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Jerry Work
September 25, 2022

Modernizing Your Bus Conversion’s Water System

Whether we have a bus conversion, factory motorhome, class C, class B, van conversion, 5th wheel, travel trailer, or Skoolie, all of us tend to hook up to whatever hose bib is nearby to supply water to our bus.  That hose bib often is at a site in an RV park but might also be at someone’s residence, at a rest stop, a barnyard, or outside of a building somewhere.  Once our hose is connected to that hose bib, we turn on the water faucet and seldom think much about it as our tanks are filling.

But what do we know about the source or cleanliness of that water?  And, how about what might be growing inside the hose we use, the inside of the water lines in our bus, or even inside our “fresh” water tank?  If your RV or bus is ten or more years old - mine is about 25 years old - what might be growing in there for all these years and what kinds of hard water buildup might be present in the tanks, fittings, and faucets?  

Yup, we have been putting unknown water through everything, including ourselves, for a long time. Short of replacing all fresh water tanks, our water heater, all faucets, and our water lines and fittings, what can we do? Now it is time to fix this situation by modernizing our water system from top to bottom.

In this series of articles, I will show you how you can rectify this situation by 1.) properly sanitizing everything in the water system, 2.) adding micro-filtration to remove everything out of the incoming water down to 0.2 microns or smaller in size, and then 3.) softening the water with ion-exchange resin-based water softener before the water ever goes into your coach (or you) in the first place.  It is not that hard, not that inconvenient, and not that expensive compared to the expense of “fixing” you or your family if they react badly to what they are exposed to in your bus now, or what may enter your system in the future from the many sources you obtain drinking water over the next few years.

First a note about water filtering. Water filters come in a bewildering array of types and sizes, but they basically boil down to three factors - how small a particle they can trap, the percentage of particles that small they can trap, and how much water can flow through the filter at a given volume and water pressure.  

The best conventional water filters can filter out nearly 100% of particles as small as 0.1 to 0.2 microns.  These can catch most viruses, bacteria, and cysts while allowing helpful minerals to pass on to your body.  Only a few will filter to that level while still providing a flow rate that is required for servicing your whole bus.  Fortunately, there now are at least two commercially available alternatives that feature both advanced filtering and good water flow.    

Editor’s Note: As a point of reference, human hair is approximately 70 microns, give or take 20 microns depending on the thickness of a given individual’s hair.  So, these filters, catch some pretty small stuff.

In this article, I will show one filter that seems optimized for small size for ease of storage and is lightweight, and another one that seems optimized for higher flow rates and claimed superior filtration which is larger in size and weight.

The smaller one is constructed of stainless steel and the larger one is constructed of powder-coated steel and plastic.  The stainless steel one is a bit more expensive than the other, but the difference is not all that great.  Both work really well and both fulfill the objective of modernizing the water system in your bus, so the choice will be up to you.

Reverse Osmosis (RO) is a technology that forces water under elevated pressure through really small openings in what is called a membrane.  These take out nearly everything in the water including helpful minerals the body needs.  To do so they consume more water than they deliver since not all of the incoming water can get through those really small openings in the membrane.  The wastewater goes down the drain or can be captured for non-drinking water use.

The better-quality units will deliver about one gallon of good water for every three to seven gallons of incoming water so they can be less than ideal in areas where water is somewhat scarce or for a bus, which carries only limited water for domestic use.  And, except for quite expensive whole-house systems not suited for bus use, they tend to offer limited flow rates so often are marketed just to supply drinking water at one sink.  While I find the RO technology interesting, I find micro-filtration far better for modernizing the water system supplying the whole bus - drinking, making coffee or tea, brushing teeth, washing dishes and clothes, showering, etc.

Editor’s Note: Some bus conversions have onboard RO systems.  The water that makes it through the system is used for drinking water and cooking while the water that bypasses the system gets used in the shower and the toilet.  Also, when I travel in Mexico, most water trucked into campgrounds that do not have their own water supply is RO water.

Here are the relative sizes of a few of the different things you want to be removed from your water before it enters your bus or you.  

Sand:  Pollen:  Dust:  Respiratory Droplets:  Bacterium:  Coronavirus:  Bacteriophage: 90 microns 15 microns 10 microns 5-10 microns 1-5 microns 0.1 to 0.5 microns 0.2 microns

The two alternatives we will discuss will catch almost all these according to the manufacturers’ specifications and claims.  The larger of the two alternatives featured here, Clearsource, claims that in addition to filtering out small particles their technology actually attracts really small particles like a magnet so they can capture even smaller particles than filtration alone can achieve.  The smaller one, BluTec, claims something similar for their raw water final filter.  

I have no way of doing detailed or scientific testing on my own, so these alternatives are based on the manufacturers’ statements.  If you have concerns, do your own research on the validity of these statements.

Now let’s discuss the steps you need to take to modernize your bus water system.

The first thing you want to do is to carefully clean and sanitize every part of your existing bus water system.  Start by buying a new water hose that you will use to bring water from the hose bib into your system.  I will show you how to somewhat clean your existing hose in the next article so you can reuse it if you really want to, but you are far better off relegating your existing hose to garden use and buying a new hose to replace it.

Hose quality is all over the place, some good, some not so much.  I am partial to stainless steel braided hoses like what is used under the sinks in your residence.  We will see more of that style hose a bit later.  It is somewhat difficult to find 15 to 25-foot lengths of braided stainless-steel hose with quality hose fittings on the ends, but they are available from BluTec, MobileMustHave, and to a lesser extent, Amazon.  They do tend to have a smaller ID so usually will flow less water than the larger garden hose styles.  Clearsource offers high-quality drinking water-safe hoses of conventional construction in garden hose sizes.  

Conventional hose shown is from Clearsource while the SS braided hose is from BluTec.

The corrugated stainless-steel hoses look nice and offer some level of wear protection but the rolled corrugations can separate if the hose is crushed or over-stretched.  I find the soft hoses that expand to full length when under pressure and contract when the pressure is released to be short-lived and seldom rated for drinking water use.  You definitely want a hose rated specifically for drinking water use and one that can stand constant water pressures up to at least 60 PSI.  Traditional garden hoses are not typically rated for drinking water use and often impart a bad taste to the water.

Pay special attention to the hose fittings and how they are attached to the hose.  Ideally, you want stainless steel (hard to find), but brass is okay so long as it is lead-free.  Aluminum fittings are not a good idea as they may bind to the metal on the hose bib or to a dissimilar metal on other hose fittings, especially if the water is quite hard.  Cast fittings are far better than most stamped sheet metal fittings.

The ID (inside diameter) size of the hose you select is less of a factor than you might think.  The plumbing inside your bus is likely 3/8” so a hose larger than that is not necessary except for very long runs (50 feet or more) between the hose bib and your bus.  Longer runs create more internal resistance to water flow.  

Editor’s Note: The one advantage to a larger diameter hose is that your tank will fill in less time.  This is helpful if you tend to fill your ank to capacity, and then and draw water from your tank rather than a campground faucet as many of us do, as we spend most of our time boondocking.  It is also helpful when you are in a line of RVs to take on water as it may make the people waiting behind you happier campers.  For example, a 1/2” hose will deliver about nine gallons per minute while a 5/8” hose will deliver about seventeen gallons per minute, thereby cutting the time to fill your tank in half, all things being equal.

For the purpose of modernizing your bus fresh water system, I really like quality stainless steel quick disconnect fittings like those supplied with the BluTec system.  They are quite expensive but worth it to me.  The good ones will have eight balls to lock the two halves of the fitting together.  The lesser ones will only have three balls and those are far more prone to leaking.  

Editor’s Note: Quick disconnect fittings from big box stores, while convenient, will also reduce the flow rate, so again, there is a tradeoff.  The higher quality quick disconnects, don’t restrict the flow as much.

Watch out for the so-called “brass” quick disconnect fittings found at most hardware and big box stores.  Unless they say they are lead-free and feature six or more locking balls they may not be suitable for drinking water use, and they may discolor, corrode, or leak in use.  Don’t scrimp on quality here!

Stainless steel Quick Disconnect Fittings.

Since you normally will not know what the water pressure is at the hose bib you are about to hook up to, buying a new, good-quality water pressure controller is a good idea.  Again, I really prefer stainless steel over most brass units unless the brass unit is stated specifically for drinking water use.  Many are nickel plated to look like stainless steel and those usually are safe for drinking water use.  The gauge should be dampened (partially filled with oil) and an easily accessed screw should be readily available to set the maximum pressure you want coming into your bus.  Usually, you want that to be about 50 PSI.

Editor’s Note: There are water pressure regulators that have a normal flow rate and there are the ones that tout a high flow rate. I prefer to use the high-flow rate ones. 

Whew!  That is a lot of words just to describe how to get water from the hose bib to your bus, but I cannot overstress how important it is to keep this segment of your new, modern water system clean and sanitary.  As we will see in a little bit, this hose is going to connect from the parks hose bib to the inlet on your multi-stage filter system so, if you keep this part sanitary and clean, the filters will have less work to do and will last longer.

For a tutorial on how to sanitize your fresh water system where water has probably been passing through for several years and building up the bad stuff, read the next article.

From this point forward you want to have all water coming from any hose bib flow first into one of the 3-stage filtration systems featured here, then optionally into a water softener (for the times you travel in hard water areas), and from there into your bus conversions fresh water tank.

As noted in the prior article, I can recommend a couple of 3-stage filtration systems.  The first one, optimized for small size, lightweight, and compact storage is sold by BluTec and is available from the BluTec website, the MobileMustHave website, and Amazon.  It features solid stainless-steel construction (frame, filter canisters, fittings, quick disconnects, braided stainless steel inter-connect hoses) and uses 5” long filters.  

Three housing types are available.  I selected the one from MobileMustHave that is open with square tube legs that can either be hung on a wall or left free-standing because it is narrow enough to mount inside my water bay while allowing the bay door to close without hitting it.  The other two available housings are wider and would not fit inside my water bay, but they may fit inside yours.

With the BluTec filter set mounted in the water bay, a 25-foot braided stainless-steel hose runs from the inlet side of the 3-stage water filter set down through a port in the floor and out to the pressure regulator screwed to the hose bib.  If we are traveling where the water is soft enough not to require the water softener, a braided stainless-steel hose with quick disconnects runs from the outlet side of the 3-stage filter set through a water meter (so I can keep track of how much water has passed through the filters) and then connects directly to the plumbing lines in my coach.  

A water meter keeps track of how many gallons of water have passed through my Water Softener.
Adjustable pressure regulator.

When we are in hard water areas (like we are at our winter home RV Resort in Arizona), the outlet from the water filter set quick-connects to a hose running through that floor port and out to the inlet side of the water softener.  The outlet side of the water softener quickly connects to the line running to the plumbing lines in my coach.  

When the water softener is in use there are three braided stainless-steel hoses running through the floor port since you want the water going into the water softener to have already passed through all three filters.  When the water softener is not in use, it stores in a nearby storage bay held to a bulkhead wall by Velcro straps and only the hose bib connected inlet line goes through the floor port.

Braided water hose with stainless steel quick-connect fittings on each end.

The other recommended 3-stage filter is made by Clearsource and it is available directly from Clearsource itself, from several RV supply houses, and from Amazon. It uses 10” long filters so it is significantly larger, taller, and heavier, optimized for longer filter life, and higher water flow rates, and claims superior filtration technology than BluTec offers.  

Larger Clearsource filter system alongside BluTec smaller more compact filter system.

This unit is too wide to mount inside my water bay so sits on the ground just outside.  While the filters are twice the size of the BluTec filters, the Clearsource filter housing uses much larger filter canisters and spaces them further apart, so the 3-stage filter system is easily three times the size of the BluTec unit.  The picture at the beginning of this article shows the difference so be sure you have room to store the Clearsource unit before making that choice.

My total water filter and softening hookup.
The BluTec Water Softener sits outside my water bay.

Clearsource also offers a really slick insulated and heated case to protect these filters from the elements and from freezing.  That case also makes it way easier to lug around the heavy Clearsource filter set that weighs 30 pounds dry (much more than that full of water) and is 25” wide, 9” front to back, and 18” tall. 

The BluTec filter unit is small enough and light enough even full of water for you to easily move it around or store it without any case.  And the stainless-steel construction is largely immune to the elements.  It can freeze in cold weather, damaging it, so either mount it inside like I do, insulate it, or heat it for winter use.

With either filter set, the inlet water hose mounts to the inlet side of the filter set and runs over to the hose bib and water pressure regulator.  The outlet side connects directly to your RV water plumbing or optionally to the inlet side of a water softener if you are in a hard water area.  More on that in Part 3 of this article.

Both units seem to do a great job of cleaning up even dirty or contaminated water.  Both say you can draw water right out of a lake or stream and, after flowing through their three-filter set, the water would be drinkable.  I don’t intend to do that, but it is reassuring knowing that if it can clean up lake or stream water to drinking standards it surely will clean up any hose bib water no matter what the source.  

As mentioned above, the Clearsource unit claims superior filtration of really small particles over what they claim the BluTec unit can achieve.  They show a clever video (see below) using ink that they say has particles smaller than common water contaminants.  Flowing through their 3-stage filter, the water coming out is clear of those ink particles.  

When the same ink water is passed through the BluTec three-stage filter, they say the ink particles pass right through and the outlet water still looks dark.  BluTec says their raw water filter will do something similar.  For use in cleaning up potable water from a hose bib, I think both will do an admirable job and will be far better than whatever you have been using in your RV. 

You can watch the Clearsource video here.  https://www.clearsourcerv.com/pages/performance-comparison-with-competing-systems 

Now let’s talk a bit about water softening. 

A water softener removes minerals from water; that means cleaner laundry, longer life for water-using appliances, and less mineral buildup on plumbing fixtures.  Hard water also makes it tougher to build a lather of soap and shampoo. Soft water can mean using less soap and shampoo, meaning you can buy fancy shampoo and not feel so bad about it. But the main concern for some people is limescale can build up inside pipes and begin to clog them over time making your faucets and shower flow very slow over time.

Water Softening is most usually done by passing hard water through a tank holding beads of an ion exchange resin.  The calcium and magnesium in the water are absorbed by the ion exchange resin beads so the water exiting the water softener is softer (has less calcium and magnesium) than the water entering the water filter.  This process continues until the resin beads are saturated and can no longer absorb any more calcium or magnesium from the incoming water.  

At this point, a sodium chloride (common table salt) brine is introduced into the water softener which causes the resin beads to release the calcium and magnesium they hold.  The salt brine with the calcium and magnesium attached is then directed out of the water softener and discarded into a drain.  Fresh water continues to flow into the water softener until all the salt brine calcium and magnesium are discharged at which point the water softener is ready for use again.

In-home water softeners, most often this process of periodically introducing salt brine into the water softener and then flushing it and the calcium and magnesium out is handled by a timer and valve set drawing salt brine out of a salt tank adjacent to or part of the water softener.  In RV water softeners the process of recharging the water softener is manual operation.  No matter what the brand name is on these RV water softeners, they are just a tank (stainless steel in a few but more commonly spun fiberglass) with a cap screwed to the top of the tank.  

Depending on the size of the tank, RV units hold from 10,000 to 16,000 grains of ion exchange resin.  That is just a unit of measure indicating how much calcium and magnesium that water softener can remove before needing to be recharged via the manual introduction of salt brine.  In the two systems described here, the water softener tank for the BluTec unit is made of polished stainless steel and holds 10,000 grains of resin.  The Clearsource tank is made of spun fiberglass and is larger than the BluTec unit, so it holds 16,000 grains of resin.

With both, a tube connected to the cap carries incoming water to the bottom of the resin tank where it rises through the resin bed releasing its calcium and magnesium, and then outlets through a fitting on the opposite side of the cap from the inlet fitting.  So, both systems do the same thing and work the same way.  They differ only by the size of the tank and the material used in its construction.  As was the case with the 3-stage filter set, the smaller stainless-steel tank on the BluTec unit is lighter to handle full of water, and easier to store, but it has to be recharged more often.  

The fiberglass tank on the Clearsource unit is larger, heavier to move around full of water, and takes more room to store, but it needs to be recharged less often.  Your pick.  If you plan to store the water softener in your RV between uses, just be sure you have enough room for the Clearsource unit if that is the one you choose.  

Be sure to plumb the water softener after the 3-stage filter so only clean and sanitary water ever enters the water softener tank and the softened water flows from the tank directly into your RV.

There is another type of unit called a water softener, but it only treats the water, so the calcium and magnesium won’t accumulate as much in your plumbing lines.  Some use magnets around your water lines and some use an electrolysis process, which may do some good, but have not been scientifically tested to prove they work very well.   However, these do not remove the calcium and magnesium as an actual water softener does, so I do not recommend them for your RV.

With either the BluTec or the Clearsource filter and softening systems you will have a thoroughly modern water system for your RV that is far, far better, and cleaner than when your RV was new.  And it will stay that way so long as you change the three filters about twice a year for average RVing use and up to four times a year for full-timers.  The larger Clearsource filters are claimed to be able to filter twice as much water as the half-size BluTec units and that makes sense given both are the same diameter, but the Clearsource filters are 10” long while the BluTec units are only 5” long.

You also want to keep the water softener recharged when in use in hard water areas. When in soft water areas you won’t need to deploy the water softener.  Either of these three-stage filter sets will do all the work for you.  

If you plan to store your RV for an extended period (two or more months), you should remove the three filters, allow them to dry out, and keep them in a zip lock bag to keep them clean and ready to reinstall when you next use your RV.  If you use your RV more often than once every two months, you don’t need to do anything.

Here are a few DO NOT Dos for your fresh water system:

Do not use those cheap inline hose mount water filters as your primary filter as all they do at best is remove some sediment.  All the bad stuff in the water will flow right through those.

Do not overuse your 3-stage filters.  They don’t cost that much and if they become overly saturated, they could allow bad stuff to enter your RV again.  Replace them twice a year if you are a normal RVer or up to four times a year if you are a full-timer.

Do not let your water softener go too long before recharging it.  Once the resin has become saturated with calcium and magnesium, the hard water will easily pass directly through into your RV where it can leave hard water spots and residue which can damage plumbing fixtures over time.  Use water hardness test strips available at RV parts stores, Amazon, or most anywhere in hard water regions to test the water coming out of your faucets so you know when to recharge the water softener.  You can also buy inexpensive Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) meters at places like Amazon which will also tell you when to recharge.

No need to use a water softener when in soft water regions.  Just keep it stored until you are in hard water regions.  If there is little or no calcium or magnesium in the water, the water softener won’t do anything.

Do not use a water hose not specifically marked for drinking water use anywhere in your new, modern water system.  Garden hoses, even short ones, can release harmful chemicals or impart bad tastes into your water - just what you don’t want.

Do not use even a hose marked for drinking water use for too long.  Change it out every year or two to be safe.  No need to let anything grow in that wet and often hot environment that might contaminate your water.

Do not use brass fittings anywhere in your water system unless you know for sure those fittings contain no lead.  Better quality brass fittings on things like pressure regulators and hose quick-disconnects will be marked “no lead” if they are lead-free.  If you can’t find markings anywhere, or the manufacturer won’t tell you, then assume those fittings are not lead-free and therefore not meant for drinking water purposes.

Do not use aluminum fittings on your now modern water system as those are prone to galling or adhering to other metals through processes of galvanic action. 

Conclusion

It is always nice to have two very different but equally viable alternatives to recommend.  In this case, I prefer the BluTec system for when we travel.  It is smaller, easier to store, and lighter, the filters mount inside the water bay, and it is hard to fault the aesthetics of all that polished stainless steel.  

The BluTec filter system is mounted inside my Water Bay.

When we are parked for longer periods of time - like when we are on our winter lot in Arizona - the Clearsource system is the preferred alternative.  The larger, longer-lasting filters, higher water flow rate, and longer time between recharging the water softener are hard to beat.  The really slick insulated and heated storage bag takes the hassle out of leaving the filters outside the coach alongside the water softener.  

If you have room and don’t mind the extra weight you might like using Clearsource all the time.  Just remember that it will take three or maybe even four times as much storage space in your RV to store the Clearsource components than what it will take to store the BluTec components.  Not only are the filters and softener larger to store, the Clearsource hose set also takes significantly more space to store than the BluTec braided stainless steel hoses. Enjoy! 

Click HERE to view more information about the Clearsource system.

Clearsource 3-Stage Water Filter System.
Article written by Jerry Work

Jerry Work spent his professional career in technology management, first as the founder and CEO of two moderate-sized computer software companies and then as the Associate Laboratory Director for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), one of the DOE multi-program laboratories. At PNNL, in addition to overall Laboratory management, he oversaw the laboratory’s work in the energy, transportation, medical and information technologies.

After retirement, he and his wife Sharon purchased a Beaver Patriot motorhome and began a cold turkey four years of full-timing which they enjoyed greatly. They then purchased a 1907 former Masonic Temple in rural Southern Oregon, restored the building and remodeled it into his studio and gallery on the first floor and living quarters on the second floor. There he designs and handcrafts fine furniture. He is well known for his many articles and tutorials about how to get the most from Festool and other-high end woodworking products.

They purchased the first of what became two fully restored GMC motorhomes, those iconic and swoopy front-wheel drive units from the 1970’s. They found the second of their two GMC’s in an air-conditioned building in Naples, FL, with just 11,000 miles on the clock following a ground-up restoration in 1984. Both of those motorhomes found their way from Mexico to Alaska and from the West to the East coast. He wrote extensively about his experiences with GMC’s and gave many a presentation at GMC club events over the years.

A few years ago they decided to go back out on the road again for longer periods of time than they could support in the GMC motorhomes so purchased a low mileage 1997 40 foot Country Coach Prevost bus conversion which is now home for more than six months out of the year. Visitors always welcome no matter where in their travels is their motto.

You can reach Jerry Work by email at:
GLwork@mac.com

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