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Frequently Asked Questions About Water

Water Basics

Water is generally classified into two groups: Surface Water and Ground Water. Surface water is just what the name implies; it is water found in a river, lake or other surface impoundment. This water is usually not very high in mineral content, and many times is called "soft water" even though it usually is not. Surface water is exposed to many different contaminants, such as animal wastes, pesticides, insecticides, industrial wastes, algae and many other organic materials. Even surface water found in a pristine mountain stream possibly contains Giardia or Coliform Bacteria from the feces of wild animals, and should be boiled or disinfected by some means prior to drinking.

Ground Water is that which is trapped beneath the ground. Rain that soaks into the ground, rivers that disappear beneath the earth, melting snow are but a few of the sources that recharge the supply of underground water. Because of the many sources of recharge, ground water may contain any or all of the contaminants found in surface water as well as the dissolved minerals it picks up during it's long stay underground. Waters that contains dissolved minerals, such as calcium and magnesium above certain levels are considered "hard water" Because water is considered a "solvent", ie, over time it can break down the ionic bonds that hold most substances together, it tends to dissolve and 'gather up' small amounts of whatever it comes in contact with. For instance, in areas of the world where rock such as limestone, gypsum, fluorspar, magnetite, pyrite and magnesite are common, well water is usually very high in calcium content, and therefore considered "hard".

Due to the different characteristics of these two types of water, it is important that you know the source of your water -- Surface or Ground. Of the 326 million cubic miles of water on earth, only about 3% of it is fresh water; and 3/4 of that is frozen. Only 1/2 of 1% of all water is underground; about 1/50th of 1% of all water is found in lakes and streams. The average human is about 70% water. You can only survive 5 or less days without water. 

Hard Water

What is Hard Water ?
Hard water is the most common problem found in the average home. Hard water is water that contains dissolved hardness minerals above 1 grain per gallon or GPG.

What are hardness minerals ?
Calcium, manganese and magnesium are the most common.

How do you Measure Hardness ?
Parts per million or grains per gallon are the most common. One part per million (PPM) is just what it says: out of one million units, one unit. Grains, or grains per gallon (GPG) is a weight measurement taken from the Egyptians; one dry grain of wheat, or about 1/7000 of a pound. It takes 17.1 PPM to equal 1 GPG.

Why Should Hard Water Concern Me ?
For many uses, it would not matter. For instance, to put out fires, water your lawn, wash the mud off the streets or float your boat, water would have to be pretty hard to cause a problem. But for bathing, washing dishes and clothes, shaving, washing your car and many other uses of water, hard water is not as efficient or convenient as "soft water." For instance:
  • You use only 1/2 as much soap cleaning with soft water.
  • Because hard water and soap combine to form "soap scum" that can't be rinsed off, forming a 'bathtub ring' on all surfaces and drys leaving unsightly spots on your dishes.
  • When hard water is heated, the hardness minerals are re-crystallized to form hardness scale. This scale can plug your pipes and hot water heater, causing premature failure, necessitating costly replacement.
  • The soap scum remains on your skin even after rinsing, clogging the pores of your skin and coating every hair on your body. This crud can serve as a home for bacteria, causing diaper rash, minor skin irritation and skin that continually itches.
  • For many industrial uses, the hardness minerals interfere with the process, causing inferior product.
Who Will Test My Water for Hardness ?
If you are connected to a municipal supply, call the water Superintendent, or City Hall. They can either provide the answer, or direct you to the proper individual. Remember the conversion factor: it takes 17.1 PPM to equal 1 GPG. In other words, if your water has 171 PPM calcium in it, divide 171 by 17.1 to get the answer in grains. This example would be 10 grains, or GPG.

If you are on a private supply, you could contact your county extension agent: collect a sample in an approved container and send to the city or state health department for testing: find a testing lab (try the yellow pages). By the way, if you are on a private well, YOU, AND YOU ALONE are responsible for the safety of the water you and your family drink. You should test your supply for bacteria at least once per year and other contaminants at least every three years -- more under certain conditions.

My Water is Hard; Now What ?
If your water tests over 3 GPG hard, you should mechanically soften it. Softening water that is less than 3 GPG, while it makes your shaving and bathing more comfortable, is considered a luxury due to the fact that the cost is more than your savings. Over 3 GPG, you will save enough to pay for the cost and maintenance of a water conditioner.

As of this writing, the most economical way for you to soften your household water is with an ion exchange water softener. This unit uses sodium chloride (salt) to recharge man made plastic like beads that exchange hardness minerals for sodium. As the hard water passes through and around the plastic like beads, the hardness minerals (ions) attach themselves to the bead, dislodging the sodium ions. This process is called "ion exchange". When the plastic bead, called Resin, has no sodium ions left, it is exhausted, and can soften no more water. The resin is recharged by flushing with salt water. The sodium ions force the hardness ions off the resin beads; then the excess sodium is rinsed away, and the resin is ready to start the process all over again. This cycle can be repeated many, many time before the resin loses it's ability to react to these forces.

What Should I look for in a Water Conditioner?
Make sure to choose a unit that has enough resin to treat all the water you and your family will use. As of this writing, the average usage per day, per person (including children), for inside the house is 87 gallons. You should also be shown two or three ways to initiate recharging the unit.

Initiate recharge is by electronic sensing. By electronically checking the resin, these units can determine when the resin needs to be recharged -- this is a great help when your water hardness changes, when you have extra company or when you are gone for a few days. These 'sensor' units can save you up to 42% of your salt and recharge water as well as keep you in soft water when you have extra guests.

I Have a Water Conditioner, Now my Water Feels "Slimy"
When the hardness minerals are removed, soap no longer forms a soap curd, or "bathtub ring" on your skin, plugging your pores, clinging to every strand of hair. You are now truly clean. That slick, slimy feeling you feel is your natural body oils -- without the soap scum. The old saying that you get "squeaky clean" is a myth; that feeling was caused by the soap scum on your skin. By the way, that soap scum provided an excellent place for bacteria to hide and grow, causing numerous minor skin ailments.

Water that Smells

My Water Stinks! What can I Do ?
First, you must learn a little about your nose: Once you smell some things, your sense of smell is dulled for a short while, and you can't make accurate judgments of smell. For instance, if I blindfold you, let you smell gasoline, hand you a piece of onion to eat and tell you it is an apple, you can't tell it's not because your nose isn't working properly!! (Your sense of taste isn't working either -- smell and taste are closely related and affect each other!)

So, to correctly analyze your problem, you need to become a detective. The best time to locate the smell is after you have been away from home for a few hours -- this allows your nose to become sensitive to "that smell" again. With your 'sensitized' nose, go to an outside spigot -- one that the raw, untreated water flows from. Turn it on, let it run a few minutes, then smell it. If it smells -- we found it. If not, we must look further. (Many, many smells are not in the raw water at all, they are introduced into the water inside the house.) Go to a cold, treated water spigot inside the house, turn it on and let it run a minute; then smell. If this water smells, and the outside, untreated water didn't -- you must have a device (cartridge filter, water softener, etc.) in the water line that needs to be cleaned and sanitized.

If it is a cartridge, replace the element and sanitize the housing. If you have a water conditioner sanitize the unit. You can sanitize the unit by pouring Hydrogen Peroxide or Chlorine Bleach in the brine well of the salt tank, and placing the unit into regeneration. Refer to product installation and maintenance instructions.

If the cold, treated water inside didn't smell, turn on the hot water and let it run a few minutes -- does it smell? If it does, chances are you have a sacrificial anode inside your hot water heater that is "coming apart at the seams" and throwing off a "rotten egg" odor. This obnoxious smell will drive you right out of your shower! The only solution is to remove the anode from the heater, voiding your warranty, or replace it with a new one made with aluminum alloy. This anode is placed in a (glass lined) hot water heater to seal up any cracks in the glass lining and prevent corrosion of the heater tank. You will find the anode on the top of the heater; remove the tin cover and insulation -- look for what looks like a pipe plug -- about 3/4 inch in size with a 1 1/16"fitting. Turn off the heat source and the water; have someone hold the tank to prevent it from turning, and unscrew the "plug". You will find that the 'plug' has a 30 - 40 " long pipe (or what's left of one) attached to it. Hopefully, most of the rod is still attached -- just corroded. If so, replace the plug with a real pipe plug and throw the anode away. If part of the rod has corroded off, and fallen into the heater, you may have to try to fish it out. Either way, before you plug the hole, pour about 2 pints of chlorine bleach into the heater first. This will kill the smell left in the heater. If, after a week or so, the smell returns, you must fish out the rod that is in the bottom of the tank. Good Luck!

OK, It's my Raw Water That Smells -- Now What ?
First, you must determine what is causing the smell, and how strong it is.

Minor Musty Smell
If it is a minor, or low-level smell, you MIGHT be able to solve it with a small, point-of-use kdf/carbon filter. You can place these types of filters on kitchen counter, undersink, shower, inline going to the cold water where you draw you drinking water. Or, you might solve it with a whole-house filter on your incoming water line to filter all of the water inside your home.

You must be careful not to exceed the manufactures recommended flow -- some filters even have a flow restriction built in them. If you run water through them too fast, you will not remove the smells. Whenever you place a carbon filter in your water line, you must be sure to replace the element and sanitize the housing on a regular basis.

Strong Rotten-Egg Odor
Strong, rotten-egg odors in the raw water is usually the result of the decomposition of decaying underground organic deposits. As water is drawn to the surface, hydrogen sulfide gas can be released to the atmosphere. In strong concentrations, this gas is flammable and poisonous. It rapidly tarnishes silver, turning it black. It is toxic to aquarium fish in sufficient quantities. As little as 0.5 ppm hydrogen sulfide can be tasted in your drinking water.

Strong Musty Smell
There are many basic filters to solve this problem.

Water Filters
Installation of a whole house filter loaded with a media that is specific for hydrogen sulfide removal is successful many times. These types of filters must be recharged with chlorine or potassium permanganate. The removal capacities of these types of filters are usually fairly low, and must be sized to contain enough media to prevent premature exhaustion, and subsequent passage of the smell to service. It is also typical that the amount of hydrogen sulfide can fluctuate rapidly, causing great difficulty in sizing the unit. In addition, potassium permanganate is extremely "messy", and will leave stains that are very difficult to remove. 

Water Leaves Stains

I have Red Stains in my Sinks and Other Fixtures -- Help!
Red stains are normally caused by iron in the water. You must test to determine the amount and the type of iron you have. Some types are: oxidized, soluble, colloidal, bacteria or organic-bound. All are a problem! It only takes 0.3 ppm to stain clothes, fixtures, etc.

This type of iron is usually found in a surface water supply. This is water that contains red particles when first drawn from the tap. The easiest way to remove this type of iron is by a fine mechanical filter.

Soluble iron is called "clear water" iron. After being drawn form the well and contacting the air, the iron oxidizes, or "rusts", forming reddish brown particles in the water. Depending on the amount of iron in the water, you may solve this problem with a water conditioner, or a combination of softener and filter. You may use an iron filter that recharges with chlorine or potassium permanganate, or feed chemicals to oxidize the iron and then filter it with a mechanical filter. You can sometimes hide the effects of soluble iron by adding chemicals that, in effect, coat the iron in the water and prevent it from reaching oxygen and oxidizing.

Colloidal iron is very small particles of oxidized iron suspended in the water. They are usually bound together with other substances. They resist agglomeration, ie, the combining together of like substances forming larger, heavier, more filterable ones, due to the static electrical charge they carry. This iron looks more like a color than particles when held up in a clear glass, as they are so small. Treatment is usually one of two: Feed chlorine to oxidize the organic away from the iron, thus allowing agglomeration to occur, or, feeding polymers that attract the static charge on the particles, forming larger clumps of matter that is filterable.

Iron bacteria are living organisms that feed on the iron found in the water, pipes, fittings, etc. They build slime all along the water flow path. Occasionally, the slimy growths break free, causing extremely discolored water. If a large slug breaks loose, it can pass through to the point of use, plugging fixtures. These types of bacteria are becoming more common throughout the United States. If you suspect bacteria iron, look for a reddish or green slime buildup in your toilet flush tank. To confirm your suspicions, gather a sample of this slime and take it to your local health department, or water department for observation under the microscope. This type of iron problem is very hard to eliminate. You must kill the bacteria, usually by chlorination. You must use high amounts of chlorine throughout your plumbing system to kill all organisms. You may find it necessary to feed chlorine continuously to prevent regrowth. A filter alone will not solve this problem.

Organic Bound
When iron combines with tannins and other organics, complexes are formed that cannot be removed by ion exchange or oxidizing filters. This iron may be mistaken for colloidal iron. Test for tannins; if they are present, it is most likely combined with the iron. Low level amounts of this pest can be removed by use of a kdf/carbon filter, which absorbs the complex. You must replace the bed when it becomes saturated. Higher amounts require feeding chlorine to oxidize the organics to break apart from the iron and cause both to precipitate into a filterable particle.

I Have Blue or Green Stains on my Fixtures -- Help!
You either have copper in your water supply, or you have copper pipes and corrosive water. Test for copper in your water. Test the pH, total dissolved solids content and the oxygen content of your water.

Copper can be removed by ion exchange, ie, a water softener. The removal rate is about the same as it is for iron.

Copper Pipes & Corrosive Water
If your pH is from 5 to 7, you may raise it by passing the water through a sacrificial media. By sacrificing calcium carbonate into the water, the corrosively will be reduced. If the pH is below 5, you will need to feed chemicals into the water.

If the corrosively is caused by excess oxygen, the hot water will be much more corrosive than the cold. Treatment is by feeding polyphosphate or silicates to coat and protect the plumbing, or to aeriate the water to release the excess oxygen.

Water and Health / Disease

What is Cryptosporidiosis ?
Cryptosporidiosis is a disease caused by the parasite Cryptosporidium parvum, which as late as 1976 was not known to cause disease in humans. Until 1993, when over 400,000 people in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, became ill with diarrhea after drinking contaminated with the parasite, few people had heard of either crytosporidiosis or the single-celled protozoon that causes it.

Since the Milwaukee outbreak, concern over the safety of drinking water in the United States has increased, and new attention has been focused on determining and reducing the risk for cryptosporidiosis from community and municipal water supplies.

Water Testing Information

When Should I test ?
Several factors will influence when and how often you test your water. Where do get your water from? Has that source changed? Have you done any plumbing changes lately? Is there reason to believe that your water is contaminated? Is there a sickness or illness in your family affecting more than one person and over a longer than normal time period?

If you receive your water from a "Public Supply", ie, a municipal supply, or a supply that provides water to more than 25 persons for 60 days per year (some states are different -- check with YOUR local water department), you can be fairly certain that the water supply is checked on a regular basis. The frequency of the testing is based on the number of people served, and may vary from more than once per week to once per month, or even less. Under these conditions, test when you move into a new residence to acquire a "base line" of contaminant level, if any. Retest every three years, unless you have reason to believe that something has changed that could affect the quality of your water.

If you have a private well, you are the only person who is responsible for the water your family drinks and bathes in. I recommend testing by your local Health Department every six months for Bacteria and Nitrate. These two tests serve as indicators for other types of contaminations -- that is not to say forget the other tests; just that if you get a "bad" test from them, you should also retest for the other types of contaminants as well. Private wells should be tested on a regular basis for Pesticides, Herbicides, Metals, Organic and Inorganic chemicals and volatiles. Currently, no laws govern the frequency of such testing -- that is why YOU are the only person responsible for your family's water. I recommend an initial test (for a base line), and then at least once per year. Remember, one day after testing and finding "no contaminants", your source could become contaminated.

What Should I Test For?
Coliform bacteria are a group of microorganisms that are normally found in the intestinal tract of humans and other warm blooded animals, and in surface water. The presence of these organisms in drinking water suggest contamination from a surface or shallow subsurface source such as cesspool leakage, barnyard runoff or other source. The presence of these bacteria indicate that disease-causing (pathogenic) organisms may enter the drinking water supply in the same manner if preventive action is not taken. Drinking water should be free of coliforms.

Cysts and viruses are microbiological contaminants, usually found in surface water supplies. Giardia lamblia cysts can cause giardiasis, a gastrointestinal disease. Another "bug" getting a lot of attention lately, is cryptosporidium, single-cell parasite measuring about 2 - 5 microns in diameter. Many surface water supplies contain this pest, which also comes from the intestine of warm blooded animals.

Nitrate in drinking water supplies may reduce the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood (cyanosis) if ingested in sufficient amounts by infants under 6 months of age. This could cause a disease called "methemoglobinemia", or "blue baby" syndrome. The EPA has established a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for nitrate at 10 mg/l (ppm) measured as N. Unlike coliform or other types of bacteria, boiling the water will actually INCREASE the amount of nitrate remaining in the water, increasing the danger to infants. If you have high nitrate water, treate the water with water treatment system or find another source: Boiling will only make it worse!

Lead is now known to leach from older sweat joints in copper pipe. As the water sits in the pipes, small amounts of lead 'dissolve' into the water, contaminating it. Lead is particularly harmful to small children as they more rapidly absorb the toxic substance into their systems. The EPA has estimated that more than 40 million U.S. residents use water that contains more than the recommended levels.

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