What water test do I need?

johngalt117April 20, 2010

I'm moving into a new house next week. I'd like to have the water tested before I start replacing appliances (they're all 15+ yrs old). Should I just call a few companies (Culligan, Kinetico, Ecowater) to come out and test the water and provide a quote? Or is an independent lab test worth the $200+? (hardness, bacteria, nitrates, etc)

The water supply is municipal and I'm aware of problems with water hardness in the area.

Thanks in advance for your help.

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Ok, water softener 101 ...

Get a water test from an independent lab. An independent lab has no agenda and won't be trying to sell you water treatment equipment. Go to http://www.epa.gov/safewater/labs/index.html to locate a certified lab near you. This is a MUST DO because without it everything is a guess. A quickie water test from Sears or a water softener company won't be as accurate (and possibly not as competent) as from a certified independent lab.

If you're on a water system the water utility can supply you with the specs of the water AS IT LEAVES their facility but that is not necessarily representative of the water conditions at your water meter.

Hit the Yellow Pages and call at least three local water treatment pros. Make sure you call at least one of the big dogs like Kinetico or Culligan for comparison and at least a couple independent pros. DON'T TELL THEM YOU HAD YOUR WATER TESTED.

Give each an opportunity to offer suggestions and provide you with a quote to meet your water treatment needs. IGNORE ANY THAT DON'T TEST YOUR WATER THEMSELVES as they can't speak intelligently to water treatment without knowing what needs to be treated.

Ask lots of questions. Softening the entire house or just the water heater (IMO a bad idea)? Warranty, parts & labor or just parts, how long and on exactly what? Install, permits required, licensed plumber? Routine maintenance and costs? Do they stock parts? Response time for emergency (water leak) calls? If they don't explain things to your satisfaction that is a good indicator of how you'll be treated after the sale.

After they've gone use your water test to compare with theirs. Are all your treatment needs being addressed?

Ask your neighbors if they have any water treatment experience. They might tell you who's good or who to avoid.

Come back here and post the specific recommendations and hardware components with the costs and we'll give you our opinions.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2010 at 3:02PM
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IMHO, household water supply is basic. Needs to be right. I agree with your attitude about getting the water tested. Also agree with justalurker's advice. Even it cost $200.00 (it won't) I would do it because it's something every home-owner should know.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2010 at 4:14PM
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There's a local certified lab that does this test for $220:

"Analyzes for the presence of Total Coliform Bacteria (as above), Nitrates, Nitrites, First Draw Lead and Lead after flushing the lines, as well as Copper, pH, Total Dissolved Solids, Iron, Manganese, Alkalinity, Hardness, and Corrosivity. This group of analytes helps determine the quality of your water with respect to your health and the health of your plumbing system on a limited basis."

Is this test worth the $220 or should I just pick and choose certain water qualities to test for (ex: Their hardness test is $20, TDS is $15, etc etc.)?

    Bookmark   April 21, 2010 at 6:42AM
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Hi John,

Since you're on a municipal water system there are EPA mandated tests that the water utility must do and bacteria is one.

You can get a copy of the EPA mandated test results from the water utility.

For your needs you'll want to test for hardness, iron, manganese, TDS, PH.

When you get the results post them along with how many people in the house and how many bathrooms then we can help you size the system.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2010 at 10:01AM
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justalurker- you advocate independent testing b/c the testing required by regulations is only at the treatment plant. But the parameters you suggest testing for (hardness, iron, manganese, TDS and pH) are unlikely to change in the distribution system, with the possible exception of iron (old cast or DIP pipes might make this possible).

I'd rely on the utility's testing reports, rather than testing one grab sample, which is unlikely to give you an accurate picture of water quality throughout the year.

Also, note that disinfectant residual is one regulatory-required test at the far points of a utility's distribution system. Not just at the plant.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2010 at 10:45PM
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"unlikely to change in the distribution system" isn't won't or doesn't change in the distribution system.

Since water treatment is based on science I prefer to know the exact conditions that require treatment and test a sample at the location.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2010 at 11:09PM
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Inside a plastic, steel, cast iron, or ductile iron pipe or storage tank, how is the water going to pick up hardness (calcium or magnesium), TDS (salts), manganese, or radically change pH? Especially when it's a pressurized system (by design and regulation) that leaks outward (not inward) if it leaks at all. I said "unlikely" because I'm an engineer who automatically hedges any declaration, but I'd say the chance of water quality being significantly different between the plant and your home approaches zero.

Also, note that drinking water is typically treated with phosphoric acid to provide a net deposition of a small amount of precipitate on pipe walls to prevent corrosion (see Langlier Index). This further reduces the chance of a change in water quality in a given distribution system.

My wife works for an environmental organization. Her boss decided to have their tap water tested 6 ways to Sunday. They spent over $1k on the testing and found nothing that you couldn't have gleaned from our utility's publicly available reports. And again, it's not just the expense of the sampling/testing, it's that you're only capturing a snapshot of water quality that does change seasonally (and is recorded by the utility).

If it isn't life or death (i.e. someone in the house that's immunocompromised), there are better ways to spend your money.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2010 at 12:50PM
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I prefer to eliminate the variables, great or small as they may be, and KNOW and you do not.

I prefer to test on-site and KNOW, then treat as indicated, and you do not.

As far as "you're only capturing a snapshot of water quality"... that specific snapshot (on-site) is worth a 1000 tests elsewhere in a water system cause I don't live elsewhere in the system.

We can agree to disagree. You do as you like and I'll keep recommending on-site testing and we'll leave it to the readers to make their choice or ignore us both.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2010 at 1:40PM
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I decided to get both the local water company's testing reports and have an independent test done, since it's a minimal cost. While I wait for the results from the independent lab, here are the links to the water company's testing reports:


Assuming I get similar results from the independent test, what recommendations would you make? There are 2 full baths and 1 half bath in the house. Right now, it it just my wife and I living there, but we plan on renting it in the future, so the number of people living there could be higher in the future. Thanks.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2010 at 10:58AM
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Based on that info...

You can get by with a 1.5 cu ft softener. With two people it will regenerate every week based on water usage. If you rent and add two more people the regeneration interval will be cut in half and the water and salt used for regeneration will double. The SFR of a 1.5 cu ft softener may be marginal for 2.5 baths and four people.

For four people a 2.5 cu ft softener would be preferred and would regenerate every week. This 2.5 cu ft softener can be "short salted" when only two people are in the home for more efficient operation. When there are more people a simple adjustment to the softener setup will be required.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2010 at 11:31AM
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