Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth cries, “Out, damned spot!” with a plagued conscience. But for RVers fighting with hard water, the Bard’s words carry new meaning when observing the results after putting in supreme efforts to spiff up the family coach. Face it, hard water just naturally makes for those blasted water spots, and the bigger the rig, the more the heartache.
A few months back we were asked to evaluate a system—already marketed heavily to boat owners—that is said to dramatically reduce the issue of hard water on the outside of boats. “How about RVers?” wondered the folks at Stain-Less Water Filters, “They must have similar problems, what with yards and yards of fiberglass to clean.” Today’s big rig owners do have an issue when washday rolls around. After all, how do you manage to wash, rinse, then run around and get all those surfaces wiped dry before the air does it for you and leaves spots?
The Stain-Less system isn’t some kind of magical robot with a chamois at the end of each cybernetic arm. Rather, the system is a portable water softener. If you live in an area where hard water is regularly on tap, you probably have such a system built into your home. But when you head out on the road, it’s not practical to load up the home system and carry it with you. Here’s where the Stain-Less system comes in. But let’s do a bit of background before we talk about the filter.
Hard Water Goes Soft
Minerals and metals can naturally occur in a water supply, and the big “bad guys” are calcium and magnesium. If you have enough in your tap water, you’ll see the results. These mineral “ions” can reduce the effectiveness of soap, and lead to the buildup of lime scale that can really foul up plumbing. If your water is hard enough, those looking forward to a cool, refreshing, and a tasty drink of water come away with that BLECH! look after the first swig. Try and clean up with a good shower? Hard water erases the slippery feel you get from soap, and after a few showers, you may begin to see a buildup of soap scum on the shower wall. Imagine that same buildup on the side of your rig.
How do you get rid of the minerals in the water, making it “soft”? Calcium and magnesium ions can be exchanged for sodium ions. In a typical water softener, water is run through a confined bed full of resin beads that are holding sodium ions. The minerals cling to the beads, while the sodium jumps off the beads and into the household plumbing. When the beads have given up all the sodium, then a strong flow of sodium-saturated water is run through the bed, causing the mineral ions to jump off the beads and head off down the drain.
Some are concerned that all this sodium could be a health problem. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration looked at this and says that the amount of sodium given off by a water softener is less than 12.5 milligrams per eight-ounce glass of water—in the range of what the agency calls, “very low sodium.”
The Nuts and Bolts
Home water softener systems are built into the house plumbing system, and are typically large, heavy and expensive. Most (if not all) require a connection to 120-volt power to operate. As a result, they just aren’t practical for RVers. But the Stain-Less system is a bit different. Designed to be portable, these compact units can be tucked away in a basement storage unit or the back of the tow vehicle. We evaluated the company’s standard unit, rated to soften 5,000 gallons of water between recharges. The cylindrical filter is six inches in diameter and only 34 inches in length. While small in size, it isn’t light, so you won’t want to just lug it around anywhere. To handle that, the company includes a short hose to connect it to any obliging water faucet. The system lies flat on built-in feet, unlike conventional household softeners that stand upright. This gives this portable system stability.
We thought that an excellent place to field test the Stain-Less system would be somewhere that hard water is the order of the day. You can’t get much harder water than in Arizona, and we gave the Stain-Less water filter system a whirl using Quartzsite municipal water. We used an analytical test kit to evaluate the hardness of the water going into the Stain-Less system. Our test showed nearly 450 parts-per-million (ppm) of those pesky hard-water minerals. Since anything above 181 ppm is considered, “very hard,” we had an excellent water to try running through the filter. Results? The treated water coming out measured less than 40 ppm, well inside the 0 to 60 ppm scale for soft water.
What about the real world, subjective test? Since we didn’t have a fiberglass motorcoach available, we pressed a dark blue metallic-colored sedan into service. The buggy was thoroughly covered with mud from a recent Arizona rain shower. We used the typical bucket, rag and soapy water to wash the car and deliberately let it sit in direct sunlight to dry. Results? We considered this a particularly tough test, what with the sunlight and all. While there were some telltale traces of spotting here and there, overall, the Stain-Less system did a remarkably good job. We weren’t ready to give up the chamois completely for the little blue car, but on a fiberglass-sided rig, the spotting could be a whole lot less.
For our purposes, we’re more concerned with the water that goes into our RV freshwater tank. Since hard water has a nasty way of clogging pipes and ruining plumbing fixtures, not to mention giving you a nasty mouthful when tooth-brushing, drinking, or cooking, we were pleased to find the taste of water from the Stain-Less system was quite drinkable—no nastiness to report.
Care and Feeding
What about “care and feeding” of the system? While the company did rate our unit at 5,000 gallons between recharges, that might be a bit on the optimistic side for water as rude as that flowing out of the Quartzsite tap. But we could certainly expect plenty of rig washings and many tankfuls before regeneration is required. And regeneration is simple. The unit comes with an additional filter housing. That housing, when the system is in use, allows you to add a carbon taste filter. When the time comes to regenerate or service the system, salt pellets are put in the place of the taste filter, and salt-laden water runs through the unit, this time “backwards” from how water is normally treated. After a seven-minute flush, you simply disconnect the pre-filter cartridge, hook it up “forward,” reinstall the taste filter, and you’re set to go.
In practice, if you do much boondocking and live off your freshwater tank, simply hook the outflow of the filter to your RV water inlet port when you fill up. When you are “dockside” and have a city water supply available, put the Stain-Less system between the city water supply and your rig’s water inlet. Either way, your RV’s plumbing will get plenty of soft water, and your mouth a better taste.
The company will sell you enough salt to regenerate the system for about $6. If you have the room in your rig, you can easily beat that price by buying a 40-pound sack of water softener pellets at a big box hardware store for less than $10. You’ll get several recharges out of a bag that size.
But what about initial cost? The standard 5,000-gallon unit retails for $350. If your rig is less than 23 feet in length, the Stain-Less folks say you should be able to get by with the “mini” system that treats 1,000 gallons between regenerations, at a cost of $250. Got a really BIG rig? The “mega” system treats 8,500 gallons and retails for $700.
Is it worth the price? That’s a matter you’ll have to decide. We think it’s certainly a competitive unit. Many RVers have popped the suggested retail price of $366 for a popular RV water softener that doesn’t provide any sort of “gallons per regeneration” statement, only a claim that it “provides the owner with soft water up to 20 days.” On that basis, you could spend $350 on the Stain-Less standard system and pump 250 gallons of water per day – something we don’t think any RVer ever comes close to in the wildest of imaginings. And we seriously doubt you’d get too many rig washings out of the other unit.
You can get more information on Stain-Less Water Filters at stainlesswaterfilters.com or by calling (609) 296-2564.
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics. Visit icanrv.com for more information.