According to EPA regulations, a system that operates at least 60 days per year, and serves 25 people or more or has 15 or more service connections, is regulated as a public water system under the Safe Drinking Water Act. If a system is not a public water system as defined by EPA's regulations, it is not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, although it may be regulated by state or local authorities.
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA requires public water systems to monitor for coliform bacteria. Systems analyze first for total coliform, because this test is faster to produce results. Any time that a sample is positive for total coliform, the same sample must be analyzed for either fecal coliform or E. coli. Both are indicators of contamination with animal waste or human sewage.
The largest public water systems (serving millions of people) must take at least 480 samples per month. Smaller systems must take at least five samples a month unless the state has conducted a sanitary survey – a survey in which a state inspector examines system components and ensures they will protect public health – at the system within the last five years.
Systems serving 25 to 1,000 people typically take one sample per month. Some states reduce this frequency to quarterly for ground water systems if a recent sanitary survey shows that the system is free of sanitary defects. Some types of systems can qualify for annual monitoring.
Systems using surface water, rather than ground water, are required to take extra steps to protect against bacterial contamination because surface water sources are more vulnerable to such contamination. At a minimum, all systems using surface waters must disinfect.
In 2006, EPA issued a new rule to ensure that systems using ground water sources take action to treat their drinking water to address microbial contamination if it is identified as a problem. Disinfection will kill E. coli O157:H7.