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The hard truth about East Lansing’s harsh, drying water – The State News

Friday, November 3, 2023
Pipes lead to a boiler connected to an anaerobic digester on Monday, Nov. 26, 2012, behind the MSU Dairy Teaching and Research Center. The anaerobic digester creates renewable energy from recycled organic matter, such as food waste and cow manure. Julia Nagy/The State News
Are your showers getting you clean? 
Hard water may not be a term many are familiar with, but it's something most MSU students have certainly experienced. The water, which is high in mineral content, can cause dry skin and weaken water pressure.
What is hard water?
Hard water is a non-harmful form of drinking water that comes from groundwater supplies and is determined by the milligrams of calcium per carbonate per liter. Hard water contains calcium carbonate and magnesium that reside inside the water molecules which can affect how water interacts with different surfaces. Water from the ground in Lansing is very hard, but through water treatments, groundwater can be softened. 
By pumping the groundwater into a conditioning plant, lime is added to the water to remove the calcium carbonate and magnesium before ferric chloride may be added to treat fine particles of minerals in the water. Then, the water goes through sand filters, much like the regular water cleaning process, to remove cloudiness that was not removed during the chemical treatment. In East Lansing, this method recycles and removes around 65% of the hardness of the water.
East Lansing Meridian Water and Sewer Authority, or ELMWSA, maintenance planner Joel Martinez said the cleaning process is integral to East Lansing's water supply to maintain a moderately hard level. 
“We are a 24-hour-a-day staffed facility, 365 days a year," Martinez said. "We do constant chemistry checks to the water as it comes through the plant. We’re doing multiple tests per hour to ensure we are putting out the correct quality. We want the correct amount of softening.”
The reason that water cannot be softened more in East Lansing is because of the negative effects soft water has on pipes, as soft water has a higher sodium content that could corrode the older pipes in the area. For that reason, the ELMWSA finds a middle ground between soft and hard water.
“It’s good for the pipes, and the pipes will last a long time, but we also want the water to be softened,“ Martinez said. “If you soften the water too much, it actually becomes corrosive to pipes, so that's why we don’t remove all of the hardness.”
The form of measurement for water hardness is in parts-per-million, or ppm, that ranges from zero to 180 mg per liter. 
Up to 60 mg of calcium carbonate is considered soft water, 61 to 121 mg is listed as moderately hard and 121 up to 180 is ranked as hard. Anything above 180 mg of calcium carbonate is considered very hard.
In East Lansing, according to the annual water-quality report, total hardness sits at 110 ppm, just below hard levels, with a pH scale of nine units. Regular drinking water sits in the range of 6.5–8.5 pH, which makes the water in the area more alkaline. Alkaline water has positive benefits for the human body and pH level, which actually makes tap water better to drink than purified water.
While there are benefits to drinking hard alkaline water, there are certain differences for moderately hard water. It is more of an aesthetic issue than most should worry about, but when searching for an apartment, it is important to know if the complex treats their water independently with filters or not. 
Soft water can pick up minerals from the system which could be hazardous in older lead pipes. In December 2016, the Lansing Board of Water and Light removed the last lead pipe in Lansing. 
Ways to spot hard water when searching for rentals can be tricky. Well-maintained complexes will keep the buildup of minerals cleaned regularly. Unmaintained hard water faucets will have white build ups of calcium and lime around taps, lower water pressure, spots of residue on surfaces that come in contact with water and sediment buildup in pipes and appliances like washing machines and dishwashers. 
“One thing that I look for in an apartment is that they have a bathtub instead of just having a shower,” ​​journalism senior Demetria Bias said. “For some bathtubs, if the water is harsh enough, it’ll make the drain of it rust and make it unappealing to the buyer who wants to get a lease at the apartment.”
How hard water effects MSU students 
If you’ve ever wondered why your hair was on the fritz while living in your dorm, or why sensitive skin can become a nightmare to handle when you’re away from home, hard water is the answer. Hard water can strip naturally-occurring oils from the skin, and, in turn, can leave a buildup of minerals on the body. Soaps and detergents will not be as effective in lathering  when in contact with the water causing soap scum.
On campus, Michigan State is supplied water from their own pipeline which does not contribute to the greater East Lansing area. In 2019, the Michigan State Water Quality Report said the hardness of water averaged at 591 ppm, which blows East Lansing out of the pool. 
“When I lived on campus, I could tell it was hard because it smelled like pennies,” Bias said “It smelled like metal compared to having water back home. I didn’t wash my hair when I stayed on campus … because I lived in McDonel and it was too rough, so I said no. You always hear stories of it turning girls' hair green and it stripping it of its nutrients.”
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Communications and journalism senior Brea Crawford spoke about how water on campus affected her hair and even body at times when living on campus. Choosing to live off-campus, the conditions of the water and treatment were an important part of the renting process.
“I was realizing as I was eating food on campus, I was having very bad stomach pains to the point where as soon as I would brush my teeth or eat food in the cafeteria, I would have to go to the bathroom,” Crawford said. “I did go to the doctor three months into me being on campus, and she did let me know it was due to the water on campus. … I knew from that moment forward I needed to move off-campus if I wanted to survive as a Michigan State student.”
A reverse-osmosis filter, or an RO filter, is one of the only ways at-home services can soften water. By asking apartment complexes if they offer RO filters for showers or faucets, moderately hard water can be softened to reduce the effect on drying skin and leaving residue on surfaces. As RO filters are expensive and hard to install, Martinez recommends point-of-use shower system filters, which are easier to install for in-unit applications. 
“If you’re up here by yourself with no parents, your health comes first,” Crawford said. “College is already so stressful, so something so simple as water — a necessity that we need — that could possibly take you out? It’s scary.”
This story is part of our 2022 spring housing guide. Read the full issue here.

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