By Marianne Metzger
In order to properly apply water treatment, testing is needed to avoid over- and under-sizing as well as to take into account all contaminants present. Over the years testing in the water treatment industry has changed. Gone are the days where some basic onsite tests are done so that a softener can be sold. The attitudes of consumers have changed over the years, and the concerns about the safety of our drinking water have altered the landscape of the water treatment industry. While testing can add expense to an installation, no testing can add even more expense when the equipment doesn’t function as expected or isn’t sized correctly. When these problems occur customers can lose confidence in their water treatment company and go elsewhere for help with their water quality problems.
Onsite Water Testing
Several water treatment companies still focus on primarily selling water softeners. Providing customers with softened water is advantageous for a variety of reasons, including using less soaps and cleaners, not to mention the savings realized on water using appliances that can break down prematurely when used with hard water. When companies sell softeners, it can be easy to just run some simple onsite tests such as pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, iron, and manganese to size the softener. A number of treatment companies still rely solely on onsite testing to sell equipment, and this works well in public water supplies where the quality of the water is largely known thanks to consumer confidence reports. Consumer confidence reports are the testing results of public water supplies, which are sent to consumers annually and are easily accessible online.
However, in well water, using only onsite testing is a greater gamble because there are typically little to no testing results, so the quality is essentially unknown. Additionally, onsite testing capabilities have improved over the last decade providing more testing options for onsite testing methods making it easy to perform more tests onsite than ever before with a higher degree of accuracy.
While onsite testing provides instant results, there are certain limitations. These are the main limitations to consider: testing method interferences, detection levels, and availability of onsite methods for health-related contaminants. All testing methods can be subject to interferences; however, it can be more difficult in onsite testing methods to determine if there was an interference and how it affects the result. Consequently, laboratories are set-up to look for known interferences in the methods they run so action can be taken to alleviate these interferences.
Also, detection levels play a role, as onsite testing methods may not be able to detect down to low enough levels, whereas laboratories typically use instrumentations which detect down to much lower levels. The levels normally discussed as being present in water are at the part per million and part per billion range, but new studies have indicated that certain contaminants are dangerous at much lower levels, specifically the emerging contaminant group, PFAS. Laboratories are now capable of looking at levels in the part per trillion and even part per quadrillion range.
Finally, there are particular contaminants that you can’t test for in the field; typically these are health-related contaminants including specific heavy metals, volatile organic chemicals, pesticides, radiologicals, and now the emerging contaminants referred to as PFAS or “forever chemicals.”
Health-Related Contaminant Concerns
Over the last couple of years consumers have become more aware of water quality and are especially concerned about how it may affect their health. The WQA 2021 consumer opinion survey indicated that concerns about contaminants and a healthy lifestyle/quality of life are considered the most important factors influencing the decision to purchase a water filtration product. This is different from 2019 when the primary reason for installing any system was to improve the taste of the water and secondarily to remove contaminants. This change in attitude about water treatment was likely influenced by the media reporting more about water contamination issues such as the lead in Flint, MI, and presence of emerging contaminants like PFAS and microplastics in water supplies.
Many of these emerging contaminants do not have an onsite testing option available, so laboratory analysis is the only way to know if they are present in a water supply. These concerns over health-related contamination have led to more water treatment professionals using laboratories to confirm their presence in water, as well as to confirm their absence in treated water. With the cost of treating some of these emerging contaminants, the demand for testing after the installation of treatment equipment to prove that the equipment is functioning properly has increased significantly. Many times, this testing is a simple onsite test, but with the expense of the equipment and claims of removal of health contaminants more and more people are looking to laboratory analysis for third-party validation.
Ethical Water Testing
As with any sale of significant value, consumers can be wary of sales demonstrations and this includes the onsite testing used to demonstrate the need for treatment equipment. In the past, and to a certain degree still used today, the precipitation test tests for hardness and is effective in showing hardness dropping out of solution. The problem with this test is that some treatment providers will claim that this test shows the water is unhealthy, when it only indicates the water is hard, which is not a health concern. In January 2022 the WQA issued a warning to the public about this test, particularly about unethical providers who use this test to indicate the water is unsafe. Unfortunately, it is these unscrupulous salespeople that can give the water treatment industry a bad name. To overcome this stereotype, several treatment professionals have opted to have a third-party laboratory analyze the water, giving their customers a higher confidence in the test results.
In addition, treatment companies are offering customers service contracts that include testing, which can be simple onsite tests to ensure equipment is functioning correctly and determine contaminant levels have not changed significantly. For well water they may offer more extensive laboratory analysis to provide customers with a picture of any changes in water quality. Well water can change drastically based upon precipitation and drought conditions so having an annual test to track changes is a good idea in case contaminants suddenly show up or increase to levels of concern.
The water treatment industry has evolved over the years, and along with it the testing that is essential to proper application. Gone are the days of simply selling water softeners with basic onsite tests as there is a much higher demand for equipment to remove health-related contaminants. As a results laboratories have emerged as partners to this industry to help identifycontaminants and determine what levels are present.
About the author
Marianne R. Metzger has spent a majority of her career working at laboratories in a variety of capacities, from Technical Support Representative to Vice President of Sales. Most recently she joined ResinTech Inc. to head up their new Laboratory Services Division. Metzger has presented at several national and regional water quality conferences about water testing topics and has contributed several articles to pertinent trade publications within the water treatment industry. In addition to working for laboratories, she also serves as the Executive Director of the Eastern Water Quality Association, where she assists the board of directors in developing membership through education.