NMSR Teams with KRQE-TV13 on "Magnetic Water Conditioners"
by Dave Thomas, nmsrdaveATswcp.com (Help fight SPAM! Please replace the AT with an @ )
The afternoon of Thursday , June 23rd 2005 was splendidly sunny in Albuquerque, and I was leaving the office to drive over to the home of longtime New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR) members Jerry and Nancy Shelton. My cell phone went off, and I saw it was Larry Brown of R and L Enterprises, Inc., a distributor for GMX, a firm that sells magnets for conditioning household water supplies. Brown was calling to confirm meeting me at the Shelton's for the GMX "Free Walkthrough" at 2:00. He usually leaves his Alamosa, Colorado base for swings through Albuquerque on Thursdays and Fridays of most weeks, and we had arranged the walkthrough a few days earlier.
When Brown hung up, I quickly called the Shelton's house. I asked "Is the channel 13 guy there yet?" Hearing that he was, I asked if the hidden camera was already set up. It was. "We are go! See you in twenty minutes!" I said.
It had all begun a month earlier, when the investigative reporter for local channel KRQE 13, Larry Barker, called me to discuss GMX and their magnets. He had seen their ads in local publications, and was wondering if simple magnets would provide the remarkable benefits GMX said they would. Barker suggested I call the company for their informational package, which I did. When it arrived, I read how GMX magnets don't really alter the chemistry of water, but do affect surface tension in the water, and thus control crystallization of minerals in treated water. It was all possible because of the wonderful science of "magnetohydrodynamics," I read. There were numerous testimonials, and lots of scientific support developed by one Dr. Klaus Kronenberg. GMX magnets were said to break down existing scale in domestic water systems over a period of a few months. However, they were said to prevent formation of new scale in systems as soon as they were installed.
Larry Brown arrived on schedule, and we began taping undercover video. I had asked Barker about this earlier, asking "Don't we have to tell him we are taping?" Larry Barker explained that we were simply asking Brown to do his normal spiel, the same things he says to customers every week. It wasn't like we were trying to trick him into murdering his wife, or selling drugs - we were giving him an opportunity to present his product in the same way he shows it to all of his customers. From the beginning of the project, Barker had asked "Now, if this stuff really works, your experiments would be able to show that, right?" We all had agreed to take the subject seriously, and give it a fair test.
Brown went through his product line with us. Treatment of a house with one water heater ran from $600 (three magnetic units) to $800 (four units). Pool treatment went from $400 to $800. Evaporative coolers were the least expensive, at $125 per unit (Model 400). Brown's flyer said "One Model 400 will keep the mineral deposits from clogging the cooling pads. The cooler, pads and pump will last longer and it will cool more efficiently." "Aunt Nancy" said she liked the potential, but wanted to just try the air-conditioner model for the summer to see if she liked it. Brown, Nancy's "friend" Glen (actually a KRQE-13 news producer), and I went up to the roof, where I saw how to install the Model 400 on the swamp cooler's water supply tube, about a foot or so from where the tube leaves the pump. Glen got the entire walkthrough on tape. Brown also talked for several minutes about the magnet's use in improving gas mileage and lowering emissions. Nancy wrote a $125 check to GMX, and Brown zipped off to see his next customer.
The next day, Jerry Shelton retrieved the magnet from his roof, and brought it over to me. Barker had asked NMSR to figure out how to test Brown's claims, and we'd talked it over for a few days. NMSR physicist Kim Johnson suggested we build two mock swamp coolers, and run them for as long as we could. That interval was about three weeks, because of the need to wrap the story up by the end of summer sweeps. I obtained two sets of mock cooler supplies at the local hardware store, and Kim Johnson soon had two identical mini-swamp coolers running.
Each had a standard pump, a water tube, a section of cooler pad to receive the water, glass slides to form crystals as water dripped on them, fans to stimulate evaporation, and so forth. The two mock coolers were as identical as possible, and were made entirely with pristine materials. The only difference was that one cooler had the model 400 GMX installed right where it was supposed to be in order to "keep the mineral deposits from clogging the cooling pads." Since the magnets were supposed to prevent formation of new scale immediately, we would have a clear indication at the end of the test.
The experiment was started on July 1st, and ran until July 20th. We met Barker to review the results, and film interviews, on July 21st. First, we looked at accumulation of scale on the sections of cooler pad material. These sections had been weighed beforehand, and were carefully weighed again. There was significant scale buildup on both pads - you could easily see colored streaks of mineral deposits. The glass slides showed accumulation of crystals similar in volume and in microscopic appearance. We compared magnetically-treated calcite crystals to normal crystals at high magnification, because GMX said there would be a very clear difference. There was none, however.
We also carried out a suds test, which was described in the GMX literature. We put a drop of soap into test tubes containing treated and untreated water, and shook them. GMX had said "The foam on top of the untreated water disappears after an hour. The foam on top of the treated water will hardly diminish." However, no differences between the two tubes could be seen.
We performed some chemical tests too, even though I had argued against them at first. I had told Larry Barker that GMX pointed out their treatment only affects crystallization properties, and would not affect the "chemistry" of the water. Barker asked me if I agreed this was valid science, and I had to say "No." So, we added some chemical tests to measure the hardness (mineral content) of treated versus untreated water. The original water used in both swamp coolers was typical high-mineral-content New Mexico well water, and its hardness measured about 8 units by our chemical test, purchased from the local Culligan's supplier. The hardness of both treated and untreated coolers was almost doubled, about 15 units for both. That's because the evaporation of water over the three weeks increased the mineral content. In effect, swamp coolers are hardness concentrators, and we could measure that effect easily. What we couldn't measure was any difference between "magnetized" water and untreated water.
We also filmed a couple of side experiments. The GMX literature often mentioned "magneto-hydrodynamics" (MHD), so I used a strong magnet and a high-voltage neon tube to illustrate how to control a real electrically conducting fluid - in this case, a plasma of excited neon atoms - with magnetic fields. If water is involved in MHD, it must be made electrically conducting. It is ironic that the only way to make water conductive cheaply - adding lots of salt - is exactly the opposite of what GMX says happens when it points out that magnetic systems avoid the salt used by regular softener systems. We also demonstrated that electric fields could easily affect water's surface tension, by using a charged balloon to manipulate a fine spray of water. A strong magnet, however, had no effect on surface tension. Water has polar molecules, and is sensitive to electric field orientation, but unless it's made conductive and is moving really fast in a strong magnetic field, water has very little magnetic response. The same goes for calcium carbonate crystals.
After a few days of editing, the piece aired on July 27th, right on schedule. As we had expected, many of our experiments weren't mentioned at all. We'd known all along that we were offering a buffet of physics experiments, and the audience would only see a couple of dishes. The scale/ crystal buildup and chemical hardness experiments were presented, but not the suds test, nor the MHD and surface tension demonstrations. Even so, the segment was very long by news standards - over five minutes. Barker had quite a story to tell.
Barker explained the basic pitch, the undercover video, and the experimental setup. He then asked Kim Johnson if there had been any differences between magnetically-treated and normal systems: there was none. I said on-air that "It's clearly pseudoscience. It has the trappings of science, but when you dig into it, there's nothing there. There's no evidence, there's no proof, there's no logic, there's not even a why it works."
Barker also interviewed a woman who gave a testimonial for GMX in Brown's flyer. It turned out this woman was now a distributor of GMX products! Barker also found that one of the testimonials in Brown's flyers was from Brown himself, and doesn't mention he is the main dealer for GMX. For that matter, even scientist Klaus Kronenberg turned out to be a paid GMX consultant.
A non-scientific gas mileage test was also performed - a truck was driven, emissions-tested, driven for 15 minutes with the GMX model 400 on its fuel line, and re-tested. There was no discernible effect of the magnet, which had been touted as lowering the "oxygen to zero."
Larry Brown agreed to be interviewed, and he tried his best to answer Barker's difficult questions. (Had Brown not agreed to be interviewed or identified, his image would have been blurred on broadcast of the undercover video.) When Barker asked him if seeing evidence that his systems didn't work would ever change his mind about them, Brown answered that it would not - that he'd heard from too many satisfied customers to ever doubt the magnets' utility.
All in all, it was an excellent segment. Other local television stations have less than stellar science coverage - NMSR Reports has had articles recently about how KOB TV4 was snookered by the Intelligent Design crowd during a dispute about showing creationist videos on public television, and about how KOAT TV7 uncritically gushed over promoters of the Roswell UFO. Indeed, Larry Barker and KRQE TV13 have emerged as true champions of science and reason. We've worked with Barker before, on topics like Roswell and Free Electricity, and hope to work with him again in the future. This wasn't even Nancy Shelton's first experience wearing a wire - that came in an investigation of state fair psychics a few years ago. What's up next? Stay tuned!
Those with high-speed computer connections to the internet can watch the entire segment on-line at "Scientists dispel claims of 'wetter' water device." The original caption read "It claims to give you 'wetter' water, and even improve the gas mileage on your car. Larry Barker had scientists put it to the test."
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