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TMB - Plumbing Engineer - Columns: February 2009: Designer's Guide

You are what you drink

By Timothy Allinson, P.E.

Murray Company, Long Beach, Calif.

Back in July 2003 I wrote an article on water softening. It addressed the two conventional methods of water softening, lime-soda ash and ion exchange softening. Since then, several alternative water treatment systems have been developed to address the issue of water quality and to make tap water more desirable.

The first of these that I heard about was a product called LifeSource Water, a whole-house water treatment system that is maintenance free for 16 to 25 years (1.6 million gallons for the smallest unit). Wow, how can that be? I investigated LifeSource and learned that it uses activated carbon filtration, coupled with a Beotron water treatment unit. "What's that?" I asked, "How does it work?" They couldn't tell me. It's proprietary technology. Hmmm. Sounds a little fishy.

An associate in the water treatment industry purchased one of these units and tore it apart. The Beotron unit is a PVC tube capped at both ends and filled with sand and a copper wire running down the center. The water does not flow through the tube, and none of the water comes into contact with the sand and copper. As such, the Beotron unit cannot be said to have any significant impact on the water quality, so the LifeSource unit is essentially a carbon filter. That's not a bad thing - carbon filtration is a very good means of improving water quality - but it does not soften water, so it does little to prevent the scale build-up associated with hard water.

Next, I heard about a product called OneFlow, which is a maintenance-free anti-scale system. OneFlow is a division of Watts. Their product is based on template assisted crystallization (TAC), a process developed by Next Filtration Technologies Inc. as "Next-ScaleStop," a patented scale prevention system. The process uses resin beads covered with "templates" - atomic nucleation sites that attract the dissolved minerals. Once each template grows to a micro-crystal of hardness minerals (which takes about five seconds) it breaks off the bead and flows freely through the plumbing system as a "soft" scale particle that will not produce scale buildup.

Because the templates eventually diminish, the OneFlow product is not entirely maintenance free. The company recommends that the beads be replaced every three years, even though preliminary data suggests that they may last much longer. Actual bead life is a function of water usage and quality.

"Does it work?" I wondered. I was so curious (and have such hard water at home) that, out of desperation, I had one of these units installed in my house.

Here in So Cal we have had a very dry year; as a result, the water is harder than usual. This is because an increased percentage of hard Colorado River water and local hard groundwater have been added to the domestic supply. I haven't seen any printed data as of yet, but I would guess that in recent months the water has probably been about 30 grains per gallon. That's hard - ten times harder than quality 3-grain water - so hard that the glassware in my dishwasher turns foggy and plastic spatulas are coated with a white powder residue.

The OneFlow unit has only been installed for three weeks at the time of this writing. The unfortunate first effect of its installation is that, initially, it makes the water hardness problem worse, as the treated water scours the scale off the pipes and water heater. After a few weeks the problem begins to improve. I hope and expect the improvement will continue for some time; there has already been a considerable improvement in the scale visible in the dishwasher.

OneFlow water is not soft water. It does not have the slippery feel of soft water and does not have the dramatic effect on detergents that 0-grain water has. Nor does it provide a spot-free rinse. However, it also does not have the elevated levels of sodium created by ion-exchange softeners, and it does not rob the water of calcium and magnesium, which are beneficial minerals when consumed in drinking water. So there are obvious pros and cons for the OneFlow unit, compared to conventional water softening.

The other night I was having a beer with my dad, toasting his 88th birthday. I told him about the OneFlow unit and, having a natural thirst for knowledge, he was fascinated. We also spoke about the fact that he does not drink enough water and about the effect this has on his digestion. A fellow then came over to introduce himself and asked if we had heard of Kangen water: I had, but knew little about it. He happened to have a sample of water in a bottle, and the water was blue. He said, "This is Kangen water with pH drops in it. The blue color reveals the fact that Kangen water is alkaline. There are great health benefits in the ionic alkaline minerals of Kangen water."

He said, "I have a five-gallon jug in the car. We can test it here if you want." The fellow, whom I initially considered a crackpot, pulled a pH test drop bottle out of his pocket. I suggested we test the bar's water. I asked the bartender for a glass of water, which she poured from the soda gun. The drops turned the water light orange.

"That means it's acidic - acidic water is not good drinking water," Crackpot said.

We then realized that the water from the soda gun was treated, as is all water from soda dispensers, and it picks up residual CO2 from the soda lines, causing it to read acidic. I asked for a glass of tap water. We tested that and it turned blue (alkaline) but not as blue as the Kangen water. I was intrigued. The guy let me keep the pH drops, gave my dad a five-gallon jug of Kangen water as a birthday gift, and I went home to conduct a little ad hoc chemistry experiment.

At home I lined up six glasses. In the first (pictured right to left) I put water from a hose bib upstream of the new OneFlow unit. In the second I put tap water that had passed through the OneFlow unit. In the third I put tap water that had been through a Brita water filter. In the fourth I put Kirkland drinking water from Costco. In the fifth I put Arrowhead spring water. And in the sixth I put Arrowhead distilled water. Then I added the drops and created a rainbow of colors, to my son's delight. You can see the results in the photo below.

The tap water samples from before and after the OneFlow unit were both light blue (slightly alkaline). This is not surprising, as the OneFlow unit does not affect pH and, since the water is hard, the calcium carbonate minerals make it slightly basic.


The Brita water, to my surprise and delight, turned green, which means it was pH neutral, and the filter I spend money on was actually doing something. The Kirkland water was also a shade of green. The Arrowhead spring water was the same blue color as the tap water, revealing that it has the same pH - a quality that probably varies depending on the source of the spring. And the distilled water turned orange, meaning it was acidic. This is because pure water absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, causing it to read acidic.

If you believe the plethora of literature out there, acidic water is bad for the body, while alkaline water is good. The reason? Many are given, but the crux of the argument is that our bodies are slightly basic, with a pH of 7.3. Things we eat and drink tend to reduce the pH, such as distilled, CO2-rich water in carbonated beverages, acidic fruits and so on. Alkaline water is good at returning the body's pH to its normal alkaline state. There are, however, many counter arguments to this theory.

After the test I did some follow-up research on Kangen water. Kangen is not a brand but a type of water that has been produced and consumed in Japan for more than 30 years. It is the registered trademark of Enagic USA Inc., but they are not the only producers of Kangen-style water ionizers. Most of these units are designed to sit on the counter by your kitchen sink and divert water from the faucet outlet to a filter and ionizer. The ionizer splits the flow into two streams, one that has OH ions (the alkaline drinking water) and one with H+ ions (acidic wastewater). The wastewater is either discharged to the sink, or it can be saved and used for washing vegetables and other uses appropriate for acidic water.

The OH-rich Kangen water is said to increase blood oxygen by stabilizing free radicals. It is also claimed to have "micro-clusters" - water molecule clusters of five or six molecules per cluster, versus 10 to 13 molecules per cluster in tap water, allowing the water to be absorbed more readily by the body. Further, it is supposed to have a high negative oxidation-reduction potential, making it a powerful antioxidant.
I'm not sure how much legitimacy there is to all of these claims, as I have found no hard data to support them. Kangen water can't even be found in Wikipedia, and I was under the growing impression that everything existed there. But that does not mean that there may not be great value to be had from this water. It may be smoke and mirrors, or it may have magical potency, like Chinese teas. Of course, there is the possibility that it could be bad for you or for certain people. The bottom line? I plan to continue drinking my slightly alkaline tap water, augmented with the Brita filtered water and a little beer and wine, just for good measure.

Timothy Allinson is a Senior Professional Engineer with Murray Company, Mechanical Contractors, in Long Beach, Calif. Prior to entering the design--build industry he worked for Popov Engineers, Inc. in Irvine, Calif, and JB&B in New York City. Tim holds a BSME from Tufts University and an MBA from New York University. He is a professional engineer licensed in both mechanical and fire protection engineering in various states, and is a leed Accredited Professional. Tim is a past-president of ASPE, both the New York and Orange County Chapters, and sits on the board of the Society of American Military Engineers, Orange County Post.

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