Horticulture myth busting – Part 1

Can electricity be used to reduce water hardness in hydroponics?

Cucumbers growing in a hydroponic garden.

This is the first installment in a six-part series on horticulture myth busting. This series will focus on giving consumers the information they need to evaluate product claims for themselves and get the most out of their gardening budget. 

Hydroponic gardening is a growing activity in American households. This high-tech form of indoor agriculture works based on the manipulation of water chemistry, primarily the solubility of mineral salts. Beginning hydroponic gardeners are faced with large amounts of information when first getting started, which can pose a significant barrier to entry. To make matters worse, products marketed towards these hobbyists can be poorly labeled or downright misleading. 

One such product claim, which has found its way to the Iowa Supreme Court, involves a non-chemical process called electromagnetic water treatment (EWT). Proponents of EWT, primarily manufacturers of commercial and consumer devices, assert that their product helps buyers reduce rust and water alkalinity in their plumbing. Such issues are commonplace among the concerns of hydroponic growers. This process works, allegedly, by inducing an electromagnetic field using a device through which untreated water passes.

The evidentiary basis for these types of products was debunked in 1989 via a court case brought via the Iowa Consumer Fraud Act of 1965 assisted by an Iowa State University distinguished professor emeritus, Douglas Finnemore. Finnemore’s expertise in superconductivity and magnetism provided key testimony, which resulted in successful litigation against a manufacturer of EWT devices.  

In a paraphrase of his testimony, Finnemore maintained that “[the device] was incapable of producing enough energy to cause chemical changes in water by either preventing the bonding of certain elements or affecting the crystallization process.” Ultimately, the manufacturers of the device in question contended that their product claims were not “based on any scientific information” but rather the inventor’s “personal opinions and speculation.”

Despite the Iowa Supreme Court’s findings and summary judgment against this manufacturer of EWT devices, in 2021 there are still a surprising number of similar devices available for consumer purchase. It is unclear what, if any, pending litigation is proceeding related to these devices. In absence of policy to prevent the exploitation of hydroponic growers, it is essential to further educate and improve the ability of the public to discern fact from fiction where extraordinary scientific claims are concerned. 

Stay tuned for the next installment of horticulture myth busting in which the science, merits and myths of homemade fertilizers are explored.

Have a horticulture myth that you would like to submit for consideration? Contact the author, Christopher Imler, at imlerchr@msu.edu or take advantage of our easy-to-use Ask an Expert question submission system.

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