Why is my water that color?

As someone who works in water treatment I fequently receive questions about red, black, pink or cloudy appearances in drinking water. Contrary to what might be expected none of these colors are inherently dangerous to human health. They do however make the water look unappetizing. They are called asethetic water quality indicators. Well the colors themselves isn’t the indicator, what causes the water is. I will outline the causes below.

Red water is usually caused by the oxydation of iron and iron bacteria. To be a little more accurate the color is a reddish brown, if you see a red that belongs in a paint can then I highly recommend NOT drinking it. Iron oxydation (rust) is not dangerous at all. Many water sources contain iron naturally. Iron is prevalent in groundwater. The red color comes from iron particles rusting when they come into contact with oxygen in the water. The rusting is accelerated when the iron is introduced to chlorine. As you know chlorine is very commonly used as a disinfectant. When there is a lot of iron and a lot of chlorine then there can be a visible particles of rusted iron in the water. This looks really bad when you turn on the faucet but iron is something they add to mineralized bottled water and iron is a necessary element in proper nutrition.
Iron bacteria can enter the water at the source or if the water is stored in a metal container or watermain. Wells can become contaminated with iron bacteria. When they do, read this to know what to do about it.

Black colored water is not to be confused with black water which is a term used for sewage. Sewage is often a yellowish brown, unless it has gone septic and then it is very black and very smelly. An odorless black tint to water is usually due to manganese. Manganese behaves a lot like iron does except it oxidizes a lot slower. Water stored for a couple days or more will turn black if there are high levels of manganese in the water. Manganese is more often found in groundwater than in surface water. Sometimes it wont be noticeable in the water. It will however be noticable as a black stain on appliances and reservoir walls.

Pink water comes from potassium permanganate (KMnO4). Permanganate is a treatment chemical used to help oxidize iron and manganese. When too much is added the water turns pink. When a lot is added then the water turns purple. The pink isn’t dangerous to human health. It is hower alarming to see pink coming out of a faucet. To read how to use potassium permanganate as a disinfectant read this.

To remove iron, manganese and permanganate is accompolished with greensand filtration. Don’t let the name fool you, greensand is black in color. Greensand is chemically activated to remove oxidized minerals from water.

A yellowish tint (sometimes brown) to the water IS potentially dangerous. Yellow tea colored water is indicative of organic material in the water. Organic material is mostly non living particles but it also includes bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. Sewage is also this color. So beware of yellowish water.

Not many different things can cause a truely cloudy appearance to water. Turbidity is sometime said to be “cloudy” but it is caused by suspended particles blocking light from passing through. Usually turbidity is also colored at the same time. Unless the particles are white in color, then turbidity isn’t cloudy, it is dirty.
Cloudy water is caused from dissolved gasses (usually oxygen) in the water getting released. This happens when the temperature in the water is significantly different than the temperature of surrounding environment. Since large bodies of water are slower to heat up and slower to cool down, this difference happens every spring and fall. It is called reservoir turnover. The way to test if it is just dissolved gasses in the water is to let a glass sit for five minutes. All bubbles of gasses will disappear and the water will look and taste normal. If the water is still cloudy after five minutes, then the problem is caused by turbidity and it must be removed by filtration.

Not everything that can happen to drinking water is dangerous. Reddish tints from iron and blackish tints from manganese are natural and harmless. This article should help you determine when visual changes to the water are cause for alarm and when they can be ignored safely.

Disinfection Of Water Using Ultraviolet Radiation

Ultraviolet light is a very popular method of disinfecting water.  UV radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum that has incredible properties for the killing of microscopic organisms.  While there are varying degrees UV resistance within microscopic organisms, not one has yet been able to develop a total resistance.  Because UV disinfection systems are not chemical or biological they have an extremely long shelf life.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum with a UV Focus (From: agtuv.com)

There is a wide variety of ultraviolet disinfection systems that range from the size of a pen to large banks of meter long light bulbs and many options in between. UV systems tend to be very simple to install and operate and UV leaves nothing behind and there are no disinfection by-products from its application.  In fact ultraviolet radiation can break down some potentially harmful chemicals like chlorine and chloramine compounds.

Ultraviolet Lamp (from: halmapr.com)

The limitations of UV disinfection are; distance, time, turbidity and electricity.

Proximity is critical for UV disinfection, the water needs to be very close to the UV light source. The farther away the water is the more radiation is absorbed by the water. Meaning that with increasing distance you get weakening disinfection.  Proximity becomes even more critical in hard water.  Hard water sources leave a white chalky residue of calcium carbonate which covers the UV light bulb, making the radiation emitted significantly weaker.

Time is another significant limitation of UV disinfection. The amount of time pathogens spend in the UV greatly affects whether or not the pathogen is neutralised. This is similar to how people get worse sunburns the longer they are exposed to the sun.  Time is directly related to the flow of the water, if the flow is too much, the water will not spend enough time exposed to the radiation and will not be disinfected.  Slow moving water or even static water is best.

The efficiency of UV disinfection is greatly reduced by turbidity. Turbidity physically shields the organisms from the UV light. Exactly the way a beach umbrella shades people from the sun. This is called line of sight disinfection.  There is no disinfection in the shadows when using UV radiation.

Electricity is another limitation of UV disinfection systems.  They are limited in two ways by electricity.  First by the fact that  they are quite literally light bulbs placed underwater and secondly by fluctuations in the electrical source cause fluctuations in the UV radiation field emitted from the bulbs.  Both these problems are easily overcome.  By sealing the system in clear waterproof chambers can effectively keep the system safe from the water.  Fluctuations in the electrical source can be minimized through proper system design and using fresh/charged batteries in battery powered systems.

SteriPen Portable Ultraviolet Disinfection (from wikipedia.org)

Portability is a mixed blessing with UV disinfection systems. Smaller, pen-like devices are easy to transport, but are significantly less powerful. That means they need to be used on slower moving/still water and used for longer than larger UV systems.  Another mixed blessing of ultraviolet disifection is the fact that there is no disinfection residual left in the water.  Not having a disinfection residual is great if you are drinking the water immediately, otherwise recontamination can occur very quickly after the UV lamps are shut off.  UV is not enough if you plan on storing the water for a long period of time.

Recirculating the water to be disinfected a second or third time will greatly increase the chances of proper disinfection.  Remember that disinfection whether by UV or chlorine or any other method is one of the final stages of water treatment.  Forgetting to filter the water first will make disinfection significantly more difficult.  Regardless of the size of the of the system used, ultraviolet radiation can be used to supplement any water treatment process.

Water Security Before, During & After Hurricanes

People often neglect to consider the security of their water supply prior to a hurricane, there are many other pressing needs for preparation, namely protection of property. Because this week is National Hurricane Preparedness Week I wanted to discuss how hurricanes can disrupt water systems and water supplies. Water security is essential when talking about hurricanes. Actions taken before the hurricane, during and after the hurricane all play a significant part in maintaining your access to clean, safe drinking water.

Hurricane Ivan: Image source nationalgeographic.com

First a note on evacuations. I’m not going to tell people to stay or go when it comes to evacuating. Make that decision for yourself.

What can be done before a hurricane hits? If you are on a well, make sure your well is sealed properly. This is normal well maintenance. Your annual maintenance and inspections are your first defense against well contamination. With a hurricane the main culprit is the rain and the storm surge. Surface water contamination with bacteria, chemicals and salt can make your well very unfit to drink. Prevention through proper maintenance is the best barrier against contamination. If you are on a municipal water system, shut off the water to your house before you evacuate. This will prevent leaks and the subsequent damage from the water entering your house. It will obviously not protect you from rain/wind/flood/storm surge damage.  Also, it is a good idea to temporarily cap the connection from your house to the sewer or septic system, this will prevent overloaded waste systems back flowing into your house.  These precautions need to be done whether you bug out or not.  This is the time to store water.  When the water coming into your house is clean and drinkable.  Store as much as you can, it could be the difference between life and death.

Storm Surge Diagram: Image Source worldlywise.pbworks.com

During the hurricane, if you don’t evacuate to a safe area, you need a backup supply of water. Continue reading

Septic Tank Management

Homeowners are responsible for maintaining their septic systems.  It not only protects the investment in your home, but also protects your water supply and those of your neighbors.  You don’t want to be the cause of major ground water or surface water contamination because of a malfunctioning septic tank.  The liabilities are potentially huge and your homeowners insurance may not cover you if you didn’t do the required maintenance.   It will also make selling your home difficult,  I personally have walked away from houses I wanted to buy because the septic system was not in proper working order.

Septic tank management can be very simple. If the tank has been properly constructed and installed very few interventions will be necessary and the interventions will primarily be inspections.  The major components of a septic system are a collection pipe from the house, the holding tank, and the drainage system (usually a field).  The collection pipe is the final pipe leaving the home that contains all the household waste water.  This part of the system is identical for people connected to a municipal sewer except for where the pipe goes. Continue reading

Water Quality Myths

There is a lot of misinformation available about water quality.  If taken as true in the wrong situation they could be very costly, they might even cost you your life.

The first myth I want to mention is the belief that ground water is pure. See my article on why I dislike the term “purify” when it concerns water.  I have heard this over and over again, “if we were all drinking ground water we wouldn’t need all these chemicals and we would all be healthier”.  This simply isn’t true.  Ground water does contain bacteria, it is usually free from pathogenic organisms, but that is not guaranteed, and if your system isn’t used to the specific bacteria in the ground water they may still make you a little sick.

The second myth I want to squash is the idea that sunlight, specifically the ultraviolet radiation will kill bacteria.  Let’s think about this for a second.  Using a lack of common sense, sunlight disinfection appears to be true.  UV kills bacteria and the sun emits UV radiation sounds like a win-win scenario.  However with a lot more common sense and some education behind it, it becomes apparent that all the lakes and rivers on the surface of the earth are exposed to sunlight.  If UV from the sun disinfected water, there would be no microscopic life in our water and because this is the bottom of the ecosystem, there would be no ecosystem at all.   Continue reading

Water Quality Is Subjective

Clean water is clean water right? If I don’t get sick when I drink it that means every one can drink it right? The truth is not everyone has the same body chemistry. Everyone has a slightly different tolerance and/or sensitivity to contaminants. This could be an allergy to something in the water but it doesn’t have to be that severe. Children are often more susceptible to contaminants in water, as are the elderly and pregnant women. In the past when water systems have been contaminated, the two populations most likely to get very sick and or die are your children and seniors. Honorable mention goes to people with weakened immune systems which are almost always at greater risk.
Continue reading

Proper Way to Take a Water Sample

I have mentioned in many other articles that monitoring water quality is important. The only way to effectively monitor changes in water quality is by sampling the water and following with laboratory analysis. This can all be done by you or sent off to a professional lab. There are companies that can and will come sample the water for you and arrange for a proper analysis of the sample.

If you do decide to take your own samples, here is what you will need to do. Continue reading