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The Hidden Health Epidemic of Soft Water

100% pure water is not always a good thing.
Image by: W.J. Pilsak

Most things that improve the stability and endurance of a building are also good for its occupants. But there is one issue lying in the dark that seems to receive a paucity of attention. The consequences are not immediately visible, and are therefore easily ignored. But according to many studies, up to 2 out of 10 people reading this article may die from it.

The issue is soft water. Many people are confused about what soft water is. Naturally occurring ground water, or what we often refer to as “hard water”, has trace amounts of magnesium, calcium, and other minerals. Most simply, soft water is the same ground water but with those minerals removed (and usually with trace amounts of sodium added). Soft water can occur in nature as well, but much less commonly than hard water.

The trend of softening water began as a way to protect the pipes in our homes. And it works. Soft water will prevent plumbing and appliances from becoming clogged with mineral buildups. But we have fixated on protecting our homes at the expense of ignoring our bodies. This is a poor value judgment, and may in fact be wholly unnecessary.

In this article I will outline the reasons why it may be a very bad idea to drink, bathe in, and cook with soft water, and explore some possible alternatives to using a whole-house water softener.

Reason 1: Most of the U.S. Population is Already Deficient in Magnesium and Calcium.

As crazy as it sounds, I think there may be a link between becoming deficient in a mineral and removing it from the water supply. According to the USDA, roughly 57% of the U.S. population is not receiving adequate magnesium intake, while 69% are not receiving adequate calcium intake.[1]

This is not some naturopathic idea on the “fringe” of science. The World Health Organization (WHO), while cautious about the degree of causality between soft water and mineral deficiencies, makes the statement:

“Drinking-water may be a contributor of calcium and magnesium in the diet and could be important for those who are marginal for calcium and magnesium intake. Where drinking-water supplies are supplemented with or replaced by demineralized water that requires conditioning, consideration should be given to adding calcium and magnesium salts to achieve concentrations similar to those that the population received from the original supply”.[2]

Reason 2: Many Studies Link Soft Water to Cardiovascular Disease.

Magnesium is a critical nutrient for heart health. Large studies have linked magnesium deficiency to high blood pressure and some have found that people who take magnesium supplements have a lower chance of dying from heart disease.[3] Another paper hosted on the WHO website echoes the significance of this link.[4]

“Sufficient evidence is now available to confirm the health consequences from drinking water deficient in calcium or magnesium. Many studies show that higher water magnesium is related to decreased risks for CVD [cardiovascular disease] and especially for sudden death from CVD. This relationship has been independently described in epidemiological studies with different study designs, performed in different areas, different populations, and at different times. The consistent epidemiological observations are supported by the data from autopsy, clinical, and animal studies.”

Reason 3: Soft Water Can Corrode Pipes and Leech Metals into the Water Supply.

Health Canada summarizes studies on the link between soft water and the leeching of heavy metals from the plumbing:

“Soft water can lead to corrosion of pipes, and, consequently, certain heavy metals such as copper, zinc, lead and cadmium may be present in the distributed water. The degree to which this occurs is also a function of pH, alkalinity and dissolved oxygen concentration (see also review of pH). In some communities, corrosion is so severe that the water must be treated”.[5]

Solutions

All of these facts put us into a predicament. We can’t ignore the issues with soft water, but we also can’t let plumbing and appliances become clogged with scale and mineral buildup. The problem is massive, but could potentially be solved in a few simple ways. Here are some ideas I think everyone with soft water should consider.

  • Drink mineral water — which for all intents and purposes, is bottled hard water.
  • Consider taking supplements. Mixing a small amount of dolomite powder into a glass of water can replenish the lost magnesium and calcium (note: this is not medical advice).
  • Use appliances with built-in water softeners instead of a central water softener (some dishwashers, for example, have this feature).
  • Consider installing a water descaler to replace your water softener, which prevents minerals from binding to pipes without actually removing them from the water supply.

Sources

[1] USDA

[2] World Health Organization (Paper 1)

[3] WebMD: Diet and Cholesterol

[4] World Health Organization (Paper 2)

[5] Health Canada

 

The Power of Colors to Affect Mood and Performance

How do you feel right now? It may depend more on the colors surrounding you than you would expect. The following studies only scratch the surface of how colors can affect our performance and well-being.

“Warm” Colors Increase Thermal Comfort

Color can affect how warm you feel, even if you are merely thinking of a color.

Image by Thomas D, used under the Creative Commons License

Image by Thomas D, used under the Creative Commons License

One study placed participants in chambers filled with either red or blue light. It found that the participants in the chambers with red light preferred an ambient temperature a few degrees lower (0 to 4 degrees Celsius) than those in the blue-lit chambers.[1]

More impressively, a Harvard study found that when meditation practitioners visualized red hot embers or flames within their bodies (as part of a practice known as “Tummo”), they were able to increase their body temperature in their extremities by as much as 8.3 °C (14.9 °F).[2]

Pink Reduces Aggression

Research into color schemes within California prisons found that the color pink has a tremendous tranquilizing effect on aggressive behavior — so much so that when the muscular strength of 153 subjects was tested before and after momentarily viewing a pink sheet of construction paper, only 2 did not demonstrate a loss in strength.

Another study of 38 subjects showed that the color pink can decrease muscular strength by 6 to 38 percent. The hue has been successfully used as the wall color in prison holding cells to calm inmates, and the effect has been proven to occur regardless of whether the subject tries to control it — even when tested on those with extensive practice in martial arts or yoga.[3]

Red Makes You Anxious, Hinders Creative Thinking

At least four experiments show that the color red decreases performance on IQ tests in comparison to other colors (i.e., green, black, white, or gray), and one study shows that perceiving red evokes an “avoidance motivation” — that is, participants opted to engage in easy tasks instead of difficult tasks.[4] This “avoidance motivation” tends to increase performance on detail-oriented tasks but hinder performance on creative tasks.[7]

The “avoidance” mindset is further seen in the effects of the color red in sports. Competitors that face opponents wearing red lose games and competitions significantly more often.[5]

Finally, a study of adults given typing tasks within either red or blue offices found that those kept in red offices reported higher anxiety and stress.[6]

Green Reduces Stress

Green_Room

Notice that surgeon gowns are usually green or blue. Surveys of people who were shown pictures of hospital rooms of different colors found that green walls had a slight stress-reducing effect while orange walls had a slight arousal-inducing effect. The effect was more pronounced for those who qualified as “low-screeners”, a proxy used in the experiment for sensitivity to environmental changes.[8]

Blue is Relaxing, Enhances Creativity

“Cool” colors such as blue tend to have a relaxing effect, opposite that of “warm” colors such as red and orange. Authorities in Glasgow, Scotland and Nara, Japan found that installing blue lighting in certain areas significantly decreased crime rates.[9]

Two studies show that blue enhances performance on creative tasks.[10]

White Promotes Trust

Ever wonder why almost all government buildings are white? A study on marketing students found that when they were exposed to advertisements with “high-value colors” (those with a  whitish pigment), they were more relaxed and found the advertised brand more likable.[11]

Yellow Promotes Hunger and Social Activity

Notice that almost all fast food logos include yellow and red. Image by Crusier (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

McDonald’s picked the perfect color for its golden arches. A study of guests in different colored cocktail party rooms (i.e., red, blue, and yellow) found that guests were more socially active in both red and yellow rooms, but that those in the yellow rooms ate twice as much. On the other hand, those in the red rooms reported feeling hungrier and thirstier.[12]

While on the topic of hunger, if you want to make your meals more filling, one study found that people consume less when dish colors have a high contrast with the food color (causing a 22% reduction in serving size) and a high contrast with the tablecloth (causing a 10% reduction in serving size).[13] Another found that strawberry mousse was perceived as sweeter and more intense when served on a white versus a black plate.[14]

A Color for Every Context

It’d be silly to singularly promote or condemn certain colors in homes. The psychological effects of colors vary not only between cultures, but between individuals and with the type of activity being performed.

The key takeaway is that color schemes should remain flexible. One highly flexible way to play with different colors in a building interior is through color-changing LED lights, such as the Philips Hue Lighting System, which allows you to select various color schemes and effects through an App on a smart device such as an iPhone.

 


References

[1] Can color and noise influence man’s thermal comfort? Retrieved from:

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00140137708931596#preview

[2] Body temperature changes during the practice of gTum-mo Yoga. Retrieved from:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v295/n5846/abs/295234a0.html

[3] Tranquilizing effect of color reduces aggressive behavior and potential violence. Retrieved from:

http://orthomolecular.org/library/jom/1979/pdf/1979-v08n04-p218.pdf

[4] Color and psychological functioning: the effect of red on performance attainment. Retrieved from:

http://www.psych.rochester.edu/people/elliot_andrew/assets/pdf/2007_ElliotMaierMollerFriedmanMeinhardt_Color.pdf

[5] Wkipedia: Color Psychology. Retrieved from:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_psychology#cite_note-AEP-14

[6] Effects of office interior color on workers’ mood and productivity. Retrieved from:

http://www.researchgate.net/publication/232444027_Effects_of_office_interior_color_on_workers%27_mood_and_productivity

[7] The effect of color on conscious and unconscious cognition. Retrieved from:

http://repository.cmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1079&context=hsshonors

[8] Individual differences in reactions toward color in simulated healthcare environments: the role of stimulus screening ability.

Doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.02.007

[9] Blue lights believed to prevent suicides, street crime. Retrieved from:

http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2008494010_bluelight11.html

[10] Blue or Red? Exploring the effect of color on cognitive task performances. Retrieved from:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/323/5918/1226.abstract

[11] Effects of color as an executional cue in advertising: they’re in the shade. Retrieved from:

http://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/mnsc.43.10.1387

[12] Reinvent wheel? Blue room. Defusing a bomb? Red room. Retrieved from:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/06/science/06color.html?_r=0

[13] What’s with the color of your plate? Retrieved from:

http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/outreach/color_plate.html

[14] Is it the plate or is it the food? Assessing the influence of the color (black or white) and shape of the plate on the perception of the food placed on it.

doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2011.08.011

The Case for Round Buildings

There is an undeniable allure to a spherical building. How can the simplest of shapes replace the complex geometry we see in most modern architecture? It turns out that spheres are not only visually interesting, but incredibly functional. Spheres (and domes) are stronger, use fewer materials, and are more energy efficient than rectangular buildings.

Geodesic Dome By Erik16 at Wikimedia Commons

Our Minds Love Curves

“Nature doesn’t use squares”

The mere sight of ordinary buildings tends to make us sad. This was demonstrated by Dr. Roger Ulrich, an architecture professor in Sweden, who tested the psychological effect of viewing nature scenes versus pictures of retail and industrial buildings on students. The nature scenes increased positive mental states such as playfulness and friendliness, while the scenes with buildings tended to increase sadness, anger, and aggression.[1]

Of course, not all buildings are created equal. Given that nature tends to have an uplifting and restorative effect on mental state, buildings with more natural features may tend to share this quality. Perhaps this is what the buildings in this study lacked: as the famous engineer, Buckminster Fuller liked to emphasize, nature doesn’t use squares.

“The feeling inside is magical. Those who live in domes (and roundhouses) most likely never live in boxes again.”

Another study examined how interior spaces with strictly angular design schemes compared in their emotional effect to curvier spaces. When participants were shown 3D renderings of similar interiors that only differed in their degree of curvature, they rated the increased curvature as “more pleasant, elevating, relaxing, friendly, personal, safe, mysterious, complex, and feminine”.[2]

By Joe Tordiff (originally posted to Flickr as Domes--Genola, Utah) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monolithic Domes in Utah by Joe Tordiff via Wikimedia Commons

Anecdotal reports from builders and residents of dome-shaped houses tend support these findings. Dr. Owen Geiger, an experienced builder and designer of “Earthbag” domes, says “The feeling inside is magical. Those who live in domes (and roundhouses) most likely never live in boxes again”.[3] A resident of a domed house on Slashdot says “I can’t begin to explain how wonderful it is to live in a sphere. I love the geometry and the womb-like feeling”.[4]

Domes are Stronger – Way Stronger

“On our street we were the only ones who were okay…we didn’t have a penny of damage”

This monolithic dome in Iraq remained standing after being hit by a 5,000 pound bomb.

This monolithic dome in Iraq remained standing after being hit by a 5,000 pound bomb.

Round homes and buildings are more aerodynamic and better at distributing loads that rectangular structures — thus, they better withstand natural disasters. Nader Khalili, a pioneer of modern earthen domes, subjected his buildings made entirely of natural raw earth to standard building code tests. They exceeded the requirements by 200 percent for conditions that simulated earthquake, wind, and snow loads.[6]

The company, Deltec, ships modular round homes to places with high winds or prone to catastrophic events. An owner of such a home reported after a hurricane, “On our street we were the only ones who were okay…we didn’t have a penny of damage”.[7] Another company, Monolithic, creates dome buildings claimed to meet or exceed FEMA standards for providing “near-absolute protection”. Indeed, it was a dome-shaped building — the “Louisiana Superdome” — that was used as a “shelter of last resort” for residents of New Orleans unable to evacuate the city before the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

Domes are More Efficient and Economical

It takes less energy to heat a round building than a rectilinear building. It has nothing to do with materials or insulation, but the mathematical properties of spheres and rectangular prisms. The ratio of volume to surface area is always greater for a sphere than for a box. This means that for equal volumes of interior space, a sphere will have less wall area through which heat can escape.

This can greatly reduce and simplify the required mechanical equipment. Years ago, green builder Carter Scott began installing simplified HVAC systems in homes in a way that flew in the face of conventional building science wisdom; he guessed that for a compact, well insulated home, you could pretty much ignore all of the fans and ductwork we all use for distributing heat.

He was right: in all of the homes he built, there were virtually no issues with heating or cooling. In fact, homeowners raved about the steady, comfortable temperatures.[8] This is only possible with a compact design, which is most achievable using a sphere or dome.

Round Buildings are Nothing New

Nomadic cultures have lived in yurts in Central Asia for at least three thousand years

Author Becky Kemery states “Across cultures and through the ages, the circle remains a symbol of the unity of all things, the wholeness of life with all its interconnections. Rectilinear structures naturally separate and compartmentalize, fitting things neatly into square rooms and boxes”.[5] The philosopher Alan Watts also spoke of the irrational compulsion of modern people to “live in boxes“.

Yurt in Turkestan in 1913

Yurt in Turkestan in 1913

There are undoubtedly some challenges in adapting current building practices to dome structures. Building code officials and material suppliers generally tailor their services to rectilinear structures. However, different cultures have lived in round buildings for millennia.

Nomadic cultures have lived in yurts in Central Asia for at least three thousand years. Among the many types of housing employed by Native Americans, many, such as the wigwam, were round or dome-shaped.  Inuits in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland have traditionally lived in their iconic dome-shaped igloos. If we want to maximize the strength, material efficiency, and aesthetics of modern buildings, we may do well to look closely at what we can learn from traditional housing.

A Somali hut, similar in appearance to a Native American Wigwam. By Charles Roffey (http://www.flickr.com/photos/charlesfred/61781643) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

A Somali hut, similar in appearance to a Native American Wigwam. By Charles Roffey, via Wikimedia Commons

 

References

[1] Eva M. Selhub MD, Alan C. Logan ND. Your Brain on Nature (Page 13-14)

[2] Mind-shaped Box: Straight versus Curved Lines in Architecture – The Importance of Forms for our Well-Being

[3] Instructables: How to Build an Earthbag Dome

[4] Slashdot: The Life and Times of Buckminster Fuller

[5] Becky Kemery. Yurts: Living in the Round (Page 5)

[6] Kaki Hunter, Donald Kiffmeyer. Earthbag Building (Kindle Edition, Location 409)

[7] News Press: Round houses fare best against hurricanes

[8] Musings of an Energy Nerd

Five Ways Thermal Mass Can Improve Your Home

Thermal mass is any material that holds significant heat — for buildings, it is most often masonry, concrete, or earthen walls. Many builders and professionals ignore it, but this is a costly and unfortunate mistake. Here’s why:

Thermal Mass Lowers Heating Bills

Thermal mass can absorb heat from the sun in homes designed for passive solar heating. In the Midwest, it is reasonable to expect 20 to 50 percent of such a home’s heat requirements to be freely supplied by the sun. In the Southeast, this figure is more like 50 to 70 percent, and in the Southwest, up to 80 or 90 percent [1].

Thermal Mass Lowers Cooling Bills

It may seem ironic that something that holds heat can also decrease cooling needs, but it is true. Consider the large temperature swings in many regions where it is too hot for comfort during the day and too cold for comfort at night. A building structure with a high thermal mass will tend to resist this cycling effect, keeping the interior cooler during the day and warmer at night.

Consider how much more stable the temperatures are in regions surrounded by water — a substance with high heat capacity. The daily temperature swing near Las Vegas is almost double that in San Francisco, even though the average temperatures are pretty similar.

San Francisco Temperature Swings

San Francisco Temperature Swings

Tonopah, NV Temperature Swings

Tonopah, NV Temperature Swings

 

Thermal Mass Makes Structures Stronger

Materials with high thermal mass are often stronger than the alternatives. Large multifamily and commercial buildings rely on concrete (which has high thermal massl) to add structural strength. Even simpler, more “rustic” construction types such as rammed earth and earthbag homes can withstand gale force winds and tornadoes. The Borough House Plantation of South Carolina has many homes with walls built simply out of compacted dirt, or “rammed earth” that have been standing for almost 200 years [2].

The Burough House Plantation is still standing.

The Burough House Plantation contains the oldest and largest collection of rammed earth buildings in the United States.

Thermal Mass Insulates Against Noise

Noise creates stress and is second only to air pollution as an environmental cause of health problems [3]. Some noises can be blocked by traditional insulation, but others, especially low frequencies like a booming subwoofer, require a large mass of material between the source and the living quarters. Materials with high thermal mass tend to be dense and great at dampening sound waves.

Thermal Mass is More Comfortable

Even if the air temperature is the same, you may often feel more comfortable if the interior surfaces of your home are at a lower temperature. Your body loses heat not only through contact with the air, but through radiation to other surfaces. This is why you may feel colder when beside a window on a cold day, even if the air temperature is roughly the same as anywhere else indoors. If the thermal mass buffers the ambient temperature swings correctly, you may find that you don’t need to turn up the heat or AC quite to what you would think.

Sources

[1] Passive Solar Design Handbook, Volume 3, Page 18.

[2] Wikipedia: Borough House Plantation

[3] New Scientist Magazine: Noise kills, and blights lives in Europe

The Importance of Thermal Mass

Thermal mass is akin to a battery for heat. It takes time to charge (i.e. heat up) and also time to discharge (i.e. cool down). This has the effect of buffering short, intense periods of heat gain or heat loss. Consider how a bowl of soup stays hot for a long time while a less “thermally massive” material, like popcorn, almost immediately returns to room temperature. Building materials can act in the same way.

Understanding Thermal Mass

Thermal mass is a specifically quantifiable metric that depends on the density of a material and what is known as its “specific heat capacity”. For example, the specific heat of concrete is .880 (J/g*K) and it has a density around 2,400 kg/m^3. Multiplying these two values yields a thermal capacity of 2.112 megaJoules/m^3.

Usefulness

Thermal mass can work with both ambient temperature and solar irradiance to decrease heating (and sometimes cooling) needs. When thermal mass is designed to mainly interface with ambient temperatures, it is most useful in climates with a large diurnal temperature swing. For example, adobe buildings are popular in Santa Fe, New Mexico where the temperature range between night and day often exceeds 30 °F. However, thermal mass can also work as a passive solar strategy such that by placing it in the path of direct solar radiation, it becomes warmer than ambient temperature and therefore provides benefit even in perpetually colder climates.

Strategies

Thermal mass strategies can vary with the type of material used and how it is incorporated into the building. Some of the most thermally massive materials include water, concrete, and adobe. As you might expect, some materials are easier to incorporate into buildings than others.

The placement of thermal mass can be divided into categories of direct gain (in which the thermal mass is placed within the living space) and indirect gain (in which the thermal mass is between the sun and the living space). Examples of direct gain are a concrete floor or an internal brick wall. Indirect gain systems may be a trombe wall, roof pond, or sun space.

Sizing Thermal Mass

Using the Load Collector Ratio method (developed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory), one can refer to tables that provide the expected heating savings based on the amount of thermal mass in the design, the area and properties of windows, and the climate.

Thermal mass can also be simulated using various energy modeling programs, although they vary in how much of an effect they attribute to thermal mass. RemRate, for example, seems to under-predict savings. The Load Collector Ratio is unique in that it is based on experimental results rather than theoretical calculations.

Conclusion

Thermal mass is an oft-overlooked component affecting building energy consumption, even though it can have a profound effect. Even for a building that does not intend to utilize “passive solar strategies”, the floors, walls, and windows inevitably create a configuration of thermal mass and solar gain that should be considered by the building owner as part of the lifetime building performance. At the very least, parameters such as window properties and slab thickness should be varied within an energy model to see if they positively or negatively affect overall energy performance.