Are Silica Sand Filters Required for Water Softeners?
This column is about another problem I faced with some customer dissatisfaction in my career. As a health official once said to me, “Michigan has abundant groundwater in almost all regions and it is safe to drink right from the well. However, many people will not accept the chemical quality of that water in its so-called ‘raw state.’ ” I agree with this statement and will tell you readers that most Michigan groundwater is considered hard and has way more iron than the minimum to cause stains. In the late 1950s, my father and I began addressing these issues, and early on we had some real problems with customer complaints.
In the late 1950s, my dad began to sell water softeners that one could call semi-automatic; before that time, softeners came equipped with a series of valves and regeneration was complicated and time consuming for the consumer. He or she also had to sometimes measure the amount of salt used in regeneration and add that to the unit. A step forward was the replacement of the many valves with a single lever valve not unlike the gear shift of a car. This was followed in a few years by completely automatic units, much like we have today where the consumer only had to keep some solid salt in the brine tank and the softener tended to itself, or at least it was supposed to.
Many times a customer for whom we had drilled a well and installed a pump would call us to say that the water quality was not the best. Every driller I knew was getting these calls. The water conditioning companies suggested that since we knew the well and pump system better than anyone, having built it, we were the logical outfit to install conditioning equipment. So my dad and I, along with many others, began to sell and install this type of equipment.
I will tell you that there is profit to be made in selling water conditioners, but one thing we learned early on was that a consumer will live with a malfunctioning pump — that is one that is not performing up to standard — for months or even years before calling for service. This same consumer, especially the women in the household, will not live one single day with a water conditioner that is performing at less than 100 percent.
In the early 1960s, we were installing water softeners on many of the wells for which we drilled and installed the pump. We were selling a well-known brand made in Wisconsin and I would have to say this was a successful part of our business. After a year or so, we began to get too many complaints of problems. I can remember a couple of young women showing us their laundry, and crying as they did it — showing us clothes, towels and even cloth diapers that were not clean and white to their expectations. This was in the days before disposable diapers (and, not incidentally, a clean cloth diaper makes a great sweat towel if you’re bowling, playing golf or any other active sport). I carried a cloth diaper in my bowling bag when I bowled in leagues for many years after our daughters were out of them. One of the women I referenced was even holding a little baby to emphasize her complaint.
All the complainants were dissatisfied with the job their water conditioners were doing and many said we should either get the units fixed to work properly, or give them a refund and take the units out. Faced with this customer dissatisfaction, we contacted the manufacturer. Their representatives visited some jobsites with us and recommended that these softeners were really designed to work with, and only with, clear water. Now this was in the days before captive air tanks and a regular tank would produce water with a fair amount of precipitated iron, also known as rust. The factory man said that while a water softener will serve as a light-duty filter, it is not intended for that, but to soften water. The factory men recommended that we install silica sand filters before the water softeners.
Now the most popular of these filters looked like half of a 42-gallon tank. It had some fine gravel at the bottom and then several inches of rather coarse white beach-like sand. The sand, of course, was the filter media. These units had to be back flushed from time to time, but not nearly as often as a softener had to be regenerated. Used after a regular tank, and especially one of those loved or hated buried tanks, these filters did a great job of cleaning up the water. When you think about it, if the iron is precipitated into rust particles and they are filtered out, the iron is gone. I had one of these in the first house that Shirley and I ever built and used it successfully for over 20 years, when we sold the house and moved on to where we live now.
Another problem solved by the clean water going into the softener was that the control valve worked much, much better. The most popular unit we sold in those days had two pistons operated by water pressure that made up the control valve. Dirty water could make these stick by clogging some screens in the pistons, and then water would continue to run to the drain and, since the softener was in bypass mode, water quality was really pretty bad. With the coming of captive air tanks, precipitated iron was less of a problem than it was with a standard tank, but I still believe in southern Michigan that the combination of an iron filter and a water softener is far, far better than a water softener by itself. I have both an iron filter and a softener in my own home and they work very well. The raw water from my well is typical of southern Michigan: about 25 grains hard and about 3 ppm of iron.
After going through these trials and tribulations, we realized that selling a softener only was not the answer to our customers’ needs. From that point on, we sold only a filter/softener combination with much better results. In the case of the two crying ladies, we installed filters at both locations and they ended up being happy with the water quality at their homes and told us so. The right equipment to solve a problem is the best solution in the long run. I still talk to people who, in my opinion, are wasting a lot of money on bottled water when an iron filter/softener combination would give them just as good of quality of water. They say they have a softener, but a softener is only half of what they need. It was hard to admit we had misapplied equipment, but there was a satisfaction to solving the problem.
In my monthly weather report, which many of you tell me you like, we have absolutely no snow on the ground and our temperatures range from the mid-50s to below freezing. My rather well-known lawn looks like it could be mowed, but it won’t grow in those temps. My wife said the other day it was more like early April than mid February. ’Til next time, work hard and safe and try your best to apply the correct equipment to the job.
For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/schmitt.