Solving the Water Quality Puzzle

Jan. 16, 2015
Water testing is a key piece to solving water treatment challenges

About the author: Marianne R. Metzger is director of new business development for National Testing Laboratories Ltd. Metzger can be reached at [email protected] or 800.458.3330.


Water treatment can be a complex problem to solve, depending on which contaminants may be present and the desired water quality. There are a variety of contaminants that can make water unsafe to drink, such as microorganisms, inorganic metals and other inorganic compounds, organic chemicals and radiologicals. The presence of certain contaminants like calcium, magnesium and iron may not affect the safety of the water, but can make it unpleasant to drink and more difficult to clean with.

The water source can be an indicator of which contaminants may be present. Two main sources are used for drinking water: groundwater and surface water (rainwater is emerging as a third source). Groundwater, for example, tends to have higher mineral and radiological content than surface water.

The only way to confirm what is present in water is to perform tests. These will help determine the best option for treating water for its intended purpose. 


Groundwater, as its name implies, comes from underground sources called aquifers. About 40% of publicly supplied water in the U.S. comes from groundwater sources. Additionally, most rural residents rely on private wells supplied by groundwater for drinking water.

Groundwater can contain naturally occurring contaminants, some of which, like calcium, magnesium or iron, are aesthetic problems. Others, such as arsenic, radium or barium, can have health implications.

The presence and levels of these contaminants are affected by a variety of factors, including the geological formation in which the well was drilled. The depth of the well also can affect which contaminants are present and at what levels. Deeper wells are usually exposed to more minerals, and if the water level drops, it can mean higher levels of contaminants in some cases. The deeper the well, however, the more it may be protected from contaminants from the surface, such as pesticides and herbicides, which can filter down into the groundwater.

In addition to naturally occurring contaminants, groundwater is at risk of pollution from other sources. Underground storage tanks, which typically contain petroleum products like gasoline, diesel, kerosene or heating oil, may leak and contaminate groundwater in the nearby area. Septic tanks also can fail and contaminate groundwater with bacteria, nitrates and possibly pharmaceuticals.

There are hundreds of thousands of known and unknown hazardous waste sites that also can contaminate groundwater. Landfills and junkyards accumulate trash that may contain petroleum or other chemicals capable of contaminating groundwater. When testing groundwater, take a look around the area to see what is present that could have an impact, keeping in mind that it may take years for contaminants to reach the water table.

Surface Water

Surface water sources like rivers, lakes and reservoirs are directly recharged through rainwater, so they can pick up contaminants that are in the atmosphere as the rain comes down. Additionally, surface water is at greater risk of contaminants from the ground surface, such as pesticides that are deliberately sprayed, and other substances that are accidentally spilled, like gasoline or oil.

In recent years, more regulations have been put in place that require businesses to control runoff from weather events to protect surface water. Most surface water that is used for drinking is supplied by a public utility and is thoroughly treated to meet the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Surface water can easily become contaminated by storm water runoff. When a rain event occurs, runoff washes over pavement and other surfaces, collecting gasoline, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and bacteria, plus anything else that may be on the ground. This storm water may go into storm water sewers that discharge it into a body of water like a lake or river. Sewage treatment plants can get overburdened when heavy rain events occur, allowing untreated sewage to be discharged into surface water. This sewage can contain harmful bacteria and viruses, as well as detergents and personal care products.  

Customer Care

Many contaminants make themselves known in obvious ways — for example, iron and manganese can cause odor, staining and discoloration. Hard water is difficult to lather, causing people to use more detergents and soaps. The more dangerous contaminants, like lead, mercury and arsenic, however, may be present in the water with no physical indication.

Every day there are dozens of news stories about water being contaminated across the country and throughout the world. As a result, homeowners, especially those who rely on well water, are becoming more concerned about the quality of their drinking water. Simply doing some onsite tests for these customers and installing a water softener is not enough anymore.

A variety of contaminants could be present in well water, so clients should be educated about which contaminants could be present and all of the testing options available to uncover them. Homeowners rely on water treatment professionals’ expertise, so it is important to give them all of the options for testing—even ones that may be expensive, like radiological tests. A complete water analysis can give homeowners the peace of mind that their water is safe. If the water is safe and there is no additional equipment to sell, those homeowners will appreciate your knowledge and remember it the next time they have a water quality issue. If the tests indicate a problem, it may lead to the need for additional treatment equipment. Showing clients that you care about the quality of their water by educating them about potential contaminants and testing options helps build your reputation and, in the long run, your sales.   

Because water is considered the universal solvent, it will try to dissolve anything it comes into contact with. This can make treating water complex, with the possibility of multiple contaminants being present. Having comprehensive test data makes it easier to diagnose the problem and offer real solutions. Gone are the days of selling a water treatment system on the first appointment — many clients prefer to talk with more than one company for comparison. If yours is the company that takes the time to explain water quality and explain all of the options, you will have a leg up on your competition.

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