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What is Water Quality?
Water quality refers to the physical, biological, and chemical characteristics of the potable water we rely on for our plumbing systems. In municipal water systems, water is treated to ensure that it’s safe to drink. Untreated water can contain many potentially dangerous contaminants, notably bacteria and eukaryotic pathogens. It can also contain organic chemicals generated from industrial byproducts and petroleum use, along with herbicide and pesticide runoff. Dissolved minerals, like calcium and magnesium ions, can also impact water quality.
In different areas of the US, water quality can vary (even among water that’s safe to drink.) The taste, mineral contents, hardness, and other factors vary widely, and the local water quality can impact plumbing pipe corrosion and other problems in your plumbing system.
How Water Quality Is Determined
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set limits for the amount of contaminants that can be legally present in US drinking water. The Safe Drinking Water Act, made effective in 1974, provides standards for all public water systems throughout the country.
The SDWA includes two types of standards: primary and secondary.
- Primary standards for water quality regulate substances with negative health effects, like pollutants and pathogens.
- Secondary standards for water quality prescribe the appropriate parameters for taste, appearance, and odor.
Standards put in place by the SDWA prescribe maximum allowable contaminant levels for several types of water impurities:
- Microorganisms. Federal standards limit the presence of dangerous pathogens like Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Legionella, and coliform bacteria.
- Disinfectants. EPA standards are in place to limit acceptable levels of chlorine, chloramine, and chlorine dioxide. These compounds are present in trace amounts, and are used in water treatment to disinfect the water supply and kill pathogens.
- Byproducts of disinfectants. Disinfection with chlorine or chloramine can lead to byproducts, the concentration of which is regulated. These include bromate, chlorite, haloacetic acids, and trihalomethanes.
- Inorganic chemicals. EPA standards limit the acceptable amount of antimony, arsenic, asbestos, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, copper, cyanide, lead, mercury, nitrite, nitrate, selenium, and thalium.
Water quality is a complex subject, and many different measurements are taken into account by researchers and government agencies. Some of the most common measurements used to evaluate water quality include:
- Dissolved oxygen content
- Oxygen reduction potential
- Secchi depth, a measure of transparency
Samples of water are collected, and complex measurements are carried out in a laboratory. However, there are also several companies worldwide that are deploying real-time remote monitoring systems.
Some of the important indicators for drinking water quality include:
- Alkalinity. Pure water has a neutral pH of 7. When acids are dissolved in water, its pH can dip below 7. Alkaline substances dissolved in water can raise the pH above 7. A normal pH range for water systems is anywhere from 6.5 to 8.5.
- Color. The presence of color in a water sample doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t potable. It can sometimes be attributable to harmless substances like tannins. However, blue or green tints in the drinking water indicate copper content, usually due to plumbing pipe corrosion.
- Taste and odor. Some compounds can affect the smell and taste of drinking water, like geosmins and 2-Methylisobormeol (MIB). Geosmin has an earthy scent, and is associated with petrichor, the smell present after rain. MIB can be detected by humans at levels as low as the parts-per-trillion range, and it’s a major cause of aesthetic problems with drinking water quality.
- Dissolved metals and salts. Too much sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, manganese, and magnesium can impact water quality.
- Microorganisms. Fecal coliform bacteria are of particular concern when it comes to water quality. Bacteriological water analysis is used to evaluate the concentrations and types of microorganisms present in drinking water.
- Dissolved metals and metalloids. Metals like lead and mercury, along with compounds like arsenic, can have a serious impact on human health. In the past, the use of lead in plumbing pipes was a major cause of lead contamination in the water supply.
- Radon concentrations. Radon is a noble gas responsible for most public exposure to ionizing radiation, and is present in most buildings. Radon is a leading cause of lung cancer. Its effects when ingested in drinking water are unknown, but water with a high radon concentration can increase airborn radon, impacting indoor air quality.
- Pharmaceuticals. Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals can become present in water supplies.
- Hormone analogs. Both hormones and hormone analogs– similar chemicals with similar effects– have raised concern about environmental exposure. Estrogens and androgens have attracted the most interest, since they remain unusually stable in the environment. In some drinking water supplies, they have been detected at concentrations in the part-per-trillion and part-per-billion levels. This has led to known environmental issues: for example, in some areas of sanitary wastewater discharge, the fish in the area have undergone biological “feminization” from hormone exposure.
Need help from a NJ plumber? Call us any time at A1 Sewer Water & Drain Services for plumbing and sewer repair services, at 201-645-0888.
How Plumbing Problems Impact Water Quality
On the level of an individual home or commercial building, plumbing pipe corrosion and other problems are often directly related to water quality. Poor water quality can make your iron or copper pipes more likely to wear away from corrosion, increasing the likelihood that you’ll need plumbing pipe leak repair or sewer pipe repair.
Nearly all metals are susceptible to corrosion, and plumbing pipe corrosion is a leading cause for residential and commercial plumbing repair service. Plumbing pipes, drain pipes, and sewer laterals are often made from either cast iron or copper. The physical and chemical properties of the water that runs through these pipes can lead to corrosive processes.
In water that is categorized as “soft,” which has a relatively low mineral content, corrosion can occur because of a lack of dissolved cations. In other areas, local water quality can be conducive to scale buildup inside of pipes.
Some of the key aspects of water quality that can accelerate corrosion in metal pipes include:
- pH. Water that is very alkaline can lead to microbially induced corrosion from sulfur reducing bacteria.
- Flow rate. A high flow rate through plumbing pipes and sewer lines can cause physical corrosion over time.
- Water temperature. Corrosion is often more likely in hot water pipes than in cold water pipes. Hot water increases both chemical and bacterial corrosion.
- Dissolved oxygen and CO2.
- Dissolved salts and sulfates
- Suspended solids such as sand, sediment, byproducts of corrosion, and rust.
Water that’s particularly corrosive has many negative effects on your plumbing, including:
- Decreased hot water heater efficiency
- Premature water heater failure
- Corrosion and premature failure of plumbing pipes and fixtures
- Bitter tasting tap water
- Red or blue-green stains on drains
- If copper or lead are present, health problems can result
The plumbing pipe corrosion process can release harmful metals into the tap water. In high enough amounts, they can actually cause illness. These metals, and their maximum safe concentrations, include:
- Lead (0.05 ppm)
- Copper (1 ppm)
- Chromium (0.05 ppm)
- Zinc (5 ppm)
Along with corrosion, water quality can also affect the potential for the buildup of scale deposits inside pipes, which can obstruct water flow and cause pipe damage. To evaluate whether local water has the tendency to lead to scale formation, the Langelier Saturation Index (SI) is used. This is a simple formula that compares the actual water pH to a theoretical pH (pHs) obtained from chemical analysis: SI = pH – pHs.
A saturation index of 0 is balanced, and has a low likelihood of either scale or corrosion. Most water has either a positive or negative SI value. Water with a negative SI has greater corrosive potential, while water with a positive SI is most likely to cause scale.
Need help from a NJ plumber? Call us any time at A1 Sewer & Drain Services for plumbing and sewer repairs, at 201-645-0888.
Water Quality in NJ
So what’s the water quality like here in north NJ?
What If My Water Tastes Funny?
NJ homeowners sometimes notice unusual odors or tastes in their tap water. Some of the most common aesthetic taste and smell issues with drinking water include:
- Chlorine. Very small amounts of chlorine or chloramine are used in water treatment to sanitize and sterilize the water. During the final stage of water treatment, these compounds kill any remaining bacteria, helping to ensure that the water is safe to drink. Chlorine concentrations can vary seasonally, and can sometimes be higher if you live near a water treatment plant. Some people are more sensitive to the taste of chlorine than others. You can reduce chlorine tastes in water by letting it stand in a pitcher in the fridge, boiling it before consumption, or using a home water filter.
- Earthy flavors. If your water has an earthy or musty flavor, it’s probably caused by a compound called geosmin. Geosmin is produced by certain bacteria, which can sometimes grow in taps or on washers in the plumbing system. These compounds are not harmful. If the musty odor emanates from your drain, but not the water itself, it can be caused by organic matter in the drain itself. Professional drain cleaning in NJ can eliminate drain odors.
- Metallic tastes. If your water tastes metallic, it could be because of iron or copper leaching in from the pipes. If you’re concerned, you can have your water professionally tested in a laboratory. If you have old and corroded plumbing pipes, you may want to consider pipe replacement.
- Petroleum, fuel, or solvent odors. If your water smells like gasoline, don’t drink it! A leaking underground storage facility may be leaking into the local water supply, and you should contact your local water utility immediately to report the problem.
Water can sometimes become slightly discolored, resulting in brownish, bluish-green, or yellow water in the plumbing system. Different types of water discoloration have different causes. Some are benign, while others are health risks.
- Cloudy or milky white water. Cloudiness in the tap water is caused by air bubbles, and is often seen during the cold winter months in NJ. This is because colder water can hold more air. Water can also become temporary cloudy when there’s nearby construction work on the water mains. Running the tap for a few minutes can often solve the problem.
- Yellow, brown, or red water. This kind of discoloration is usually caused by something in the distribution system. This can include controlled events, like flushing out the water mains, or uncontrolled events, like a burst water main or the use of a nearby fire hydrant. However, it can also result from problems with your own household plumbing. Galvanized iron plumbing pipes are coated in a thin protective layer of zinc. Over time, this zinc wears away, and the water can redden due to direct contact with the iron. This problem is most severe when water has been sitting in the pipes for a long time, and it’s often only present on the first draw. In some cases, this discoloration will be found only in your hot water taps. This indicates problems with your water heater.
Water hardness is determined by the concentrations of calcium and magnesium in the water. Local water hardness in NJ can become slightly elevated during dry weather, and can decrease slightly after rain or snowmelt. Hard water may have some modest health benefits, since both calcium and magnesium are micronutrients that the human body needs. Hard water is also less corrosive than soft water.
Water in most of New Jersey is slightly hard, with mineral concentrations in the range of 17-59 ppm. In parts of north central NJ, the water is moderately hard in some areas, with values around 60-119 ppm. However, this can vary locally. For example, East Orange and Soft Orange have very hard water.
Water hardness is known to cause white residues on dishes and household plumbing fixtures, although these are benign. In areas with harder water, homeowners may also need to use more dish soap and laundry soap than in soft water areas.
Need help from NJ plumber? Call us any time at A1 Sewer & Drain Services for plumbing and sewer repairs, at 201-645-0888.
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