What To Know About Water Filters and Drinking Water Quality

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Episode Description

On this episode, we'll be speaking with Tom Palkon, chief technical services officer for The IAPMO Group, who will break down how certified water filters work and how the public can be assured of their performance.

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This episode is sponsored by QFlow B.V. (Netherlands) – offering innovative Legionella membrane filters to stop and help prevent legionellosis and more. Just because it’s clear, doesn’t mean it’s clean.

Christoph Lohr: Did you know that water filters can mitigate lead, PFAS, and Legionella threats? But not all of them. On today’s podcast, I’ll be speaking with Tom Palkon, chief technical services officer for The IAPMO Group, who will break down how certified water filters work and how the public can be assured of their performance.

Here's our discussion.

Tom, welcome to the show.

Tom Palkon: Christoph, thanks for having me. Excited to be participating in this podcast for the first time.

Christoph Lohr: Super excited to have you. Do you want to tell our listeners just a brief bit about what you do at IAPMO?

Tom Palkon: Sure. I cover a lot of different aspects at IAPMO pertaining to this podcast. Probably the most important aspect is the work I do with IAPMO R&T and the certification program in our IAPMO R&T labs. We’ve got labs around the world and several of them do a lot of different product testing activities for the water treatment industry.

Christoph Lohr: And that's a great point because as you mentioned in this podcast, what we wanted to really talk about was filters. And really what we wanted to lead off with was this question that maybe you can help our audience identify: What are the current types of filters that can mitigate contaminants, such as lead or PFAS or Legionella threats? How do they work? How effective are they? Can you give us a broad overview?

Tom Palkon: I’ll do my best. First off, we don’t really use the word mitigation in drinking water treatment at the consumer or the commercial building. Mitigation’s kind of used more for treating groundwater, but we stick with terms like remove or reduce these types of chemicals.

We’ll pick lead to start with because it’s been around for a while, causing quite a few problems over the years. There are a number of water treatment products that have gone through testing and certification to remove lead.There are products that are easy for consumers to set up and use, like pour-through pitchers, a little more complex products like a carbon block that a consumer may use for his refrigerator filter. Or there's multi-stage products. There’s reverse osmosis systems that use both filtration and membranes to reduce chemicals.

There are a number of products that IAPMO has tested and certified to demonstrate that they remove PFOS and PFOA. Now, more recently, the standards were updated. We added some additional chemicals to the industry standard PFAS chemicals, so now there’s PFHXS, PFNA, PFHBA and PFBS — a lot of P words for these poly- and perfluoro chemicals.

The standards have been updated, so now companies have the option to include these additional PFAS chemicals when doing testing and certification.

Legionella is also a complex answer. But what IAPMO and ASSE did in early 2000 was to start work on a standard specific for Legionella; we are specifically challenging shower filters and water filters with a Legionella organism to make sure it can adequately remove Legionella from drinking water or from water that might be used for showering. So a complex answer to a simple question — the filters do work. There are a variety out there and how do we know they’re effective and how we know they work is by having them third-party tested and certified for this specific contaminant the consumer is interested in.

Christoph Lohr: That’s a really fantastic overview, I think, for all of our listeners on the subject. I want to pick on that last thing you said, was the confidence that consumers can have, and I think you hinted at that a little bit and maybe just touch on that a little bit more.

How do the consumers, how does someone know if the given water filter will improve drinking water quality? You mentioned the testing component; can you touch on that maybe a little bit more for our listeners?

Tom Palkon: Sure. It’s a common question that people in the industry get quite a bit: How do I know this filter is working or what’s the best filter to buy? These are questions I get all the time from people in the industry, friends, family. It’s something that I’m familiar with trying to answer, but it is another complex answer.

There’s no magical product out there that takes out everything, and you probably wouldn’t want to take out everything because then your water gets fairly aggressive and can cause corrosion problems. You need to figure out, what am I trying to get rid of? Do I have pesticides in my water? Do I have lead my water? Am I worried about PFAS chemicals? That’s really what I try to tell people is the first step. Once you kind of know what you’re thinking you want to get rid of, then you can start doing some research on what are the products out there that have been tested, that have been certified to remove or reduce these chemicals?

Then you can start doing your research through web searches or through certification agencies. You can look at different certifiers, like IAPMO. We maintain a website that lists all of the companies, all of the products, by all the specific contaminants that they’ve been certified to remove.

Christoph Lohr: And then the assurances, I’m assuming that comes from some kind of certification.

Tom Palkon: That’s correct. How do we perform these tests or how do we do the certification? The testing is complicated. These standards are not simple to run. These tests are expensive to run, and it’s very complicated. Products used in your home and the refrigerator filter or your under-counter filter or your pour-through pitcher, it will probably last even longer than the certified claim because of the additional safety factors that are included in the testing and certification.

Christoph Lohr: With all the testing and all the assurances, how are they tested to know that they performed? Can you touch on that a little bit, the testing process itself?

Tom Palkon: Sure. As I just mentioned, we are testing each claim individually. We are trying to make sure that with all the different water qualities that exist in the U.S. and Canada and globally, we’ve put together what we call a reasonably worst-case challenge for each of these chemicals. We don’t make it easy on the filter. We try to make it a worst case they might run into, and we challenge that filter again at its flow rate. We want to make sure we’re using elevated flow rates and we want to challenge it through the entire life of the filter.

We know that these will work; most filters are designed to work initially, but we want to make sure they’re going to work for the entire capacity that’s being claimed. Very rigorous testing, very time-consuming. Companies that go through the effort to verify and certify these claims, consumers can be assured that these products will work.

Christoph Lohr: We’ve talked about the testing, the assurances. Let’s ask that, kind of the other side. Are there any biological contaminants that these filters don’t do a good job of filtering out, or some things that a consumer should be aware of?

Tom Palkon: Yes, microbiological contamination is complex because of the thousands of different bacteria and virus that can be found in your drinking water. EPA did a decent job back in 1987, but there has not been a whole bunch of improvements to the microbiological standards out there. We’ve got these three types of microbes: bacteria, virus and protozoan cysts. Cysts are probably the easiest to remove — Giardia and Cryptosporidium — because they’re large.

Mechanical filtration is very easily done with filtration or with reverse osmosis. All of these contaminants are very well removed with ultraviolet light systems. If you’re really worried about microbes, a lot of people will get a UV system because UV does a good job at wiping out bacteria virus and protozoan cysts.

If you’ve got a microbiological concern, again, during your research, you’re going to be looking for specific products that have been tested and certified for microbiological contamination. Like the U.S. EPA microbiological purification standard, like the Legionella standard that the ASSE recently published.

Christoph Lohr: And what about ongoing maintenance? You have the initial install, but then you have that device afterward that’s going to be there for a while and then potentially replacing it or replacing components of it. How does that work for filters?

Tom Palkon: Operation and maintenance is extremely important for water filters. If you put a water filter in there and forget about it for five or 10 years, it may be making the water worse rather than improving the water, so part of the standards and certification require a lot of information to be included in the operation and installation instructions, labels right on the product and everything. There’s a performance data sheet requirement that spells everything out, but you need to maintain these products. You have to understand the filters have a specific life, and you need to change those filters when that life is reached. With the advanced technologies, the Internet of Things and all this AI, we’re even starting to see more and more products come out with sensors, with warning indicators so that when the end of life is approaching, the light might turn yellow to say, ‘Hey, you should think about ordering a replacement filter so you can change this.’ Or a light might turn red saying, ‘Hey, you've reached a life. Don't use it anymore.’ You’re seeing that with refrigerator filter products. You’re seeing it with under-countertop products, and I’m sure this technology is going to advance; people that are purchasing these products from water treatment dealers and plumbing operations, a lot of times they’re getting text messages or messages sent directly to that seller to let them know to ship filters out for replacements or to schedule a maintenance call to come out and replace those filters. Operation and maintenance, it’s one of the most important things with water treatment. When we certify these products, when we test these products, we know they work. But if they’re not maintained properly and replaced properly, that assurance will be lost. It’s exciting to see all the new sensor technology because it's giving homeowners and water treatment professionals the ability to have precise information on how that filter’s performing.

Sensors now typically will monitor flow, so you’re looking at capacity because we test these filters to a capacity. But what’s happening is they’re creating sensors that can maybe evaluate contaminants in water. It’s actually evaluating the lead in water, or it might be evaluating something else. As that technology improves, it can be incorporated directly into the product itself so that you wouldn’t just be looking at the capacity. You may be looking for specific contaminants in the future. I’m not sure how long this will take, but I think this is where the industry will be going 10, 15 years from now.

Christoph Lohr: On sort of the back end here of this, obviously there’s water that goes through this filter, but I’m assuming there’s some kind of wastewater after the water's filtered in some cases. What happens to that wastewater after it’s filtered? Can you reuse water or wastewater from the filtration process for some of these filter devices?

Tom Palkon: Many products are just a single pass. There is no waste, so your refrigerator doesn’t have wastewater pour through pitchers. There’s a lot of products that it's a single pass, and the filter actually holds those contaminants in their filter. That's why they have to be replaced. They can only hold so much, and then you have to replace that filter with a new one because it has grabbed all these unwanted contaminants from your drinking water. There are other types of products. Reverse osmosis is one that comes to mind quickly because the membrane doesn't hold contaminants; it actually splits the flow. It sends unwanted contaminants to the waste or down the drain, and it also will then send purified water to a holding tank or to your faucet. It’s a different type of technology that actually uses water to create purified water. Now, most homeowners do not try to collect that wastewater from an RO. If you make a gallon of RO water, you may waste 2 to 5 gallons down the drain. Although the efficiency isn’t great, it’s not tons of water going down the drain at the point-of-use level. There are some companies that have tried to come up with some unique technologies to collect that water, and you can use it certainly for flushing toilets, watering lawns, things like that.

At the point of entry, most of these filters do backwash — water softeners, point-of-entry filters. They’ll have a backwash every few days to keep that filter functioning properly as it’s collecting things. Sometimes people do use that water for irrigation purposes at the point of entry because there's larger volumes. We’re talking about 100 gallons of water being sent to drain during that regeneration or during that backwash process. You see that much more in commercial applications or at the point-of-entry application. But at the point of use for most homeowners, not a lot of water's wasted — many products don't waste any water at all — so it's not a big concern at this time at the homeowner level.

Christoph Lohr: That's fantastic context. Well, Tom, you have been an absolute plethora of information here. Lots to digest. Before we wrap up, would love to ask you one final question: If you were going to summarize everything you just talked about in one word in terms of the filters, is there one word you could think of to kind of describe the talk today? So again, one-word answer or one word summary of everything you talked about today.

Tom Palkon: My one word would be research. You have to know what you’re looking to get out of your water and you have to find a product that’s been tested and certified to get that contaminant out. You have to do your research in order to pick a product that’s applicable.

When you’re looking at typical plumbing products, you’re looking for aesthetics. Is it what you want because it looks this way or that way? When you’re looking at water filtration products, they’re not pretty, they’re not sexy. What they are is functional. You’ve got to do your research.

Christoph Lohr: Love it. Hopefully we get you on the podcast here again. I would love to continue learning from you, and on behalf of our listeners, I just want to say thanks for all your insights and your expertise and sharing it with all of us today.

Tom Palkon: Thank you, Christoph. It was a pleasure being here.