A now and then publication
of the Pure Water Gazette &
Pure Water Products, LLC.
April 2008    #4

After a much-regretted hiatus, here is a new Occasional, with a promise to be more frequent and less occasional. Here you’ll find awe-inspiring news about alternatives to the old standby water softener and some bottled water stories. Gripping tales of magnets, scale in pipes, and “template assisted crystallization.” Heart-warming information about research done by Watts/Alamo in San Antonio. A bone-chilling picture of a water pipe. And, as always, much, much, more.



In a triumph of marketing over reasoning, the bottled water industry has turned us into conspicuously silly consumers.

Controlled by a handful of global conglomerates (such as Coca Cola and Nestle), the water industry has created the fantasy that if it’s in a bottle, it’s purer than what comes out of the tap. But wait — the EPA stringently regulates the public water systems, requiring tests several times a day for bacteria and other contaminants, and these test results are public information. The corporate bottlers, on the other hand, are overseen by the more lackadaisical FDA, which requires them to test their water sources only once a week — and the results are kept secret by the corporations.

One group that is beginning to rebel is one you might not expect: upscale restaurants. Such places profit handsomely from offering Perrier, San Pellegrino, Fiji, or other designer waters, paying a dollar or two for each bottle and selling them for eight or ten bucks. Yet, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and Del Posto in New York City are among the pioneers who are foregoing this profit center, substituting free filtered tap water or house-made sparkling water that’s also drawn from the tap.

Why would they do this? Because they are part of a growing sustainable food movement that prides itself in using local, seasonal ingredients for their menu items. Think about it: In terms of energy, environment, and sustainability, it makes no sense to load cargo ships with millions of bottles of water, haul them thousands of miles to our shores, truck them hundreds of miles to our restaurants, then chuck the bottles into our overloaded landfills — when the local, public water system supplies perfectly good water available at the turn of a faucet.

Just as it makes economic and environmental sense to “eat local,” it also makes sense to “drink local.”

See also: “Fighting The Tide, A Few Restaurants Tilt To Tap Water,” The New York Times, May 30, 2007.

The Occasional’s Comment on Mr. Hightower’s Comments

We could not agree more about the absurdity of putting water into bottles and transporting it to consumers halfway across the globe. Halfway across the city is too far. And we could not agree more that the good old water tap is the best source of drinking water.

However, getting water from the tap and drinking it straight from the tap are different issues. We don’t share Mr. Hightower’s high regard for the EPA’s “stringent” regulation of public water systems. We don’t want to fault the EPA, which doesn’t actually monitor your drinking water but sets monitoring requirements for local officials, but the truth is that most of the time nobody is monitoring most of the water that comes from taps. And when testing is done, most of the chemicals used in the US are neither regulated nor tested. I won’t belabor the point, but consider the hundreds of thousands of cases of sickness and even death from waterborne cysts (giardia and cryptosporidium) in “stringently regulated” city water systems (like Milwaukee’s) in recent years. And consider the discovery of the gasoline additive MTBE in numerous monitored water supplies and the recent revelation that residues of innumerable prescription drugs are appearing in the water that people drink straight from the tap. Who is monitoring your water supply today for pharmaceuticals? The answer: nobody. No matter where you live, I can can promise you that the tap water in your “stringently regulated” water system is not being monitored for prescription drugs. Or for literally thousands upon thousands of chemicals that aren’t on the EPA’s list of monitored contaminants.

And I should certainly mention the chemicals that are added intentionally—chlorine, chloramines, fluoride—that you may prefer to avoid.

Another point that Mr. Hightower isn’t considering when he praises the pristine purity of tap water is that no matter how clean the water is at the water plant it has to travel through miles of pretty dirty pipes on its way to your home--pipes that are most often very old and that may be broken or filled with slime and rust. (In case you haven’t noticed, America’s infrastructure needs work. You see the old bridges and highways, but you don’t usually see the old pipes that are rotting away under the ground.)

It certainly makes sense to take your water from the public water supplier, but you don’t have to take it straight. That’s what point-of-use water treatment devises—filter and reverse osmosis units—are for.

A water pipe replaced at my home. Not even Jim Hightower would want to drink stringently regulated water that has passed through this.

Water Softeners and “Water Softeners”

Water softeners have been around for several decades. Most people are familiar with them.

Water softeners aren’t water filters. They are “ion exchangers.” They function by swapping sodium for calcium and magnesium, the minerals that make water “hard.” As water passes through the softener's resin tank. the hardness minerals leave the water and attach themselves to the resin beads in the tank. The beads release sodium into the water in exchange. Salt has to be added to the softener's brine tank from time to time to replace the sodium that has been released into the water.

Water softeners are very effective at what they do. They can turn water that is unusable because of its scale-forming hardness into good water for domestic purposes. Softened water protects and extends the life of expensive appliances, prevents scaling of fixtures, and makes soap work better.

However, softeners also have some disadvantages. First, they consume a good bit of salt and this salt ends up in waste water systems and subsequently in fresh water supplies and irrigation systems. For this reason, a growing number of communities have banned softeners as harmful to the environment. Also, many people genuinely dislike the “slick” feel of softened water on their skin. Then there are concerns about the health effects of high amounts of sodium in drinking water, the expense of upkeep, the hassle of dealing with heavy bags of salt, the use of considerable amounts of water for regeneration, concerns about the damage discharged brine might cause to septic systems, and sometimes confusion about how to program and maintain the softener.

In spite of the negatives, the water softener has been so popular that it is the cornerstone of the modern water treatment industry. Most conventional “dealerships,” from lucrative multi-site franchise operations to one-man shops, owe a good part of their income to selling, renting, servicing, and providing salt for water softeners.

For years, softeners have been among the most aggressively marketed products in America. Most of us have had a visit from the smooth salesman with a slick demonstration, a forceful “close,” and a long-term purchase contract in his briefcase. For the dealership, the stakes are high. A single softener sale can bring a large initial profit, ongoing maintenance business, the subsequent sale and maintenance of a reverse osmosis unit to take out the sodium that the softener puts into the customer’s water, and years of steady income from the dealer’s “salt route.”

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that dealers and dealer associations do not take kindly to attempts to market substitutes for their cash cow.

Although alternatives to the water softener have been around as long as softeners themselves, it is only recently that some of the alternatives have gained wide acceptance. The most basic alternative systems have traditionally been natural or electrically-powered magnets that are said to alter the molecular orientation of the hardness minerals and take away their tendency to stick to pipes and metal appliances. In recent times, the electronic “softening” alternatives have become more and more sophisticated. Many now feature rapidly cycling changes in wave frequency to scan the spectrum of possibilities and thus assure complete treatment of hardness.

The difficulty in assessing the effectiveness of the alternatives is that they don’t actually remove calcium and magnesium as softeners do. A softener actually takes away the calcium, so it’s easy to do a simple test for hardness that shows effectively and with complete objectivity that the water is “soft” (free of calcium and magnesium) after it has passed through a water softener.

Sellers of alternatives, however, make no claim that their product “removes” calcium. After water has been treated with a magnet, it still registers as “hard” on a hardness test. The calcium is still in it although, according to the magnet seller, it is no longer offensive.

You can see the difficulties faced by early magnet sellers and their prospective customers. Since no test of a magnet’s effectiveness at water conditioning existed, the best way to demonstrate the product’s efficacy was to run test water through two identical pipes, one with a magnet attached and the other as a “control.” After a couple of years, when the pipes were cut open and examined, the treated pipe looked better than the control pipe (or it didn’t) and conclusions were drawn. There was no uniform explanation of why magnets seemed to work in some areas and not in others, or in some applications of the same area and not in others, or if some natural magnets worked better than others, or if electromagnets worked better than natural magnets.

The seller’s difficulties, and the consumer’s confusion, were augmented by the water treatment industry’s reluctance to sanction a competitor for the conventional softener. For years no serious efforts were made in the U.S. to find reliable and less cumbersome methods of evaluation for anti-scaling devices. Professional organizations for water treatment dealers, with an obvious vested interest in the conventional softener, were very slow to take initiative when it came to exploring ways to quantify and certify the performance of alternative conditioners.

Fortunately, Europeans have taken the salt-free softening issue more seriously, and reliable and effective tests are now available, especially in Germany, where standards of performance for salt-free conditioners have been established. Some U.S. sellers are now testing their own equipment with tests based on European models. Watts/Alamo, for example, recently completed tests on a conditioning system that they offer in which treated and un-treated test water of 17 grains-per-gallon hardness was fed at 0.5 gpm for two minutes every hour into transparent testing tanks. Heating elements like those in a conventional hot water heater maintained a 180 degree temperature in the test tanks. It took only a few days for heavy scale to form on the element in the untreated tank; in the treated tank, the element remained scale-free. When the feed tubes to the tanks were reversed so that treated water was sent into the tank with the scaled element, the scale gradually disappeared, indicating that treated water can reduce existing scale. And what is more surprising, when untreated water was fed into the the formerly treated tank, scale was very slow in forming, indicating that treated water actually forms a protective shield again future scale formation.

Pictures from the Watts/Alamo tests. The heating element on the right was protected by Watts ScaleNet.

The Watts/Alamo unit is indicative of what appears to be the trend in alternative softeners. It is not magnetic but consists rather of a single mineral tank, not unlike the tank of a conventional softener, which holds a small amount of a relatively expensive treatment medium. As water passes through the tank the calcium ions are converted to tiny calcium crystals which are stable and cannot attach to pipes and appliances. The process is often called "template assisted crystallization." No regeneration of the medium is needed and no salt is consumed. This technology is now being sold under a variety of brand names and the results seem good.

Water softener alternatives appear to be here to stay. This is indicated by the fact that many of the mainstays of the conventional water softener industry (like Watts/Alamo and the Nelsen Corporation, for example) are beginning to offer and endorse the alternative units.

Our webpage on Watts Scale Prevention Systems has more details.

Pure Water Occasional
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