Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mountain Living - Water Part I

A couple of weeks ago we noted that our RO (reverse osmosis) drinking water system wasn't keeping up with usage. That seemed odd, as we don't use that much, so I checked it out and could find nothing obviously wrong.

So I called the (major) manufacturer - who will remain nameless to avoid lawsuits - and asked the cost of a replacement membrane. I'd changed out all the pre and post filters earlier this year, so it could only be the membrane, right? Actually, no. It was replaced only 6 months or so earlier, and it shouldn't need replacement either. Anyway, a new membrane is about $170. Ouch. Something that's supposed to last 4-5 years is dying in 18 months, and I need to spend that much to replace it?

Asking why it is dying so soon I get "this is an old unit and they have an expected lifespan of 10 - 15 years." Excuse me? I replace everything that can be replaced regularly and the only things left - mostly a plastic housing - still has a limited lifespan?

So I decide to let the (major) manufacturer send a sales guy out to look it over, see what he thinks, and make recommendations. That's free. Sending a service technician out costs well over $100 just to get him to the door.

The sales guy arrives, looks things over, tests the water for total dissolved solids and says "Wow. That's really bad." Turns out that the RO system is still emitting water with TDS readings of over 400. My regular kitchen tap is a bit over 500, so the RO unit is really trashed. The water isn't that hard either - no softener needed.

The upshot is that our turbidity filter is no longer working. It's made by the same company and needs to be replaced, and was installed when the RO unit was installed, back in 1993. Cost is $2400, but that's the "special deal" they're offering this month only. Grrr. I hate marketing crap like that. Fine, I tell him to let me look around, ponder and that I'll get back to you.

Next step: find a local vendor that sells filtration equipment from other manufacturers. I talk to a nice lady in a nearby town who wants to get samples of my water to test so they know what needs to be done to it. I can do that, and I do, but in the process I find I cannot get my well pump to produce water. That means I cannot give her a sample straight from the well itself, but more importantly it may mean the well pump isn't working for some reason, and that would be bad. The worst threat is the well could have run dry, but other - more mechanical - issues are easily possible as well. Eventually I put on my rose colored glasses and assume it's because the well had just stopped running and had to recover. (It's never that, but it sounds good, right?)

The nice lady calls me back a day or two later and says that I was right, our TDS is very high, and it's not very hard. Interestingly, her equipment vendor wants to test the water himself because he needs answers to questions she can't give him. That's fine, but I need more samples, including water straight from the well.

I try to get that sample again, but it's still not working. Now I have to debug things. The level in the tanks is down, but not far, so whatever is going on just started. I check power coming out of the contactor and it works. Power goes into the pump controller too. At that point I'm out of my depth. When it goes into solid state electronics, it's time to call the pro.

The pro arrived today and quickly discovered that the pump is actually running, but nothing is coming out. That means we have to pull the pump out of the well to find out what is going on. 380 feet of one inch PVC pipe later, we find this:

The top of the pump housing is at the bottom of the picture. The pipe comes out and immediately you see distortion and bending. Inside the black rubber torque arrestor farther up you'll see more of the same, but this time with a big hole in it.

Something heated up the pipe and water so much that the pipe got weak and the water blew a big hole in it. That's bad.

What might cause things to heat up like that? Well, one possibility is this:

That gooey stuff next to the well head seal is slime from the pipes. There was a lot of it, and my pump guy says it's mostly iron bacteria of some sort. It may have clogged the pump to the point that it was pumping less water and heating up the water in the well. If it got hot enough, the blown out PVC could result.

I'm really glad we noted this when we did. Had I not looked it could have continued running - since the pump was running continuously since the blowout - and driven our power bill through the roof. As it is, we have no idea how long the problem was going on. It might have been running for a week before we did anything about it.

And now, I have to pause the tale. Thus far, I don't know what happens beyond that point. The pump went back to the shop with the well pro, who will examine and clean it looking for the issue that heated things up. In addition, he will bench test it to see what kind of shape it's in. We'll probably acid treat the well to kill some of the bacteria living in it, and we'll need to replace that last 20 feet of pipe, of course. But the water sample from the well can't be taken until all that is done, so I still don't know what we need for water treatment equipment from my local supplier, and I have to get that done before I bother doing anything about fixing or replacing the RO unit.

Those of you getting city water, consider yourselves lucky. Someone else deals with all this for you, and you pay a few dollars a month. I'm pretty sure that amortized over all the years we've lived here, I pay a LOT more for a gallon of tap water than most city dwellers.