Methane and Other Gases in Drinking Water and Groundwater
 

by:
Mr. Brian Oram, PG
B.F. Environmental Consultants Inc.

Residential Water Supply and Homeowner Drinking Water
Testing Evaluation Program

 

gas migration, mud movement, impacts during drilling phase, barium, dirty water

Migration of Gas, Cuttings, or Mud During Drilling

methane gas migration along casing
Possible Pathways for Gas Migration Along Casing or Formation
Cement Bounding and Cracking Issues

Fact Sheet: Methane Gas Migration and
Your Water Well- A Pennsylvania Perspective
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Two New Fact Sheets
Methane Gas Migration/Mitigation (Professional Version)
Methane Gas Migration/Mitigation (Private Well Owner)

This is a free resource that is being provided by Mr. Brian Oram, Professional Geologist and owner of B.F. Environmental Consultants Inc. and the Water-Research Center.  This fact sheet is part of our on-going education program for private well homeowners, i.e., as The Homeowner Outreach Program.  B.F. Environmental Consultants, Inc. and Mr. Brian Oram support the Citizens Groundwater/Surfacewater Database, which is a grassroots effort to compile the water quality data for Northeastern Pennsylvania.  To learn more, please contact the Water-Research Center- http://www.water-research.net.

Introduction

Methane gas has been a “hidden” problem in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  The gas is typically associated with wetlands, bogs, landfills, coal-producing formations, natural saline seeps, some glacial deposits, and gas storage areas.  Because of the development of the Marcellus Shale, the presence of methane gas and the potential for methane gas migration is a growing concern.   Methane is a colorless, odorless gas that is lighter than air.   Natural gas is mostly methane (70 – 90 % CH4), carbon dioxide (0 to 8 % CO2), plus other gases.  The other gases may include ethane (C2H6), propane (C3H8), butane (C4H10), and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) as well as small amounts of helium.

Methane gas is highly flammable between a lower explosion limit (LEL) of 5.53 percent by volume in air and an upper explosion limit (UEL) of 15 percent.  These percentages are equivalent to a methane concentration of 50,000 and 150,000 parts per million (ppm) in air.  The minimum concentration level at which the gas has the potential to explode is called the lower explosive limit (LEL); below the LEL level there is not enough gas to cause an explosion.  Above the UEL, there is inadequate oxygen to fuel combustion, but if the space is vented and the gas concentration drops below the UEL, the gas can become diluted enough to explode (it would require an ignition source).  Methane is not considered toxic, but it is an asphyxiant at a concentration of over 50 percent in air (it displaces oxygen).  Therefore, the primary risks for methane would be asphyxiation in a confined or poorly vented area or a potential explosion hazard.   As a safety measure, the natural gas industry adds mercaptans to the produced methane gas that enters the pipeline and your home. The mercaptans produce a very pungent odor so that gas leaks will be noticed, but unprocessed methane gas tends to have NO ODOR.  It is critical to note that some unprocessed methane gas may contain long chain hydrocarbon molecules that can create an odor.

From the available data in the Citizen Groundwater/Surfacewater Database, it would appear that the natural background level of methane in private wells in Northeastern Pennsylvania ranges from not detectable or trace levels to over 28 mg/L.  You may suspect the presence of methane gas in your water if you hear a “gurgling noise”, sputtering at the tap, the water has a lot of gas bubbles, is effervescent or fizzy.  

Note: If the pumping level of water in your well starts to fall below your pump intake, ordinary air may mix with the water and produce similar symptoms. When in doubt, contact a professional to determine the nature of the observed gas.

Water hammer or pressure surge is another potential sign of a methane or entrapped gas-related problem. These conditions do not necessarily mean you have a methane problem but it does suggest that additional water testing and possibly more aggressive venting would be needed.  Methane gas typically out-gases very quickly from water.  Therefore, if it takes over 2 minutes for the gas and water to separate, it is most likely carbon dioxide.   When you have the water tested, you may want to have the water field-tested for general water quality, i.e., pH, conductivity, turbidity, temperature, oxidation reduction potential (mv), and carbon dioxide.  If you have a lot of gas and the methane content of the water is low, it may be a mixture of carbon dioxide or air entrapment within the system.   If there is a strong odor and the level of methane is low, you may want to test for sulfur (hydrogen sulfide; odor of rotten eggs) or propane.  Testing for propane would be advisable if you or your neighbors use propane gas.

Note:  Some articles suggest that you should try to collect the water and allow the gas to outgas in a sealed container and then attempt to light the accumulated gas – we do not recommend this practice. This practice is not safe, especially if you do not know the level of methane gas in the water, your home, or under the wellhead.  This may make a great “YouTube” video or “Facebook” post, but it is safer to purchase a small methane gas or flammable gas detector.

There are two main types of methane found in rock formations and groundwater.  The types are based on a difference in origin, not composition:

1. Thermogenic methane, which is formed from buried organic matter at considerable depths where the rocks are compressed and heated; this includes the methane found in coal, gas from some Devonian sandstones/shales, and gas from the Marcellus and Utica Formations.  Methane is produced by the inorganic breakdown of organic matter (heat and pressure).

2. Biogenic or bacterial methane which formed closer to the surface by the action of bacteria (methanogens- “bacteria that produce methane and cannot live in an environment with oxygen).  This would include methane generated in landfills, lake sediments, wetlands/swamps, organic-rich glacial deposits, other recently buried organic deposits, and other carbon rich environments that are without oxygen. Biogenic gas typically contains 20 percent to 30 percent less methane than is found in thermogenic natural gas.

Natural gas formed by thermogenic processes contains small amounts of ethane and propane and may contain very small amounts of butane and pentane as well as methane. Some coals, like from the anthracite region, contain thermogenic gas, but some coal bed methane could be either biogenic or thermogenic gas. When bacteria generate “biogenic” gas, they create mainly methane.

The source of the natural gas can to some extent be determined by the relative proportion of methane, ethane and propane within the gas, i.e., gas fingerprinting.  Even very small amounts of ethane and propane may be important in helping to identify the source of the gas, i.e., gas composition analysis. Unfortunately, gas composition analysis can be expensive, requires an expert to conduct testing and review data, may require large volumes of sample, and a reference sample for comparison.  Another method is to determine the ratios of two stable carbon isotopes, C–12 and C–13, in the methane.  Thermogenic methane tends to have more C–13 compared to C–12 than biogenic methane as the microbes which produce methane prefer the C–12 to C–13.    In general, a methane / ethane ratio of less than 100 would suggest thermogenic gas and a value over 100 biogenic gas, but it is not always that clear.   The primary difficulty with the analysis and interpretation of methane by either composition or isotope ratios is that after the gas is created it can be altered during the migration process.  This alteration affects the relative proportions and isotopic composition of the gases, thus making it more difficult to distinguish and identify a specific source.  As a guide, it may be possible to use a ratio to suggest the source of the gas- “ if the ratio of methane to ethane is 25, the source is thermogenic, but if the ratio is over 2500, then it is biogenic" (Mr. Bob Pirkle, President of Microseeps, Inc.), but between 25 and 2500 this is where isotopic analysis and gas composition analysis is critical.


Other Sources of Methane Gas - Thermogenic and Biogenic (Pennsylvania)

Methane Gas Concerns and Concentrations

Just like radon gas, methane gas migrates naturally up through the soil, geological materials, and through the groundwater and into your home or well.  Some gas naturally enters houses through the foundation, which is why some homes can have a radon problem if the gas entering the home happens to have a relatively high concentration of radon.  When your water well is pumped, the drop in the level of the water in the wellbore reduces the pressure within the formation and permits more gas to migrate toward the wellbore.  If the well is not properly vented and there happens to be substantial amounts of methane, the gas could accumulate under the well cap near the electrical connections for your well or the methane could enter with the well water and outgas in your home.   The US Department of the Interior, Office of Surface Mining, suggests that when the level of methane gas in the water is less than 10 mg/L it is safe, but monitoring is required at 10 to 28 mg/L, and immediate action is needed above 28 mg/L.  At a level of 28 mg/L, the water is fully saturated with methane and it is likely that any air space in the well is at or approaching the LEL.  The air and out-gassing methane, not the water, is now flammable.

Based on a review of regulations and guidance from other states, the following are our professional recommendations related to suggested actions for your well depending on the level of methane gas detected in the water:

< 2 mg/L – Make sure your well is fitted with a passive venting system using a vented sanitary well cap.

> 2 to 7 mg/L – Monitor quarterly for one year and install a passive venting system using a vented pipe and vented sanitary well cap.

> 7 mg/L to < 10 mg/L Corrective Action is Needed! – Seek help from a professional. Install active venting and monitor quarterly for one year. Consider Isotopic Analysis – “Like fingerprinting the source of the gas.” Remove ignition sources - if the well is in a well pit or basement, corrective action is needed and you should seek guidance from a licensed professional.

> 10 mg/L to < 20 mg/L –  Corrective Action and Additional Testing are Needed! – Seek help from a professional.
Install active venting system, an in-home methane detection system, and a gas shroud on the pump.  If the well is very deep or deeper than the surrounding wells, it may be advisable to consider cementing the lower portions of the well (which could be another problem if most of the water in the well is entering the well from its lower section).  Monitoring and Testing - isotopic analysis with monitoring is recommended and the gases and gas concentrations should be tested multiple times during a year with at least one test under conditions when the greatest out-gassing is anticipated.  If there is natural gas development in your area, contact the PADEP and the local Natural Gas Company.  Seek help from a licensed professional !

> 20 mg/LImmediate Corrective Action is Needed! – Seek help from a professional.
Install active venting and active point-of-entry treatment system, remove ignition sources, install a gas shroud on the pump, consider raising the pump,    and consider cementing the lower portions of the well.   Monitoring and Testing – there should be real-time monitoring in the home and a treatment system, regular monitoring of the untreated water and treated water from the system, and isotopic analysis.

It would be advisable to test for methane, ethane, and propane by a certified testing laboratory.  With respect to baseline testing, it would be wise to test for all three gases but if you’re on a budget at least test for methane and ethane and seek guidance from a professional. 

Note: Corrective action is recommended if the well is in a well pit or in the basement and the initial methane in water concentration is above 2 mg/L. 

 


Private Well Construction Can Influence Gas, Saline
Water, and Contaminate Migration

Regarding the construction of Natural Gas Wells - it is not only important to properly case and cement, but it is critical that centralizers are used to aid in the development of uniform cement layers.

When to Test for Methane?

This is a common question and to be honest all we can say is that the level of methane in well water is controlled by many factors and conditions and it can be highly variable. If you want to test under the conditions most favorable to methane gas migration or leakage, it would be advisable to conduct testing when one or more of the following conditions exist:

a. barometric pressure is low and soils are saturated;
b. when snow cover is just beginning to melt;
c. the ground is frozen or ice covered; or
d. under long-term pumping conditions for the well when the well is experiencing the lowest dynamic water level and greatest drawdown.

The variability in methane gas concentrations may require you to sample the well three to four times per year to establish a realistic baseline and provide some insight into background levels of methane gas.  You can visually monitor the quality of the water, if the amount of dissolved gases increase, i.e., if there are more bubbles and fizz, maybe it is time to check the water.   If you see foam, you would want to test the water for surfactants.

Taking Action – Based on Your Level of Methane

Level 1- Passive Venting: Methane Levels < 2 mg/L
Passive venting could simply include checking the electrical connections at the top of the well and installing a vented sanitary well cap.  Wells should not be vented to a well pit, inside the home, or within any structure, but vented to the outside atmosphere. The well casing should extend at least 3 feet above the local flood stage for your area.  

Level 2 – Monitoring, Source Identification, and Passive Venting: Methane Levels 2 to  < 7 mg/L

At this stage, a passive venting system should be installed.  At this level, the venting system would consist of a vented well cap using a vented piping approach.  The vent piping should have an inside diameter of 0.5 inches , extend 6 to 12 inches below the sanitary well cap, at least 12 inches above the well cap, and the end of the pipe that extends above grade should be turned down and fitted with a corrosion resistant fine screen.  The screen should have a mesh size of  25 mesh or less. The vent piping should use watertight connections that extend above flood level and local ignition sources. A screen is added so insects cannot enter or clog the pipe and the pipe is turned down to prevent precipitation from directly entering the well.   The well casing should extend at least 3 feet above the local flood stage for your area.  

Level 3 – Active Venting, Removing Ignition Sources, and Seasonal Monitoring: Methane Level 7 to < 10 mg/L

Because the level of methane gas in the well water will fluctuate as the water level in the well changes, it would be advisable to conduct seasonal monitoring to better understand the variation in the gas concentration.  In addition, this level of action would also include installing additional monitoring devices, an active venting system on the well, and an evaluation of the well to determine if a modification to the well would reduce the level of methane gas.  The main goals are to attempt to understand the natural variation in methane levels, provide a venting system that will ensure your family and home is safe, and to proactively manage the potential risk. At this concentration, the venting system should vent the gas above local ignition sources, above flood level, and above a human exposure level, i.e., at least 6 feet or more.

At this time, it may be advisable to conduct an isotopic analysis to determine the likely source of the methane gas.  Isotopic analysis can determine if the source of the methane gas is from a landfill gas, sewer gas, biogenic gas, or thermogenic gas.  Isotopic analysis is a specialty test and costs approximately $ 450.00 to $ 500.00 per sample.  The primary reason for testing the gas at this point is not just to document the concentration, but also to obtain some information related to the source of the methane gas. 

Note:  Any time the level of methane is at or greater than 7 mg/L - Contact- PADEP and the Local Natural Gas Company in Your Area – Under Oil and Gas Law- Section 78.89 – “When an operator or owner is notified of or otherwise made aware of a POTENTIAL natural gas migration incident, the PADEP may require the operator to conduct an investigation” (Depends on historic levels and regional data).

Level 4 – Aggressive, Potentially Long-Term Treatment: Methane Levels > 10 mg/L to < 20 mg/L.

At this level, it is most likely that a treatment system will be needed and it would be necessary to install intrinsically safe equipment, i.e., switches, pumps, fixtures, etc.  Intrinsic safety is a requirement that applies to devices that are being operated in areas with flammable gases or fuels. It means that the device is incapable of igniting those gases. In short, an intrinsically safe piece of equipment won't ignite flammable gases even if the unit is in a flammable environment.   Additional real-time monitoring equipment and a gas shroud should be installed around the pump. 

Before installing the treatment system, it would be advisable to complete a baseline analysis of the source, plus conduct additional water quality and wellbore analysis to evaluate the potential for modifying the well and aid in the design of the water treatment system.  Aeration or degasification is the primary way to eliminate the problem of methane gas in water.  There are a number of methods for venting the methane, which includes a vented tank, an air release valve, and an air separator.  Because elevated levels of methane gas may be associated with other water quality problems and atmospheric venting may introduce or facilitate bacterial growth it may be necessary to first vent the gas and then install secondary treatment systems.  In some cases, this may mean the treatment system may need to include some form of disinfection.  To maintain the removal efficiency of the methane reduction system and because of our cold climate, it may be necessary to put the treatment system in a climate-controlled space.  

Level 5 – Immediate Action – Aggressive Response, Mitigation and Long-Term Treatment: Methane Levels > 20 mg/L.

An immediate response and action is needed.  At this level, it is likely the water has a number of aesthetic and safety issues and concerns and it may be advisable check if the water is also influenced by elevated levels of pH, ORP (oxidation/reduction potential), barium, strontium, chloride, iron, manganese, bromide, total dissolved solids, and other elements associated with saline water.   Your first response should be to contact the PADEP and the local Natural Gas Company so they can conduct an investigation and seek the advice of a licensed professional.

Because a response at this level of methane gas is very site-specific, the following should only be used as a guide.

1.   Seek advice from a licensed professional.

2.   Conduct an assessment of the methane level in the water, space under the well cap, and methane level in the air in your home or other confined          spaces.

3.   Mitigate any immediate hazards that could result in an explosion.

4.   If possible, modify the wellhead to properly vent the gas and upgrade electrical connections to reduce the level of methane in the water to less than 7 mg/L.

5.   This modification may include raising the well pump, installing a pump shroud, installing an active venting system, cement sealing a portion of the well, and any other modifications to make sure the well is properly and safely vented.

6.   Conduct biological and chemical analysis to determine the source of the methane gas and general quality of the water.

7.   If necessary, install a long-term treatment system.  This should include some type of aeration and degasing system.  Special precautions and additional testing will be needed if disinfection will be a component of the system. 

If the water is saturated with methane, i.e., > 28 mg/L, it may be advisable to retest the water/air using the IsoBag sampling method recommended by Isotech Laboratories, Inc. and conducting an isotropic analysis of the gas/water and seek the assistance of a professional.

Well/ System Modifications

The Gas Shroud - In some cases, well contractors have reduced or eliminated methane or other gas problems in the well by installing a gas “shroud” on a submersible pump. This involves placing a pipe or tube, often a thin-walled plastic pipe, from the top of the submersible pump motor, a distance of 10 or more feet above the pump. The shroud is sealed at the top of the submersible pump motor below the pump intake. The top of the shroud is open and set below the pumping water level. Methane rises through the water column in the well, reducing the amount of methane in the water in the shroud. This method only works with 6-inch or larger diameter wells with standard well pumps, and wells that pump relatively small quantities of water at one time.  Because the gas shroud may interfere with cooling the motor, this modification to your system should be done under the supervision of a licensed professional.

Cementing – If the source of the methane gas is from a formation near the base of the well, it may be advisable to consider abandoning a portion of the well.  To make this decision, it would be advisable to have a copy of the well drillers log, so you have some idea of the type of rock units and location of water bearing zones; you don’t want to seal off the source of most of your well water.  For this option, it may be necessary to camera survey the well and use other tools to evaluate the change in water quality with depth in the well.

Raise the Pump – Because the amount of gas dissolved in the water is a function of pressure, it may be advisable to consider raising the pumping setting.  If the well is deep and the pump is set near the base of the well, it may be advisable to raise the pump intake level.  It is likely that the amount of methane dissolved in the water will get lower as you decrease the water pressure in the borehole.  Do not raise the pump intake above its pumping level because you will then start to pump air along with the water (air bubbles in the water).    If the problem was related to lose of circulation, it may be possible to line the upper portion of the private well.

Install a Dole Flow Control Valve- This modification has been successful in preventing gas locking in submersible pumps.  This modification would include the installation of a dole flow valve with by-pass to divert 1/3 of the pumped water back to the well.  In addition, the check valve would removed from the pump.  The bypass, dole flow value, and a new check valve should be installed at least 20 feet above the pump.  The bypass should be located at a point where the water will cascade back to the well.

Maintenance and Monitoring

After you have taken the necessary corrective action, it will be necessary to maintain the equipment and monitor your drinking water quality.  If you hire a water treatment specialist, you may want to consider a licensed or approved contractor who is certified by the Water Quality Association (WQA) and someone that is using an NSF Approved Process or components.  For water quality monitoring, there is some self-monitoring equipment for this task.  You should also conduct an annual water analysis and annual assessment of your system.

For more information, please do not hesitate to contact the Water-Research Center at bfenviro@ptd.net, http://www.bfenvironmental.com .

Special Recognition

We want to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Brian Redmond, Professional Geologist at Wilkes University; Mr. Burt Waite, Professional Geologist at Moody and Associates, Inc., Mr. Bob Pirkle, President of Microseeps, Inc.; Mr. Tom Reilly, Jr. , Reilly Associates for providing a technical review of this factsheet.

 Our company accepts no liability for the content of this document, or for the consequences of any actions taken on the basis of the information provided.  This document is being provided as an educational and informational tool, but before you take action you should seek advice from a professional.

  2011 by B.F. Environmental Consultants Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of B.F. Environmental Consultants Inc., but the document may be reproduced in whole, without modification, for an
 educational purposes.

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