By Andrew Warnes
Many of us in the water treatment industry eagerly await the day when a verifiable technology comes along to eliminate need for chemicals, salt and ion exchange resin. Decades of reliance on ion exchange have led to the general opinion it’s just a matter of time. A large European manufacturer—BWT Inc. of Mondsee, Austria—claims to have produced just such a readily verifiable device. Called the AQA Total, the unit uses electricity to modify hardness, claiming it remains suspended in water and doesn’t deposit in pipes or on fixtures. BWT chairman Andreas Weissenbacher is inventor/owner of the patent for the AQA Total, with six versions of the device for residential, commercial and industrial applications. In North America these units are marketed exclusively by Alamo Water Refiners Inc., though companies wishing to license the AQA Total technology for their own units can do so via an agreement with IQ Corp., a BWT subsidiary in Vienna.
BWT is a large and responsible company. According to its website, revenues in 1999 were almost $250 million with 1,800 employees in several countries. The company is already well established as a manufacturer of standard ion exchange equipment and other excellent technologies. BWT doesn’t claim the AQA Total will soften water, just eliminate the capacity for scale formation. This is similar to claims of various magnetic or “alternative” devices over the years. BWT is putting all of its weight behind the AQA Total and, according to its 1999 annual report, the AQA Total will be the foundation of the company’s efforts to internationalize in 2000.
In a July 1999 advertisement in WC&P by Alamo, the company stated “Now, there is a proven alternative that completely reduces lime scale.” A follow-up ad in the March 2000 issue stated the AQA Total has “the advantages of a conventional softener, but with little maintenance, no need for a chemical resin tank, and no dumping of brine contaminants into the environment.” Certainly, such a unit would be a boon to our industry.
We’re all well aware the launch of an alternative water treatment device will be met with skepticism. The manufacturer of such a unit has to prove that it works. Once the function is proven by a trusted third party, it’s usually up to the market to decide if the technology will sell. The water treatment industry in Germany has recently been through an incredible series of editorials, debates and lawsuits over the AQA Total because of ethical questions about the testing protocol used for approvals. A lot has been said and, if you don’t speak German, you’d probably never hear about it.
My concern is there has been a big push to develop a standard for alternative devices like the AQA Total and, in the rush, an inadequate standard was born. What happened to the AQA Total during testing is a good example of the work that remains to be done so consumers can be assured their alternative devices are safe and effective.
It now appears the credible, third party testing authority in Germany that originally certified the AQA Total device has conditionally modified its approval. DVGW is a very highly respected authority in Germany that over the years has developed a set of tests and certifications (similar to NSF International) that, according to a DVGW brief of March 1989, gives “the buyer a reasonable guarantee that the products are of high quality” and “should damage occur, he/she (a dealer, user or consumer) cannot normally be accused of negligence.” DVGW developed “Standard W512” for alternative devices and it’s this standard that’s attracting the most criticism.
A March 21 DVGW press release discusses how an AQA Total Model 2500 was subjected to re-testing that found circuitry of the device was “equipped with a mode that recognizes the test procedure according to (standard) W 512 and adjusts to it” such that “with regard to the water usage for a typical two-family home as a basis, this mode is not activated.” In short, the units passed tests to achieve Standard W512 certification because a computer chip inside could recognize the W512 tests and alter unit function so it would be able to reduce scale. In average homes, the AQA Total didn’t go into this special mode and didn’t reduce scale. The DVGW test mark wasn’t revoked, but BWT was told that the mark was suspended until adequate proof was received that modifications had been made to units with serial numbers less than No. 524802.
Much of the controversy seems to focus on the particular lab that made the original tests certifying the AQA Total. This lab, run by Dr. Ivo Wagner, is part of Karlsruhe University and is contracted to do DVGW testing. It apparently didn’t pick up on the fact the units were programmed to sense when they were being tested for Standard W512. Loopholes exist in the standard that would allow a unit to pass muster on a test bench but fail under average working conditions. Independent testing by a Belgian consumer magazine found the AQA TOTAL 1500 did have an effect on scale build-up on faucets; the unit also released carbon fines that, if not “maintained and replaced regularly, could become a real nest of bacteria (the count is reduced to normal after running water through it for a few minutes).” And “if no water is run through it for several days, the heavy metals content in the water treated by the AQA Total and similar types of units increases spectacularly,” the magazine found. If these results are accurate, it’s important having a standard for alternative devices to include testing for these parameters.
The end result in Germany is that the manufacturer now has to prove the AQA Total can work in the real world. DVGW said this had been done in AQA Total (Model 2500) units with serial numbers above No. 524802 “within the scope of the permitted subsequent improvements.” There has been some speculation in Germany the units now reduce scale by adding organophosphates. While there’s no proof yet that this is the case, if it were to be true, the AQA Total could no longer be considered an alternative device and should instead be tested using chemical dosing equipment standards. It would also mean the “chemical-free” claims of the unit would have to be withdrawn.
“Why,” you may ask, “should this make any difference to dealers in the United States?” If you believe, like I do, the market is the best place to decide if a unit works or not, it makes a big difference. The German market for residential ion exchange is tiny compared to that of the United States. It’s almost insignificant. The reason is because residential softener standards in Germany are incredibly restrictive compared to those we have here. Other standards in Germany also mandate softeners be equipped with disinfection devices because they’re assumed to be bacteriological threats. In that type of environment, there’s a ready market for alternative devices.
I worry that lenient standards for alternative devices are being developed while, at the same time, excessively restrictive standards are being proposed for softeners in Europe. You might look at the DVGW-contracted testing lab in Karlsruhe that enforces the restrictive softener standard is also the one which originally let the AQA Total pass—until industry uproar prompted worry about impartiality and forced a review. What remains to be seen is how it will affect the market for water treatment equipment in the U.S. Will regulations developed at the expense of the traditional ion exchange water softener make the AQA Total the right product for America? Our own Water Quality Association has established a Magnetics Task Force that includes two members from Karlsruhe in Germany (including Wagner) so one could assume German concerns will be addressed.
If you’re an average U.S. dealer looking at new technologies, it’s always a good idea to look skeptically at products billed as the “next best thing.” I support any product’s right to have a chance in the market and will always look for independent, credible, third party verification of product claims. I support development of an alternative device standard. If the protocol and testing of such a standard were weak or scientifically incorrect, our entire industry could fall into disrepute. The DVGW in Germany, once unquestionably respected, has been ridiculed because of what has happened in one lab with an alternative device. We can’t let the same thing happen to us in the U.S.
I also worry that softeners are being legislated out of Europe to the benefit of alternative device manufacturers. If the prospect of this scares you—either you’re a manufacturer of traditional units or because you depend on rental units and this type of legislation could hurt you—let your concerns be known to the WQA, which is a member of Aqua Europa. Aqua Europa is the federation of national water treatment associations, whose representatives serve as the body where such standards for the European Union are being developed.
- BWT, “AQA Total: With IQ against lime scale buildup!” company brochure, BWT Inc., Austria.
- BWT, “AQA Total: The unique lime scale protection system for domestic installations,” company brochure, BWT Inc., Austria.
- BWT, “Water Treatment with Responsibility,” Annual Report, BWT Inc., Austria, 1999.
- BWT Inc. websites: Austria, www.aqatotal. com; Austria, www.bwt.at; Germany, www.bwt.de
- Deutscher Verein des Gas und Wasserfaches e.V. (DVGW), “DVGW testing scheme provides consumer protection in water supply,” Wasser-Information 17E, Edition 3/89, Germany.
- DVGW Zertifizierungsstelle, “DVGW mark of conformity for BWT AQA total 2500,” press statement, DVGW, Germany, Jan. 26, 2000.
- DVGW Pressemitteilung, “Now what will happen to the DVGW test mark for BWT AQA Total 2500?” press statement, DVGW, Germany, March 21, 2000.
- Grünbeck, “Stellungnahme zur Presseerklarung des DVGW vom 26.01.2000” (“Comment on the DVGW press statement dated January 26, 2000), Germany.
- Hachhochschule Erfurt, “Alternative Trinkwasserversorgung” (Erfurt Senior Technical College, University of Applied Sciences, “Alternative Drinking Water Supply”), Scientific/Technical Reports, Germany, Volume 3 (2000) Issue 3.
- Konsument das Osterreichische Testmagazin, “AQA Total testsieger in Osterreich” (“AQA Total – Test winner in Austria”), Austria, December 1999.
- SBZ, “Grosshandler bittet wasser-behandler an einem tisch: Um Objektivitat bemuht” (“Wholesaler asks water treatment companies to the table: Endeavor towards Objectivity”), Germany, 22/1998.
- SBZ—Interview, “Under review: test results and learn and start-up phrases,” joint interview with BWT’s Peter Lorenz-Schmidt and DVGW’s Dr. Ivo Wagner, Germany, 22/1998.
- SBZ—Kommentar, “Wieder trouble mit den Wasserbehandlern: Wasser statt Whisky” (“New Trouble in the Water Treatment Industry: Water not Whisky”), Germany, 22/1998.
- SBZ, “Wasserbehandlung in der Nachprufung: Der DVGW meldet” (“Re-testing water treatment: The DVGW reports….”), Germany, 4/2000.
- SBZ, “Spielball der Wasserbehandler? DVGW auf Abwegen” (“At the mercy of the water treatment industry? DVGW on the wrong track”), Germany, 4/2000.
- Test–Ein Schlag ins Wasser, “Physical Water treatment Test Results,” Germany, Test 1/2000.
- Test-Achats, “Ne Gaspillez pas votre argent” (“Don’t waste your money”), Belgium, No. 429, February 2000.
- Schubert, R.W., C.R. Fricker and M.M. DeLattre, “The HPC Debate: Bacterial Re-Growth in Post-Treatment Devices,” WC&P, July 2000.
- Weissenbacher, Andreas, Weltorganisation fur obistiges eigentum–Internationale Veroffentlichungsnummer WO 98/16477 (International Patent Application filing number WO 98/16477), Austria.
For copies of translated articles about the alternative device debate from Europe listed above , please contact the author.
About the author
Andrew Warnes is international operations manager for Kinetico Incorporated, a worldwide water treatment equipment company based in Newbury, Ohio. He can be reached at (440) 564-9111, (440) 564-7136 (fax) or email: firstname.lastname@example.org