For some, it's the taste that draws them to filtered, treated or bottled water. For others, it's the fact that it has no odor. For Tom Houlihan, it's the clink.
"It's hard to explain unless you've heard it," he said, "but when you drop ice cubes made with filtered water into a glass, they have a different sound than those made with unfiltered water."
Houlihan, who runs Orange County Appliance Parts Supply in Garden Grove, isn't alone in taking an interest in his drinking water. A recent survey by the Water Quality Assn. shows that 32% of American consumers use some type of water-treatment device in their homes.
"The imported bottled water boom has really spoiled us," said Burbank plumber Ed Stahey.
"We'd go out to eat and buy great tasting bottled water. Then we'd come home and drink a glass from the tap and say, 'Yuck!' People decided they wanted to get that bottled-water taste in their homes."
It used to be that to get better-quality water, you either bought it at the store or had it delivered to your home. But advances over the last 10 to 20 years have put effective water treatment devices within the reach of most homeowners and renters.
"There's a wide range of products out there," Stahey said. "You can spend thousands and make every drop of water in your house pure, or you can attach a simple filter to your kitchen faucet to make the coffee taste better.
"It's just based on what you want and what you can afford."
While chic bottled water carries the cachet of being "imported," most of our tap water is imported as well--from the Sierra and the Colorado River.
"Our utilities do a pretty good job at getting safe water to our homes," said John Pantermuehl of Aqua 2000, a water treatment company in North Hollywood.
"But lots of people are finding they want a better water product, one that's softened, pure and without a chlorine taste or smell."
Chlorine protects us from getting pathogens such as bacteria and viruses from our water supply, but it sure doesn't make tap water appetizing.
"It's the thing most of our customers complain about," Pantermuehl said. "It's usually remedied by adding an activated-carbon filter to your system."
Carbon filters are the most common and the least expensive method of treating your home's water.
A good carbon filter will reduce water's cloudiness and give it a better odor and taste, and some can remove lead, mercury and other contaminants.
They can be attached to the waterline just as it enters the house, but many popular carbon systems are hooked up under the sink. These filter water from the cold line that leads to a standard faucet or an auxiliary faucet that produces water just for drinking or cooking.
"What you'll usually find is that the better systems have large canisters of activated carbon, the larger the better," said Gus Villegas of Indiana Plumbing Supply in Carson. "The bigger the filter, the better the water will be cleaned and the longer the filter will last."
Sold at home centers and plumbing stores, a good under-sink carbon filter can be found for $150 to $300. Add $100 to $150 if a plumber will be doing the installation.
"Many of the systems sold today are designed for the homeowner to install, so you don't need special tools or expertise. [The installation instructions] walk you through it," Villegas said.
Maintenance Is Key
Regular maintenance is the key to keeping the water from a carbon filter fresh. "Most of the newer systems have filters that are easy to change," Villegas said. "They just pull right out and you insert a new one. A good filter should last the average family a year. Change the filter more often if you start to notice a bad odor or taste."
One of the best-selling filters in recent years is the pour-through pitcher filter, manufactured by several companies. The owner simply fills the top portion of the pitcher with tap water; then the water passes through a small carbon filter cartridge that drips cleaned water to the bottom of the pitcher.
Also becoming common is the faucet-mounted filter, which is screwed into the sink's main faucet where the aerator is attached. Pressure pushes the water through the filter cartridge.
These easy-to-use carbon filters are the least expensive, from $15 to $30, and can make a difference in your water's appeal.
However, some complain that the water is not the same as that produced by the under-sink units. "That may be because of their size," Pantermuehl said. "The filter is not in contact with the water very long."
If your refrigerator has a built-in water dispenser/ice maker, you can improve the output by installing a carbon filter designed for refrigerators on the line coming out from the wall.
"They vary in quality," Houlihan said. "Some are longer than others. Some just have some activated carbon inside encased by plastic; others have more sophisticated screens and water treatment pellets to reduce scale." These range in price from $5 to $20 each.
Though carbon filters produce better-tasting water and may remove some contaminants, they won't filter out everything. If you're concerned about getting the purest water you can find, you may want to consider a reverse-osmosis system.
Using water pressure, reverse-osmosis systems push the water molecules through a membrane that screens out minerals, iron, lead and other contaminants. The cleaned water is then held in a tank under the sink and flows through an auxiliary faucet.
Depending on the model and your home's water pressure, this system can produce three to five gallons per day, which is enough for most families.
"A good reverse-osmosis system is very thorough at producing very clean water," Pantermuehl said. "You're going to pay more for one of these than for a carbon filter system, but if your concern is to get the cleanest water possible, you'll want to use reverse-osmosis."
Most reverse-osmosis systems start at around $500 and are installed much the way carbon systems are. Though the water they produce is about as near to pure as one can get, some people aren't pleased with the output.
"You lose some of the minerals that give water its taste, so you may want to try [reverse-osmosis]-treated water first before buying the whole system," Stahey, the Burbank plumber, said.
Also, a reverse-osmosis system uses a great deal of water. "Some systems are more water-efficient than others, a good one produces one gallon of clean water for every four gallons of tap water. That may sound like a lot, but remember you're just using that cleaned water for drinking and cooking," Pantermuehl said.
Filter membranes usually last for two or three years on reverse-osmosis systems. Check before you buy a system to make sure it removes chlorine from the water. If not, you may have to add an activated-carbon filter to your line to improve the water's taste.
Much of the water we get in Southern California is "hard," meaning it is loaded with minerals and metals that reduce the effectiveness of soaps and detergents and create scale deposits in water heaters and fixtures.
Water softeners reduce the mineral content of tap water, giving more life to fixtures and allowing you to use less soap.
"Once you have a water softener along with a carbon filter on the line that goes into the house, and a reverse-osmosis system under the sink for drinking and cooking, it would be hard to get your water much cleaner," Stahey said.
Softeners are known as "point of entry" systems, meaning that they're installed on the water line just before it enters the house. They typically use salt or potassium in an ion exchange with the calcium, magnesium and other minerals in the water.
"Only a very minute amount of sodium gets into the water," Pantermuehl said. "It's not a difference you can taste."
However, it's usually not recommended to use water softened with sodium for plants.
"In cases where softened water lines may go outside the house for landscaping, you'll want to use potassium as the softening agent," Pantermuehl said. "It's a nutrient for both plants and humans."
Because of the complexity and size of water softening units, it's usually recommended that they be professionally installed. Figure on spending $500 to $2,500 for a softening system, depending on its features and the size of your home.
Whichever type of system you buy, look for their performance ratings from the National Sanitation Foundation or the Water Quality Assn.
Also, be aware that a water treatment system is only as good as its maintenance. A clogged filter or membrane can actually release more contaminants in a concentrated form into your water supply than are normally found.
John Morell is a Woodland Hills freelance writer.
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Water Concerns and Kudos
Tap water was big news last month, first with questions over its safety for pregnant women, then with kudos for its taste.
A widely reported study found that women who drank five or more glasses of tap water a day containing high levels of common chlorine byproducts called trihalomethanes were at greater risk of miscarriage in their first trimester than women with less exposure.
(Among the precautions urged by the study's authors was using a carbon filter at home.)
Then, on the heels of the critical study, the tap water provided by the Metropolitan Water District to most of you reading this story was voted the best-tasting in the country, beating 41 entries from 18 states.
Apparently, as one writer put it, trihalomethanes are tasteless.