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Water: Monitoring & Assessment

5.8 Total Solids

What are total solids and why are they important?

Total solids are dissolved solids plus suspended and settleable solids in water. In stream water, dissolved solids consist of calcium, chlorides, nitrate, phosphorus, iron, sulfur, and other ions particles that will pass through a filter with pores of around 2 microns (0.002 cm) in size. Suspended solids include silt and clay particles, plankton, algae, fine organic debris, and other particulate matter. These are particles that will not pass through a 2-micron filter.

The concentration of total dissolved solids affects the water balance in the cells of aquatic organisms. An organism placed in water with a very low level of solids, such as distilled water, will swell up because water will tend to move into its cells, which have a higher concentration of solids. An organism placed in water with a high concentration of solids will shrink somewhat because the water in its cells will tend to move out. This will in turn affect the organism's ability to maintain the proper cell density, making it difficult to keep its position in the water column. It might float up or sink down to a depth to which it is not adapted, and it might not survive.

Higher concentrations of suspended solids can serve as carriers of toxics, which readily cling to suspended particles. This is particularly a concern where pesticides are being used on irrigated crops. Where solids are high, pesticide concentrations may increase well beyond those of the original application as the irrigation water travels down irrigation ditches. Higher levels of solids can also clog irrigation devices and might become so high that irrigated plant roots will lose water rather than gain it.

A high concentration of total solids will make drinking water unpalatable and might have an adverse effect on people who are not used to drinking such water. Levels of total solids that are too high or too low can also reduce the efficiency of wastewater treatment plants, as well as the operation of industrial processes that use raw water.

Total solids also affect water clarity. Higher solids decrease the passage of light through water, thereby slowing photosynthesis by aquatic plants. Water will heat up more rapidly and hold more heat; this, in turn, might adversely affect aquatic life that has adapted to a lower temperature regime.

Sources of total solids include industrial discharges, sewage, fertilizers, road runoff, and soil erosion. Total solids are measured in milligrams per liter (mg/L).

Sampling and equipment considerations

Total solids are important to measure in areas where there are discharges from sewage treatment plants, industrial plants, or extensive crop irrigation. In particular, streams and rivers in arid regions where water is scarce and evaporation is high tend to have higher concentrations of solids and are more readily affected by human introduction of solids from land use activities.

Total solids measurements can be useful as an indicator of the effects of runoff from construction, agricultural practices, logging activities, sewage treatment plant discharges, and other sources. As with turbidity, concentrations often increase sharply during rainfall, especially in developed watersheds. They can also rise sharply during dry weather if earth-disturbing activities are occurring in or near the stream without erosion control practices in place. Regular monitoring of total solids can help detect trends that might indicate increasing erosion in developing watersheds. Total solids are related closely to stream flow and velocity and should be correlated with these factors. Any change in total solids over time should be measured at the same site at the same flow.

Total solids are measured by weighing the amount of solids present in a known volume of sample. This is done by weighing a beaker, filling it with a known volume, evaporating the water in an oven and completely drying the residue, and then weighing the beaker with the residue. The total solids concentration is equal to the difference between the weight of the beaker with the residue and the weight of the beaker without it. Since the residue is so light in weight, the lab will need a balance that is sensitive to weights in the range of 0.0001 gram. Balances of this type are called analytical or Mettler balances, and they are expensive (around $3,000). The technique requires that the beakers be kept in a desiccator, which is a sealed glass container that contains material that absorbs moisture and ensures that the weighing is not biased by water condensing on the beaker. Some desiccants change color to indicate moisture content.

The measurement of total solids cannot be done in the field. Samples must be collected using clean glass or plastic bottles or Whirl-pak® bags and taken to a laboratory where the test can be run.

How to collect and analyze samples

The procedures for collecting and analyzing samples for total solids consist of the following tasks:

TASK 1 Prepare the sample containers

Factory-sealed, disposable Whirl-pak® bags are easy to use because they need no preparation. Reused sample containers (and all glassware used in this procedure) must be cleaned and rinsed before the first sampling run and after each run by following the procedure described in Method A in Task 1 in Chapter 5 - Water Quality Conditions.

TASK 2 Prepare before leaving for the sampling site

Refer to section 2.3 - Safety Considerations for details on confirming sampling information. Be sure to let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return.

TASK 3 Collect the sample

Refer to Task 2 in Chapter 5 - Water Quality Conditions for details on how to collect water samples using screw-cap bottles or Whirl-pak® bags.

TASK 4 Return samples and field sheets to the lab/drop-off point for analysis.

Samples that are sent to a lab for total solids analysis must be tested within seven days of collection. Keep the samples on ice or refrigerated.


APHA. 1992. Standard methods for the examination of water and wastewater. 18th ed. American Public Health Association, Washington, DC.

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