Healthy drinking water is one of the primary benefits of living in an advanced society. Unlike civilizations of the past, the American people can get water bottled in all corners of the earth at their local grocery store. This water requires no filtration and carries with it the inherent trust of cleanliness because you can see right through it like glass. But what about the water you use in your home for cooking, bathing, and watering your plants. Unlike the water available in aisle three of your local supermarket, the sources of the water leading to your home might seem unhealthy because they’re not as clear or have an aftertaste. This is a quick guide to determine if your tap water is safe or if you need to make a call to your utility company.
This is “Horseshoe Canyon,” along the Colorado River.
Tap water’s sources vary depending on topography and availability of region. For some explanation as to the arid nature of Southern California, we need to have a quick lesson in climate. Weather patterns move from west to east. The east coast has more storms that are seasonal and a longer rainy season than the entire west coast. Meteorological influences prevent this build-up of moister in the east from crossing the continental divide located in the mid Rockie Mountains. Most of the west coast’s weather patterns come from the Pacific Ocean or from Canada. The northwest region receives the majority of the Canadian storm fronts leading to its heavy rains and high moister. California, on the other hand, is stick in a whirlwind where we get drying cool salty air from the ocean and then dry hot sandy air from the southwest region. The desert air is pushed down by a high pressure system that likes to settle over the Rockies. Since the early 1900s, California’s lack of natural water has been both a blessing and a curse. California has a multitude of sources to feed the need to hydrate. Groundwater is the primary source followed by the Los Angeles, Hetch Hetchy, and Mokelumne Aqueducts and the Colorado River. Throughout this interlocking system are countless reservoirs to collect the occasional rain water, and filtration plants from the Pacific Ocean.
Building on old ideas
The ruins of Knossos, Greece. Circa 2800 B.C.E.
Though many of these sources differ, the pipes leading through urban infrastructure and to your home are usually copper. Metal plumbing is not a new idea, surprisingly. Early concepts of plumbing go back as far as the city of Knossos, a city settled in as early as 6000B.C.E. and reached a Bronze Age height in 2800 B.C.E. By then, Knossos, a settlement built high in the mountains overlooking Greece on one side and the Aegean sea on the other. The closest water source was only two miles away but nearly a thousand feet lower than the city in altitude. Another source was a trapped lake almost six miles away but on the same elevation as Knossos. A “trapped lake,” means the water had no apparent source to the ocean. The ancient Greeks took advantage of the physical properties of water and its need to always level itself. They built a long bronze and iron pipe that curved downward, following the topography of the region, and then curved back upward and into the city center. The trick worked; the water followed the pull of gravity and rushed downward into the bottom of the pipe while the lower pressure from the empty side (where the city is located) pulled the water the rest of the way and up into their internal reservoir. The Greeks might have figured out how to make pipes, but only progress and and science have proven their water wasn’t the cleanest. The infrastructure is impressive as this excerpt shows, despite the fact that their water still had to be boiled before drinking.
The water supply and drainage systems of Knossos were most interesting. An aqueduct supplied water through tubular conduits from the Kounavoi and Archanes regions and branched out into the city and the palace. Pressure conduits were used within the palace for water distribution. The drainage systems consisted of two separate systems, one to collect the sewage and the other to collect rainwater.
Unlike the ancient Greeks, who were just happy to have running water, we have evolved to the point to pick and choose our water choices. The slight flavor associated with tap water is usually slight contamination from the pipes themselves. Iron from the pipes is picked up by the water on a microscopic scale and carried along with it. This flavor is that of rust. It sounds more harmful than it is but there are clear and direct standards and practices followed by all water providers to make sure that the water coming out of the tap is safe to drink. This slight rust flavor might be a bit tangy, but samples are taken along the entire line to make sure its not unsafe. Another factor of rust in drinking water would be a red or brown color. If this is experienced, it can be reported to your local municipal water district but they’ll consider it a “aesthetic contaminant,” because the only harm would be staining fabrics and tiles and not a health concern. Iron is actually a nutrient that the body craves making iron oxide (rust) non-harmful by water district standards.
While the rust itself is considered harmless, it does breed conditions that can cause harm to humans. There are many species of cloriform bacteria and molds that can survive in rusty pipes and thrive there. If these creatures live in the pipes feeding water into your home, they can make you sick. While the municipal water district might not consider rust a problem, you should to prevent illness. If the water color problem persists after a few days, call a plumber to check the lines of your home for leaks or damage. Regular inspections prevent more damage, corrosion build up, and pipe cracking by catching these problems while they are still small and manageable. If you hire a plumber to inspect your inflow pipes and they find no large problems but there is still a slight rusty flavor, you have options.
I still want that clean fresh taste
Water filtration and water softening systems are more affordable than what one might expect. While the expense might seem excessive, there is a sliding scale of affordability. Water filtration systems can be as simple as a screw-on attachment to your kitchen sink or more complicated, actually bypassing the entry line to filter the entire house. While the homeowner can install most units, we recommend hiring a professional plumber to do a quick and easy installation of large systems. The hourly cost of a plumber is paying them to carry their heavy truck full of the right equipment to your home and have the expertise on hand to not struggle through the process. Tune in next time for examples of filtration systems you can buy and the pros and cons of each type.