases they might cause (not all of them cause disease in humans nor are in water)
There are other bacteria that do not cause disease but which can affect the water quality, one good example being Crenothrix. Crenothrix is one of a group of Iron-Reducing Bacteria which get energy by converting iron compounds in the ground when there is very little oxygen present (an anaerobic or reducing environment) into a form of iron (ferrous iron, Fe⁺⁺) which is soluble in water, in the process producing hydrogen sulfide gas (H₂S).
The result is that the groundwater becomes saturated with dissolved iron (iron water) and smells like rotten eggs (the hydrogen sulfide gas – sulfur water). When pumped out of a well and exposed to the oxygen of the air (an aerobic or oxidizing environment), the ferrous iron quickly oxidizes to the much less soluble ferric iron (Fe⁺⁺⁺) which promptly precipitates, creating bright reddish-orange stains [ferric hydroxide, Fe(OH)₃] all over your plumbing and, if you were washing laundry, all over your clothes. Crenothrix and its colleagues like to make a protective slime (biofilm) that can block the movement of water into a well, thereby affecting not only the water quality but its quantity too.
Did You Know?
For the Garden Warriors - "A gram of soil typically contains about 40 million bacterial cells."
For the Weekend Backpackers -"A milliliter of fresh water usually holds about one million bacterial cells."
Bacteria can be a problem in humans because it can make you sick. From the introduction, bacteria can cause disease, i.e., be pathogenic. Waterborne disease causing bacteria can include E. coli, Leptospirosis, Vibrio cholerae (Cholera), Salmonella typhi (Typhoid) and many more. In some cases, bacteria that may not normally be associated with a disease may become opportunistic for an individual or an animal, such as: dog, cat, horse, or cattle, that has a compromised immune system or under significant stress. The presence of these organisms can suggest that other waterborne pathogens are present or if the water was treated the treatment process was not effective.
Bacteria can also cause nuisances, such as: odors, slimy coatings, films, corrosion, i.e., MIC - Microbiologically Induced Corrosion, failures or poor performance of water related and other equipment.
Primary standards are based on health considerations, and are designed to protect people from three classes of toxic pollutants: pathogens, radioactive elements, and toxic chemicals. Bacterial contamination falls under the category of pathogens. Testing for all individual pathogens is impractical and expensive. Instead, the EPA has designated total coliform bacteria as a standard to determine bacterial safety of the water. Coliform Bacteria originate in the intestinal tract of warm-blooded animals and can be found in their wastes. Coliform bacteria can also be found in soil and on vegetation. Coliform bacteria are relatively simple to identify and are present in much larger numbers than more dangerous pathogens. Coliform bacteria are in the natural environment and are treated in a manner and degree similar to pathogens. By monitoring coliform bacteria, the increase or decrease of many pathogenic bacteria can be estimated. Bacteria are regulated as a potential health concern. Regarding the primary drinking water standards or health based standards, the concentration of total coliform bacteria and E. coli should be Absent, Negative, or < 1 colony-forming unit per 100 mls ( cfu/100 ml).
Bacteria can also be associated with nuisance issues and corrosion that may exceed primary or secondary drinking water standards. A water sample with an elevated level of bacteria may cause the water to have an aesthetic issue that impacts the taste, odor, appearance, or use of the water and if the bacteria cause corrosion, the bacterial coating may impact the level of Copper, Lead, Iron, Arsenic, and other trace metal content of the water. For this reason, we may recommend additional testing for standard plate count or heterotrophic bacteria or Nuisance Bacteria like Iron Bacteria, Sulfate Bacteria, or Slime Bacteria. No specific sanitary significance or health standards have been indicated for non-pathogenic non-coliform bacteria other than a total heterotrophic bacteria count or standard plate count of < 500 colonies per ml. For the nuisance related bacteria, the bacteria should be present at a level that does not cause or promote a nuisance.
Testing for all individual pathogens is impractical and expensive. Coliform bacteria are relatively simple to identify and are present in much larger numbers than more dangerous pathogens. There are a number of good quality DIY bacterial screening tests, but the best option is always a certified laboratory test. Coliform Bacteria react to the natural environment and treatment processes in a manner and degree similar to pathogens.
Level 1 Testing is done with simple observations that an individual can make with their own senses such as sight, smell, and taste. These observations can be readily apparent or can be observed as they change over time. In addition, accessible related information about the home can also be used to narrow down the cause of your water issues.
You may suspect that your problem with your water is caused by a bacterium, if you notice one or more of these warning signs:
Level 2 Testing is Do-It-Yourself testing that can be done in your own home using a Testing Kit. After you’ve done Level 1 Testing, Level 2 Testing can confirm if your observations are correct. If your test results reveal the presence of a contaminant that is cause for concern, you can either proceed to determine the best treatment (see below) or continue to Level 3 Testing.
There are meters that can field check the bacterial level of water and surfaces by checking the ATP content of the water, but these units are expensive and require experience to use and maintain. The standard screening test for a bacterial problem is testing for the “Coliform” group of bacteria, such as: Total Coliform and E. coli. This group of bacteria is not the only bacterial or Microbiological group that can cause a water quality problem or health concern, but it is a good first step in determining and understanding your situation. The most cost-effective first step would be to use one of the Do-It-Yourself in-home screening tests for Total Coliform group.
<div class="product-note in-L6-bromate">Note: If the concentration is < 0.01 mg/L (POU Device System Component)</div>
<div class="product-note in-L6-color-taste-odor">Note: Requires a prefiltration system</div>
Level 3 Testing is done through an accredited Water Testing Laboratory. With Level 3 Testing, you can order a testing kit that is used to prepare your sample and submit it to the lab. By utilizing a lab, you have the assurance that a certified water expert had analyzed your water sample. If your test results reveal the presence of a contaminant that is cause for concern, you can either proceed to determine the best treatment options (see below) or continue to Level 4 Testing - Certified Testing.
A Level 4 Certified Test Test uses chain-of-custody with a water professional coming to your home to prepare the water sample and then works with an accredited laboratory in order to certify your test results. This type of testing not only gives you the highest level of assurance in the accuracy of your test results, but can also be used as a document in legal cases. For Baseline Testing, we recommend that you use Certified Testing.
This testing will require an unbiased “third party” to collect the necessary water quality samples. In many cases, the observations and diagnostics conducted in Level 1, screening testing in Level 2 and Level 3 will be an asset and aid in determining the number, type, and location of this “certified” testing. In many cases, Level 4 testing is associated with a regulated activity, legal action, or real-estate transfer.