Sensing Your Customers' Treatment Needs

October 31, 2003

Using your senses for initial diagnosis of water problems

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers its Secondary Maximum Contaminant Levels, which set non-mandatory water quality standards for 15 contaminants. These standards offer guidelines to assist public water systems in managing their drinking water for aesthetic considerations such as taste, odor and color.

The overwhelming rotten egg smell. The faint taste of metal in the water. The spots all over the dishes and glasses. All of these symptoms can help determine what the problem with the water may be. And each of these aesthetic concerns may cause a consumer not to drink the water at all.

For dealers who have been in the business for a while, they might initiate the diagnosis by tasting or smelling the water. Others might not be able to yet, and that is why presented here is a chart to help determine the problem and which treatment may be necessary. Although these are just suggestions, it is quite difficult to pinpoint a contaminant by smell, sight or taste alone. Each symptom could ultimately have more than one possibility of what the problem is or which solution is needed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers its Secondary Maximum Contaminant Levels, which set non-mandatory water quality standards for 15 contaminants. These guidelines regulate contaminants that cause cosmetic or aesthetic effects in drinking water but are not health related and do not present a risk to human health.1 These standards offer guidelines to assist public water systems in managing their drinking water for aesthetic considerations such as taste, odor and color.

  • Vision with which to see everything (well, sort of). An important aspect of water to a customer is how the water looks. Complaints of clouds in the water or spots on a glass that is being served to guests often are heard by most dealers when working with homeowners. Vision is the strongest of the five senses--it is said that two-thirds of what we know was learned through vision. Therefore, appearance may be the whole reason you were called in the first place. Spots on dishes or clothes, various colors apparent in the drinking water and stains in the bathtub are all strong indicators for customers to take action. Spots on dishes may indicate that hard water is the problem and dark brown or black stains may indicate manganese. Although most people find color objectionable over 15 color units, the point of consumer complaint varies from 5 to 30 color units. Standards related to color include aluminum, color, copper, foaming agents, iron, manganese and total dissolved solids.
  • Your nose knows. Your sense of smell is a great interpretor of water problems. Smells of fish (barium), rotten eggs (sulfur water) or bleach (chlorine) may be the first symptoms noticed by the customer.
  • Taste can tell the difference. If it tastes like salt or metal, then it could be chloride or iron. Taste is a powerful tool for diagnosis. Taste, which is a sense that partners with smell, is a useful indicator of water quality and may suggest to the consumer that treatment is needed. In fact, it may be the most important aesthetic of water. Numerous reports continually are released that state that consumers are constantly seeking better tasting and, therefore, more appealing drinking water.

Standards related to odor and taste include chloride, copper, foaming agents, iron, manganese, pH, sulfate, threshold odor number, total dissolved solids and zinc.

Taste, odor and even color are quite objective. What tastes bad to one person may seem all right to another. Our senses act as useful tools when diagnosing your customer's water and which treatment methods may benefit him the most. By using these symptoms and the EPA's guidelines as a start and then testing the water samples with a kit or laboratory services, an effective treatment method can be found.

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