Glenda M. Herman, Extension Housing Specialist
Published by: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service
Publication Number: HE-418
Last Electronic Revision: March 1996 (JWM)
The shortage of water, the quality of water, the safety of water for drinking, and the conservation of water have all made headlines in recent years.
Many effective products are available for home use that improve water quality. However, the increased attention on water safety serves as an invitation for con artists and unscrupulous sellers, who use deception and scare tactics when selling home water treatment equipment. Water treatment devices or systems may be referred to as water "purifiers," "filtration systems" or water "conditioners.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and consumer protection divisions of state attorney general offices report that water purifier fraud is growing rapidly all across the United States. People engaging in fraud are not sneaky-looking characters slinking around with slouchy hats and shiny shoes, as sometimes portrayed in warnings about consumer fraud. Successful con artists are appealing individuals who can gain your full trust and confidence. They have an unusual understanding of human nature. They know how to use people's feelings of fear, insecurity, vanity, power, or desire to get "a good deal." Rather than selling a water treatment system on its merits, some companies choose to prey on the public's fears that the water isn't safe.
No tap water is 100 percent pure, and many people have limited knowledge about what is safe water. Also, consumers may have little information about the functions and limitations of home water treatment systems. As a consequence, some people buy expensive water treatment equipment they don't need, to cure problems that don't exist.
Here are some approaches used to sell water treatment devices by mail or telephone:
Hundreds of letters are sent telling consumers that they are "prize winners" if they call within a time limit, such as three days. This creates pressure on the consumer to act. Or, a television spot or a print media advertisement may give a number to call for more information.
IN FACT - Even though consumers are "guaranteed" to be winners of "prizes," claimed to be worth several thousand dollars, often the more valuable prizes are not awarded. "Grand prize winners" may receive a cash value certificate but often find that the certificate may be used only to purchase certain water treatment services, supplies, or devices. Other "winners" receive a less expensive award, such as a year's supply of a special system cleaner. Consumers who receive a "travel package" may discover it does not include airfare or meals, and there may be stringent restrictions as to when and where the travel package can be used. Jewelry prizes are usually of low value, and home entertainment systems may be of inferior quality.
The water treatment devices are represented as having a high dollar value, such as $500.
IN FACT - Typically, devices sold by mail or telephone promotions are faucet attachments or cartridges which sit on the counter or under the sink. True estimated value is often $50 or less.
The seller describes the nation's drinking water as being in a deplorable state and claims that his or her company's product is one of only a few water purification systems tested and registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
IN FACT - The EPA does not "test," "approve," "disapprove," or "recommend" water treatment devices. An EPA number is assigned if a manufacturer claims that the device inhibits or reduces bacteria in the water or on the filter. Some ratings of water purifier devices and manufacturers are done by the National Sanitation Foundation, a non-profit organization, and the Water Quality Association, which is a trade association. EPA develops and oversees the implementation and enforcement of regulations for drinking water by public water systems.
The seller claims that the water purifier can completely remove a variety of contaminants such as bacteria, salmonella, chloroform, radon, arsenic, lead, mercury, pesticides, solvents, and asbestos.
IN FACT - No single home water purification system is capable of removing all contaminants. Different types of substances require different types of treatment systems.
Customers may be assured that if they are not satisfied with the water purifier they can cancel the purchase and get a full refund within 30 to 60 days.
IN FACT - It may be impossible to get a refund. There may be stipulations such as a "restocking fee" (e.g., 25 percent of the purchase price) which means the consumer loses some of the money paid. This information typically is not revealed until after the consumer has made the purchase.
Customers may be told that the filtering system is virtually maintenance free, or that a filter will last 12 to 15 months.
IN FACT - Not only are claims about minimal maintenance false and misleading, they can create a potential health threat if they are taken seriously. Regular maintenance of any water treatment system is critical to its effectiveness. Inadequate cleaning and/ or failure to replace the filtering parts of the treatment system may create serious health hazards because bacteria and other contaminants become concentrated in the filtering system.
Exaggerated promises are made about the amount of water that the treatment device will process.
IN FACT - The amount of water a treatment device can process is related to both its size and type. Some water treatment devices require several hours to produce one gallon of treated water.
The caller may offer to have a check or money for the water purifier system picked up at the consumer's home. And the consumer is told that this is necessary to meet the deadline for the "special promotion" and be eligible for the "prizes." Or, the customer is given a special number for free Express Mail.
IN FACT - Legitimate businesses do not engage in such practices.
Some callers represent themselves as "water quality inspectors" or "researchers" doing a survey on water quality in your area. The surveys allow sellers to gain information on households and to identify people who have concerns about water quality. Depending on their response, certain people will receive a follow-up contact about water treatment systems.
Another approach used in selling water treatment devices is offering a free in-home test of your drinking water. Some sales people leave a bottle on your doorknob, offer to pick it up, run the tests, and then contact you with the report. Other sales people may visit your home wearing lab coats to make an impression.
The in-home test will show there are minerals in your water, and perhaps the acidity/alkalinity level. The testing procedures use a chemical that combines with dissolved minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, and causes them to settle to the bottom of the bottle. Keep in mind that all water, except distilled water, contains some minerals. In general, the presence of minerals is not a health threat. In fact, many of the minerals are beneficial to the body. However, some do cause water hardness and an undesirable taste.
Another demonstration uses a face cloth that you previously washed. The demonstrator will put the cloth and a water softening agent into a jar of your tap water and shake vigorously. Suds will occur in the bottle. This is normal as some detergent residue remains in all washed articles.
These free, in-home "water quality tests" are merely sales ploys designed to sell you a water treatment system. Often the "test report" on your tap water is given in a way that implies that your water contains a lot of minerals that are not good for your family's health.
Usually the people who do the home testing will require that both spouses of a married couple be present for the demonstration. This prevents one spouse from using a delaying tactic by insisting on talking to the other spouse before making a decision to buy a water treatment system.
Some unethical operators use a more dramatic demonstration with an "electric precipitator." This machine resembles a coffee pot in which two metallic electrodes (metal rods) are placed. The demonstration produces a dark sludge, which is caused by electricity decomposing the rods. The electric precipitator device is a sham, but it is a convincing sales tool because of its visual shock effect. Impressive demonstrations like these, often are directed to low-income and non-English speaking families. High pressure selling tactics are used to convince people to buy.
Claims that a water treatment device can improve the taste of your water may be accurate. Also, softened water saves some energy because it takes less to heat water and because you need less detergent for laundry. However, claims about saving hundreds of dollars in laundry and water heating costs may be exaggerations.
Harmful contaminants in water are often more difficult to test for than the common minerals in tap water. For example, lead is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, but may be harmful at even very low concentrations in water. Tests for lead, and most other contaminants that are health concerns, require special equipment and complex procedures. Tests for most potentially harmful water contaminants cannot be done in your home.
Your best defenses are knowledge about a product and a healthy skepticism of advertising and sales pitches. Recognize that a considerable amount of "puffery" is used in promoting most products. Be particularly wary of "scare tactics."
Be cautious about letting someone into your home for "free testing" of your drinking water. Understand that this is merely a sales ploy to convince you that you need a water treatment system. Do not feel you must give personal information (such as "Do you own your home?") to someone doing a survey. When a "water problem" is identified for you, do not panic. Thank the person for the information and say you will check on the problem. Keep in mind that salespersons are not scientists. They are not trained to make judgments on the safety of your tap water.
If you have concerns that your drinking water is unsafe and you are on a public water system, contact your local water system officials (those who send you a water bill if you are on a public water system). Ask for the latest complete analysis of the water. Ask what the results mean.
If you have a well, your local health department can test your water or tell you who to send it to for testing.
If you still want to have other tests done on your water, there are several options you may exercise. For a bacterial test, contact your county health department office. Charges for a bacterial test range from $10 to $50 dollars. To test for chemical contamination, contact your local water system or a certified laboratory. Private testing laboratories are listed in the yellow pages of the telephone book; make sure they are certified by the state health department. Tests for chemical contaminants range from $10 to several hundred dollars.
Invest time reading about water quality and health "risk" factors. Understand the difference between harmful "contaminants" and the minerals commonly found in our water supply that pose no health risks. Such information can be quite enlightening.
In summary, learn what home water treatment systems can (and cannot) do so you can evaluate what a seller is promising. Asking a lot of questions is okay! Asking for additional information is okay! Asking to have another testing agency verify the results is okay! It is okay to be skeptical! You are much better off not buying than spending your money for something that may have limited or no benefits.
Use this work sheet to prepare for a visit from a water treatment salesperson. Steps 1-4 in Part A should be completed in advance of the visit. Complete the work sheet as you discuss various water treatment system alternatives for your home. You may want to have several copies of this work sheet available for notes about different treatment systems you are considering.
. 1. Have your water tested and list test results below.
____ acidity ____ cadmium ____ hydrogen sulfide gas ____ nitrate ____ alkalinity ____ chloride ____ iron ____ organic chemicals ____ arsenic ____ conductivity ____ lead ____ sediment ____ bacteria ____ hardness ____ mercury ____ sodium sulfate
2. Review information about health and appearance impacts of your water contaminants. Note the special concerns.
__________________________________________________________ 3. Review
treatment choices and list those that might be appropriate for your particular
4. Is the supplier reputable and reliable? ____ Yes _____ No
5. Is there a product approval letter for the system which lists the types
and amounts of contaminants it will reduce?
____ Yes _____ No
6. How much space does the treatment system need?
7. Does the treatment system need specially treated water to function
____ Yes _____ No
8. How many gallons of water does your family use per day?
(Base your estimates on: 2 quarts per family member per day for drinking and cooking; 60 gallons per family member per day for treating all the water in the home; and 25 gallons per person per day for treating hot water only.)
9. Have you compared the volume of water available from the treatment system
to the volume needed by your family?
____ Yes ____ No
10. Check the rate of water flow that you prefer where the treatment device
will be installed. Does the flow rate of the device meet the needs of your
____ Yes ____ No 11. Have you reviewed and understood the instructions for operation and maintenance that come with the treatment system?
____ Yes ____ No
12. How much water can the treatment system process before replacement parts
or maintenance will be needed?
13. Have you installed a device to monitor your water use? Do you understand
how to reasonably estimate when maintenance will be needed?
____ Yes ____ No
14. Will you need to hire a technician to replace parts or maintain the
____ Yes ____ No
15. Do you know what the cost of maintenance will be each year?
____ Yes ____ No
16. Other comments about this system:
17. Water system purchase and installation: Cost of water treatment system
Cost of installation ...................$______
Other installation costs................$_______
18. Replacement costs: Frequency of replacement/service needs ..$______
Parts to be serviced or replaced .......$______
Total annual service costs ..........$______
19. Special design considerations:
Additional electrical costs per month to operate system..... $______
Additional water costs per month per month to operate system.$______
20. Total annual operation costs.........................$______
Distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. Employment and program opportunities are offered to all people regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments cooperating.