Sunday, November 29, 2009

Apple #422: How Water Softeners Work

I know, upon your return from your Thanksgiving break, the first thing you wanted to know about is . . . water softeners. You've been burning with curiosity, even waking up in the middle of the night asking yourself, how do those dang things work?

Well, maybe you haven't. But my friend Bob who just had surgery asked me to find out about them. He didn't want me to find out about gall bladders or surgical implements or nurse's scrubs. No. What he asked me about is water softeners. So, for Bob, here's how water softeners work.

In a nutshell, water softeners take hard water and make it soft. But we must crack that nutshell and ask, what is “hard” and “soft” water?

Hard Water

Out in the great wide world, water travels over rocks and through soil. As it does that, it picks up stuff. Of the stuff it collects, what we’re concerned with here are minerals, two in particular: calcium and magnesium. Water that has lots of calcium and magnesium in it is considered hard water.

Generally speaking, hard water can make life harder. Because of the calcium and the magnesium, it’s harder to get stuff clean. Your water heater has to work harder and it might get clogged up by those minerals. The rest of your house’s plumbing could get could get clogged by those minerals, too.

This is what hard water can do to pipes and fixtures, over time.
(Photo from Tommy Dorsey Water Conditioning)

Water that’s been softened has had most or all the calcium and magnesium removed. Most municipal water suppliers soften their water at least somewhat before sending it through their water lines to your house.

But many people do still have hard water. One source estimates that 75% of homes have hard water. I’m a bit skeptical of that percentage. It might be more accurate to say that 75% of homes have some degree of hard water. Like so many things, whether or not your house has hard water may not be a simple yes/no situation.

You can tell your water is hard if
  • After you wash the dishes, there are white filmy spots on them
  • The glass in your shower stall is frequently coated with a white film
  • Your clothes seem stiff and soapy-feeling even after you’ve washed them
  • You notice a white scale or even crystals in the little filter traps over the faucets
  • Instead of forming a nice, happy foam, soap tends to form a sticky, lumpy curd

One of the telltale signs of hard water
(Photo from eHow)

Here’s one layperson test you can do to get a good indication of hard water-ness:
  • Find a bottle that has a cap you can close and fill it about half full of water
  • Squeeze in about 10 drops of dish washing soap
  • Close the cap tightly & shake.
  • If the solution in the bottle makes a happy foam right away, you don’t have to worry about hard water.
  • If, however, the solution doesn’t get foamy but instead makes a soapy film on the inside of the bottle or even forms a lumpy curd, you’ve probably got hard water.

If you think you have hard water, the next question is, how hard is it? To find that out, you’ll need to have someone come and do a water analysis for you. Any place that sells water softeners will be happy to analyze your water for free – because they think they’ll be able to sell you a water softener afterward. Look in the Yellow Pages under “water analysis” to find someone near you, or for a slower response, you can contact your state's certified water testing laboratory.

A professional water analysis will give you a magic number that indicates how hard your water is, or how much calcium & magnesium is in it. The magic number is usually expressed in terms of grains per gallon (GPG), or if you’re going with the British units, milligrams per liter (mg/l).

Here’s the scale, in GPG, of water hardness:
  • Less than 1.0 = soft
  • 1.0 – 3.5 = slightly hard
  • 3.6 – 7.0 = moderately hard
  • 7.1 – 10.5 = hard
  • 10.6 and up = very hard

Knowing this magic GPG number is important because it will help you decide, first of all, if you need a water softener. If it's in the 7.1 and up range, you'll probably want a water softener. Below that, it's more a matter of personal preference than concern for the clogs that might build up in your pipes or water heater.

You'll also want to know this magic GPG number if you decide you do want to purchase a water softener. More on this later.

How Water Softeners Soften

Of course if you're going to get a water softener, or if you already have one, you'll want to know how they work. All water softeners have three basic parts, a mineral tank, a brine tank, and a control valve.

In this labeled photo, they're calling the mineral tank a resin tank. This photo is pretty big and I think this is an older model softener, but I wanted you to be able to see all the components.
(Photo from somewhere in the Family Handyman)

The mineral tank is hooked up to your house's water supply. Inside the tank are lots of little plastic beads. They’re made out of polystyrene and they’re called zeolites. But they’re kind of like little balls of Styrofoam. You know how those balls of Styrofoam will cling to just about anything? That’s because they have a negative charge and they’re looking for anything to fill in those missing electrons.

The hard water – which is water plus calcium and magnesium – goes into the mineral tank. The calcium and magnesium are both positively charged, so those polystyrene beads just love that calcium and magnesium. The C and Mg love them back, so much so that they will leave the water to cling to the polystyrene beads. This process is called ion exchange. But really, those minerals are so fickle.

Without the C and Mg, the water continues on, softened. Softened water feels different than hard water—slippery, almost slimy.

Softened water will also often taste salty, and that’s because of the next part of the process, the regeneration cycle.

Once enough water has passed through the mineral tank that the polystyrene beads are covered with calcium and magnesium, you either have to replace the beads or else get that calcium & magnesium off of them. It’s easier and cheaper to strip off the minerals. The main purpose of the regeneration cycle is to strip the minerals and thus make the polystyrene beads usable again.

In the first phase of the regeneration cycle, softened water is flushed back through the mineral tank to wash out any debris that might have collected in there and make the tank clean and ready to be used again. This is known as the backwash phase.

In the backwash phase, softened water is flushed through the mineral tank to wash out any nasties.
(Diagram from the Family Handyman)

The second phase – the recharge phase – starts in the second tank, the brine tank. This has a bunch of really salty water in it. Like the calcium and magnesium, sodium also has a positive charge, so the beads will like the sodium, too. The salty brine is flushed back into the mineral tank where the beads are and, though the positive charge of the sodium is weaker than that of the calcium and magnesium, the sheer volume of the sodium ions is strong enough to knock the calcium and magnesium off the beads and take their place.

During the recharge phase, salt water (brine) is flushed from the brine tank into the mineral tank to wash the calcium & magnesium off the polystyrene beads in the mineral tank.
(Diagram from the Family Handyman)

Once the beads have had time to swap partners thoroughly so that they're covered with sodium ions instead of the C and Mg, the mineral tank is flushed out and the old brine solution goes down the drain, as do the calcium & magnesium. The brine tank is then refilled so it's ready for the next regeneration cycle.

When the next batch of hard water enters the mineral tank, it will encounter those polystyrene beads that are covered with sodium ions. Since the incoming calcium & magnesium have a stronger positive charge than the sodium and since they’ll now outweigh the sodium, the calcium & magnesium will knock the sodium off and cling to the polystyrene. Thus all batches of softened water after the very first one will have sodium ions floating in it, and will taste salty.

The control valve, or timer, keeps track of this whole regeneration cycle and directs the water into the appropriate tanks at appropriate times. Depending on the type of water softener, the control valve might make the regeneration cycle happen on a regular schedule, regardless of how many of the beads are spoken for. With these types of control valves, softened water is not available during the recharging phase.

Other types of control valves are more sophisticated. They have sensors that can tell when the polystyrene beads are all full of calcium & magnesium and will begin the regeneration cycle automatically. Still others have a water meter to measure water usage and will initiate the regeneration cycle based on how much water has entered the mineral tank to begin with. These more sophisticated types of control valves will allow for a reserve of softened water so that some will be available even during recharging.

Purchasing a Water Softener

Water softeners are built to handle various levels of grain capacity (meaning grains of minerals you want to remove from the water) and water usage levels. But it's a bit confusing figuring out what size you need for your house.

Most water softeners fall in the 20,000 to 1,000,000 grain capacity range. To understand what this means for you, divide the grain capacity of the softener by the hardness of your water.

That's that magic GPG number you got when you had the water analysis done. Here's the table of grains per gallon one more time:
  • Less than 1.0 = soft
  • 1.0 – 3.5 = slightly hard
  • 3.6 – 7.0 = moderately hard
  • 7.1 – 10.5 = hard
  • 10.6 and up = very hard

Let's say you can get a good price on a 40,000 grain capacity softener, and your water has a hardness level of 8. Dividing 40,000 by 8 = 5,000, which means that the 40,000 grain softener working with your hard water will produce 5,000 gallons of water per cycle.

But is that a lot or not very much? To understand what that means for your house, you also need to calculate your home's water usage.

  • The average person uses about 50 gallons per day. Multiply that by the number of people in your house. This tells you the absolute minimum number of gallons per regeneration cycle you'll need your water softener to produce.
  • Say you have 3 people in your house. Multiply 3 x 50 gallons per day = 150 gallons per day is the minimum amount of water your house needs.
  • So a water softener that can handle 5,000 gallons in a house that only uses 150 gallons per day seems like overkill, right? Not exactly. That 5,000 gallons is how much the water softener produces before it has to run a regeneration cycle.
  • Dividing the 5,000 gallons it produces by the minimum 150 gallons we need tells us that it should be 33 1/3 days before this water softener will have to go through a regeneration cycle. In other words, it would have to run a regeneration cycle about once a month. And according to what water softener salespeople say, that's about right.
  • If the water softener you're considering runs on an automatic timer, which means you can't have any softened water while it's recharging, you'll probably want the softener's capacity to be larger so it doesn't have to run a regeneration cycle quite so often.

As far as how much to expect to spend, one site that's maybe a couple years old said that most water softener systems cost in the $800 to $1500 range, plus installation which is an extra $300 to $500.

After that, the ongoing costs are just electricity to run the system and monthly salt expenses which should not exceed about $2.50 per person in the household, or about $10 for an average family.


  • Generally, you should check your water softener about once a month to make sure the brine tank has enough salt in it. The brine tank's salt level should be about half full.
  • Sometimes the salt on the bottom of the tank dissolves but the top forms a kind of crust. It looks like there's enough salt in the tank but really the amount is lessening. To find out if that's the case and to break up the salt bridge if one did form, poke a blunt sort of tool like a broom handle into the salt. Be careful not to push too hard because you do not wan tto puncture the tank.

How to break up a salt bridge
(Diagram from Morton System Saver)

  • If you've added more salt to the brine tank, give the softener some time before you expect it to work as it should. It will take a while for the salt to dissolve.
  • You also want to make sure the brine tank is refilling with water properly. One gallon of water will dissolve 3 pounds of salt. So at least 3 gallons of water should be in the brine tank.
  • Finally, you want to make sure the brine tank is clean. Gunk may build up on the floor of the brine tank, and you'll want to clean that out of there every so often.

A good water softening system can last for a decade or two without much more maintenance than this.

What Kind of Salt to Use

A lot of water softener owners want to know if it makes a difference what kind of salt they put into their brine tank.

Some water softeners are designed to work specifically with one type of salt. Read the manual to see if any products are specifically recommended and go with that. If the softener allows you to make a choice, here are your options.

Three types of salt are generally available: rock salt, solar salt, and evaporated salt.
  • Of these, rock salt is the cheapest, but because it's still in the form of big crystals, it will take a lot longer to dissolve in the tank. It also contains a lot of other impurities & gunk besides salt. That gunk is going to collect at the bottom of your brine tank and you're going to have to clean that out more often.

Rock salt, in somebody's water softener brine tank. Hopefully you can see how the rock salt is crystalline.
(Photo from

  • Solar salt was originally seawater from which the moisture was removed. It's about 85% sodium chloride (NaCl). It will have some impurities in it, but not as much as rock salt. It's usually sold as crystals so it will need some time to dissolve, but again, not as much as rock salt.
  • Evaporated salt is salt mined from underground and from which the moisture is then evaporated by gas- or coal-powered plants. It's 99% sodium chloride with very few impurities. It's the most expensive of the three varieties, but it will also leave behind the least amount of gunk in the brine tank. If you use your water softener a lot and thus go through a lot of salt, evaporated salt is the recommended choice because it will require you to do the least amount of clean-out.

Solar salt and evaporated salt both get compressed into pellets like these.
(Photo from Anglian Salt)

If you're going to change the type of salt you use, wait until the salt you've been using is all gone before you switch. Mixing salts won't break your softener or do terrible damage, but using one kind at a time will keep any problems from occurring.

Should I Use Potassium Instead?

There are some problems associated with creating all that salt water. First, your drinking water will taste salty. For some people, especially those with high blood pressure, this can be quite an issue.

Here's how salty a water softener makes your drinking water:
  • Initial Hardness -- Sodium Added
  • 1.0 grains per gallon -- 7.5 milligrams/quart of water
  • 5.0 grains per gallon -- 37.5 milligrams/quart of water
  • 10.0 grains per gallon -- 75.0 milligrams/quart of water

To put this in perspective, 1 tablespoon of ketchup has 204 milligrams of sodium.

Most people solve the salty taste problem by putting a filter (Brita or some such) on their kitchen tap. But other people can't even have that much extra sodium in their diet.

Another issue with sodium is related to the brine discharge. Most places that have hard water aren't on a municipal sewer line but use septic systems. You do not want your septic tank to back up or quit working, no sir. But all the sodium in the brine discharge can screw up the bacteria count necessary to make septic systems work. This is enough of an issue that municipalities like Fillmore, CA and even entire states like Michigan, Texas, and Connecticut, have banned sodium-based water softener brine discharge.

All that sodium can also screw up the salt levels in your nearby watersheds -- rivers, marshes, what have you -- which means it makes it harder for plants to grown in that area and it changes the environment in which a lot of fishes and frogs and creatures live and breathe.

Another option besides sodium (NaCl) is potassium chloride (KCl). It's about three to four times more expensive than salt, but it won't mess with your septic tank, it won't change the fresh water surrounding your house to salt water, and it won't make your drinking water taste salty.

If you decide to make the switch from salt to potassium in your water softener, first make sure that your water softener's manual doesn't say it won't work with anything but salt. Second, make sure you've got all the salt out of the brine tank before you switch it over to potassium.

HowStuffWorks, How does a water softener work?
Thomas Klenck, How it Works: Water Softener, Popular Mechanics, August 1998
Bob Formisano,, Water Hardness Testing
Galt Tech, Hard Water and Water Softeners
Bob Formisano,, Water Softeners - How They Work
Lenntech Water Treatment Solutions, Water softener FAQ
Alpha Water Systems Inc, Frequently Asked Water Softener Questions
National Small Flows Clearinghouse, An Alternative to Softening with Sodium
Hamburg Township Wastewater Treatment Plant, Sodium Chloride Issues and Sodium Chloride and Water Softeners

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Apple #421: Spanish Moss

Also while I was in Florida, I took some photos of Spanish moss.

Spanish moss, growing lushly on this tree in Sarasota, Florida
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Contrary to what most people think, Spanish moss is not a parasite. It is an epiphyte, which means that while it grows on another plant, it gets its nutrients from the air and rainwater, not from the plant on which it's growing.
  • It's also not really a moss. It's a flowering plant -- a Bromeliad, to be precise.
  • It's not Spanish, either. The name comes from an insult. When the French showed up in the New World and saw the plant growing here, they called it "Spanish beard" to insult their rival colonists. The Spanish tried to get them back by calling it "French beard," but it was the insult to the Spanish that stuck.
  • The moss will wrap its stems around the host tree and hang leafy stems down from the branches. This helps it to absorb more moisture and nutrients from the air and from the stuff that's collected in the crevices of the bark. The leaves have cup-shaped scales that catch the water, and the leaves' surface is permeable so the water that collects there can seep in more easily.

Spanish moss, up close and personal. Not quite close enough to see the cup shape of the leaves, though.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • It's so good at catching water, it can withstand long periods of drought. If the weather gets too hot and dry, the plant won't die but will only go dormant until it can get moisture again.
  • The fact that it's so good at collecting water is what makes Spanish moss seem like a parasite. It can absorb up to ten times its weight in water. This means that the plant can become so heavy it can crack the branch it's growing on. If it grows lush enough, it can also keep the leaves from getting enough sun.

This much Spanish moss might be enough to break its supporting branches. Also note that while the moss is draping around the telephone wire, none is actually growing from the wire.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • It likes to grow on trees that have horizontal branches with lots of forks, and bark that's rough or scaly enough to catch the moss's seeds. This means it likes trees like hackberry or live oak.
  • If you really don't want Spanish moss growing on your tree, you can pull it off yourself if the tree is small enough that you can reach the moss standing on a ladder. If the tree is larger and would require someone standing in a cherry-picker to get to all the moss, it's probably too labor-intensive and therefore expensive to hire someone to pull off the moss for you.
  • The better recommendation is to prune the tree branches that are especially moss-laden. These will tend to be the more horizontally-growing branches. If you're judicious about selecting which few branches to prune, you'll have removed enough moss that the sunlight will be able to reach the leaves of other branches and thus improve the tree's overall health.

If the owner of this tree decided to get rid of the Spanish moss, he or she would do better to prune a select branch or two.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Spanish moss also likes places where there's lots of humidity -- near wetlands, ponds, or rivers -- because that will give the moss the moisture in the air it needs to survive.
  • You might see some Spanish moss on telephone wires. It may have been blown there, but Spanish moss can't actually survive on telephone wires (or on fences or on buildings or other non-living material). If you see moss that appears to be actually growing on a telephone wire, that's ball moss, not Spanish moss.
  • It can't withstand the cold. If temperatures drop below 22°F, the plant will die. This is why it grows mainly in the south, southeast, and west coast of the United States and in Central and South America into Argentina.
  • After about four days of blooming, the flowers give way to pods that hold little black seeds. These pods open in the winter to reveal anywhere from 2 to 23 tiny seeds. When the pods burst open, the seeds fly away on the air or are carried off by birds. Each seed is surrounded by a bunch of little hairs that help it float longer on the air currents.

A Spanish moss seed. If you looked at that link above to the flowers, you'd notice how the seed resembles the flower.
(Photo from

  • The little hairs on the seeds end in tiny barbs so that when a seed hits a tree branch it will stick there and grow. The seed won't form any roots, though; Spanish moss has no roots. In about two weeks, the seeds will have sprouted stems and it will be pretty much the full plant.
  • The plant can also reproduce if the wind or a bird carries a shred of it to a new plant. That shred will fix itself to the bark of its new location, sprout stems, and carry on with its business as usual.
  • Birds like to use Spanish moss to build their nests. Warblers, owls, egrets, and mockingbirds are particularly fond of Spanish moss as building material. Squirrels like it for that purpose, too.

I'm not exactly sure what's going on here. I took this photo looking up at a branch. I don't know if the tree has produced an offshoot that the moss is now growing on, or if some other plant has also taken up residence in the moss.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Lots of other creatures make their homes right in the Spanish moss itself. Chiggers (which are redbugs) and spiders like to live in Spanish moss. Since bats like to eat bugs, bats are also fond of living in Spanish moss. Since rat snakes like to eat bats, you can also occasionally find rat snakes in Spanish moss.
  • So, because of all these creatures that call Spanish moss home, if you collect Spanish moss yourself and you want to use it as a decorative bedding around your plants, inspect it carefully before you take it home. Some people dry the moss first in their microwave oven before using it in crafts.
  • All commercial processors that sell Spanish moss will have cleaned, dried, and heated the moss before packaging it to be sold in stores. So you won't have to worry about finding any bugs in your store-bought dried Spanish moss.
  • People used to use Spanish moss for all kinds of things:
  1. Mattresses -- the Spanish moss' natural insulating properties were said to help the mattresses stay cooler and more comfortable than ticking or other materials used at the time.
  2. Stuffing in the seat cushions of Model T Fords
  3. Bridles
  4. Saddle blankets
  5. Material used to repair fishing nets
  6. Filler in potholes and puddles
  7. Mulch
  8. Mixed with mud, as caulk in the chinks of colonists' cabins.
  • Back in the day (I'm not sure when; none of my sources provided dates for this) moss pickers wire hired to pluck the moss from the trees using long poles. They might be able to pull down as much as a ton of moss from a single large tree. Once dried, the moss might weigh only 20% of that.
  • Spanish moss is still used today as stuffing in upholstery and as packing material. And it's being studied by medical researchers as an aide in controlling glucose levels in people with diabetes.
  • But its most common uses today are as mulch to help retain moisture around other plants, and, dried, as decoration.

Even the Pottery Barn sells decorative Spanish moss.
(Photo from Not2Shabby)

Painter Hector Hernandez has still more ideas about how to use Spanish moss.
(Photo from Emvergeoning)

You might also be interested in this entry about true mosses.

University of Florida, Florida 4-H Forest Ecology, Florida Forest Plants, Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides)
University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Spanish Moss and Ball Moss
Dennis Adams, Information Coordinator, Beaufort County Library, Spanish Moss: Its Nature, History, and Uses
Garden Guides, Spanish Moss - Plant Information

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Apple #420: Sunsets

While I was in Florida, I took some pictures of sunsets.

(Photo of Sarasota Bay by the Apple Lady)

So here are a few of my photos along with some sunset facts.

  • Sunset happens when the earth has rotated far enough so that the place on the planet where we're standing no longer has light from the sun reaching it.

Diagram showing how the earth's rotation spins us from daytime to night. Sunset happens when our patch of earth spins out of the lighted area into the darker side away from the sun.
(Diagram from a NASA StarChild page)

  • But since we perceive sunsets not from a rocket's eye view above the planet but from where we're standing on the earth, sunset is defined as the moment when the top edge of the sun disappears below the horizon.
  • But there are all sorts of factors which confuse the moment when this happens.
  • First, the earth's atmosphere causes the light from the sun to "bend" so that even after the sun has disappeared below the western horizon, light is still coming to us. In fact, we're still able to see light from the sun for about 3 minutes after the sun has set.
  • (This span of time is actually twilight, which is just after sunset but before dusk. Dusk is the first onset of darkness, when the sun is about 18 degrees below the horizon. Both twilight and dusk are very brief.)

Twilight. The sun is below the horizon, but light is still sneaking up from the sun and giving everything just a tinge of light. A few minutes after this, and it was definitely dusk.
(Photo of Sarasota Bay by the Apple Lady)

  • Another thing that makes the moment of sunset confusing is, in a word, meteorologists. The times for sunrise and sunset that get posted in the weather page of your newspaper or by your local TV weather forecaster or by -- all those times are only approximations.
  • The time of sunset will differ depending on your exact latitude and longitude (where you're standing on the planet), and from one day of the year to the next. But it also varies depending on the terrain around you.
  • If you're standing on a mountain, the sun will set sooner than if you're standing on an open plain. But those meteorologist-published times are all based on the assumption that that particular location, no matter where, is at sea level.
  • So most likely, the time at which you see the sunset will be slightly different from the time posted by your local news station or newspaper or online.
  • Now, about those colors. Sunsets are reddish-orange because of the interaction of light and the atmosphere through which it travels.
  • Light is made of up of lots of different colors, which each have different wavelengths. Darker colors, like blue and purple, have shorter wavelengths. Reds and oranges have longer wavelengths.

Wavelengths of the different colors in visible light.
(Diagram from NASA)

  • Think of wavelengths as kangaroos. Shorter wavelengths mean the kangaroo bounces and hits the ground many more times than a longer wavelength will.
  • If there's something on the ground, like a boulder, and the kangaroo hits that boulder, it'll bounce off of it in a crazy direction.
  • If the kangaroo has a longer wavelength, it'll sail over the boulder and when it touches down on the other side the boulder, there might not be anything on the ground in its way, so it can keep going on its same path.
  • At sunset, there are a lot more metaphorical boulders in the way. The atmosphere the sun has to travel through at sunset is about 10 times thicker than at noon.

Diagram explaining why sunlight has to travel through a lot more atmosphere at sunset than at noon.
(Diagram from

  • Also there may be additional particulates in the air, like from pollution or smog or smoke from fires.
  • (What has the greatest effect, though, is volcanic dust. Volcanic eruptions result in spectacular sunsets for hundreds miles away from the volcano for months afterward.)
  • With more bumps in the atmosphere at the end of the day, the light coming from the sun has more metaphorical boulders in its way. The shorter, blue wavelengths (blue kangaroos) are more likely to encounter those boulders and get scattered (bounced) off in a different direction.
  • The longer, red wavelengths (red kangaroos) don't hit as many of those obstacles so they keep going all the way through the atmosphere to us. So this is why we see sunsets as primarily red and orange.

Most of the blues in the light have been scattered away, and the yellows and oranges remain.
(Photo of Sarasota Bay by the Apple Lady)

  • Each day, there will be different amounts and kinds of particulates in the air. Each day, we are standing on a slightly different spot on the earth. Each day, the earth is going through its rotations in a different place in its annual path around the sun. Therefore, each sunset is unique. We'll never see exactly the same sunset twice. Ever.

These sunset photos were taken at Lake Michigan. You can see how the quality of light is very different.

Sunset at Lake Michigan in the summer. This one has even more oranges and reds in it. Perhaps because the latitude is higher north, the light had more atmosphere to travel through?
(Photo taken by the Apple Lady's mom)

Same sunset at Lake Michigan, a little bit later. More reds yet.
(Photo taken by the Apple Lady's mom)

Inspiration Line, What's the technical definition of a Sunset or Sunrise?
Absolute, Sunset
US Dept of Energy, Ask a Scientist, Orange Sunset, May 24, 2004
Cottage Life, Fascinating facts about sunsets

Monday, November 9, 2009

Apple #419: Clogged Ears

The Weeki Wachee mermaids and I have this in common at least: ears getting clogged from swimming.

What's happening, more or less, when you get water in your ears -- it fills the outer ear canal.
(Diagram from

When I was a kid I swam in our community pool and in the lake all the time. A few other kids had all sorts of problems with their ears, and they had to wear ear plugs or even get tubes put in their ears. Proud little me who didn't know any better thought they were just wussies. I never had any trouble with my ears, same as I didn't have trouble with water going up my nose unlike other kids did, and I thought the two were equally as preventable.

Now that I'm older, I get water clogging my ears all the time. I do about five strokes of freestyle and whoosh, my ear fills with water. The right one especially. I have a theory that the shape of my ear canal has changed as my body has gotten bigger and now they let in water more easily. Since they make ear plugs that are sized differently for children and adults, I suspect my theory may be correct.

Regardless of whether my theory is true or not, the fact remains that I have to shake the water out of my ears a lot more often than I used to. So here are some tips about how to deal with water in your ears:

  • The first thing to try when you get water in your ears is to jerk your head sharply sideways toward the ear that is clogged. About five or six tries usually works the water loose.
  • If that doesn't shake it loose, some people say to do that while hopping on the opposite foot. If the water is in your right ear, jerk your head to the right and hop on your left foot. I have never been able to get that to work for me, though, because I'm so busy trying to keep my balance that I can't get a strong enough jerk to work the water loose out of my ear.
  • Other people say to lie down with your clogged ear against the pillow and wait. Take a nap for an hour or two. The water will drain out on its own.
  • If you don't have that much patience, there are some other items you can employ.
  • DO NOT USE Q-TIPS! All they do is shove ear wax deeper into your ear and wind up creating knobs of wax that can obscure your hearing and may have to be removed by a doctor.

Another reason Q-tips are bad: you can push them in too far and pierce your eardrum, like this. Ouch!
(Image from the Morning Mash-Up)

  • One of the best things to use in your ears is a solution of half vinegar, half rubbing alcohol. This is actually a solution recommended for ear infections, but it helps to dislodge water clogs, too.
  • The vinegar/rubbing alcohol solution works because it's acidic. Ear wax is naturally acidic and it helps keep bacteria and fungus at bay. Lots of swimming and showering can reduce the acidity in your ear and allow that stuff to start to grow (swimmer's ear, by the way, is an itchy bacterial infection). The vinegar/rubbing alcohol help to replace some of the acidity that's been lost and can fight those nasties that want to take root in your ear.
Equal parts of this

and this

  • Here's how to use it:
  • You'll only need a few drops so mix equal parts vinegar and rubbing alcohol -- say, a half teaspoon of each.
  • Make sure it's at body temperature. Some people's ears are very sensitive to cold solutions, so cold vinegar & rubbing alcohol could be painful. It can also help to use this solution just after a nice warm steamy shower.
  • Put just a few drops -- it's easiest if you have an eardropper -- into the affected ear and let it slosh around in there a bit.
  • Then tilt your head upright and wait. Fairly soon, the clogged feeling in your ear should go away.
  • The reason this solution works is mainly because of the alcohol. Alcohol evaporates more quickly than water, and it also takes some of the water with it as it evaporates. So even though it seems counter intuitive, adding this particular liquid to your ear will actually help get rid of the other liquid that's already in your ear that you can't get out.
  • You can also buy a product called Swim-Ear. It already comes in a bottle with a dropper nozzle so you don't have to worry about finding an eardropper for it. But it's 95% rubbing alcohol (a.k.a. isopropyl alcohol) and 5% glycerin, which is a soapy fat that will help the alcohol feel less harsh in your ear. Since Swim-Ear costs $3 to $7, and an entire bottle of rubbing alcohol and an entire bottle of vinegar together cost around $3, I don't think the Swim-Ear is worth the price.
  • If you have ear tubes or if you have a ruptured eardrum, or if you have any scratch in the skin of your ear, these solutions will hurt! If that's the case, you can use a vinegar-only solution. It may take longer to dry the moisture, but it will sting less and its acidity will still help fight the bacteria.
  • Some people also recommend a few drops of hydrogen peroxide in the ear, for the same purpose. It'll probably fizz like mad and that may also be uncomfortable.
  • If you don't want to risk any stinging solutions at all, you could also use an ear dryer. These are little dryers, specially made to aim into the ear canal and, depending on the type of ear dryer, blow cool or warm air into your ear to help the moisture evaporate faster.

Dryears blows little puffs of cool air from a squeezy-bulb and sells for about $15.

Mack's EarDryer is battery-powered and has 5 disposable plastic tips, which means it can be used 5 times, and it's approved for all ages, even children as young as a year old. You can order it through Amazon for the low low price of $63.

  • Or you could use a hair dryer. The hair dryer won't target the air directly into the ear canal the way those ear dryers will, but it can help. But be sure to put it at the lowest setting or else you could over-dry the sensitive, thin skin on your ears and maybe even burn it.
  • It's possible that either the ear dryer or the hair dryer could overdry the wax in your ear, in which case you'd become susceptible to bacteria and fungus, in which case you'll have to use the vinegar/alcohol solution. So probably it's best to start with that.
  • I'm going to say it again: DO NOT USE Q-TIPS! Or anything pointy like them!
  • To prevent the clog in the first place, you can use ear plugs designed for swimming. Some are made for children, some are made for teen-agers, others are for adults. Some are even moldable to fit the shape of your ear, and those are less likely to swim away from you. Some are made to go over the outside of the ear canal and come with a strap that goes around the head. This variety keeps those plugs in place but really makes your kid look like a total nerd.
  • Ear plugs, by the way, can still pack the wax into your ear just as Q-tips do, but because they're larger and more blunt, they can't push all the way into the ear canal. Still, it's a good idea if you use ear plugs on a regular basis to flush out your ears now and then with a mineral oil solution, to keep that wax from balling up in there.
  • Regardless of what kind of ear plugs you use, do not use them at depths any lower than 10 feet. The increased water pressure at that depth will cause the ear canal to close around the ear plugs and that could get very painful.
  • If you have an infection -- itching, swelling, pus, etc. -- go see your doctor. Lots of different things can cause ear infections, and a doctor needs to look at it to see what it is and give you the appropriate treatment.

[EDIT:] I found out that the size of the internal workings of your ear doesn't increase in size much after your teen years.  But the way your Eustachian tube functions -- how well it opens and closes -- can change as you age.

Related entries: ear wax and wax removal, broken eardrum

Dealing with Swimmer's Ear - Even If You Fon't Swim, WebMDblog, August 19, 2008
dealmac forum, How do I unclog ear after swimming? August 2005
Article Insider, Water Clogged Ears
Advanced Otolaryngology, What Is Earwax?
MayoClinic, Swimmer's Ear
Physics Forums, Does alcohol really help to evaporate water?

Timothy C. Hain,, Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Apple #418: Weeki Wachee Mermaids

One of the things I did on my vacation in Florida was go with my friend Mark to the Weeki Wachee springs park.

(Map from epodunk)

The major attraction here is watching the mermaid shows.

Weeki Wachee mermaids performing. Those long black lines are air hoses that allow the mermaids to breathe while they perform.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

The park is based around a freshwater spring. In fact, the name is a Seminole phrase that means "little spring." But the spring is not so little.

The spring is actually an underground freshwater river that comes up to the surface from at least 400 feet deep. Some sources say that nobody's ever gotten to the bottom; others say that a few years ago when a drought lowered the water level, people did manage to dive down and mark the depth with a little mermaid statuette.

The spring pumps water up from those depths at rate of 170 million gallons every 24 hours. The water stays at 72 to 74 degrees year-round. Because it's freshwater and it doesn't have a lot of sulfur or other minerals in the water, it's very clear and good for snorkeling and diving.

In 1946 a man named Newton Perry former, who was a Navy frogman and ex-stuntman from the Tarzan movies, tried new ways of breathing underwater at the Weeki Wachee springs. He used an air compressor to supply oxygen through an air hose that people could breathe from as they needed to. As long as the air compressor is running, they can stay underwater as long as they like.

One year later, the Weeki Wachee Mermaid park was born. One side of the underwater spring was cut away and replaced with glass so that people could watch the underwater shows.

Mermaid Kylee, who just started, performing in her first show. You can see the air hose very clearly in this photo.
(Photo from the Weeki Wachee Springs facebook page)

The mermaids do choreographed dance routines that include arabesques, somersaults, shimmies, and my personal favorite, the grab-her-ankles-and-everybody-go-in-a-circle move. That seemed to be the big finale.

The mermaid circle with one mermaid swimming through the center
(Photo from Florida's Dept of EPA)

They demonstrated how they can drink an entire bottle of Coke underwater, and they also ate bananas.

One of the mermaids drinking from a bottle of Coke. The announcer explained how they do this, but I missed the first part of it. I think they hold the bottle upright to take off the cap while sliding their thumb over the opening, then put their mouths over the opening and tilt the bottle back.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

One mermaid also let go of her air hose and dove 117 feet down into the spring. The show's announcer encouraged us in the audience to try to hold our breath while she dove. I think everyone in the audience gave up long before she came back up and took up her air hose again.

They also do little shows that are based on popular Disney storylines. While we were there, they performed a version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid.

Having spent a lot of time in lakes and swimming pools when I was growing up, I thought this looked pretty easy. But the mermaids have been trained to take in the right amount of oxygen so they'll all stay in roughly the same position in the water, which is about 16 feet below the surface. They often have to lip sync to the music that's playing on a loudspeaker for the audience, and while they're doing that they keep count of how long it's been in between breaths so they won't start to float or sink. And of course they have to smile the whole time and make it look easy.

She was one of the better mermaids in that she seemed the most relaxed and happy doing her routine. But you can see that sometimes even the best mermaid's smile fades while she's concentrating.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Mermaid Cyndi says doing a 45-minute show is comparable to running two miles. Since the mermaids do three shows a day, that amounts to about six miles of intense jogging. Most mermaids say that when they get out of the water, especially when they first start the job, they're sore.

Lots of mermaids suffer from frequent ear infections, sinus pressure problems, colds, and nose bleeds. Some also experience partial hearing loss.

They can't see the audience on the other side of the glass, but they can hear the applause -- or so the show's announcer says. They do wave to people at the beginning and end of a show. I think if they're up close to the glass they can see people in the audience because a couple of mermaids pointed to particular people and even blew a kiss or two in someone's direction.

The "curtain" that signals the end of the show is a great whoosh of bubbles that shoots up from the bottom of the glass and obscures everything.

The end of the Little Mermaid show. You can see the bubble curtain starting, especially at the left. The big black line in the middle is the edge of the frame in between the panels of glass between the spring and the audience. The frog dude role was performed by a woman -- at least in this performance.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

The park typically employs 18 or 19 mermaids and 3 princes. The park receives applications from people all year round, and while most of the mermaids come from the Weeki Wachee area, people from across the country have applied.

Most mermaids have a lot of in-the-water experience before becoming a mermaid. Mermaid Kayla, who is 19, was a certified diver at age 14, and she studied gymnastics and dance before becoming a mermaid.

If you want to apply to become a mermaid, you'll have to pass the audition. Be sure to smile, point your toes, look comfortable in the water. Most people don't make this first cut. For the final exam, you'll have to stay underwater at the mouth of the spring and hold your breath for 2 and a half minutes while changing out of your costume.

Once you become a mermaid, these are the things you have to do:
  • Train for three months before your first show.
  • Earn minimum wage at first. So you'll probably have to take a second job. Some of the second jobs other mermaids have had include bartending at Applebee's, waitressing at Hooter's, working at a sinkhole company, and taking college classes.
  • Work six days a week.
  • Spend most of the day underwater. Each show lasts 30 minutes, and mermaids will do several shows a day. "Sometimes when I get out," Mermaid Stayce said, "my fingers and toes are numb."
  • You'll have to deal with the turtles who live in the spring and occasionally like to run into you while you're performing. Gently nudge them out of the way and continue on -- while still smiling, of course.

The turtles really liked to swim near the mermaids. They were almost part of the act, except when they bumped into the mermaids' heads
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • You'll also have to keep an eye out for alligators and thunderstorms.
  • When you get to be really experienced, you'll be able to hold your breath underwater for 2 to 3 minutes. One mermaid can hold her breath for almost 4 minutes. “The number one rule is ‘Don’t panic,’” Mermaid Karri said. “When you think you can’t hold your breath anymore, you can for another 15 to 20 seconds. Fear takes your breath away.”
  • When out of the water, maintain your mermaid persona. This includes wearing full make-up at all times. Tell children that you eat seaweed sandwiches and that your sister Ariel works at Disney and is really famous.
  • You are not allowed to unzip your tail in public view. After the show is over, we went outside the theater and ran over to the side and after a while, we saw the performers come up out of the water. They had their tails unzipped and tied around their waists so they could use their hands and feet to climb up the ladder out of the water. But we didn't see the unzipping happen.
  • You'll also have to pose for pictures with the public and sign them. We got our picture taken (I don't have it; I let Mark keep it) with Mermaid Kayla. She signed it, "Hugs + fishes, xoxo Mermaid Kayla."
  • Even if you're a prince, you'll still have to do extra work. The prince was the guy who took our photo. (His name was Wyatt Cloinger. He's 20.) When we went to collect it from the front desk, another mermaid was helping the park staff woman operate the color photo printer.
  • You might have to go on tour. The mermaids have done a few shows at the Ripley's Aquarium in Myrtle Beach and in Gatlinburg, TN. They've also been filmed for Animal Planet, swimming with manatees. They've been photographed for books and calendars.

Weeki Wachee, City of Mermaids: A History of One of Florida's Oldest Roadside Attractions is one of the books with lots of photos of the Weeki Wachee mermaids.

The 2010 Weeki Wachee calendar is available for $14.95 only from the park. Call (352) 592-5656 to order it. My favorite picture is November's: a mermaid is swimming toward the camera, smiling, and holding aloft on a platter a whole turkey.

  • Besides being a mermaid celebrity, you'll also have to help out with park maintenance. You have to wash the theater windows and, with a toothbrush, you have to scrub algae off the underwater castle and statues. You have to take out the trash.

You can see part of the castle behind the mermaid. The castle contains the air compressor -- notice the air hose lines going into it. It's that castle and the "floor" as well as a statue of a mer-person off to the left that the mermaids have to clean.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • You'll find that being a mermaid keeps you in shape, and that you'll also want to work out in order to keep up with the job. Mermaid Cyndi is a mother of two boys. "You immediately take 10 pounds off when you get back into the water," she said. Besides her mermaid shows, three days a week she swims for exercise, runs, and takes spin-flex classes which combine stationary biking and lifting weights. "I'm in better shape now than when I was 18," she said.
  • You'll also discover you're a mermaid at all times, even when you don't mean to be. You'll talk in your mermaid voice in class, you'll dream you're underwater being a mermaid. Sometimes when you're at area restaurants, people will recognize you and give you a free sushi roll or basket of fish & chips.
  • Even Mark and I, who were definitely not mermaids, began speaking in mermaid while we were there. Basically, insert the word "mermaid" as an adjective before everything. "Do you want to get a mermaid sandwich?" "That sounds mermaid good."
  • Years later, even after you haven't worked at Weeki Wachee in over a decade, you'll still be a mermaid. One of the shows we saw was a reunion of mermaids who had worked at the park in the 1980s. The mermaid who did the 4-minute dive was one of these die-hard mermaids. She still had the mermaid talent.
  • Even though you'll be a mermaid forever, you'll also still be a real person. You'll shower a lot, pull pranks like putting food coloring in the shower heads, get in arguments with your fellow mermaids, save up for a new car.

Mermaids with Weeki Wachee park manager Tommy Ervin in 2008
(Photo from otilius's Flickr page)

  • And like a lot of people in your twenties, you'll want to blow off steam. One fairly typical Monday night, several mermaids went out after work, accompanied by a reporter from The New York Times. At a sushi restaurant, they drank rounds of sake bombs. That evening, they got on a boat and went to an island and sat around a campfire. By midnight, they'd had tequila, beer, and vodka before they went to a BB-gun range. "We drink like fishes," one of the mermaids said.
“Everyone thinks mermaids are girly girls,” [Mermaid Virginia] said, cocking her [BB] gun and firing at empty beer cans. She hit every target.

For information about current hours which vary by season, ticket prices, and some details about diving in the springs, see the Weeki Wachee Springs Park page.

Sources, Weeki Wachee - City of Mermaids
Deborah Schoeneman, Mermaids Past and Present Keep Things Real,
The New York Times, January 6, 2008
Gretchen Parker, The Reality Of Being A Weeki Wachee Mermaid, The Tampa Tribune, May 11, 2008
Timothy P. Howsare, Weeki Wachee mermaids know how to stay fit,
Hernando Today, August 11, 2009
Ripley's Aquarium to host world famous Weeki Wachee Mermaids this weekend, SCNow, July 22, 2009
Weeki Wachee Mermaids filmed for Animal Planet segment, Orlando Sentinel, October 24, 2008