Using dehumidifier condensate to water consumable plants can be a heated topic among growers. Some say, “Yes, I use it and it works fine.” Some growers question condensate water quality, wondering if contaminants accumulate in plants. Others insist it is pure poison.
Along with questioning condensate water quality, many environmentally aware growers are concerned about wasted fuel, electricity and water. People who use an effective dehumidifier see a lot of water being pulled from the air—dehumidifiers consume electricity and condense considerable amounts of water.
Many believe it’s a shame to dump potentially useful water down the drain. Additionally, beyond the substantial amount of water produced by dehumidifiers, there is a multiplier effect that can drastically increase the potential water savings because reverse osmosis machines waste from 1 to 3 gal. of water for every 1 gal. of processed water, while every recycled gallon of dehumidifier condensate saves somewhere between 2 to 4 gal. from being drawn out of the tap.
Growers are concerned, and have every right to know, what their plants are drinking, but sorting through opinions reveals a glaring omission. Real data, like water analysis reports and controlled experiments, is necessary before making the call. This article presents data on dehumidifier water quality and a better understanding of these questions:
- Do dehumidifiers add anything harmful to collected water, for example, heavy metals?
- Is it necessary to treat or process dehumidified water before recycling it?
- Is dehumidifier condensate water safe for consumable plants?
Anatomy of Dehumidification
Prior to addressing these three questions, a basic understanding of dehumidification is necessary. A dehumidifier is a refrigeration system with two coils that resemble an automotive radiator. Coils are made from copper tubing with thin aluminum fins around the tubing to help transfer heat.
There is a hot coil and a cold coil. The refrigeration system pulls heat out of the cold coil and gets rid of that heat via the hot coil. Most dehumidifiers use a single fan to blow air through the system to remove water from the air and remove heat from the coil. Water forms on the cold coil (it condenses out of the air) similar to a can of beer on a humid day.
Inside the dehumidifier, water runs off the cold coil and is collected into some type of reservoir. Dehumidifier coils are not soldered—copper tubes are brazed. Brazing does not use lead because pressure in a refrigeration system is too high for solder joints. Moreover, the aluminum fins are not soldered. Instead they are held in place by expanding copper tubing after fins are slipped over the copper tubes.
Water Safety Standards
In 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency defined safe levels of contaminants in drinking water in the Safe Drinking Water Act. These levels, based on possible health risks and exposure over a lifetime with an adequate margin of safety, are called maximum contaminant level goals (MCLG). The MCLG for copper is 1.3 ppm (1,300 ppb) and the MCLG for aluminum 0.2 ppm (200 ppb). Zinc does not have an official EPA limit, but many sources cite 2 ppm (2,000 ppb) as the limit.
An independent and third party water analysis company, Water Compliance Specialists, recently tested several samples of dehumidifier condensate. Among the dehumidifiers that were put to test was a newer model, and another that was built in 1999 with all original parts.
Both dehumidifiers had been operating for several consecutive months prior to water sampling. Water samples were evaluated for heavy metals (aluminum, copper and zinc), decaying organic material (such as nitrate nitrogen) and a standard, contaminant-indicating bacteria.
The water analysis revealed insignificant levels of heavy metals. Copper, aluminum and zinc fell well below recommended levels. A nitrate test exposed the presence of decaying organic matter in water. Typical sources of these types of nitrates include decaying vegetable matter like leaves and trees.
The typical maximum allowable level of nitrate-nitrogen in public drinking water is set at 10 mg/L (10 ppm). The water analysis indicated a trace amount of nitrates in one water sample—a level significantly below acceptable levels.
The trace organic (nitrate) content was likely from dust that slipped by the dehumidifier’s MERV 8 pleated filter. Standard contaminant-indicating bacteria like coliform and E. coli were not present in either water sample.
Water Analysis Conclusions:
Does the dehumidifier add anything harmful to collected water, for example, heavy metals?
Is water collected by dehumidifiers useable on plants?
Yes, dehumidifier condensate water is perfectly useable, even for consumable plants. There are almost no detectable metals, and as long as the air entering the dehumidifier is filtered, there are no excessive organic decay products.
If the dehumidifier runs without a filter, ambient dust appears in condensate water. Please note that you should never operate a dehumidifier without the recommended filter because dust will eventually plug spaces between aluminum cooling fins on coils and cause compressor burn out.
Is it necessary to treat or process dehumidified water before reusing it?
No. There is no reason to handle fresh condensate water any differently than any other source of reasonably clean, uncontaminated water.
In summary, we found through laboratory water testing that normal, everyday use of dehumidifier condensate water should not be a problem for a plant’s nutrient system. Lead isn’t an issue because no lead is used in the brazing process of the copper refrigerant tubes.
Moreover, there is no more organic material in the water than any other water that has been exposed to the environment of the growroom. It seems growers who’ve been telling others they use condensate water without problems appear to have science on their side.
Best Practices and Recommendations
It’s always a good idea (and most states require it) to have the water source analyzed in any commercial garden. If a water sample analysis comes back positive for elevated levels of heavy metals, nitrates or bacteria, the reason for the contamination needs to be revealed and addressed. These issues are independent of water collected by dehumidifiers.
If your dehumidifier has been idle, run it three days prior to recycling dehumidified water from it. A high-quality air filter keeps the interior of the dehumidifier clean and minimizes any organic content.
We did not see any mold growth on active daily use dehumidifiers, probably because of the constant washing action of the condensing water. To store a dehumidifier for more than a couple days, every effort should be made to dry it out as much as possible because standing water, or even moisture, is an invitation for mold growth.
An old dehumidifier that has been well maintained can be an effective piece of equipment that provides thousands of recycled water over a lifetime. One of the easiest ways to keep your dehumidifier working properly is to follow filter guidelines.
Test Your Water Sample
Taking your own water sample isn’t hard; you just have to guard against contaminating it. Locate a reliable water-testing lab and follow their instructions. You will not need a complete analysis, just a test for heavy metals, nitrate nitrogen content and anything else that interests you. Here are some sampling guidelines to help ensure valid results:
- Wear powder-free latex gloves.
- Use 16-oz. screw-capped containers. Thick glass or polyethylene is best.
- Use a new bottle for each test. If this is not possible, wash the bottle with phosphate-free detergent and water and thoroughly rinse the bottle and cap before use.
- Flush any lines and valves so there is new water in them.
- Rinse the container and cap with the water to be analyzed.
- Fill the bottle almost full. Leave a small air space.
- Mark the container with the source of the sample.
- Send the sample to the testing lab. Follow their instructions.
- A water sample can usually be stored in a refrigerator for up to 48 hours. The sample must be submitted to the lab within 48 hours of collection. Remember, your test results can only be as accurate as your sampling method.