Total Dissolved Solids in well water

Rummaging around in my junk drawer last evening I found a gadget I completely forgot I owned!

That’s a cute little pen-like digital Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) meter sold by the company owned by the father of my old neighbor Geiger Counter Guy. I forget if he gave it to me or if I “inherited” it while cleaning out their house after they fled the scene. Either way, I had it and I must have used it once just for play, and then I tossed it in a drawer and forgot all about it. But apropos our recent conversations about drinking water, these results: (Several pics and a wall of words below the fold)

First, I looked up what “acceptable” TDS levels are supposed to be. This proved more difficult than I expected because virtually every discussion of the subject on the Intertubes will try to sell you something. But this is typical:

As you see whoever drew this up hedged his bets every possible way, but according to this the EPA considers any TDS level above 500 PPM instantly lethal in any quantity.

So I drew a cup of our fine well water from my kitchen tap…

…stuck the TDS meter into it, my hands shaking with horror and loathing, and…

Yup. Tried it several times. 836 parts per million.

I drank that shit unfiltered for five years before falling sick in July 2013, mostly just from dehydration because drinking it hot from the water tank was so unpleasant I’d unconsciously stopped doing it. Finally shook loose a kidney stone that about convinced me I was dying, and I changed my evil ways. There’s nothing actively toxic about it, it just contains unbelievable amounts of calcium.

This is the pot I use to boil well water for bathing and dish washing. For obvious reasons I don’t boil well water in my actual cooking pots, which are rather nice and I’d like to keep them that way. The only neighbors I know who have successful water heaters of any sort also have large and elaborate water softeners which get serviced a lot.

This is not an unknown problem around the neighborhood, and several approaches have been made toward filtering the well water: Reverse osmosis, various sorts of canister filters, even distillation. RO works if you have enough electricity and if you can tolerate a run-off pond breeding mosquitoes and attracting wildlife to your back yard. Distillation works but not in sufficient quantity. Canister filters clog in days or weeks.

The generally-accepted solution is to haul in drinking water. There are several approaches to this, as well. Some cedar rats don’t even have wells and have to haul in all their water. I personally consider that taking off-grid life a dangerous step too far, but I’m not judging. A common sight in this area is some sort of water tank on a trailer rig, often with one of these things…

…strapped to a small old trailer of some sort. (Again, I personally consider these) a terrible solution to the problem because the water isn’t sterile, the tanks admit light, and I’ve seen some horrifying green stuff growing in those tanks. Hey, it’s your life. I would go back to drinking unfiltered well water first, but as I said these folks don’t even have wells. This approach is so common, in fact, that in the little town nearest where I live there are two water distribution sites with overhead pipes and canvas hoses, and they’ll dump a whole bunch of water into your tank very quickly – 50 gallons for $1. Get to know a townie with a garden hose and you can fill your tank more slowly for free.

My neighbors and I, as TUAK readers know, take a smaller approach. We go to one of the three vending machines in town – this one is in the local grocery store…

…and fill 3- and 5-gallon bottles for 25 cents/gallon. I’ve been going to town once a week for five years now, often for the sole purpose of filling my drinking water bottles. It’s a pain in the ass but it works.

In those five years I’ve never seen anyone service that machine, and have long suspected that the water it dispenses isn’t in any way superior to townie tap water. So this morning I poured a cup of it, and tested it with the TDS meter…

Sorry, I don’t even know if you can read that – it says 193 ppm. Which is on the hard side of ordinary tap water, and probably isn’t really going through an RO filter as advertised. Not surprised, really. Still better than the well water.

Some method of producing drinkably pure water independent of the locals is obviously desirable. Solar distillation is most obvious, being free and easily improvised, and it does work. But as I said the amounts produced are minuscule and the distillation box clabbers up with goo very quickly and needs constant cleaning.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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4 Responses to Total Dissolved Solids in well water

  1. Mark Matis says:

    What’s the cow water like? Is there any chance you could tap into the line coming out of the well UPSTREAM of the water trough? Or would the line run just be far too much to be worth the effort?

    Obviously one would need to be on good terms with the cowboys, but your water use would be so small they’d never notice it as long as it was OK with them.

  2. bmq215 says:

    I take slight issue with the table that lists pure RO, DI, distilled water, etc. as “ideal” drinking water. It’s actually not the best idea to drink that sort of stuff long term because it can cause the opposite problem.

    The liquid in your cells has a certain concentration of stuff and when faced with outside water the two will naturally start to balance their concentrations. When too much outside stuff is coming in your body filters it out, hence the kidney stones. However, if there’s too little in the incoming water it can actually leach minerals out of your body.

    Not really a huge deal – you get plenty of most minerals from your food – but something to keep in mind. It’s especially important on hot days when you’re already losing plenty of electrolytes to sweat. That calcium is a pain in one’s kidneys it’s also one of the main “fuels” for all of our nerves.

    Generally speaking I think 80-100ppm is considered to be the lower limit of “ideal”. A number of purification systems actually add in a set amount of minerals afterwards for taste and health. Maybe the one in town does as well? Regardless, what you’re getting from it seems pretty damn good (especially compared to that tap…)

  3. Tennessee Budd says:

    Near where I live is a pipe coming out of a cave spring. It runs year-round, & the farmers hereabout just pull a trailer with one to several of those white tanks up under the pipe, & fill to their hearts’ content.
    It’s damned good water, too; that used to be the Nelson Distillery. Nelson’s failed to revive after Prohibition was repealed, but in the late 19th century it was a major competitor to Mr. Jack Daniel, & in a lot of places folks preferred Nelson’s whiskey.

  4. Ruth says:

    I agree with BMQ on this one. You need SOME of those “parts” in your water. And if you’re doing a lot of sweating you may need more than “normal”. That’s part of the thought process behind things like gatorade and the like, yes, the sugar in them helps the drinker feel better TOO, but those additional minerals and what not do help.

    Obviously, as you learned the hard way, there’s an upper limit to whats good for you. But the water from town looks pretty good to me, especially considering they’re probably drawing on a well similar to yours.

    Which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to come up with a way to produce drink-able water at home. That would certainly qualify as a good thing!

To the stake with the heretic!