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These questions can help clarify and answer some questions.

Water. In general, tap water in the United States is perfectly safe for human consumption. However, sometimes you may notice a funny color, odor or taste. These often come from otherwise harmless contaminants like chlorine, sulfur, iron and manganese. You can get rid of these problems easily by using a conventional activated carbon filter, available at many retail stores and even supermarkets.

Contaminants. But if your water contains dangerous levels of other pollutants, you’ll need to choose a water treatment technology that is appropriate for eliminating the toxins. For the sake of discussion, it’s easiest to group toxic pollutants into four categories: organic chemicals, inorganic chemicals, radio nuclides and microbiological organisms.

Organic chemicals include solvents, pesticides, synthetics, resins and other man-made chemicals; many are known as volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). Inorganic chemicals include nitrates and nitrites, asbestos, fluoride and metals such as arsenic, mercury and the most notorious lead. Many of these occur as natural mineral deposits. Some, such as copper and lead, leach into water as it travels through pipes; treatment by your water utility doesn’t remove them. Radon gas, the most common radio nuclide, occurs naturally in a number of regions, including western mountain states and parts of the Northeast. Microbiological contaminants, including protozoa, bacteria and viruses, are normally killed by chlorinating and other treatments.

These dangerous pollutants are rare, but the water filter industry often plays up fears to generate sales.

Water systems. To make an informed decision about the right treatment system for your home, you must know what is in the water. Call your water supplier or health department and request copies of water treatment reports. Find out how often the water is tested, what it is tested for and whether any violations are on file. Also ask about any known hazards such as lead that might enter water between the treatment plant and your tap.

If local hazards exist or if your home is served by a well or small utility, hire an independent lab to test your water. You can ask your utility or the state health department for names and numbers of labs.

Another option is to contact a national laboratory that specializes in water analysis. National Testing Labs (800-458-3330) or Suburban Water Testing (800-433-6595) will send you instructions and a water sampling kit that you mail back.

Filtration. If you are buying a filtration system, consider filtering all incoming water instead of just putting a filter on the tap. Why? Hard water is the most common problem found in the average home. It contains dissolved hardness minerals like calcium, manganese and magnesium which dilute water’s natural ability to wash things.

For instance:
* You use only 1/2 as much soap when you clean with soft water.
* Hard water and soap also combine to form “soap scum” that can’t be rinsed off, forming a ‘bathtub ring’ on all surfaces and leaving unsightly spots on your dishes as the water dries.
* When you heat hard water, 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.

Built-in water filters utilize several different technologies to clean water. Some filters only use one of these methods, while others take advantage of two or more in order to combat a wide range of contaminants.

Water softeners. Water softeners reduce the mineral content of hard water by substituting sodium or potassium chloride for minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron. This also reduces mineral buildup in pipes and appliances. Water softeners using salt add sodium-a potential health hazard-to water. Therefore, many experts recommend using potassium chloride for a healthier, environmentally friendlier alternative. This adds potassium, a nutrient beneficial to people and plant life, while reducing some of the native sodium found in water. Potassium chloride is also less damaging to soils and reduces the amount of chlorides discharged to septic or sewage systems by as much as 20% versus common salt.

Filters. A reverse osmosis (RO) filter removes nearly all contaminants, particularly when combined with carbon filtration. Installed beneath the sink and connected directly to plumbing, a reverse osmosis filter forces water through a membrane that permits only pure water molecules to pass. Reverse osmosis filters need soft water to operate correctly and they cannot

use hot water. They also remove sodium from drinking water, whether added or natural.

A carbon prefilter connected to most reverse osmosis filters removes sediment and some contaminants that the membrane won’t catch. Carbon postfilters attached to some reverse osmosis filters are used to “polish” the taste of the water.

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