Crystal clear or chemically laced? Why you might want to treat your water at home, and how to do it.
Concern over the safety of municipal water supplies, whether due to chemical wastes, heavy metal deposits or bacterial content, has led many families to install water filtration or treatment devices in their own home. For others, it’s a matter of wanting the water to taste or smell better. Whatever the reason, the range of treatment options for household water is huge. In this piece, I aim to provide a few pointers for choosing an appropriate water treatment option for your needs, if indeed you require one at all, as well as outline some of the more commonly available choices.
Do you need your water treated?
Apart from aesthetic qualities such as taste and smell, which are highly subjective and will vary from person to person, the only way to know whether your water is safe, and in which ways it might not be, is through testing it. This is obviously already done to a certain extent through your public or municipal water board (the cost of which is included in your water bill!), but often due to time and financial restraints only the minimum standards are met. Getting a more thorough analysis of your household water is easy; you can either use a do-it-yourself kit, or bring in specialists. The advantage of the former method is price and convenience, whereas with the experts you may be given more guidance and reassurance as to the results of the analysis. Home testing kits are available on-line, for example from companies such as Hach or others, and usually cost somewhere between $20 and $100, depending on the number of variables tested and the sensitivity of the result. Professional services are also available online, both from water specialists (such as Aquacheck Labs ) as well as general property inspection firms (such as US Inspect). Prices vary widely with the type of service requested.
Water treatment methods
Filtration is one of the best known water treatment method, especially as smaller filtration devices are readily available for instalment directly onto sink faucets or onto pitchers for drinking water. However, you may also want to condition your water household-wide, which can be done with a high-capacity filter at your main water source. Most of these systems use a carbon filter, often coupled with other technologies. These have varying levels of sophistication, with some simply filtering out particulates and sediment, and others with the capacity to also remove bacteria, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), other toxic chemicals, heavy metals and/or odours and tastes.
For example, HomeSpring offers an activated carbon filter to remove odours and tastes, while a patented ultrafiltration device takes out bacteria, viruses, particulates and some, but not all, organic macromolecules. This model also is approved by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), and certified by the Water Quality Association as well as a California Department of Health Services accredited laboratory. Another brand to consider is the Everpure line — the H-1200 model will remove VOCs, lead, chlorine, odours, bacteria, molds and algae, is also NSF certified, and available online for $478.46.
Disinfection of household water is most commonly done using chlorine, though other methods are becoming more readily available. Chlorination is effective against bacterial contamination, other parasites and organisms, and will also oxidise some minerals and compounds, such as hydrogen sulphide. It is most commonly injected directly into household water supplies as liquid bleach. However, disadvantages with chlorine include its taste and odour, as well as the health risks associated with bleach, if encountered in too great a concentration. One solution is to carbon filter water after chlorination, to remove excess chlorine. Residual chlorine kits, such as those used for testing pool water, are available starting at $15.
Other methods of disinfection include ozone disinfection, UV disinfection and solar disinfection. All three are considered environmentally friendly options, as they leave no residue to be released into the water system as waste. All three also primarily are used to destroy biological contaminants such as bacteria and parasites; none of the three, however, will remove chemicals, tastes or odours. As such, their primary functionality may be in conjunction with another treatment system, such as filtration. Solar disinfection, in fact, comes with the requirement that it is only active on clear water, so particles must be filtered out beforehand.
In many locations, the mineral content of the water is so high as to cause scale buildup on pipes and appliances, and to interfere with the action of soaps and detergents. One solution is to apply a water softener, which commonly uses a cation exchange to rid the water of charged mineral ions. The cation used is normally sodium, so water softener devices of this type may not be recommended to those on a low sodium diet. Softeners using potassium as an alternative are beginning to become more readily available on the market. The disadvantage of this form of water treatment is that it is very specific, and won’t remove harmful chemicals, sediments, tastes or odours unless they are caused by a positively charged ion. Thus if overall water quality is a concern, this type of treatment is best used in conjunction with another. Culligan provides a line of household water softeners, information can be found online, while purchase is through listed dealers.
Reverse osmosis is a system whereby the water to be treated is passed across a membrane so thin that only water molecules are small enough to pass through. It differs from filtration in that the motion of the water across the membrane is caused by the osmotic gradient, i.e. the level of concentrates in the water, and not by external pressure. This method removes all particles larger than water molecules, as well as most, but not all, solutes such as organic molecules and heavy metals. The type of membrane used changes its efficacy for specific target contaminants, so be aware of your water’s requirements before you buy this system.
An example of a reverse osmosis system comes from the manufacturer Premier, at between $200 and $400 depending on sophistication and capacity. They usually contain multiple filters as well (i.e. carbon) for more effective water purification. However, be sure to choose a system that is third-party certified by the NSF or WQA to ensure that the filter actually removes the particulates it claims to remove.
As you can see, there are many options out there. The better, and most effective, may differ on the type of water you have. However, using a water filter that is WQA and NSF certified is always an easy first step.