Our drinking water is terrific. Sourced from 700’ below the rolling hills of our smoky mountain paradise, it’s clear, cold, and has a crispness that whispers, “You’re consuming healthy things, shhhh.”
Maybe more amazingly, it doesn’t smell like anything. Not like chlorine, burnt rubber, or sulfur. Not anymore, anyway, because attaining delicious water took time and diligence.
Chris and I have lived on wells before, but this is the first one we commissioned. Looking back, I think we expected perfect water out of the ground the moment the well was drilled. That isn’t how it works at all. We’d been so spoiled by city water that the complexity of managing our own water access hadn’t fully occurred to us.
It’s been a major, 3-phase process:
- Drilling – where you end up with an expensive hole in the ground.
- Pump & pressure tank – where an assembly draws water out of the ground so you can have some.
- Testing and treatment – tweaking the water for taste and quality.
Not everyone worries with #3. There are mythical tales about wells that don’t need filtering, and of course some people should filter but don’t. We have neighbors who still rob water from springs, using the ground for filtration. If you stumble on a springhead with black hoses coming out of it, that’s somebody saving untold cheddar using Mother Nature’s utility company.
We’re in the 3rd camp: people who filter. This post is about why and how.
Why We Filter: The Truth Behind the Instagram Post
For background, we had our well drilled in late 2018. Since the pump and pressure tank consume power, we waited to install those until building barnbungalow in early 2019.
The pump is 700′ underground, and here’s what the tank looked like before we built a house around it for protection from the elements.
When the crew finished installing this, they hooked a hose to the tank and instructed us to run the water overnight to flush the well clean.
The next day was water Christmas! We drove to Freestone clutching 2 glasses, ready to taste the first water from the land. It poured crystal clear and tasted like freedom. It was a glorious moment. Here’s a picture I posted to Instagram.
Pictures may be worth 1,000 words, but Instagram posts never tell the whole story. As I took this photo, we were on the hill by the well with our dogs, gazing out at the splendid view of the National Park, smelling sulfur.
The smell was so slight we could almost convince ourselves it wasn’t there, but it was.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may remember we stopped drilling at 710’ mainly because our well guy said people have hit sulfur at greater depths on this mountain. Sulfur, a.k.a. fart water, is a stinky problem fought with chemicals like chlorine. After years in the city, we had big dreams of a never-ending supply of fresh, un-chlorinated mountain water. Were those dreams being dashed by surprise sulfur? Standing there on water Christmas with our noses to the air, we fought to stay positive.
Even though it was Sunday morning, Chris immediately called our well guy and the pump-crew foreman. Both confirmed no sulfur was detected during drilling or when the pump went in. It only came up after the well ran all night. Their recommendation was to run the well more. Sulfur, like most things well-water, can be temporary. It could be a passing pocket. If not, the trace we were smelling would probably be eradicated when we filtered and/or softened. Chlorination is only recommended when the sulfur smell is heavier than the whisper coming from our hose.
Water Testing and Treatment, Part I
In the weeks before running water in barnbungalow, the hose let off puffs of sulfur frequently enough that we figured it wasn’t a passing pocket, but some days there was no smell at all. That was the case during our first water test.
The first water-testing guy showed up on an unseasonably warm morning to run our water through test vials. It had taken a couple weeks of coordinating to get him there. In that time, I learned 2 things: well-testing vendors are fairly scarce for the amount of wells around here, and standard well-water testing is free.
Free? Nothing is free. Why was water testing free? We would find out soon enough. Plus, some tests weren’t free. The test for coliform bacteria, which covers that familiar bugger E. coli, would’ve run $125 but wasn’t recommended since our well is deep and not near livestock or wastewater.
The free tests found 2 issues: hardness and high iron. We were expecting both. Hard water is common in wells, and iron is common here. There was no sulfur present that day, but because of our history of smelling it, the tester recorded sulfur at 0.25 ppm, which he reiterated would be a non-issue after we filtered for iron.
The first tests showed 1.5 ppm iron (you should have 0.3 or less), and 12 grains per gallon hardness (ideally, 4 gpg or less). I’ll jump ahead to say that, when re-tested on a cool fall day after months of daily well usage, iron and hardness were both lower. Temperature and usage affect the levels, and water evolves. Some suggest testing well water a couple times a year.
The tester explained the ramifications of each issue:
- For our region, our “high” level hardness is relatively low. He sees water supplies with 75 gpg. Hardness can clog faucets and appliances with scale and stain fixtures with mineral deposits. But hard water contains healthy minerals that give water a pleasing texture. On the other hand, standard water softeners add a trace amount of salt to water that’s safe to drink but may kill your soil if you irrigate regularly. Plenty of people choose not fight scale with vinegar instead of softening.
- Iron is a bigger problem. Like hardness, it stains fixtures. Unlike hardness, iron will eventually close off pipes like arteries clogged by cholesterol. It can also make water smell like burnt rubber. While 5x the maximum suggested iron level sounded bad, the tester assured it could be much worse. He mentioned that we could technically filter out enough iron with just a water softener, but it would tax the softener and cause higher maintenance costs.
When we received his quotes for a softener only, iron filter only, and a combination of both, we understood why the tests were free. They can probably break even selling 1 filter for every 50 tests they give away. The iron-filter option cost over $2,000. The combo filter/softener was just shy of $4,000. Fair enough. We were glad to have the information and ready to do more research.
The other nearby reputable well company didn’t call back after multiple attempts, so we threw our 3-quote policy to the wind. Chris ordered an iron filter online and installed it himself. The price was right – $1,000 – and this was a reasonable DIY for Chris, who has over 2 decades of water filtration experience through saltwater fishtanks.
Chris used scrap to extend the well house to accommodate the 5′ tall filter assembly, so the only cost there was his sanity. The well house is on a slope and full of weird carpentry angles. It’s his white whale.
For a half day of frustration and less than half the cost of professional installation, we had a working iron filter.
Well, a mostly working iron filter. Unfortunately, we ran into a bad vendor. Reverse Osmosis Superstore provided poor guidance and shipped their equipment in used, dented boxes. They left out an important part of the filter that would have increased its efficiency. They promised to send it to us but never did. Lastly, they up-sold Chris on what we now know was a very bad upgrade called Katalox media (don’t buy Katalox!), saying it was revolutionary in the world of catching iron molecules.
For reference: an iron filter is a tall, thin tank, partially full of media, with a box on top to control the flow of water around the tank and the media. “Media” in this case means pellets that grab iron molecules.
Your media works hard, and it’s important to take care of it. The tank backwashes every 1-3 nights to cleanse the media of iron so it’s ready to grab more. Backwashing can spit out over 100 gallons of water a time (like flushing a toilet 65 times). That volume of water has to be carefully directed to avoid erosion and mud pits. Luckily, our well is in an area where water can be sent into a field that percs beautifully. This hot, dry summer, you could tell exactly where the backwash was going. The grass loved it.
When Chris installed the iron filter, the burnt-rubber smell that had crept into our water was immediately gone. However, there was still a faint odor of sulfur despite promises that an iron filter would eradicate it.
Then, as summer heat set in, the burnt rubber came back, off and on. When our crystal-clear water turned yellow a few hours after we filled the inflatable hottub, a major sign of iron, we knew the filter wasn’t working.
Were iron levels too high for the filter, or was the filter misfiring? Customer service advised Chris to try backwashing more often, in this case every 2 nights instead of 3. It uses more water but eliminated the burnt rubber smell again. The sulfur lingered but was faint enough that we could shake our heads and try to forget it.
Things were better. The only way to know what’s really in water is to test it, but summer turned into fall, and while we worked on fencing, the sinkhole, and dozens of other projects, lingering water concerns took a backburner until November, when our showers became intermittently lukewarm.
Tankless Canary in the Coalmine
The tankless water heater has been a joy. It’s electric, and it does pull a monster load of electricity when we run hot water, but that was its only issue until the lukewarm showers started.
The EcoSmart website has a great troubleshooting module. It suggested we clean the elements. After 6 months of use, this seemed strange since cleaning is only recommended annually. But since the “hot water out” pipe was suddenly showing a scary amount of scale creep as well, we shut off the water heater’s breakers and cracked it open. (If you’re familiar with water heater plumbing, you may have noticed another problem in this photo that we’ve since fixed: there was no valve kit on the water-out, hence no easy way to unclog the filter of scale at that location.)
We weren’t too surprised to find the elements completely covered in scale, but they were worse than we’d expected for just 6 months of use. We soaked them in vinegar, wiped off the scale, and our showers were gloriously hot again.
This proved our water was too hard not to soften. Tankless water heaters are more susceptible to hard water than most appliances, but others could fail soon unless we took action. After having more problems reaching the 2 respected well companies, Chris realized we could broaden our inquiries to water-purification-only businesses that don’t drill wells.
We’d kind of been thinking that filtering well water meant we had to work with well-specific vendors, but that’s not the case. Learning curve!
Testing and Treatment, Again
Water tester #2 was a man named Ken who owns a water-purification business in the next county. He tested the water, checked the filtration setup, and sent quotes ranging from full iron-filter replacement and softening system to replacing only what he saw as the biggest problem with our iron filtration: the media.
Chris had suspected, almost since he installed it, that Katalox media wasn’t as good as they said it was. Again, if you’re about to install an iron filtration system, do NOT buy Katalox. Katalox has a clumping problem, which means less area for the media to grab iron with, which means it leaves a lot of iron in your water.
Ken said he fell for Katalox, too, and lost thousands of dollars replacing it. He believed that simply replacing Katalox with something tried-and-true would solve many of our problems.
Our tank wasn’t great either. It didn’t oscillate the media well, and it was slightly transparent, which allowed for a small amount of algae growth inside, doh.
After much research, we opted to have Ken do 2 things: switch the media and install a Vortex tank. Watch this video to see how a Vortex works.
We used to put a flashlight to the side of the clear tank and watch as the media barely moved during the backwash. The Vortex tank evidently oscillates media vigorously. Not that we can see this now that our tank is opaque to prevent algae growth.
Softening was more complicated. There were many reasons we didn’t want to soften: Softeners are financially expensive up front, and the cost of replacing worn out media (salt) adds up over time. The backwash from softeners is full of elements that can damage soil and septic tanks. Softeners strip out minerals and add salt to water, changing texture and taste.
By far, the biggest issue was the possibility of residual salt in our water supply killing our garden soil after daily watering. To exclude the hose from the softening system, we’d have to soften down at the barn, not up at the well. For the small barn, a full water softener, a $1,200 setup that would take up half the pantry, felt like the wrong choice.
Enter Plumber James, our new favorite plumber, who came to fix our frozen hosebib and some issues created by the ultra frustrating, underskilled crew who plumbed the barn (like that missing valve kit on the water heater). He heard our softener concerns and suggested a conditioner.
A conditioner creates turbulence in the water so the hardness molecules (calcium and magnesium) are too stirred up to attach to pipes. The hardness still exists in your water but settles where it lands instead of in your pipes. There can still be build-up in coffee pots, water bowls, and on the shower floor, but all of those can be wiped with vinegar. A conditioner is half the cost of the softener and is the size of the flashlight. It’s the green thing to the right of the banana for scale.
The main negative was that conditioners aren’t as time tested as traditional salt softeners. In this case, our doubts were overridden by the cost-savings, space savings, freedom from having to build a backwash system, and fact that we’d get to keep our water hard and healthy while hopefully still saving the appliances.
After the conditioner was installed, the water still had the crisp mouthfeel we love. Overall, the taste didn’t change. We won’t be able to judge the conditioner’s true effectiveness for a while, but the PEX pipes leaving the water heater are still clear, where previously they quickly filled with buildup. There is no sign of scale on the outside of the heater.
Next, Ken’s crew came to update the iron filter with new tank and media. After running barnbungalow’s kitchen sink for 15 minutes to bring newly filtered water down the line, that first glass of water was…ASTONISHING. Earth shattering.
It’s like different water. The sulfur is gone. The new filtration has made it obvious how earthy our unfiltered water is. It tastes vaguely like a creek smells. It’s a nice reminder we’re drinking real spring water, but l’essence de creek isn’t as delicious as the water running through the new filtration. Maybe successful filtration creates a healthier balance of minerals, or maybe it’s what we’re used to. We’d put our filtered water up against any bottled water in a taste test.
As you can tell, we’re happy with the results of months of research, head scratching, water testing, and filter tweaking. We know the journey isn’t over. Water evolves, wells evolve, and filters require maintenance, but now we’re much more educated about the intricacies of water access. We’ll never take a good glass of water for granted again.