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Safe Drinking Water

Water constitutes approximately two-thirds of the earth's surface and 60 percent of the human body. We use it to prepare food, wash dishes and clothing, bathe and swim in, and to irrigate. It is a vital element of our existence.

Most Americans take safe drinking water for granted, yet from coast to coast our lakes, rivers and other essential sources of drinking water are falling prey to pollutants that contaminate them.

Various government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) along with other environmental organizations report that 42 million Americans, about one in every six of us, are drinking water contaminated at dangerously high levels.

Since 1974, more than 2,100 organic and inorganic contaminants have been identified nationwide in drinking water at various levels by numerous survey programs, according to Ralph Nader's Center for Study of Responsive Law. Of the 2,100 contaminants, 190 are known or suspected to cause adverse health effects, including cancer, at certain levels of concentration.

Microbiological contaminants or bacteria are responsible for the vast majority of reported cases of acute illness. Lead, radon, hydrocarbons, pesticides, arsenic, cyanide and mercury are just a few of the other contaminants that can be found in drinking water.

You can do something to minimize the potential health risk that contaminated water poses.

First, if you have lead pipes replace them with copper. Even newer homes with copper pipes aren't necessarily safe, especially those that use water softeners. This because the otherwise safe copper plumbing may have been installed with lead solder. The water softener makes the water more corrosive, slowly eating away at metal pipes. This will loosen the lead solder at the fittings, causing it to leach into the water. A water softener installed at the point of use will prevent this problem.

Modern technology has graced society with a myriad of devices to clean and purify water. The basic systems are activated carbon or "charcoal," distillation and reverse-osmosis.

Charcoal filters are effective in trapping many volatile organic chemicals and industrial solvents and certain pesticides. They also are effective in removing foul odors and enhancing taste. There are many types of charcoal filters. They range from small, nearly useless units that screw onto the end of a faucet to wholehouse systems that attach to the home's main water inlet. Various models are available for countertop use, under-sink installation or in-line for an ice maker. Prices for activated carbon filters range from about $25 for the faucet-end models to well over $1,000 for top-of-the-line wholehouse systems.

Distillation systems heat water into steam and then cool the steam until it condenses back to water. This process leaves volatile and non-volatile chemical contaminants behind. These systems also remove some heavy metals such as cadmium, chromium, iron, and lead in addition to arsenic, nitrate and sulfate. Distillation systems range from $225 to $1,500 and are suited for either countertop use or under-sink installation.

Of the various filtering systems available, distillation systems offer the fewest choices and unlike either of the other systems, require a separate power source.

Reverse-osmosis (R-O) units force water through a membrane that filters out impurities. As with the distillation systems, R-O units are useful in removing arsenic, cadmium, lead and other heavy metals. They also remove chlorine, nitrate, radium sulfate and parasites such as Giardia lamblia which is a protozoan found in the intestines of animals. One potential disadvantage of R-O units is they use two to three gallons of water for every good gallon produced. The rest goes down the drain. On the other hand, you could be wasting this much or more water clearing unfiltered water lines.

Reverse-osmosis systems range from $250 to $1,000 and are designed specifically for point-of-use installation, but can serve more than one fixture at a time. For example, the unit can be installed under the kitchen sink with a dispenser spout at sink level and a separate tube that leads to an adjacent ice maker installation permitting.

If the replacement of plumbing pipes or the installation of a water filtration device are budget busters, there are simple, inexpensive measures to reduce health risks.

Avoid drinking hot water from the tap since heat makes lead more soluble in water. Use cold water for all cooking for the same reason. Also, run tap water for a couple of minutes before drinking it, especially in the morning. This flushes out water that's been sitting in the pipes for a while.

Another alternative is bottled water for drinking and cooking and tap water for everything else. However, even bottled water has its drawbacks. You may not have any more assurance of its safeness than you do that of water that flows from your own tap. Even though it's true that standards of quality for bottled water are at least as stringent as those for tap water, it's also true that 25 percent or more of bottled waters are little more than packaged tap water. There's nothing illegal about a company selling water it has gotten from a public supply.

Read labels on water bottles to determine the source of the water. If the label says the water is from a natural source or spring, you can generally rely on it. If it says "drinking water" or "bottled drinking water," the water source might be a municipal water supply.

If you choose bottled water, check to see that the company that is packaging it is a member of a trade group known as the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA). Also look for the term "NSF-certified" on bottle labels. Most IBWA members undergo a yearly unannounced plant inspection by the National Sanitation Foundation to ensure that standards at least as stringent as those for tap water are being met. Not all IBWA members are NSF-certified. In the long run, high-demand use of bottled water can end up being more expensive than an upgrade filtration system, and bottle management can become tiresome.

For more information on water safety call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791.

Getting the Chill Off Your Home

Trying to keep your home comfortable while preventing your utility bill from going through the roof can be a balancing act.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a whopping 44 percent of the average American utility bill goes for heating and cooling. Clearly, this figure is less for more energy-efficient homes and more for drafty homes with gas-guzzling furnaces. That you can enjoy comfort and a low utility bill without taking additional steps to ensure these conditions is wishful thinking.

No matter what kind of heating system you have, you can save money and increase comfort by properly maintaining and upgrading your equipment. But remember, an energy-efficient furnace alone will not have as great an impact on your energy bills as using the whole-house approach. You may have a top-of-the-line, energy-efficient furnace, but if the ducts leak and are not insulated, and your walls, attic, windows and doors are not insulated, your energy bills will remain high.

By using proper equipment maintenance and upgrades with appropriate insulation, weatherization, and thermostat settings, you can cut your energy bills and greatly improve comfort.

Regardless of the type of heating system you have, keeping it in tiptop operating shape comes first. Replacing a dirty filter is one of the simplest and most obvious maintenance tasks. Clean or replace the filter monthly during the heating season. Depending upon the filter style, a new filter can cost from $1 to $5, but can reduce your heating bill between 1 percent and 4 percent. Moreover, a clogged filter can reduce airflow and thus the efficiency of the furnace.

On older furnaces, a loose fan belt that drives the blower is a common energy-waster. A furnace that makes a screeching sound when it kicks on is a sure sign or a loose or deteriorated fan belt. To inspect, adjust or replace the fan belt, simply remove the furnace front panel to expose the belt. Depress it with your finger; it should give no more than an inch (1-half to 3-quarters of an inch is normal). Use a wrench to loosen the fan motor adjustment bolt(s) and move the motor away to tighten the belt and closer to loosen it. These steps also can be used to replace a worn or damaged belt.

Are you heating your attic or crawl space? Crushed, deteriorating or damaged ducts are a tremendous source of wasted heat. Annually inspect the condition of the ducts, especially where sections are joined. Repair or replace damaged sections and ensure that all joints are airtight, using a metal duct tape. This metal reinforced tape is stronger than the traditional fabric duct tape.

Are some rooms too hot or too cold? Try adjusting the dampers at the registers (adjusting them closed in rooms that are too hot and opening them in rooms that are too cold). If your system has them, you can control the amount of air going through a warm-air duct by adjusting the dampers located within the ducts.

Perhaps your furnace needs a boost, a booster fan, that is. Booster fans can be used at either the register, within a duct, or at both locations. A register booster fan, found at most hardware stores for $25 to $50, is installed in place of the standard register cover. The fan is designed to kick in when it detects a small amount of warm air coming from the furnace.

If that doesn't do the trick, and you need more horsepower, consider installing a low-wattage in-duct booster fan. As the name implies, this booster fan is installed in the duct and is usually wired to the main furnace blower fan to kick on at the same time. It can also be wired to a separate thermostat or to a manual switch when more air is needed in a particular room. An in-duct booster fan will set you back a bit more than the register-mount model. Plan to spend about $200 to $500 for professional installation by a heating contractor.

Before running off to the hardware store or calling in a contractor, you might be able to take the chill off by simply moving a piece of furniture. Often, the return air duct (the duct that draws air into the furnace) and/or the register (the return air supply through which heat is delivered) are obstructed by a piece of furniture or heavy drapes prohibiting each from doing an efficient job. Making sure there is ample clearance in front of each of these registers can solve this. Plastic air deflectors can also be installed at locations where drapes or other window treatments impair the performance of supply registers.

There are many other steps that you can take to improve comfort and energy-efficiency:

  • Cut down on drafts by caulking and/or weather-stripping around windows and doors.
  • Check the condition of your insulation. Do you have enough, and is it in good condition? Compressed insulation loses its value. Many utility companies offer a free energy audit that uses infrared technology to identify heat loss.
  • Installing a setback thermostat will give you heat when you most need it and will shut the system off when no one is at home.
  • Turn down the thermostat. Turning the temperature down just one degree can reduce your heating bill by 2 percent to 3 percent. Thus, turning the thermostat down from 72F to 68F can reduce your heating bill by up to 12 percent. Set the thermostat for 62F at night or if you're at work, all day.
  • Close the fireplace damper when the fireplace is not in use.
  • Vacuum vents and registers, and have the furnace and ducts professionally cleaned.
  • Install decorative ceiling paddle fans and run them in the reverse direction to circulate hot air trapped at ceilings.
  • Open window coverings to allow sunshine in and to create natural air currents. Be sure to close them at night.
  • Finally, don't forget that one of the best ways to take the chill off is by throwing on a sweater.