The RV Dilemma:
“On the Road”
In recent years, tales about contaminated water supplies have changed the way a lot of us think about water. Gone is that easy confidence with which we once quenched our thirst from just about any water source north of the Mexican border-even if it wasn’t always pleasing to the pallet. Today, we are more aware than ever that even clear, sparkling water can be home for some very unwholesome elements.
While water contamination is worrisome for the populace in general, it creates a special dilemma for travelers, ravers in particular. Not only must RV’ers draw water from unfamiliar sources, they must deal with what can happen to the water once its inside their RVs holding tank.
Media coverage has spurred many to become suspect of their city tap water quality. This has created a boom for producers of bottled water and filtration units. Remarkably though, when RV’ers leave their homes and head out on the open road they most often let down their guard towards water quality, even though their chances of being hit by a water transmitted illness increases.
Our home front awareness must be extended to the road, but that doesn’t mean that a vacation has to be marred by worry over the quality of the water or that each sip has to be a conscious act of courage. All that is needed to reduce health risks and alleviate concern is to adhere to a few common-sense precautions and put into use some of the excellent purification equipment available.
The first rule of thumb is to connect your RV to a water supply of known quality. The total degree of quality will obviously not be known, but if it’s being delivered as potable water, you can have some comfort that it should be tested some time. Many campgrounds operate from their own wells. These wells should be tested and labeled as approved. Unfortunately it may be have been some time since the water was last tested and given that contamination can show up at any time, never throw caution to the wind.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Dipping from a cool, ripping mountain stream has its own hazards. As much as we might think it enhances the outdoor experience, drinking from any non-treated source is risky business. Although mountain water rushes over rocks, gravel and sand, this does little to displace most harmful contaminants. And it takes a pretty steep climb to be sure you’re not downstream from a recently relieved or dead animal. Thus, the second rule applies: never drink directly from water that flows where man or beast goes and never assume they haven’t!
What are the agents of non potable water? Polluting our water resources are combustion by products such as lead, aluminum, dangerous minerals such as asbestos and a host of chemical contaminants including chlorine. While these are cause for concern, the most formidable villains while on the road are microbes and cysts.
Of all the contaminants, microbes are the least discreet about their presence in the body. This group of vegetable and animal micro-organisms includes bacteria, viruses, protozoa and fungi. Not all are harmful to man, but those that are have left a wide path of destruction in the past civilizations and continue to do so in many parts of the world.
Standard sanitation methods that involve chlorination have all but eliminated the threat of cholera and typhoid in this country. Still, there are some organisms that escape our best efforts. chlorine will kill most bacteria but is less effective against viruses and only marginally effective against cysts. Among these are the viruses that cause infectious hepatitis and the protozoans or amoebic cysts that lead to giardiasis and amoebic dysentery, well known to visitors of Mexico, but also quite real in Canada and the USA. All of these contaminants can be present in any water supply that has been polluted by sewage.
Although giardiasis (Beaver Fever) probably receives the least amount of publicity, the organism that causes it, giardia lambia, is one of the most insidious. According to an article in Opflow, a publication of the American Water Works Association, “it is the most common disease-causing intestinal parasite in the United States.” This strong-willed micro-bug can thrive in a wide temperature range in nature and fend off typical chlorination and filtration procedures. Giardiasis hits hardest those municipalities that draw their water from mountain streams, hence the warning about these. The parasite enters the supply through the feces of a host. While many animals can serve as host, the main culprit is thought to be the Beaver.
As with the amoeba that produces dysentery, giardia exists in two forms: one is a cyst that represents a resting phases of the organism and the other is an active flowing parasite. The latter emerges from the system and infects the small intestines. It takes only a swallow to bring on symptoms that may include severe diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting and fatigue.
The wide media coverage of chemical contamination cases over the last 15 years has awakened most people to the fact that our water quality is rapidly decaying. Acid rain is a household word and even our major grocery store chains are getting into the environmental business. The vast majority of chemical contaminants have no taste, no smell and leave the water appearing clear and clean. Now little bugs flowing from our home taps are one thing, but the prospect of swigging a chemical cocktail is sending millions of us scurrying to purchase bottled water.
Currently, the focus on regulations is on a large group of chemical compounds called trihalomethanes. These suspected carcinogens are formed when chlorine interacts with organic chemicals. Chloroform, the predominant member of this toxic team, has been found at particularly high levels in drinking water throughout the country. It does not exist naturally in raw water, but is readily produced during the treatment process when plant and animals humus make contact with the chlorine used to disinfect the water. Many other toxic organic chemicals infest our rivers, lakes and streams through industrial discharge, municipal and agricultural runoff, plus of course acid rain.
Even well water has not escaped the ravages of expansion and technology. A common belief once was that if water came from the ground, it had to be safe. The fantasy began to erode in recent years as wells in North America were found to contain high doses of man-made chemicals. Traced to leaking landfills, corroded surface impoundments and storage tanks, as well as urban and rural runoff, these toxins slowly seep downward through the Earth’s crust to pollute vital aquifers. The threat is particularly serious because ground water sources provide drinking water for the majority of the industrial world’s population. Aquifers, once polluted, are far more difficult and costly to restore than surface water.
Water contamination is now a serious and complex problem. As you are reading this article, population and industry are continuing to make a greater demands on our water resources. With each demand the problem escalates. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should not have to take a back seat while we search for clean water in our daily lives. By taking a few precautionary measures, we can travel and enjoy the outdoors without risking illness. As said in the beginning, the simplest first line of defense is to use only water you are reasonably certain is potable.
THE RV TANK
For RV’ers who consume water from their RV tanks, the most important fact to remember is that potable water doesn’t stay potable for long. By the time city water reaches the tap, the chlorine level is already reduced. An RV water tank is like a large petridish on wheels. Air, heat and the sloshing of the water will quickly dissipated the remaining residual chlorine and revitalize any micro-organisms that the serve chlorine had inhibited but not killed. This hearty new culture will render the water unpalatable and perhaps unpotable, producing slime and algae in the tank and lines.
To prevent this problem, the RV owners must, in effect, take over where the municipal water facility left off. Basically, this means maintaining a safe system, treating the water that is stored in your holding tank and installing a water purification system.
HOW TO MAINTAIN YOUR SYSTEM
How to Clean:
The first step is to clean the tank and line, as this will remove clinging oil, slime and sediment. Add four teaspoons of liquid soap for every ten gallons of water held in your system. Pump the solution through all the outlets and into your holding tanks. If your RV is mobile take it for a short drive. The “sloshing” will be an added bonus in the cleaning process. Drain the soap/water solution and refill with clear water. Continue to pump clear water through the system until all evidence of soap has been elliminated. If you have not been performing this act regularly, then a repeat performance is recommended!
Once the system is clean it can be disinfect. Disinfecting does not “clean” the tank, it only kills bacteria that has gained a foot hold in your system. Fill the fresh water tank halfway with water. Add 6 ounces of liquid chlorine beach for every ten gallons of water the tank will hold and then fill your holding tank to the top. Open all water outlets and pump the solution through until you can smell the chlorine in the water coming out. Shut all faucets off and let the system stand for at least one hour. Reopen the faucets and pump the remaining solution into your holding tanks. The system should then be thoroughly flushed with normal chlorinated tap water until the smell of chlorine has diminished to the same level as that of the water you are using to flush with. Cleaning and disinfecting should be done at least once a year, or anytime contamination is suspected. This is also especially important before a new tank is used for the first time.
The tank is now ready to be filled for the trip. At this point, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advocates using a method called “Super-chlorination / de- chlorination” to prevent bacterial growth while traveling. By this method, chlorine is added to the water in increased amounts to provide a minimum chlorine residual of 3.0 ppm (parts per million) for a contact period of five minutes. You now have a reservoir full of water with a high concentration of chlorine. It’s safe from a baby boom of bacteria, but it’s definitely not the means of a good cup of coffee. This is where the need for a de-chlorination device comes in.
HOW TO SUPER-CHLORINATE
The chlorination method recommended is to add one teaspoonful of chlorine-type liquid bleach (Clorox, Javex, etc.) for every ten gallons of water your tank will hold.
E.G.30 gallon tank = 3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon
The most effective method of putting chlorine into your water system is to first connect your hose to your RV and then pour the bleach into the opposite end of the hose, prior to connecting it to the filling source. Use chlorine every time you fill up. This will also keeps the filler hose sanitary and protect it from becoming contaminated. Use a chlorine test kit regularly to determine the residual chlorine level (3.0 ppm recommended). Testing should not be done immediately after filling, wait until the water has been “standing” for at least 6 hours.
SO HOW DO YOU “FIX” THE WATER?
The following paragraphs briefly explain the differences between technologies currently on the market and the terminology used to describe them. Take the link for a more in depth review.
Of the many types of devices available to act as a de-chlorinator, the most common is single element granular or block activated carbon (GAC) filter. However, a filter is just that, a filter, it does not disinfect. Furthermore any snared microbes that have not been overcome by the chlorine will have everything they need to exist and multiply inside the filter. Eventually, they can be washed through the filter and into your glass, making the device a source of bacteria problems instead of the solution to chlorine removal. They are not recommended.
These use activated carbon (GAC) again, but the carbon has been infused with silver that releases metal ions into the water to suppress the regrowth of bacteria inside the filter. Do not confuse bacteriostatic with bacteriologically sterile. Bacteriostatic simply means that bacteria should not “grow” inside the device it does not mean that the device removes or kills any bacteria flowing through the device. The EPA requires that any water treatment device that uses a pesticide, such as silver, be registered as some of the silver will be present in the output water. The manufacturer must show proof that the amount of silver released does not exceed established environmental guidelines. This EPA “registration” does not mean that the filter is any good at removing contaminants from water, only that the silver released by the filter will not harm the environment. Extreme caution must be used in the selection of any stand alone carbon device whether it uses silver or not.
Under EPA regulations, only certified devices (such as Doulton Ceramics) that can reliably remove prescribed quantities of bacteria can technically be called purifiers and be used to clean previously non treated water. Some employ chemicals such as iodine and chlorine but most are purely mechanical. Purifiers are devices that use a combination of filtration technologies to produce proven high quality drinking water. Filters are generally non tested devices simply designed to work with only one or two contaminants. By using a purifier vice a filter you will benefit from the known reduction of chemical contaminants, chlorine, particulates, tastes and odors etc. But the main factor is that as a “bacteriologically sterile” device a purifier will be your final step in the protection against microbes. True purifiers will always supply the specific test reports which back up their removal efficiency claims. If they cannot… beware! We will discuss some of the other common purification technologies next.
This technology is borrowed from nature. It occurs naturally when plants absorb water from the ground through their cell walls. However, as the name implies, the method is reversed. In ROs, water is forced against a semi-permeable cellulose acetate membrane by the water pressure supplied by the city or your RV pump. This action separates contaminants from the water as the water is passed through the membrane. Besides the need for continuous and adequate water pressure (most units require greater than 40 psi for any level of efficiency), other factors to consider are that bacteria can build up on the membrane and block the flow, and a high concentration of particulate impurities can over tax the unit’s capability to clean itself. To avoid the bacteria buildup, manufacturers advocate not using their devices with severely contaminated water.
RO’s take significant time to “manufacture” the water. A small unit suitable for use in an RV will only produce 2-3 gallons in 12 hours and cannot be operated while you are “on the road”. A storage medium is therefore always required and this can present its own problems as space and weight considerations in RVs are critical. Good quality RO’s are equipped with GAC post-filters to reduce the levels of chemical contaminants, tastes and odors not removed by the RO membrane. Top quality ROs will also have low micron pre-filters. These pre-filters will remove the bulk of particulates, thereby protecting and lengthening the life of the membrane. Only ROs registered as purifiers (as most are not) should be considered for use in RVs.
These systems employ ultraviolet lamps to simulate the bacteria control measure used by Mother Nature. The water is bombarded with ultraviolet light which in turn kills the bacteria. These systems are generally considered non effective on cysts. Overall efficiency of these units is determined by the quality of the pre and post-filters employed. As the UV lamp is only effective on microbes, dirt or sediment must not be allowed to pass with the bacteria through the UV exposure chamber or the bacteria can basically “hide” from the UV light. With insufficient exposure the bacteria lives on! A high quality GAC post- filter must be used once again for chemical, chlorine, taste and odor reduction.
These systems do require electrical power and they should employ approximately a 5 micron pre filter (preferably cleanable for cost efficiency). Annual operational cost is based primarily on the values of the pre and post-filters as the energy requirements to operate the UV lamp is minimal, but there will be a recommended replacement interval and cost for the UV lamp. These systems to not require a storage medium, the water is processed as it is demanded. Caution again is required while shopping as there are very few UV systems registered as purifiers.
Distillation works by converting the input water to vapor and then converting the vapor back to water again. In the process most impurities are left behind or driven off as gases. Also removed are minerals, which is a feature that does not appeal to all. 115 VAC is required for the heating element and units rated as purifiers are quite large.
Once again they cannot be operated while “on the road”. The major complaints about distillers however center on the time and energy they use. The storage requirements of the water after it has been “cooked” along with their high purchase cost. Low cost distillers run the risk of producing higher levels of chemical contamination in the “cooked” water (due to the decrease in water volume collected after cooking) and they rarely use good quality pre and post-filters. Without the use of pre filters cleaning becomes excessive and is another added expense. Without a post-filter the water will have a “taste” which comes from interaction of this sterile water with the elements in the system and the storage medium. Distillers are generally excellent purifiers so if this is to be your choice buy only top quality and avoid plastic.
Once again we wish to remind you that regardless of the type of purification device you choose, the water in an RV reservoir must always be chlorinated. Omitting this step will result in a jungle of slime and algae in the tank and lines, as well as a crowded community of bacteria. Worst of all is the stress and frustration of having a holiday ruined by illness while on the road, so install a Certified BelKraft product and let us take care of you!