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Making your water come clean; what to do if you don't like the look, the smell, or the taste of the stuff that comes from your tap.

MAKING YOUR WATER COME CLEAN Americans spent more than $800 million last year on products and chemicals for treating, purifying, or improving the taste of their drinking water. But many of these purchases were made without enough investigation into what--if anything--was wrong with their water in the first place. Yet people want to feel good about the water they drink, cook, and wash with. So what can the typical homeowner do?

There are three basic drinking-water problems. The most obvious is aesthetic--when you don't like the look, smell, or taste of that stuff coming from your tap. Another problem is the water's behavior when it corrodes the plumbing, stains the laundry, or limes the teakettle. The final problem concerns your suspicions about your drinking water's bacterial and chemical contamination. You've probably heard or read enough to be more than a little concerned.

* If you have a problem with the color, smell, or taste of your tap water, bottled water may be a solution. The International Bottled Water Association says Americans have consumed about 1 billion gallons of bottled water a year since 1983, at an average price of 80^ a gallon. But you might also solve the problem with a faucet-mounted activated-carbon filter, available in retail stores for as little as $15. A carbon-filtration device mounted under the counter is generally much more effective, but it may cost more than $200.

The superior absorption ability of carbon helps it to remove dissolved organic compounds and gases, including chlorine and hydrogen sulfide, that can add unattractive taste and odor to the water. Stained or dirty-looking (turbid) water contains undissolved solid matter. Tank and cartridge filters remove the suspended particles from the water. These filters mount either beneath the sink, like the undercounter carbon filters, or at your home water-inlet pipe; they cost between $50 and $200.

Aesthetic problems aside, be immediately concerned about any sudden change in the color, taste, or smell of your home drinking water. Such a change may indicate a serious contamination. Notify your local health department or your water supplier. Consult two water-treatment specialists to compare their prices and their recommended solutions for your water-appearance problem.

* Your water may contain enough dissolved minerals to damage pipes, plumbing, and heating appliances. Hard water contains much dissolved calcium and magnesium that form a crustlike scale in cooking pots and water heaters. High levels of dissolved iron and manganese also cause staining.

The common solution to mineral problems is a water softener, which removes these dissolved minerals from water by a chemical process called ion exchange. The type and size of softener you'll need depends on how hard your water is and how much water you use. Water-softener prices start at about $400. For removing very high concentrations of iron and manganese, other chemical processes, as well as filtration, may be required. Your water utility should specify that local water mineral concentrations justify a softener purchase.

Corrosion, related to hardness, is caused mainly by acidity (low pH), dissolved oxygen, and high temperatures. Plumbing and appliance pipes may be so eaten away by corrosion that they eventually fail. Acid corrosion is controlled either with special filters or with devices that feed higher pH solutions into the water to neutralize the acidity. There are also anticorrosion devices that feed special chemicals (polyphosphates and silicates) into the water to form protective films on the metal parts. (Some water utilities have begun adding these chemicals to the water supply, and you should therefore investigate before buying any such equipment.)

Your water utility should be the first place to consult about a corrosion problem. Because temperature has a major effect on corrosive action, homeowners can inexpensively reduce it by keeping water-heater settings below 140[deg.] F.

* You may worry about your home drinking water for reasons other than the way it looks, tastes, smells, or behaves. Perhaps you've read about such contaminants as coliform bacteria, arsenic, lead, trihalomethanes, and radon. The Environmental Protection Agency, says Dr. Joseph Cotruvo, who heads the Standards Division for the Office of Drinking Water, is making great progress in cleaning up America's drinking water. But many environmentalists believe otherwise. Find out where your water comes from, how it's treated, how it gets into your home--and what kinds and amounts of contaminants have been found in it.

If your home water comes from a well or another private system with fewer than 15 connections, it is not covered by EPA regulation. Therefore, its quality will depend on whether you run regular tests yourself. Local health officials will assist in testing for bacterial contamination. Tests for chemical contamination are harder to come by. Local, county, and state utility and enforcement people should be consulted. Paying for a chemical analysis will cost about $100.

Public water systems are required by law to test for all regulated contaminants (maximum contaminant levels have now been set for some 85 substances) and to report results to the states, which in turn report to the EPA. Some systems, however, aren't meeting the standards. Other systems aren't even testing. Homeowners who want to know about their water quality can find out, but it may take a lot of phoning. The alternative is to pay for a test.

Home systems for purifying water against these "unseen" contaminants work on principles of carbon filtration, distillation, reverse-osmosis separation, and ultraviolet radiation. The latter three systems range in price from $300 to $800. Important questions to ask when choosing between them are: What kinds and amounts of contaminants--if any--do you actually have? How much water do you need to purify? How likely are you to maintain the equipment as recommended?

In-line systems (the kind that mount under the sink or near your water-inlet source) should be professionally installed only after consultation reveals which is best for your specific needs.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Hayes, Jack
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1986
Words:967
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