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The Great Water Robbery: Reverse Osmosis

Written for the Times Group Papers During the California Drought
By Gene Shaparenko - 07/20/03

At this very moment, dozens of high pressure door-to-door and telephone solicitation salespersons and water stores across the Santa Clara Valley are carefully devising clever techniques to sell your family two of the most water wasteful devices you can possibly buy---reverse osmosis water filters and water softeners.

We've heard so much about how to save water in homes during the last few months. We've concentrated on dripping faucets, water-saving shower heads, bricks in the toilet tank, etc. In the process, we've missed two of the biggest culprits in the bunch.


Besides the fact that reverse osmosis (RO) gives you drinking water which in most cases is far from pure and not what the State of California normally calls "purified water", Reverse Osmosis is one of the most incredible water wasters ever invented by man.

What is even more astonishing are the outright falsehoods that reverse osmosis salespersons tell about the waste water from these systems. If you don't ask---they'll never tell you that you could waste up to 10,000 gallons of tap water every year with the near continuous flushing required for most of these under sink systems.

Strong stuff? Perhaps. But don't you deserve the complete truth when you are laying out hundreds of hard earned dollars?

If you do ask about water waste, they'll normally grossly understate the water waste, and hope you never measure it.

If that type of deception still doesn't bother you, listen to this. In Santa Cruz county, effective March 1, we understand that the county will charge a sliding scale penalty for water use over the 20% mandatory water rationing cut in residential water use. Figures available indicate that this could be as much as $25 for every 750 extra gallons over your rationing limit!

If you have an RO system running under your sink, and we have a 40-45% water cut in Santa Clara County (no lawn watering, etc as our local water people now declare) you can expect to pay an additional 200-500 dollars per year on your water bill for the water wasted by a reverse osmosis system if our county adopts similar water conservation and rationing surcharge programs.

If you get the idea that we don't think reverse osmosis is a good idea right now, you are right. We think it is an ecologically unsound idea to use a device in your home that will waste enough water to annually fill a small swimming pool---and you can't do anything about it---except disconnect the system and sell it on Ebay!. If you rent a unit---simply return it and use bottled water during the drought.

Some dealers tell you their units don't waste water after the storage tanks are full. That's an unfortunate, poor design, because those are the units which will fail the quickest because of membrane fouling from salts, metals and lime which may be added to many of our water systems to reduce metal pipe corrosion. With reverse osmosis, you're trapped either way!

During times of drought in various parts of the county, some swimming pool companies may have to go out of business because of the 10 to 20 thousand gallons of water used by a new pool. With reverse osmosis, we have inefficient water filters costing less than a thousand dollars wasting the same amount of water that may keep swimming pool and landscaping contractors from an active livelihood! Perhaps RO systems should be banned..


The Almaden Valley and nearby areas will be getting much softer water after the Santa Teresa water plant goes on line. This means that if you were considering purchasing a water softener, you probably won't need it.

Secondly, it will waste more water that you will conserve by stopping all the dripping faucets, shower heads, leaking toilets, etc. Between 30 and 100 gallons of water are wasted about every two days during the "flushing cycle". This could amount to another 5000 to 15,000 gallons wasted every year by the normal operation of your water softener. In short, it's also a poor time to invest in a water softener.

If you own or rent a softener, extend the timing cycle an additional day or two---or just turn it off for a few months. If you must buy a water softener, first have your water tested by someone other than the individual from whom you would consider purchasing a softener---and find out if your really need the system.

Then look for a "demand" operated system which saves both salt and water.


Since an average family might use between 125,000 and 150,000 gallons of water yearly, and with a 40% expected cutback in water use, the total yearly gallonage allocated to your home could be around 75,000.

If you added an RO system and a water softener to your home at this point in time, you probably wouldn't stand a chance of meeting that 40% cutback since these two units could waste a total of 25,000 gallons of water yearly---enough to fill some of the bigger swimming pools in the Almaden Valley.

If you currently have these these types of systems installed, plan on disconnecting them for a few months---you'll like the amount of your water bill much better.

Be water wise---conserve water---and ask lots of questions before you jump into any type of water conditioning or purification system this spring.

Gene Shaparenko is a regular contributor to the editorial columns of this newspaper. He is a well-known Silicon Valley aerospace engineer and owner of Aqua Technology, a San Jose based water company.