Water Wells and Zeolites

The water treatment advantage

By Greg Gruett

As the residential construction industry slowed down during the Great Recession, so did demand for residential water well drilling. Around 2008, many water well system professionals were forced to either shut their doors or diversify into other business models.

A logical step was to begin offering water treatment solutions. Since the water well system professionals were already providing customers with private wells delivering water to the home, it made perfect sense to help improve the quality of that water.

However, every water well is unique, and an in-depth understanding of the science behind water quality is needed to provide water treatment as a service. While the homeowner may believe the solution is as simple as installing a standard water softener, that’s rarely the case. The type of water coming out of one well could be vastly different from another well located just down the road.

You may find you need to install a few different pieces of equipment to properly treat water containing multiple contaminants. Yet that may not be necessary if you’re using a multifunctional media.

The Right Zeolites for Treatment

There are hundreds of natural zeolites. Some are frequently used in the drilling industry to keep the borehole open during the drilling process and well abandonment. Water well system professionals are certainly familiar with bentonites, which are used to keep surface water from causing contamination. The fine bentonite particles create a claylike liquid that hardens and seals the drilled shaft.

Natural zeolites are also used for filtration in water treatment, often helping to reduce turbidity and improve water clarity. These zeolites are mined from the earth and can be useful, but they have little ion exchange capacity, meaning they do not efficiently remove hard minerals and soften well water.

However, there is yet another type of zeolite that has proven to be effective at treating multiple aspects of problem well water. It is a compound known as sodium aluminosilicate, which is a synthetic zeolite with impressive properties.

While synthetic zeolites are manmade, the process used to create them is completely natural. Instead of being mined like other zeolites, sodium aluminosilicate is essentially baked in fields under ideal weather conditions using a special formula.

Synthetic zeolite crystals are produced over a period of two to four weeks through a unique process where the end product can be custom-engineered to control purity. This makes it a superior media for filtration, softening, and neutralization of water.

Synthetic zeolite has been the preferred media for treating well water for decades. After World War II, there was a shift in the industry toward treating municipal water, and polystyrene resin became a more commonly used media. However, the benefits of sodium aluminosilicate crystals extend beyond what typical resins can accomplish.

How Zeolite Crystals Work

One of the main ways sodium aluminosilicate differs from mined zeolites is it can offer a much higher ion exchange capacity. That means it has a greater ability to remove particles with a positive charge.

This includes calcium and magnesium, which are the minerals that cause hardness in water, as well as manganese and iron. In addition, the synthetic zeolite can correct mildly acidic water.

These zeolite crystals are also ideal for filtration, removing particulates and improving clarity. The media can be backwashed quickly, while standard water softener setups are unable to backwash fast enough, often causing the system to become plugged with dirty particles.

Sodium aluminosilicate can filter, soften, and neutralize in a single pass following this order of selectivity:

  1. Removal of manganese and iron

This zeolite is most effective at filtering out manganese and iron. The media has the highest appetite for these contaminants and is excellent at eliminating them from the water supply. It means your customers won’t have to deal with orange staining on sinks, toilets, and fabrics or a metallic taste in their water.

The media will continue removing manganese and iron until it is completely exhausted. Depending on the situation, we’ve found it could take more than 30 years before the media needs to be replaced.

  1. Softening

Sodium aluminosilicate has the power to soften water. It removes calcium and magnesium, the hardness minerals that produce lime scale buildup that are commonly found in many areas across the country. Hard water causes problems with plumbing and appliances as well as with a homeowner’s laundry, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. Certain formulations of synthetic zeolite have a higher capacity for reducing hardness.

  1. Providing pH balance

Specific formulations of sodium aluminosilicate are also used for correcting the pH of water. The zeolite can effectively neutralize mildly acidic water. Acidic water can cause blue-green stains and pinholing in copper pipes due to corrosion.

Diversifying into this space can have a big payoff with plenty of room for growth.

A Powerful and Efficient Media

Because these zeolite crystals are multifunctional, they can do the job of multiple pieces of water treatment equipment. For example, let’s consider a common case in which a home’s water has 8 grains per gallon (gpg) of hardness, 5 parts per million (ppm) of iron, a pH of 6.5, and total dissolved solids (TDS) of 145 ppm.

Using conventional water treatment methods, you would have to install an acid neutralizer, an iron filter, and a water softener. That’s three pieces of equipment to install, backwash to regenerate regularly, and service.

On the other hand, one unit with a bed of sodium aluminosilicate zeolite crystals can raise the pH, soften the water, and reduce the iron.

Another significant benefit of synthetic zeolite—it is engineered to be a hearty media. It is strong enough to withstand being treated with chlorine, which helps keep the unit clean.

Water softener salts are basic sodium chloride (NaCl), which is used in the ion exchange process to remove hardness. Using a special attachment known as a chlorine generator, the chlorides in the brine solution can be converted into free chlorine, which in turn is used to clean the synthetic zeolite media after every regeneration.

Disadvantages of Zeolite Crystals

While sodium aluminosilicate can do some amazing things to water, it’s not a magic bullet. You must understand how it should be properly applied.

For example: In order to use this media, the water must have at least 3 gpg of hardness and at least 80 ppm of TDS. It must also have a pH of 6.3 or above. Anything more acidic than that, the zeolite crystals will not be able to correct.

This media prefers clear water iron, which means it removes ferrous iron that has dissolved into the water. If there is ferric iron (or iron particles you can see) in the water, it will require additional filtration.

Going Hand in Hand

Understanding the science of water as well as the application of equipment and media can be intimidating. Moving toward this type of a business model may seem like a leap. While water treatment is certainly a mix of art and science, diversifying into this space can have a big payoff with plenty of room for growth. That’s why I often call water “blue gold.”

There is a generational shift happening among consumers. Millennials, many of whom are buying and building homes, won’t drink water that comes out of the ground or the tap unless it has been treated. There is growing demand for water that homeowners find safe and aesthetically pleasing.

If your company doesn’t provide water treatment as a service, another one will. It can cost another water treatment company a few hundred dollars to acquire a lead. But water well system professionals already have a foot in the door. You’re already talking to the customer about their water quality—so why not help them fix it?

Expanding into water treatment is your opportunity to provide a homeowner with quality water from the bottom of the well to the bottom of the glass. And, access to media like synthetic zeolite crystals can make the job of improving the quality of well water even easier.


Greg Gruett is vice president at Water-Right Inc., a water treatment equipment manufacturer his father founded in 1963. Water-Right focuses on providing valuable education and training to wholesalers, well drillers, plumbers, and its network of independent dealers. Water-Right’s sister company, Mineral-Right, is a producer of custom-engineered Crystal-Right zeolites for water treatment and other applications. For more information, visit www.water-rightgroup.com.

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