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Water Treatment Equipment: A Buyer's Guide


Until recently, the home water treatment industry focused on improving the aesthetic characteristics or nuisance concerns of household water. Treatment generally was limited to removing particulate matter or hardness minerals, correcting staining, odor or taste problems, and occasionally disinfecting water systems.

Reports of water contamination have raised consumer awareness and concern about the safety of all water sources, both public and private. Manufacturers and dealers of home water treatment equipment are responding to the perception of unsafe water. An increasing number of manufacturers offer an ever-expanding array of products that promise to make water safe, or "pure." The consumer is left to sift through the claims and supporting data when selecting treatment methods and products.

Public water suppliers, such as cities, villages or rural water districts, must meet federal and state sale drinking water criteria, and must notify consumers if a contaminant affecting health is found to exceed the standard. In some cases, the supplier may be required to provide an alternate water supply.

Private water supplies, on the other hand, are not regulated or tested. Individuals with private wells are responsible for protecting the water supply from contamination, testing to be sure of its safety, and selecting treatment when needed. Information in this NebGuide is provided to guide individuals in evaluating the need for treatment and equipment prior to purchase. The extent to which manufacturers and dealers are willing to answer questions in a way consumers can understand will help them make informed choices and decisions.

What should treatment equipment remove from water?

Be specific about what you want to accomplish with water treatment equipment. Rely on independent water tests to identify and evaluate specific contaminants. There is no single device or method that removes everything or solves every water problem, regardless of the claims. In any case, it is generally not necessary to remove everything.

Triple distilled or deionized water, which is about as pure as is commonly possible, is aggressive at dissolving materials and has a flat, flavorless taste. Also, deionized or distilled water must be contained in glass or high-quality stainless steel to avoid picking up flavors from plastic, rubber and other materials.

What water tests should be done to evaluate the need for treatment?

Tests can be done for hundreds of contaminants, but they are expensive and there is no routine test for everything that may affect health.

For private water supplies, an annual test for bacteria and nitrate is the minimum advised. You, the user, must decide if other contaminants are a concern, and seek appropriate tests. It is wise to confine tests to contaminants used in the vicinity of the supply, those found locally, or other contaminants you believe may be in the water. The Nebraska Department of Health's Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Sanitation can provide advice on what tests might be desirable in a given situation.

Public water supplies are tested regularly, and test results should be available from the supplier. These tests are excellent sources of information because they are repeated regularly. A single test may not be representative of the average water quality over the useful life of the equipment, so it is important to determine a record over time.

For private water supplies, the owner or user is responsible for water testing. Owners are advised to verify all tests used for selecting and sizing equipment by having a second test from another qualified laboratory. Selecting a laboratory certified for the test by the Nebraska Department of Health is recommended.

Are the free water tests provided by equipment dealers accurate?

There is no single test to determine if water is safe. Though most water treatment dealers can provide free in-home or laboratory tests, the tests normally are for nuisance contaminants such as hardness, pH, iron, manganese, sulfur and total dissolved solids. Occasionally a dealer also may test for nitrate. Seldom does any test include all the contaminants covered by the Sale Drinking Water Act standards.

As an example, testing for pesticides or volatile organic chemicals requires special laboratory procedures and is infrequently provided by equipment dealers. The free tests are okay for selecting treatment to treat for many nuisance problems, but they don't provide all the information needed to tell if the water is safe to drink. Even in the case of nuisance problems you may want to make a second verifying test.

Some salespersons conduct on-site demonstrations they may refer to as tests. These typically cause precipitates to form in the water, or cause color changes to occur. Though dramatic with hard water or iron, they are generally meaningless in quantifying how much contaminant is present. But the salespersons may try to convince potential buyers these are good reasons to purchase their water treatment equipment. Buyers should beware of this approach and insist upon confirmation from an independent source before investing in equipment or water treatment services.

Does this water quality problem require whole house or only single-tap treatment?

Most nuisance problems such as iron, manganese, hardness, pH, odor, suggest whole house or point-of-entry solutions. Some contaminants that affect health, such as nitrate and lead, are a concern only for water used for drinking or cooking, so point-of-use equipment at a separate tap that treats a few gallons daily is adequate.

Other contaminants such as bacteria and some organic contaminants will require point-of-entry equipment to prevent exposure during bathing or other water uses.

Is a second opinion on treatment procedures and equipment necessary?
Consider a second opinion on recommended water treatment equipment. Check with at least one additional dealer to see what treatment procedure and equipment is recommended, and ask questions. Compare at least two brands, and consult other references such as independent testing groups and laboratories.
Are products and manufacturers rated by independent tests?

The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), a non-profit organization, has established the following standards affecting drinking water treatment equipment.

STD 42 Drinking Water Treatment Units -- Aesthetic Effects
STD 44 Cation Exchange Water Softeners
STD 53 Drinking Water Treatment Units -- Health Effects
STD 58 Reverse Osmosis Drinking Water Treatment Systems
STD 62 Distillation Units

Products that have been tested or evaluated by NSF to meet the minimum requirements are entitled to display the NSF listing mark on the products or in advertising literature for products. Manufacturers and models that meet the applicable standard are included in a listing published twice a year.

NSF listing is similar to Underwriters Laboratory (UL) for electrical product safety. Current NSF listings can be obtained by contacting NSF at 3475 Plymouth Road, PO Box 1468, Ann Arbor, MI 48106.

The Water Quality Association (WQA), the trade organization of water treatment manufacturers, distributors, and dealers, validates filters, water softeners, reverse osmosis systems, and distillers. A directory of validated product models and companies is published twice a year by WQA. Current directories can be obtained by contacting WQA, 4151 Naperville Road, Lisle, IL 60532.

EPA requires products containing active ingredients controlled under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide Rodenticide Act (FRA) to display an EPA manufacturing facility number and product registration number. These EPA numbers mean the active ingredient added to the equipment complies with FIFRA regulations. EPA does not test or evaluate the performance of the equipment, so do not interpret the EPA registration as a product test.

Ask the sales representative which standards the product meets. Ask also for test results showing removal of the specific contaminant(s) you need or want to remove. Tests by third party organizations (those neutral to and trusted by all interests served) should provide extra confidence.

Some companies may make unsubstantiated statements and claims about their products. If it sounds too good to be true, there is a strong possibility it is not true.

What should I look for in a manufacturer or dealer?

Always try to purchase water treatment equipment from a reputable local company that will be available to provide service and repair or replacement parts, and from manufacturers that stand by their products. Avoid dealers or manufacturers who may be out of business later, when repairs or services are needed.

Also avoid the high-pressure salesperson with "today's special." If you must sign up that day to obtain the special, you are being pressured. Local merchants who expect to be around do not mind consumers taking time to decide. They intend to be there when you need help, so whether you buy today, next week or next month, makes little difference.

How can I tell whether the dealer knows the home water treatment business?

The Water Quality Association is an organization of manufacturers, distributors and dealers that sets minimum acceptable levels of knowledge for water treatment businesses, sales and equipment installers. Ask if the dealer is a member of WQA and if any employees are WQA-certified water specialists, sale representatives, or installers.

WQA is a voluntary organization, so non-members are not implied to be less competent. However, persons who have attended training sessions and taken tests to demonstrate their knowledge should know their business.

Should I rent the equipment before buying?

Renting or leasing equipment before purchasing has several advantages. You will gain experience with the responsibility of owning, operating and maintaining the water treatment equipment before you make the purchase. Renting is also an ideal solution for a temporary or short-term need to improve water quality.

Be sure you understand the terms of the rental or lease agreement. Questions to ask when renting or leasing equipment include: Who is responsible for maintenance? What is the minimum rental term? Does rent apply to the purchase price if you decide to buy? Who is responsible for insurance?

Is bottled water a preferable option?
Bottled water from the store or from a known safe source offers the benefits of no equipment to buy, operate and maintain, and no lengthy commitment for improved quality. It is an excellent temporary option when guests come, when an infant needs water that meets the nitrate standard, or other situations. It may be more cost-effective than owning and maintaining equipment, even over a long term when water use is low.
What is involved in operating and maintaining treatment equipment?

Virtually all water treatment equipment requires maintenance and service. The more treatment equipment you have, the greater the responsibility.

In recent years, manufacturers have been offering more automated and self-monitoring features to help the busy owner with the responsibility of operating and maintaining the equipment. Unless you are unusually dedicated, the automated and self-monitoring features or dealer's service agreement are recommended to ensure good operation. Many systems require periodic cleaning or replacement of components, such as filter cartridges.

What testing or monitoring equipment is needed to ensure proper operation?

Almost all water treatment devices require some monitoring or testing to evaluate and ensure proper operation. As the owner or user of a home water treatment device, monitoring to ensure proper operation is your responsibility. This usually requires special equipment.

Manufacturers frequently offer monitoring equipment either as part of the package or as an option. Ask questions about what test you need to do, what test equipment you need, and if it is part of the treatment package.

What service intervals and costs are involved with this equipment?
Regardless of whether you or your dealer provide the service, there is a cost. Filters must be changed, materials added as needed, and the water checked regularly to be sure things are working. Unserviced equipment may contribute to increased levels of some contaminants. Find out what supplies and equipment are needed, and the expected costs.
Will the unit produce enough treated water for your daily needs?
Carefully consider manufacturer and dealer claims for capacity. If one brand seems to offer unusually high capacity for the size and price, it may be overstated. If the units do not function as claimed, is there a refund or exchange policy? If the dealer makes a promise, ask for it in writing! Ask others who are using the equipment about their satisfaction with it.
What is the expected life for the equipment? What does the warranty cover?
Be certain you understand the warranty and what comments it covers. If your water has contaminants that may shorten equipment life, is that covered by the warranty? Has the dealer had experience with this equipment or are you relying on the manufacturer's promise? Does the warranty cover the cost of installation?

The purchase of water treatment equipment is a decision that must be carefully considered. Whether the purchase is being made to improve the aesthetic characteristics of the water or to address health considerations, many factors must be determined.

The following are some key steps to use in selecting equipment.

  1. Correctly identify the problem to be addressed using appropriate tests.
  2. Identify options for correcting the problem.
  3. Decide whether whole house or single-tap treatment is needed.
  4. Select a reputable dealer.
  5. Obtain second opinions.
  6. Check to see if proposed equipment has been tested or validated by independent organizations such as the National Sanitation Foundation or Water Quality Association.
  7. Talk with others who have the same equipment you may purchase.
  8. Be sure to know all the costs of the equipment: purchase price, installation, operating, and routine required maintenance.
  9. Understand what maintenance will be required.
  10. Understand how to determine if the equipment is operating satisfactorily.
  11. Determine if the system has adequate capacity for your needs.
  12. Determine the expected life of the equipment and components.
  13. Understand any warranty provided with the equipment.
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