What Is Problem Water?
Some water contains troublesome elements or has characteristics which can make it very unpleasant to use or damaging to things that it touches. Among them are iron, manganese, hydrogen sulfide and acidity.
Iron typically rears its ugly head as rusty orange/brown stains, streaks or spots on clothing cleaned in a washing machine. Stains also appear on bathtubs, sinks and faucets. Even small amounts of iron can cause problems. Iron in concentrations as low as .3 parts per million can cause staining. And iron staining can be difficult to remove; cleaning may require special solvents. Iron can also clog pipes and damage the internal parts of water-using appliances. Iron is generally found in well water, although city water users are not immune from the problems associated with it.
Common home water conditioners can remove average amounts of dissolved iron from a family's water supply. Multi-Stage Iron Removal Systems. When iron appears in excessive amounts, a specialized iron removal system may be required. Aeration equipment or chlorine can be used to change the dissolved iron into ferric iron, which is filterable. The ferric iron can then be removed by special automatic back washing filters, leaving the water clean and clear. In some cases, special filters can perform both the oxidation and filtration functions.
Chlorine is typically used by municipal water suppliers for disinfection, but it can dry skin and hair. Chlorine can also be inhaled in shower steam; some question the effects it has on the body. Chlorine can be easily removed by installing a carbon filtration system where the water enters the home. Combination systems that soften and dechlorinate water are also available and eliminate the need to purchase separate softening and filtration systems.
Hydrogen sulfide, although not a cause of staining, leaves water with an obnoxious "rotten egg" odor that makes it unbearable to drink, cook with or even bathe in. Because it is a weak acid, hydrogen sulfide can also promote corrosion. And its presence in the air causes silver to tarnish in seconds. High concentrations are flammable and can be poisonous. Luckily, hydrogen sulfide can be removed by first using aeration or chlorination to convert it into elemental sulfur, a yellowish powder that can be removed with filters. The process works similarly to that which is used to filter iron from water.
Acidity is another characteristic that can influence a family's water supply. When water is acidic, it must be neutralized or it will cause corrosion of plumbing and fixtures, and could damage water-using appliances. A neutralizer containing calcite chips is often used to reduce water acidity. As water flows through the bed of calcite, the chips dissolve into the water and neutralize its acidity. They also add hardness minerals to the water which can then be removed by a water conditioner.
The only way to be certain what's in your water is to have it tested. Water treatment professionals can have your water tested by certified laboratories and help you decipher the results. If you are supplied with water by a local water utility, you can request the results they've recorded from government mandated tests for a variety of contaminants.
While bad odors, unusual colors or metallic tastes usually indicate a drinking water problem, some go undetected. Lead is tasteless, odorless, and colorless and can find its way into your water via soldered pipe connections. Lead-based solder was used in homes built as recently as the late 1980s.
Even though cities generally use chlorine to disinfect water to prevent illness and disease, chlorination is not a foolproof disinfection method. Unexpected outbreaks of certain microorganisms can still occur. Cryptosporidium, a waterborne parasite, caused several hundred thousand people to become ill in Milwaukee in April, 1993. And although it's disinfected, city water may encounter contaminants once it leaves the treatment plant and travels through miles of distribution lines before it reaches your home.
What You Can Find in Your Drinking Water
The most common drinking water quality complaints, because they are easily identifiable and often leave water aesthetically unappealing, include: Chlorine Taste/Odor - generally caused by chlorine used by municipalities to disinfect their water supplies. Musty, Earthy, Fishy Tastes/Odors - caused by algae, molds and bacteria that live in water and can multiply within a home's plumbing system. Cloudiness/Turbidity - results from suspended particles of sediment. "Rotten Egg" Smell - comes from hydrogen sulfide in water. Color - linked to decaying organic matter (tannins) and metals such as iron.
Problems that cannot be easily identified include:
- Chlorine Byproducts - created when chlorine reacts with other substances in water.
- Toxic Metals - metals such as mercury and lead.
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) - include commercial chemicals and pesticides.
- Microorganisms - include cysts, bacteria and viruses that can live in water.
The above contaminants are not necessarily in your water. The only way to be certain is to have your water tested.
Water conditioners may be designed to help with other water problems, too, including the reduction of radium, barium and excess iron. In severe cases, however, a separate system may be required for proper performance.
Soft water is essentially free of dissolved calcium or magnesium
Since calcium and magnesium are not present in soft water, no adverse reaction with soaps and detergents occurs. The result is the virtual elimination of soap scum and the corresponding reduction in time spent cleaning. Hair and skin can "breathe" more readily. And the School of Consumer & Family Sciences at Purdue University recently conducted a study which proved that the life of clothing and household textiles was prolonged up to 15 percent when they were washed in conditioned water.
Soap usage can be dramatically reduced with soft water. Since the water is already soft, the cleaning agents have no hardness minerals to react with and overcome, lather more readily and work more effectively. Since less is needed, households can experience considerable savings on laundry detergent, dishwashing detergent, bath soap, hand soap, shampoo and many other cleaning products.
Since soft water contains no scale forming minerals, it leaves the inside of plumbing and water using appliances free of solidified rock. Appliances operate more efficiently and last longer when using soft water. Leading appliance manufacturers including Maytag have recognized the problems that hard water causes and recommend the use of home water conditioners to help their own products operate more efficiently.
How Water Is Softened
The most common method used for softening water is ion exchange, where the dissolved calcium and magnesium ions are exchanged for sodium or potassium (commonly referred to as regenerant) ions. Sodium and potassium do not cause the problems that are associated with calcium and magnesium. The process is the basis for most water softening equipment on the market today.
Water enters a water softener where it comes in contact with a bed of tiny beads that hold sodium chloride or potassium chloride ions. Since the beads are chemically more attracted to calcium and magnesium ions, ion exchange occurs. The calcium and magnesium ions "stick" to the surface of the beads, dislodging the sodium or potassium. After the beads are completely exhausted (i.e. covered with calcium and magnesium), a solution is introduced to the system to wash away the calcium and magnesium, and replace the sodium or potassium (a process known as regeneration). After the extra solution is rinsed from the resin bed, the entire ion exchange cycle begins again.
Beware of performance claims from companies selling magnetic water conditioners or descalers. A leading consumer magazine determined such devices are "ineffective at reducing scale" and recommends buying an ion exchange system instead (Consumer Reports, Feb. '96). A study commissioned by the Water Quality Association supports this conclusion (American How-To, Sept./Oct. '96).
Single Tank, Electric Timer Water Conditioners
perform all functions automatically, but rely on an electric timer that initiates regeneration at preset intervals (usually every other day at 3:00am), no matter how much of the system's capacity has been used. Regeneration can occur too often and decrease efficiency, or not often enough and allow hard water into the home. Since these units typically employ only a single softening tank, only hard water is available to the home when they regenerate.
Single Tank, Electric Demand Water Conditioners
measure water usage to determine the best time to regenerate. But such systems are typically not as efficient as systems that employ two resin tanks. If regeneration is necessary at a time of the day when soft water may be needed, they must wait until a more appropriate time to regenerate so hard water isn't introduced into the home. To do so, single tank DIR units must employ a reserve capacity of softening resin to make it through the rest of the day. If the reserve isn't enough, the home will be forced to use hard water until the system regenerates. If the reserve is too large, the system won't be used to capacity but regeneration will occur anyway, wasting water and regenerant.
Twin Tank, Non-Electric Demand Water Conditioners
Twin tank systems measure water usage and regenerate only when the system has been used to capacity for optimum efficiency. Because twin tank systems automatically switch from tank to tank as they exhaust, they are able to provide a continuous supply of conditioned water, 24 hours a day. Some systems even use soft water to clean themselves to improve efficiency. Countercurrent regeneration also improves the systems' effectiveness. This process, which is recommended by most resin manufacturers, regenerates the resin beads more efficiently by reversing the flow through the system during the cleaning process.
Leading consumer publications including Consumers Digest have recognized that non-electric, twin tank DIR water conditioners have distinct advantages over those that operate with electricity. Electronic components are the most frequent things to malfunction on electric systems and can be expensive to repair. Non-electric systems do not suffer from such problems and are not susceptible to power outages.
The Importance of Choosing Certified Products
Be sure that the system you choose is third-party certified by NSF International or the Water Quality Association (WQA). But just because a manufacturer displays the WQA logo, signifying only that the company is a member of the Water Quality Association, doesn't mean its products are validated. And just because a product is NSF certified against some contaminants doesn't mean it protects you against all of them. Check to see that the system you choose is specifically certified to reduce the contaminants you wish to protect your family from. Also, be wary of systems that carry only the NSF "component" certification. This symbol indicates that only a single component of the system is certified and may not be an indication of overall system capabilities.
Options for Improving Your Water
The good news is that there are a number of options available for improving your drinking water. One of the most popular is:
Carbon Filters - Activated carbon can reduce chlorine, VOCs, tastes, odors and, in some cases, lead.
Carbon filters are available in a wide variety of sizes and styles, from small units that can be attached to the end of a faucet to in-line systems that must be connected to a home's plumbing. Filter cartridges must be changed regularly to ensure optimum contaminant reduction. Choose a system that measures your water usage and shuts off to prevent filter overuse and alert you when a filter change is necessary.
Reverse Osmosis (RO) Systems
RO systems are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control as one of the most effective ways of protecting residential drinking water. These very popular systems utilize a semipermeable membrane to reduce contaminants. When water is forced against the membrane, a portion of it passes through, while impurities are left behind to be carried away.
Reverse osmosis is effective against dissolved salts, suspended solids, dissolved chemicals and a wide variety of other contaminants that cannot be seen by the naked eye. When choosing an RO system, look for a unit with a high efficiency rating. Certain systems also employ a membrane rinse feature that cleans the membrane with the high quality water produced by the system to prolong its life and ensure that it continues to produce only the best quality water. Systems that do not clean themselves or that only clean themselves with untreated water are not as effective.