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What are the Different Types of Water Treatment?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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Water by its very nature is always pure, since the bond between its hydrogen and oxygen atoms is extremely strong. The problem is that almost all of the world's water supply must share space with organic material, chemicals, minerals and manmade pollutants. The result is often an undrinkable solution, possibly containing deadly bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing agents. Fortunately, mankind has developed a number of water treatment methods which make our water supply much safer for consumption. Not all of these methods work on a large scale, but they all render untreated water drinkable to humans.

Perhaps the most basic form of water treatment is called settling. Untreated water gathered from a natural source can be left undisturbed in a container, allowing solids to settle out of the solution and fall to the bottom. After enough time has elapsed, the uppermost level of water can be drawn out for consumption.

This method has several major drawbacks, however. The settling process can take several days or weeks to be effective, and there is no protection against bacteria or other organic materials which may not settle out. If the water source is relatively clean, such as a mountain stream in remote territory, the settling method may be adequate.

A more thorough and faster form of water treatment is the boiling method. Water should first be filtered through a cloth to remove larger contaminants, then placed in a clean metal container. Virtually every bacteria or other hazardous lifeform will not survive the boiling process, although experts suggest maintaining a rolling boil for several minutes to ensure success.

Once the water has cooled, it should be safer to drink. One drawback to the boiling water treatment method is the possibility that inorganic solids may still remain. Boiling large amounts of water can also be very time-consuming.

One form of water treatment which works on a large scale is chemical disinfection. Questionable water can be rendered drinkable, if not particularly flavorful, by the addition of iodine or chlorine-based tablets. Chemical agents destroy many of the bacteria and other organic contaminants found in natural water supplies. The pills carried by hikers and campers usually contain a form of iodine, although some people with iodine allergies may use chlorine-based tablets. Chemical water treatment is also the preferred method of swimming pool operators, since the chlorine kills a number of contaminants brought in through fecal matter.

For homeowners concerned about their public water supplies, another form of treating water has become increasingly popular. Filtration through activated charcoal or paper filters is a low-cost method used in many private homes. Tap water flows through a small filter at the end of a faucet or through a more elaborate system in the basement or kitchen.

The principle behind the filtration method is that heavy metals, organic contaminants and many bacteria are simply too large to pass through the mesh of a filter. The water molecules which do pass through are much more pure, providing a better tasting product. Filters must be changed regularly to be effective, however. Bacteria can grow on filters clogged with organic material.

For those who may want an even more discriminating method, there is reverse osmosis. Many water treatment companies and bottled water producers use reverse osmosis along with other methods such as filtration or ozonation. Reverse osmosis requires the use of a semi-permeable material with extremely small openings. Untreated water is forced through this membrane, which prevents even the smallest forms of bacteria and chemical pollutants from passing. The water molecules themselves actually change in order to pass through the membrane. The resulting water supply is said to be 'wetter', because the individual water molecules have fewer sides and are more easily absorbed by the body.

Other forms of water treatment may included ozonation, ionization and ultraviolet light exposure. Ultraviolet light treatment will destroy the DNA of any harmful bacteria present in the water, but the cost of installing and operating such a treatment system in a home can be prohibitive.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to HomeQuestionsAnswered, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By SkyWhisperer — On May 14, 2011

@everetra - I heard that tap water is safe for many people to drink. The National Resources Defense Council has tested a lot of our drinking water and concluded that healthy adults can drink the tap water without health problems, because the contaminants are so tiny.

I’ve been drinking tap water for a long time now without ill effects (that I know of).

By everetra — On May 12, 2011

I stopped buying bottled water a long time ago ever since I saw some program on T.V. state that most bottled water was just tap water, bottled up. The bottle water companies rebutted those claims, stating that some of it was tap water while some of it came from the springs, as suggested by the product labeling. That’s a dicey proposition for me.

I get water that’s been cleaned up through reverse osmosis. Supposedly this is the best way to filter the water. I’m not an expert but I definitely prefer the taste.

By hamje32 — On May 11, 2011

@allenJo - The Environmental Working Group has a website where they state that there are almost 300 contaminants in drinking water. Domestic water treatment used to be standard in foreign nations, but I think it has become a necessity in the United States because of all of the waste that gets dumped into the soil and rivers.

By allenJo — On May 09, 2011

We use filtration for our home water treatment and it’s been working for us quite well. We have to change the filters about once a year but other than that we just set it and forget it. Some people ask if we can really taste the difference between filtered and unfiltered tap water, and I definitely can.

Some people actually prefer the “taste” of tap water, having been accustomed to it for so long. I don’t know if it’s the fluoride or the contaminants in the tap water that they miss. I suppose that in contrast, filtered water can taste sterile at first try, but trust me, you’ll get used it, and it’s safer in the long run.

By donnieaustin — On Jun 20, 2008

Please give me a brief explanation of how one should inject liquid ammonium sulfate along with chlorine to lower the risk of DBPs.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to HomeQuestionsAnswered, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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