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DC’s 2020 Chlorine Switch: I Have Defeated You

April 22, 2020

One drinks pitcher and two filtered water pitchers at the ready

It’s that time of year again in DC — all the green things are popping up, the gorgeous red leaves on the Japanese maple trees are unfurling, the soon-to-be bloodthirsty mosquitos are innocent of crimes, and DC’s water reeks of chlorine. DC’s 5-week long 2020 Chlorine Switch doesn’t care about the global pandemic or about how the water becomes undrinkable for many people. But thanks to the odd necessities created by the novel coronavirus, I’ve defeated the Chlorine Switch for the first time ever!

Here’s a TL;DR link to my DC Chlorine Switch dechlorination process at the bottom of this post.

But I see you are still reading. Perhaps a promised tale of victory in these troubled times is appealing? An Earth Day victory even?

I’m a big fan of tap water. I get a lot of looks about this, and those looks suggest I’m a fool. I don’t care! I drink the tap water throughout the U.S. unless it tastes funny. In international locations with dodgy water, I don’t hesitate to boil it for 2 minutes. Boiling water means I don’t add plastic to the trash, and it leaves me feeling better about my environmental footprint — like I’m honoring an unspoken social contract related to my occupying a few feet of  another country’s beach for a week.

DC’s Chlorine Switch may be maddening, but I know it’s done to keep the drinking water safe. Usually, the water has a different disinfectant in it — chloramine. I can’t taste chloramine. Most people can’t. Here’s the EPA’s “Basic Information about Chloramines and Drinking Water Disinfection.” Five weeks of the year, though, water companies across the country switch to chlorine instead. Putting chlorine into the water system means bacteria can’t develop resistance to chloramine, and the amount of lead that leaches into the water from lead pipes is greatly reduced. Switching to chlorine for 5 weeks a year saves lives and makes other lives better. It’s the right thing to do, but there are complications.

DC’s Water’s guidance about the Chlorine Switch says, “During this time, you may notice a slight change in the taste and smell of your drinking water.” If so, their recommendations are to do the following:

  • Run the cold water tap for two minutes. Run it for 5 to 10 minutes when water is not used for several hours.
    • [The Chlorine Switch may deserve initial caps, but I require all-caps to express my thoughts in this case: RUNNING THE WATER DOES NOT HELP ENOUGH!]
  • Refrigerate cold tap water in an open pitcher. Within a few hours, the chlorine taste and odor will disappear.
    • [WRONG!]
  • Some filters may reduce the chlorine taste and smell. DC Water recommends using devices that are installed at your faucet tap or pitcher-style filters.
    • [I ALREADY FILTER MY WATER! DON’T PATRONIZE ME!]

Okay, so the water smells and tastes bad. Surely, a normal person could just deal with it, drink something else. How bad can it be? Waaaa, waaaa, waaaa! Don’t I have something better to do like ponder charts showing the exponential infection rate growth of the novel coronavirus or contemplate one grocery store’s item replacement algorithm?

egg replacement fail

This is not an ad. These were my egg replacement options. Good luck not googling “Butter Krak.”

In fact, I do have better things to do. Here are links to some of my favorite science news sites — AAAS’s Science Insider and The Lancet’s Covid-19 Resource Center. While I’m reading those sites, I like to drink a large glass of water, which is literally one of just 3 things I can drink! (Milk and tea being the other two. Alcohol, I miss you.) There’s some ancient patch of gastritis in my stomach that simply will not go away. I need to be kind to it, or it wreaks its vengeance upon the rest of me. Things I can’t pour onto that gastritis patch include but are not limited to: anything sour, anything acidic, and WATER WITH CHLORINE IN IT INSTEAD OF CHLORAMINE!

I am not the only one in DC with a chlorinated drinking water issue. During the Chlorine Switch, the water aisles at the grocery store are denuded.

Like so many others, I have to purchase enough water to get me through those five weeks. It’s so much plastic. It’s atrocious. The purchases usually happen a few gallons at a time with each trip to the grocery store. Plus, I always have a several gallons of water stored at home. That’s not just because of Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines but also because of how many times I’ve seen the bottled water supply dry up locally during the Chlorine Switch.

I’m not the first to say this year is different from other years. I’m also not the first to marvel at just how much crazy 2020 already has packed into it. And I thought we were full up of crazy considering the last four years. I’m expecting the Ghost of Christmas Present to offer everyone a double dose of extra-strong happy cider in 8 months. This is a special year. Thanks to the global pandemic, in addition to the dearth of yeast, tissues, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, frozen pizza and fat-free milk, bottled water is not so easy to come by.

Two weeks before the March 30th Chlorine Switch was set to start, I knew I was in trouble.

So I learned about all kinds of ways a normal person tries to clean up their water. Here’s the CDC’s information about “Making Water Safe in an Emergency.” Here’s another site about how to make a still for water, not moonshine! I would need a space much larger than my postage stamp backyard to accomplish a chlorine-free water still, and I’m pretty sure the local squirrels would use the plastic sheet as a slide just to mess with me. On the super-positive, non-rabbit-hole side, now I know why I’ve seen clear plastic rooftop bottles of water during some of my travels — solar decontamination is super-effective!

Nothing I read directly applied to my situation, but I was starting to understand what might work.

Maybe chlorine dissipates into the air, or maybe the air affects the exposed chlorine in the water and changes it to something less hideous. Surface area of the water seemed to be important. My PUR water filter helped a little in normal circumstances, but not nearly enough. I had an idea, and Bed Bath & Beyond had the supplies that arrived in time!

Tools of victory - one uncovered drinks pitcher, two covered and filtered water pitchers, and a spatula

Tools of victory – one uncovered drinks pitcher, two covered and filtered water pitchers, and a spatula

Here’s what I do to make my water drinkable during DC’s 2020 Chlorine Switch:

  1. Fill up my beloved 2 liter (no-longer-used-for-alcohol!) open drinks pitcher with water.
  2. Leave the  uncovered pitcher on the counter for 6 hours. Stir the water occasionally. This is the only part that takes a bit of planning, but when I do it correctly, I can get in 3 rotations a day.
  3. After 6 hours, pour the open container water into a PUR water pitcher with a lead-reduction filter that claims to reduce chlorine taste. When transferring the 6-hour water from the open pitcher to the first filter pitcher, the water still smells of chlorine, but it’s not quite as bad as it smelled from the tap 6 hours earlier. This pitcher is covered. I’m using this PUR water pitcher and these filters.
  4. Once that first water filters, I pour the water into another PUR pitcher with a lead-reduction filter that claims to reduce chlorine taste. At this point, the chlorine smell is nearly gone. I put that covered pitcher into the refrigerator. For this second filtration, I’m using an ancient PUR water pitcher and the same filters as above.
  5. Soon, the water has filtered for a second time. The chlorine smell and taste is gone!

The process is a bit of a pain, but the alternatives are so much worse. And the process works! Done right, I can get 6 liters of water each day. That’s enough for drinking water, for cooking, and for sharing with the rest of the household. To get the supplies I didn’t already have cost $43. I would have spent $45 on water in gallon and multi-gallon sizes over the 5 weeks. And now there are no loads of plastic to be recycled and partially used. This is a huge victory!

Plus, as the winner of the Battle of the Chlorine Switch, I can save some of my lost time by drinking straight from the second filter pitcher. (I would never do that!)

Second PUR filter ready for duty with defrosting pandemic milk and essential brick-of-Velveeta on guard!

Second PUR filter ready for duty with defrosting pandemic milk and essential brick-of-Velveeta on guard!

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