Water Treatment Tutorial (Part 1) – Particulate

Water Treatment with Particulate

There are various contaminant types that can make surface water unsafe to drink and learning how best to reduce/remove those contaminants is critical to water treatment.

These contaminants can generally be classified as particulate, biologic and chemical substances.

In this part of this water treatment tutorial we will focus on particulate.


Particulate contaminants in water can be divided into two types characterized by passing the water through a fine filter (1.5 microns). The particles that are large enough to be held back by the filter are called total suspended solids (TSS), while the particles that pass through the filter are called total dissolved solids (TDS).

Total Suspended Solids (TSS)

Suspended particulates that make the water cloudy include sediments such as silts and clay, fine inorganic or organic matter, and microscopic organisms. The technical term for this cloudiness is called “turbidity”. Water turbidity is measured by determining the clarity or transparency of a water column.

One simple instrument is a turbidity tube that consists of a clear cylinder (usually 1 meter tall) that has a target design on the bottom.  The cylinder is filled with water and slowly released from the bottom until the target becomes visible when looking down from the top of the tube.  The tube has a side scale with Nephelometric Turbidity (NTU) unit’s markings on the side (0 to 60 NTU scale).  Water suitable for drinking should read close to 0, meaning the target is visible through a full-length column of water.

Problems with High Turbidity

High turbidity in water can cause several water treatment and human health concerns.  These include:

  • High turbidity usually means a high dirt/organic debris/algae loading in the water. This  will more quickly load-up and clog any filter. But especially the micro filters used to remove/reduce any microscopic bacteria, spores and cysts.
  • High particulate load makes the water taste bad.
  • High turbidity can create habitats for other harmful elements such as bacteria or metals, that can accumulate onto the particles.
  • High turbidity caused by organic debris (algae, decaying leaves, fecal matter, etc.) seriously affects the any subsequent water chemical disinfection (chlorination). This is because the excess organic matter uses up the available chorine before it can kill the microbes.


  • Chlorination of water with excess quantities of organic debris can create harmful disinfection by-products such as trihalomethanes, haloacetic acids, and chlorites. These are EPA regulated contaminants.

Best Practices

For these reasons, it is best practice to remove/reduce the particulate loading of your water source first, before any subsequent treatment process you do to make your water suitable for human consumption.  There are several ways to this and include:

  1. Always choose the cleanest water source possible with the least amount of turbidity to minimize the particulate loading in the water.

    For water with visible turbidity and before filtering through PortaWell

  2. Pour the collected water through a fine weave cloth or bucket filter to remove the larger debris. Consider letting the water sit for up to 24 hours to gravity settle out the larger particles.  Carefully pour the cleaner water on the top into a new container before final treatment, while leaving the separated dirt on the bottom.

  3. Consider letting the water sit for up to 24 hours to gravity settle out the larger particles.  Carefully pour the cleaner water on the top into a new container before final treatment, while leaving the separated dirt on the bottom.
  4. Some waterborne particles are so fine that they will not settle out due to gravity but will stay in suspension. They will pass through any prefilter and quickly plug a downstream micro-filter.  A treatment used by municipal water treatment plants to both speed up dirt settling and remove very fine particulate is called flocculation.  This consists of adding a small amount (1/4 tsp to 5 gallons of water) of an inert chemical to the water and stirring vigorously for a short time. After waiting for a period of time, this causes the fine particles to clump together into a substance called floc that more quickly separates from the liquid water.  One common chemical used as a flocculant additive is alum which can be purchased from the spice aisle of your local grocery store.

Total Dissolved Solids (TSS)

Dissolved solids in water include salt (i.e. sea water, brackish water, saltwater swimming pool) and hard water substances such as magnesium and calcium.  These cannot be removed via ordinary filtration but must use processes such as reverse osmosis filtration, distillation, or ion-exchange.


Pretreating water with high turbidity before you run it through your PortaWell filters can greatly extend the life of your filters.  In an extreme situation where you may have to rely on your PortaWell (or any filtration system for that matter) to provide safe drinking water for a lengthy period, it is important to carefully make your consumables (filters) last until the emergency is over.  

The pre-treatment processes described above are like those used by your municipal water treatment plant but on a much smaller scale.  It is important to not only have the proper equipment to provide clean and safe drinking water, but also to know what your potential surface water sources are and how to configure your PortaWell for efficient and safe use.  

Next we will cover biological contaminants, what they are and how best to reduce/remove them.


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