By Peter Meyers, ResinTech, Inc.
Over the years, I’ve collected a hefty file on various types of alternative water treatment devices, sometimes called “gadgets” or “NCDs” (non-chemical devices). Many claim to work, based on pseudoscientific techno-babble backed by the all-important anecdotal testimonial. For a while, dia-magnetism was the buzzword; before this, it was electrostatic energy waves. I clearly remember a device that was nothing more than a plastic ball filled with a blue liquid. If you placed it in your washing machine, it supercharged the soap molecules, allowing you to cut detergent use in half. I took it home and gave it to my wife. Lo and behold, it worked. She cut detergent in half and our clothes came out just as clean as before.
Of course, this type of anecdotal evidence is practically worthless to a scientist. The fact is we used more than twice as much soap as we needed in the first place, so cutting the dose in half didn’t reduce our washing machine’s effectiveness. The blue ball had no magical powers, except the ability to alter my wife’s perception of reality—that dream world where more is always better. And the gadget, while it did nothing to change the chemistry of removing dirt from clothing, did alter her reality—and fully lived up to its claims.
So, what’s reality and what’s fantasy? One thing is for sure. If nothing changes, nothing changes. When we look at a device (be it a softener or an electromagnetic water conditioner or anything else), and we want to know if it’s working, we look for change. Change tells us the device is doing something. For many devices, the change is obvious. We flip the light switch and the room suddenly becomes much brighter, confirming the light is indeed working.
Other changes aren’t so obvious. Suppose the light is connected through a switch to the famous clapper we see advertised along with the Chia Pet every holiday season. Clap and have someone flip the light switch up and down simultaneously. Now, it’s not at all obvious which device is working or not working just by observing the light. If we really want to know if the switch and/or the clapper is working, we have to devise a way to isolate each device so we can test them separately. Anecdotal evidence that the light did turn on is worthless if we want to know which device caused the change.
Is scale reduced? Can detergent use be reduced? For these types of questions, anecdotal evidence has little or no value. For example, when many of the early magnetic water conditioners were installed the water heater temperature was turned down, since “heat transfer would improve when scale was reduced” and it wouldn’t be necessary to waste money overheating. The device is installed, and sure enough, scale is dramatically reduced. The homeowner, who likely doesn’t grasp the relationship between temperature and scaling potential, raves about how well his new water conditioner works. Take another example where the device is connected to existing piping and sets up or eliminates a galvanic cell. In one case, the device “causes” corrosion; while in the other, it may “cause” scale. The “changes” may have nothing to do with the device per se; they could be incidental changes made along with its installation. This has always been a big problem with experimental work—how do we avoid interacting with and, thus, changing our experiment.
In that manner, anecdotal evidence is virtually worthless to separate fact from fantasy. Unless we can isolate and study the effect of a particular water treatment device independent of its installation, we can’t prove or disprove if it works or not. Anecdotal evidence is worthless, assuming we’re hung up on reality. Some gadgets on the market “work” because they alter our perception, not because they change the water. I’m now selling the magic detergent extender balls for $10 each. Franchises and wholesale pricing for quantity purchases are readily available. And I can give you my solemn assurance “THIS THING REALLY WORKS!” How many would you like?