Water Contaminant: Nitrates

by Mark B Published 6.4.2014
Diagram of a nitrate molecule

Nitrate is the anionic part of a salt that commonly occurs with sodium or potassium. Traditionally it was used in the manufacture of gunpowder and munitions where it was originally extracted from urine and was then mined. Today nitrates are also employed as a source of nitrogen in inorganic fertilizers. Nitrate is limited in drinking water by the US EPA to a maximum of 10 mg/L when measured in units of nitrogen. The particularly susceptible group is infants below the age of six months.This is because the very young digestive tract hasn’t yet matured to handle levels above 10 mg/L, and the amount of water they consume is proportionally higher for their body weight. The infant may be exposed to nitrate when given a bottle of drinking water or reconstituted formula. Nitrate binds to the methemoglobin molecule that carries oxygen in the blood stream, making that oxygen unavailable. As a result, the baby’s skin and lips can turn bluish, the child can appear short of breath, and might be either fussy or listless. The illness is called methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome.” There is as yet insufficient evidence to support an association with drinking water nitrate and birth defects, miscarriage, or harm to adults.

Sources of excess nitrate in drinking water are typically the runoff of agricultural fertilizers or manure and leaching from septic tanks. It is more likely to be found in shallow ground water sources. Municipalities must monitor and treat as necessary to meet the US EPA regulatory limit, therefore private water supplies are normally at greater risk of nitrate contamination. Nitrate in drinking water can be treated effectively by reverse osmosis, distillation, or a tank of nitrate-selective ion exchange resin – expert help is needed to ensure the technology being considered is appropriate for a particular situation. Prevention is an important option. For example, when considering digging a new well, determine whether it will be deep enough and far enough away from feedlot drainage and septic systems to prevent the well water quality from being influenced. Last, because of the potential sources of nitrate, it may be appropriate to test for fecal coliform bacterial contamination as well.

Contact Mark B.

Coming Up Dry: When Water Stops Running, Life Gets Interesting

by Brian L Published 1.16.2014

It is one of those phrases that probably strikes fear into the hearts of millions, but many others have never been concerned with. Since moving to our 168 year old house, I’ve heard it more than enough times. “There’s no water.” And while I hate to be told about it, what seems even worse is to have the water completely shut off for no apparent reason while you are actively using it. That always puts a lump in my throat. It is so easy to take running water for granted. We just open a tap, and there it is: our own personal Old Faithful. And we’ve really come to depend on it being there whenever we want it. But my wife and I have learned that the well water supply in our old home is not quite as reliable as city water.

Man staring into his shower head, frustrated

The first time we were stuck without water was before we had even fully moved into the house. We had decided to throw a family party on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend after spending the summer working on our new, old house. On the day before the party, I thought it would be nice to get our new water softener installed so we would have soft water for our visitors. No problem, I shut off the water and plumbed it in. The only mistake I made was at one point I opened the main shut off valve before everything was connected. I figured at the time, this is fine, because I had turned off the water pump and depressurized the lines before starting anyway. When I opened the valve however, I was surprised to hear air hissing through the open pipe. I thought nothing of it and continued my plumbing. Once I was done and turned on the water pump, it would run, but there was no water. I opened up the top of the pipe going down into the well and discovered it was full of nothing but air. Well, it made sense that a pump for water won’t pump air, I figured I needed to fill the pipe with water to prime the pump. The first thing that crossed my mind was that this would be a lot easier if I had running water…I got a few jugs of water from my in-laws’ house, but no matter how fast I poured it into that pipe, I could not fill it. That is when I learned about foot valves. There is a valve at the bottom of the inlet pipe within the well that allows water to come into the pipe, but does not allow water to flow back out. Fortunately, the pipe in my well is plastic, so my father-in-law and I were able to pull it up by hand. After pulling up 60+ feet of pipe, there we found the disintegrated remains of a foot valve. It was a little nerve racking trying to find a replacement on Sunday morning of a holiday weekend, but once installed, it was quite simple to fill up the pipe and prime the pump. Phew! We had water again and before company started arriving no less!

Obviously, that was not our only no-water event. In fact, every time the power goes out we have no water. But the first time the water went off unexpectedly when we were using it, we were filling the bathtub to give our infant twins a bath. One minute the water is running fine, the next minute, the room was silent. Not even a trickle was coming out of the tap. I started to wonder how we were going to wash the babies, take a shower, wash dishes, etc. When, all of a sudden, the water came back on and seemed fine. It ran without slowing at all and filled up the tub. The next day we experienced more of the same. Water then no water, then water again. I started to wonder if our well was drying up, and began cursing the ski resort that shares the hill we live atop. They must be bringing down the water table, feeding our precious water to their snow machines. But I eventually concluded that could not be the cause, because when the water comes back on, it stays on. What I eventually found when I started looking further into the issue, is a small metal adapter screwed into the pump was full of rust. Within the pump itself, the hole leading to this fitting was completely plugged with rust. This adapter has a small plastic tube that carries water to the pressure switch responsible for turning the pump on and off. The rust was so thick it was restricting water from flowing freely out of the tube and indicating to the pressure switch, that there is a low pressure condition. So the pump would not come on until the water slowly seeped its way into the tube. The adapter is made of some alloy because it does not rust, and it is screwed into the well pump which is cast iron. I recall (perhaps from a long-ago chemistry class) that dissimilar metals in contact with each other can cause a galvanic reaction, which essentially causes excessive corrosion. Since every couple of years, I have to clean out this rust to keep our water flowing steadily, but we don’t really seem to have much iron in our water, I’m confident this is the cause. One of these days, I really need to replace that adapter with a plastic one which should hopefully eliminate the galvanic action and therefore the disruptions to our water supply.

I have also discovered over the years, that although the most common well-pumps installed these days seem to be submersible pumps that are designed to be under water, our jet-pump is not one of those and does not run at all when it is under water. The first time this happened (yes it has happened a few times now), my wife had gotten up before me to take a shower. She quickly came back into the room to recite “there is no water”. Since it was a chilly December morning, I went down to the basement first to see if I could determine a cause. I didn’t really expect to find anything there, but I didn’t want to go outside through the cold and snow to the well house just yet. What I saw caught me off guard. In our basement, there is an old abandoned pipe running along one wall near the floor. I had always figured since it was no longer connected to anything, that this was a leaky or plugged pipe bringing water in from the well house that had been abandoned in place of the now plastic piping doing that duty. Well, this morning, there was water dripping out of that old pipe. Now, I had to go outside to see what was going on. When I opened the well house and removed the insulation, the only thing I could see is water. The entire foundation had filled up with water, completely submerging the well pump. So I was at the home center as soon as they opened, buying a portable sump pump I could connect to a garden hose. It took over an hour to pump out all the water. After it had emptied, I reset the breaker for the pump that had tripped and the pump started right back up again. So why did my well house fill with water? Once the pump came on, I discovered that the fiberglass pressure reserve tank had a pinhole leak in it. I had assumed at first that the sump pump within the well house had failed and that this leak filled up the foundation slowly, so I rigged up my new portable pump with an external float switch and plugged it in. That one did not work either. There was no power to the outlet it was plugged into. I checked all the breakers and they were all on except the one feeding the large room off of the kitchen where I was doing some remodeling. The breaker was labeled “Living Room” on the panel, although this room is clearly not the living room. After verifying all the electrical connections in the room were safely terminated, I turned on that “living room” breaker and the sump pump came to life. Why on earth is the sump pump connected to the same circuit that feeds what the previous owners considered the living room?? I have no idea. That is just one of the joys of older homes I guess. I have also since learned that even without a leak in the newly replaced reserve tank or anywhere else, a heavy rain or melting snow provides enough water to flood the well house when the “rigged-up” portable sump pump fails to turn on. Since this has just recently happened once again, I hope to correct this situation by installing a permanent pump this week before it gets any colder.

As I’m writing this, I see I’ve mentioned a few different things that I need to deal with at some point in the future. This brings me to another phrase heard often. Years ago, I thought I understood what people meant when they said that “with old houses you are never done, because there is always something that needs to be worked on”. Since it seems that no matter where I look at home I see something else that needs attention, it’s clear that back then I had no idea what they meant. But I now I truly understand.

Contact Brian L.

What is hard water, and how does hardness affect my home?

by Cathy J Published 10.15.2013

Most homes have hard water, whether it is supplied by a private well or a municipality. Although hard water is comprised of naturally occurring minerals and is not known to be harmful to humans or animals, it has the potential to cause damage to skin, hair, water using appliances and plumbing.

Pure water is the universal solvent. It is tasteless, odorless and colorless but as it makes its way through soil and rock, it dissolves minerals and holds them in solution.  The two most common minerals that make water hard are calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg). The higher the calcium and magnesium content of the water, the higher the hardness level.

Hardness is measured in grains per gallon (gpg). Water with a range of 1.0–3.5 gpg is slightly hard. Conversely, water that is more than 10.5 gpg is classified as very hard. However, even small amounts of hardness in a water supply can be detrimental.

Water Hardness Scale (grains per gallon)
Less than 1Soft
1.0–3.5Slightly Hard
3.5–7.0Moderately Hard
Greater than 10.5Very Hard

A white film or spots on shower doors, glassware or fixtures may indicate hardness. The film may also be left on skin and hair after bathing, resulting in dryness and the use of extra hair products and lotions. Additionally, hard water can leave mineral deposits in pipes and water using appliances. This is apparent when the flow of water is decreased or when appliances become inefficient or need multiple repairs. According to the Water Quality Association, a consumer's water heating costs could increase as a result of hard water. When hard water is heated, the minerals can precipitate and form scale. This scale build-up forms an insulating barrier between the heating element and the water to heated.

Hardness also has an effect on soaps and detergents. The cleaning properties of detergents and the amount of suds produced are diminished. Calcium and magnesium ions actually react with soaps and detergents to create “soap curd”, sometimes called “soap scum”. Soap curd reduces the life of clothing and makes them look gray or faded.

Hard water is treated several ways. The most common household method involves ion exchange which occurs when the positively charged calcium and magnesium ions are exchanged for sodium ions in a water softener. This process is explained in more detail in the video, How a Water Softener Works. One disadvantage of ion exchange is that sodium is introduced into the water supply. Consumers on a sodium restricted diet need to count this as part of their daily intake if drinking softened water.

Water may also be softened with chemical precipitation. This process involves imparting lime in the water supply to raise the pH. When the pH level is high enough some hardness compounds will precipitate and can be filtered out. With chemical precipitation, the amount of hardness in the water will be reduced but not completely removed. The water may also be cloudy and the precipitate can cause build up.

The Better Water Blog 1-Year Anniversary

by Kinetico Published 7.1.2013

Illustration of a tablet showing the blog, and a half-eaten slice of birthday cake

Time really does fly when you're having fun, doesn't it? Over the last year, we have tried to bring you posts that help you understand, value and respect life's most vital resource: water. We know some of you have been with us from the very beginning, and we're really grateful for that. But for those of you who are new to the Better Water Blog, here are some posts you could start with from this time last year.

Why are Boil Water Alerts So Important?

By Cathy J in The Science of Water

Have you ever had a Boil Water Alert (BWA) issued in your area? These public warnings can be worrisome if you've never heard them before. You may ask yourself, "Is my water really safe?" Cathy answers some common questions about BWA's in this informative first-ever Better Water Blog post.

How a Water Softener Works—Mystery Solved!

By Stuart P in Water Treatment Technology

Stuart's fascinating, lighthearted post clears up some of the mystery behind water softeners. Even if you already know all there is to know about ion exchange, water softeners, soap curds and electrons, you'll enjoy the fun, straightforward video presentation where we get to see how water softening works close-up, featuring Mr. Resin Bead! 

We All Have Our "Just In Case"...Mine Has To Do With My Drinking Water

By Keith B in Water in the News

Keith explains a few of the reasons why he and millions of others rely on reverse osmosis filtration for drinking and cooking water. "Better safe than sorry" is his philosophy as he illuminates some of the effects that fracking and PPCP's (Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products) might have on your water.

Colors, odors and tastes—is your water changing with the seasons?

by Diana M Published 5.17.2013

Another spring is here, a time of change and wonderment. The landscape changes, the types of birds one sees and the songs they sing change. Everything seems to burst with renewed life, including some water supplies!

For well water users and some municipally supplied water users, a change in weather can create a change in water. And friends, change is not always good. Well water may change with a rainy season, which can introduce materials to the aquifer that had not previously been there. Some municipalities change the source of their water supply with the changing seasons and weather conditions. Often times, the supply is from a well, and a different well means different water. Even two wells on the same property can produce two entirely different types of water.

Illustration of colorful clouds over a home

In the spring and the fall, we can count on receiving calls from customers about this very thing. Common unwanted changes to the water include new colors, odors and tastes, which are produced by a variety of causes.

Irons’ reddish brown stains are probably the most familiar to us all. However, tannins—the result of rotting vegetation—cause staining very similar to iron. Shale, organics and manganese can result in black staining. These are just a few causes of color in water. If you find that you have any of these in your water supply, don’t despair; they can be treated.

Odor is another issue that can arise from the changing of seasons or weather. A concern we hear frequently is rotten egg smell resulting from sulfur. This can leave one wondering if an egg was missed in the Easter Egg Hunt. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple and we have to admit it is the water. 

Anything that alters the color of water can alter the taste. As an example, iron may produce a metallic taste. We frequently hear from people that grew up on well water and not only expect but enjoy the mineral or metallic taste. If it wasn’t present in your water before, though, it might come as quite a shock.

We even get calls from people with water softeners. Now, you may be asking yourself why your water softener is allowing these changes to come through. A water softener is designed to remove calcium and magnesium. These are the hardness minerals that create scale in pipes, appliances, sinks and tubs. Often times, however, staining and odor require a different type of treatment.

Color, taste and odor can become a permanent part of your water supply or they may be passing with the seasons. Rest assured; with proper testing and treatment, your water can be brought back to normal in no time. Your local water treatment professional can advise you based on their experience as to whether it may be passing or permanent and provide the perfect solution for you.

Contact Diana M.

Fluoride: It's not just in toothpaste

by Ed R Published 6.15.2012

When we think about fluoride we immediately associate it with dental products, “Oh yeah, that’s the stuff they put in toothpaste isn’t it?” While true, this is not the only source of the substance. Most natural drinking water and nearly all food have trace levels of fluoride in them. What’s more, in the U.S. approximately 50% of our population drinks water that has had fluoride intentionally added to it. The reason: proponents of fluoridation and the ADA (The American Dental Association) specifically, have shown that fluoride, when ingested or added to dental products in the right amount, reduces the incident of tooth decay. Notice that I said in the right amount. I’m not going to get into the debate of whether fluoridation is good or bad. Like many things in life, a little of something may be good, and a lot may be bad. Nuff said.

Periodic table cell for FluorineThis whole subject has been controversial for more than 60 years. For an in-depth report on this subject I refer you to the August 1st 1988 C&E News Special Report “Fluoridation of Water” written by Bette Hileman. You may find the report through a web search or at your local library. While a little old, it contains a lot of very good information, both pro and con.

Fast forward to 2012. It seems that this topic is now coming back around. What we thought were proper levels back then, are now being re-assessed and it is generally believed the acceptable or beneficial amount of fluoride in drinking water should be lowered. Well, that’s not much of a problem for cities or towns that intentionally add it to their water; they will simply dial back the dose. But what about the estimated 15% of our population (43 million people) that get their water from private wells? How do they know if they have a safe level of fluoride?

Well, the answer lies with the agency in your particular state that is responsible for your drinking water. This is a great resource to find out about “What’s in your Water.” I didn’t say “wallet”, but it could be if your level is too high and you need to do something about it. An excellent example of the type of information that is available can be found at: www.epa.ohio.gov/ddagw/gwqcp pubs.aspx. You can just click on the fact sheet for the short version (about three pages) or the full report (10 pages). Your state may have a similar site. Or, if you are really concerned, have your water tested by an accredited lab, that way you will know exactly where you stand.


Contact Ed R.

We all have our "just in case"...mine has to do with my drinking water

by Keith B Published 6.13.2012

Fasten Your Seat Belt...

How many functions do we perform each day in our lives, primarily based on a “just in case” philosophy. Our automobile seat belt is probably one of the most prevalent, and it is now required by law in most places.  Other functions that could be broadly lumped into this category might be: using hand sanitizers, carrying an umbrella, taking vitamins, changing the password frequently on our computer, locking our doors, etc. Maybe it’s “better safe than sorry”, rather than “just in case”, but whatever the term, it is a widely accepted force in our society today.

I recently read in Bloomberg Businessweek, and  in my local newspaper, that a top official of the CDC’s* National Center for Environmental Health, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is now getting involved in investigating the possible contaminants associated with fracking. Fracking is a process used in the extraction of natural gas and oil from shale. At this time, there is no proof that the chemicals used in or produced by that process might affect our health but they believe it needs to be studied. At the same time, the **EPA is looking at the subject to see if those chemicals affect our environment in any way including ending up in our drinking water.  So “just in case”, do we need to stop all fracking until more is known?  This is under serious debate in many states right now.Illustration of four pill and shampoo/lotion bottles with 'PPCP' written across them

We already know that our water supplies contain trace quantities of Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs). Individuals add PPCPs to the environment through excretion and bathing, and through the disposal of unwanted medications to sewers and trash. According to the EPA, (http://www.epa.gov/ppcp/) PPCPs have probably been present in water and in the environment for as long as humans have been using them. Although we can now measure PPCP levels at low concentrations there are more people ingesting or applying products to alter their moods, change their looks, or somehow “fix” themselves than ever before. Just as an example, the Wall Street Journal in August 2011 reported that in 2010 there were 253 million prescriptions written for antidepressants! That in itself is depressing.

If you drink water that is coming from a surface water source, you don’t have to wait for an error in gas well fracking to possibly send mystery chemicals into your drinking water. Thanks to PPCPs, you probably already have a mixed cocktail of them (albeit in very low concentrations) heading into your home and making their way into your Kool-Aid or coffee. Yet, in my recently supplied 2011 Water Quality Report from the Cleveland Division of Water, PPCPs are not even mentioned, though the report is well organized and well written.  The report does briefly explain that “Reverse osmosis filters…..remove things like fluoride and many minerals found in hard water.  Replacement filters can be expensive and several gallons of water are wasted for every gallon filtered.” 

I, for one, believe that it makes sense to process my drinking and cooking water through a reverse osmosis membrane to significantly reduce PPCPs and many other possible contaminants and have been doing so for the last 25 years - that’s longer than I have been consistently clicking my seat belt… just in case.

* Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
**U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 


Contact Keith B.

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