We all use water every day, whether it’s for drinking, cooking, cleaning or hygiene; water is a major part of our daily lives. Because of this, it’s almost guaranteed that you would have experienced one or more of the common problems that occur in or with water.
This article will outline what the most common water problems are, the potential risks they pose, how to identify the problems and most importantly how to solve them.
The Big 4
The 4 most common problems with UK water are taste and odour, limescale, bacteria and particulate / sediment. While there are other issues that may occur in water such as heavy metals and pesticides, the occurrences of these in the UK are rare as the majority of our water comes from a treated municipal water supply.
Click on each icon below to navigate to each section if you want to know about a particular water issue or continue reading to learn about them all.
Taste & Odour
Taste and odours are caused by Chlorine / Chloramines and other chemicals which are added to mains water during municipal water treatment in order to disinfect it and keep it from picking up germs in transit.
The chemicals added during treatment are vital for keeping your water clean but they’re essentially the wrapping; they protect the product on its journey from the supplier to the customer. But when you get your shopping home, do you eat the packaging?
So while mains water taste and odour poses no major health risk, it can be unpleasant and often unwanted.
Taste and odours in water can obviously be identified by simply tasting and smelling your water. Chlorine levels in mains water are generally maintained at safe levels but if you want to test what levels of chlorine are in your water, chlorine test kits are available.
Bottled water is one solution to the problem of chlorine taste and odour but it is expensive (estimates put the cost per litre of bottled water in the UK anywhere between 48p to £3.40). It also makes little sense from an environmental standpoint: water is heavy stuff and the fossil fuels burnt carting it about in bottles means it will have acquired quite a carbon debt by the time you get it home.
A far better solution is to filter water at the point of use after it has already been transported by the water main. This method of obtaining clean, chlorine-free water is more cost efficient than a filter jug and is far more environmentally friendly and convenient than bottled water.
Water filtration systems from simple unobtrusive under-sink systems to larger commercial systems are available depending on your requirements. Either will reduce taste and odours in water for high quality drinking water and better tasting beverages.
Limescale (or scale to give it it’s short name) is the hard chalky deposit that forms when hard water is heated. It is predominantly composed of calcium and magnesium carbonate and it can range in colour from white to dirty brown.
It is commonly seen as a scum on tea, on the end of taps, in pipes and on the heating elements inside kettles and boilers. Once it has formed it is very hard to remove and requires the use of an acid descaler to dissolve it.
While there are no health risks from drinking hard water, the scale formed due to hard water will pose a risk to appliances and other water fed equipment.
The scale formation in any form of water boiler or water heating system will affect that system’s efficiency. According to British Water, just 1.6mm of scale in a heating system causes a 12% loss in heat transfer, which is a huge amount in these energy conscious times.
Scale formation in pipes is also a huge issue as it reduces the flow of water, meaning pumps have to work harder and can even lead to a complete blocking of the pipe over time.
Scale issues can also be extremely detrimental to catering equipment such as ice machines, coffee and espresso makers, steamers and dishwashers. Scale build up on the heating coils, evaporator plates or steam jets of these machines causes them to run inefficiently or, worse still, can cause maintenance problems and breakdowns.
Beyond water system efficiency and potential damage to appliance and equipment, the taste and appearance of a hot beverage can be affected; as the extraction of flavours may be altered with hard water and clear drinks may become cloudy or have a surface scum.
Speaking with your water / utility company is an easy way to find out the water hardness in your area. Alternatively, water hardness test strips can be obtained which allow you to ascertain how hard your water is.
If it is difficult to form lather with soaps, or you notice hard deposits on the end of taps then you’ve probably got hard water.
Another method of identifying if you have hard water is a water hardness map, which will give a general idea of which areas of the UK have hard water. However, it’s not exhaustive and there are always exceptions – for example, while the water in the North West of England is generally quite soft, in Southport the water is as hard as nails!
Preventing scale by filtering your water is far easier than trying to remove scale once it has formed. There are various techniques that are used and two of the most common are:
Reducing or slowing down the scale formation. This is typically done with phosphate dosing which acts to keep the hardness in the water and not on your pipework / heating elements. This can be done with a simple water filter which has a polyphosphate scale inhibitor.
Hardness Removal / Reduction:-
Ion exchange is one technique that can be used to reduce the levels of calcium and magnesium in the water. As the hardness is removed from the water its tendency to form scale is also reduced. This can be done with an ion exchange water filter, calcium treatment unit (CTU) or water softener.
Harmful forms of bacteria are rarely, if ever, present in mains water due to municipal water treatment. However, in some areas, such as Scotland, some residences rely on private water supplies such as bore-holes, wells or streams. As water from these sources is untreated and prone to contamination from external factors, the likely hood of harmful bacteria’s being present is much higher.
Bacteria contamination in water is potentially a serious risk to health and water which contains any trace of harmful bacteria should be treated or completely avoided. The health issues caused by outbreaks of E. coli, cryptosporidium and legionella are well documented.
Usually in the event of mains water bacteria contamination, your water supplier will inform you however in exceptional circumstances or for private water supplies, low cost bacterial test kits are available and should give an idea of whether further investigation / treatment is required.
There are various options to remove bacteria from a water supply, two of the most common being ultra-fine mechanical filtration or ultra violet (U.V.) sterilisation.
To filter bacteria, an ultra-fine filter will be required, which usually comes in the form of a ceramic filter. Ceramic has a complex surface structure of pores which are so tiny that most bacteria cannot actually fit through! A good quality ceramic filter can remove 99.99% of pathogenic bacteria and cysts including cryptosporidium.
Ultra violet light destroys the cell DNA of micro-organisms rendering them inactive. So given the correct dose of UV light a UV steriliser system can be used to kill organisms such as viruses, bacteria, algae, fungi and protozoa.
Particulate / Sediment
Particulate describes suspended solids in your water and generally falls into one of two categories: sediment and turbidity. Sediment can be sand, silt or rust while turbidity is the technical term for larger solids, such as leaves, twigs or even frogs! However, much like bacteria, particulate is rarely present in mains water but can be present in private water supplies.
While particulates themselves are not known to cause any adverse health effects, they can sometimes carry other harmful organic, inorganic and microbiological contaminants through drinking water systems.
Sediment in your water supply can have a number of detrimental effects on equipment. Over time it can have a sand blasting effect and damage equipment internals as well as potentially blocking up valves / pipework.
Sediment can also act as a masking agent, reducing the effectiveness of U.V. sterilisation by shielding bacteria or viruses from U.V. radiation as the water passes through the steriliser. It may also interfere with some water process applications.
Aside from the above it can impair the aesthetic qualities of water which may in turn affect the presentation of any products prepared using that water.
Though slow flow rates and blocked valves may be the result of sediment in your water supply, there are usually clear visual indications of sediment at any outlets and / or residues in your water or processed product.
If you think you may have a sediment issue you should consider the age of your distribution network (older networks being more prone to sediment problems) and also the source of your supply. Certain supplies, such as surface sources, suffer from sediment more than others.
The best way to remove sediment or turbidity is mechanical filtration. This can be done with sediment removal filters; from bag filters to micro filters and even ultra-filtration. An example low cost solution would be a water filter housing and a drop in sediment filter, with various types of filter available to achieve different levels of filtration.