CLEARWATER — About five months ago, Joanie Bianchi noticed a chalky film on her dishes and glasses. At first, she thought she didn't put the detergent in her dishwasher the right way.
But each time she washed her dishes, she was greeted by the same pesky film. It was really hard to get off.
"I have a couple hundred dollars worth of Tervis (plastic) mugs ruined," she said.
Bianchi wasn't alone. A number of residents in and near the Morningside Estates neighborhood of southeast Clearwater have been dealing with similar deposits on their dishes. At least three complained to the city. And two of them bought new dishwashers, thinking that would solve the problem. Two others, including the Morningside-Meadows Association president, said they have filmy dishes, too.
Officials from the water agencies involved disagree on what causes the problem.
Clearwater water officials think a combination of three factors may be to blame.
• The city changed the mix of water sent to the area, and it may have become harder than before.
• The treatment process changed for about two months.
• Dishwasher detergent manufacturers recently changed the formulation of their products.
For Morningside and surrounding areas, the time line may have begun in January. That's when the city of Clearwater started a construction project and closed wells that supplied some of the water to the area; the rest came from the county, which gets its supply from Tampa Bay Water.
In May, the city closed the treatment plant in the area to finish the project. It reopened at the end of July. The wells were not reopened until Friday.
Major manufacturers reduced phosphates in their products in response to bans of high-phosphate detergents that went into effect in 16 states in July. Phosphates keep dishes from spotting, but when they drain into lakes and streams they can lead to an overgrowth of vegetation, which can kill fish and damage wildlife habitats. Some makers began rolling out new products months earlier.
Clearwater started getting dishwasher-related complaints from the Morningside area in July. Some residents said they had trouble for weeks, even months before that.
Where water comes from makes a difference, said Greg Turman, Clearwater's water production coordinator.
Groundwater, for instance, is harder than water from other sources. "Hard water'' contains minerals that make soap difficult to lather and may cause scaling or corrosion in appliances like dishwashers.
Tampa Bay Water generally uses a blend of river water, desalinated water and groundwater. But the agency stopped running its desalination plant in April because it had more than enough water from other sources, said Christine Owen, Tampa Bay Water quality assurance officer.
Turman sees a connection to Morningside.
"I think it's a combination of factors, Tampa Bay Water producing more water from its well fields and the changes in the detergent formulation during that time frame," he said.
Owen disagrees. From January through April the percentage of groundwater in the agency's mix for Pinellas ranged from 42 to 80 percent. From May through August, it ranged from 60 to 75 percent, she said.
"I would be hard-pressed to think that type of difference in the percentage would have a noticeable difference at the customer's tap," she said.
Turman also thinks the absence of the city's corrosion preventing chemical when the plant was shut down might have played a role.
Bob Powell, Pinellas County's director of utility operations, doesn't buy that reasoning. He said the county treats its water with a similar chemical.
But Powell said the city's water for that area could be somewhat softer than the county's water. That's because water from Clearwater's shallower wells may have less calcium than water from the deeper wells that supply the county, he said.
Each month, Pinellas utilities, which serves 600,000 people, may see four to six complaints dishwasher-related complaints, Powell said. In August, it saw 20 and in September it saw 16.
"Looking at the size of our customer base, it might be purely incidental," Powell said.
Powell, who has worked for the county since 1978, said complaints about deposits on dishes are far from a new phenomenon. That's because local water has traditionally contained minerals.
"From a health standpoint, it's probably a good thing," he said. "From a housekeeping standpoint it's not such a good thing."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155.