Professional, ethical testing will start you off on the right foot and will directly determine which services the customer may need.
Many substances could be in a customer’s water, but, “It’s not necessary to test for every parameter; that’s what labs are for,” advises Rob Samborn, director of sales and marketing for HM Digital, a Los Angeles-based maker of water testing instruments.
For onsite testing, the first procedure usually is a total dissolved solids (TDS) test, Samborn observes. “If TDS is low, you may not need to do additional tests,” he says. For precision, he recommends TDS testing with a digital meter.
TDS testing is easy, inexpensive and quick, Samborn says, and can be followed by testing for pH and other factors.
Eric Umbreit, manager of sales and marketing for Orbeco-Hellige, Inc., a Sarasota, FL-based company which makes equipment and reagents for water testing, agrees, saying TDS is a good indicator of overall levels of contaminants: “It tells you how far from pure water you are.” For any type of testing, Umbreit also recommends performing a trial test off-site before visiting the customer. A trial tells you whether your equipment is performing properly and will give you a preview of any necessary reagent “waiting times.”
Color pros and cons
Umbreit says that in addition to electrochemical devices like TDS/conductivity meters, there are two other main onsite water testing technologies: titrametric, in which drops of a reagent are added (titrated drop by drop) to a water sample to look for a color change; and colorimetric, in which a reagent unique to each contaminant is compared visually or electronically to a known reference.
Visual color-comparison methods are inexpensive and often work well, but they have one drawback: the human eye is not very good at measuring color. “I say it’s blue, but you say it’s purple,” Umbreit says. “Different lighting conditions also can affect how color is observed.” The advantage of using a colorimetric instrument, like a photometer with digital readouts, is that “the instrument sees the same thing no matter who’s using it.”
Some recently developed test-strip products have become more sensitive, notes Mike McBride, marketing manager for Industrial Test Systems (ITS), based in Rock Hill, SC, a maker of both test strips and meters. “It really depends on the customer” as to whether you use meters or test strips, he says, but he advises having both technologies available.
Be a teacher
Customers need to be educated about exactly what you are doing and what a test does or does not show, advises Charlie Gloyd, marketing manager for water conditioning products at LaMotte Co., based in Chestertown, MD, a manufacturer of air, water and soil analysis products.
“Interpretation of test results is not always presented in the best possible manner” in the industry, he says.
For instance, Gloyd says, “The average customer thinks that a 200 TDS sounds like a big number. But it’s really not that high when you tell them what the EPA recommends.” (The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends a maximum TDS of 500 parts per million [ppm].)
Customers also should be clear about the difference between hardness measured in grains per gallon (gpg) and in parts per million (1 gpg = 17.1 ppm as calcium carbonate equivalent). Otherwise, they may incorrectly compare gpg numbers with ppm, perhaps when they’re looking at another company’s results.
Samborn says dealer representatives should also avoid confusing TDS with hardness or softness, when in fact TDS measures the total number of “hard” and “soft” dissolved solids. He notes that TDS meters actually measure the electricity conductivity of water with probes and then automatically translate that mathematically into an estimate of TDS.
A photometer detects and measures many common substances by shining a light beam through a vial containing the water sample and a reagent (or in one patented technology, through a test strip containing a reagent). It measures how the sample absorbs the light beam and compares it to a baseline sample.
Gloyd says photometers are becoming less expensive — formerly in the $600 to $800 price range, they are now closer to $200. Depending upon model, photometers measure from one to upwards of 30 parameters, some even discerning down into individual parts per billion (ppb).
Gloyd cautions that there still isn’t “one meter that fits all,” despite the wishes of many in the industry. McBride notes that your testing equipment and routine will often be different for private well water vs. public water. Umbreit says water temperature’s effects on test results must also be taken into account.
Test, don’t kick
Gloyd emphasizes the importance of properly maintaining and storing test equipment (such as not letting a meter kick around the floor of a truck) and of regularly checking their calibrations. He urges checking meters every two weeks, more often if possible, by testing a water sample that has known parameters.
With normal care and maintenance, a quality TDS meter can last up to five years on a single set of electrodes, according to Gloyd. Some meters have replaceable electrodes. With a photometer, Umbreit says, the user must be sure that the sample cells remain clean and unscratched; otherwise, more light will be absorbed by the cell and cause readings to increase.
After you’re done educating the customer and testing their water, don’t forget to stop and simply listen, McBride urges. The customer might then tell you (as they would a doctor) about the real problem your tests didn’t reveal.