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Turbidity of water is an optical property that causes light to be scattered and absorbed, rather than transmitted.

Turbidity of water is an optical property that causes light to be scattered and absorbed, rather than transmitted. The scattering of light that passes through a liquid is primarily caused by suspended solids. The higher the turbidity, the greater the amount of scattered light. Even a very pure fluid will scatter light to a certain degree; no solution will have zero turbidity.

There are different measurement standards used based on applications, and with these standards are applied units. The ISO standard adopted the FNU (Formazin Nephelometric Unit) while the EPA uses the NTU (Nephelometric Turbidity Unit). Other units include the JTU (Jackson Turbidity Unit), FTU (Formazin Turbidity Unit), EBC (European Brewery Convention Turbidity Unit) and diatomaceous earth (mg/L SiO₂).

Monitoring for Natural Water Supplies

In natural water, turbidity measurements are taken to gauge general water quality and its compatibility in applications where there are aquatic organisms. It has been found that there is a strong correlation between turbidity and BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand) value. Moreover, by definition, turbidity obstructs light, thus reducing the growth of marine plants, eggs and larvae, which are usually found in the lower levels of an aquatic ecosystem.

Wastewater Treatment and Turbidity

Historically, turbidity is one of the main parameters monitored in wastewater. In fact, the monitoring and treatment process was once solely based on the control of turbidity. Currently, the measurement of turbidity at the end of the wastewater treatment process is necessary to verify that the values are within regulatory standards. Generally speaking, the turbidity value has to be between 0 and 50 FTU, with an accuracy of ±3 FTU depending on the phase of the wastewater treatment process. By monitoring the turbidity level, it can be determined if the different stages of the process, particularly in the filtration and purification stages, have been completed correctly.

The Hanna Solution

There are three analytical test methods for turbidity:

  • ISO 7027 “Water Quality: Determination of Turbidity”
  • USEPA Method No.180.1, “Turbidity”
  • Seawater and Wastewater No.2130, “Turbidity”

Specific wavelengths are recommended for each method. For the USEPA and Standard Methods, the wavelength in the visible range of the spectrum is recommended, where the European ISO method requires an infrared light source.

The Infrared Method (ISO 7027)

The ISO 7027 standard specifies the key parameters for the optical system to measure turbidity for drinking and surface water, using the formazin-based metric method. The HI98713 portable turbidimeter meets or exceeds the criteria specified by the ISO 7027 standard.

ISO turbidity meters operate by passing a beam of infrared light through a vial containing the sample to be tested. The light source is a High Emission Infrared LED.A sensor positioned at 90° with respect to the direction of the light detects the amount of light scattered by the undissolved particles present in the sample. A microprocessor converts these readings into FTU (FNU) values.

The US Environmental Protection Agency Approved Method (180.1)

The USEPA Method 180.1 specifies the key parameters for the optical system to measure turbidity for drinking, saline and surface water, in a 0 to 40 NTU range, using the nephelometric method.

Meters compliant with EPA approved methods are designed to meet or exceed the criteria specified by the USEPA Method 180.1 and Standard Method 2130 B.

Principle of Operation

The light beam that passes through the sample is scattered in all directions. The intensity and pattern of the scattered light is affected by many variables, such as wavelength of the incident light, particle size and shape, refractive index, and color. The optical system includes a tungsten filament lamp or IR LED, a scattered light detector (90°), and a transmitted light detector (180°).

In the ratio turbidimeter range, the microprocessor of the instrument calculates the turbidity value from the signals that reach the two detectors by using an effective algorithm. This algorithm corrects and compensates for interferences of color, making the turbidimeters color-compensated. The optical system and measuring technique also compensate for the lamp or LED intensity fluctuations; minimizing the need for frequent calibration.

In the non-ratio turbidimeter range, the turbidity value is calculated from the signal on the scattered light detector (90°). This method offers a high linearity on the low range but is more sensitive to lamp or LED intensity fluctuations.

The lower detection limit of a turbidimeter is determined by stray light. Stray light is the light detected by the sensors that is not caused by light scattering from suspended particles. The optical systems of turbidimeters are designed to have very low stray light, providing accurate results for low turbidity samples.


The nephelometric turbidity meter is designed to be routinely standardized with a known light scattering standard. As with all analytical standards or reference materials, a turbidity standard should be able to perform the following: provide traceability, demonstrate the accuracy of results, calibrate the equipment and methodology, monitor user performance, validate tests, and facilitate comparability; this ensures that when the correct procedures have been followed, the same analysis of the same materials will produce results that agree with each other whenever they are performed.

Standards and reference materials should be produced and characterized in a technically competent manner and should be homogenous, stable, certified and have available a known uncertainty of measurement. Presently, there are at least two standards recognized and approved by the USEPA, Standard Methods, ASTM and other regulatory agencies; these are formazin and AMCO AEPA-1.


Formazin is an aqueous suspension of an insoluble polymer formed by the condensation reaction between hydrazine sulphate and hexamethylenetetramine. Although formazin was suggested as a turbidity standard as early as 1926, it has many limitations, such as its high toxicity, low shelf life, quick rate of settling and easy agglomeration. Also, the diluent for formazin standards must be turbidity-free water. This is often difficult to obtain, particularly in a field situation.

AMCO AEPA-1 Standard

Fortunately, since 1982, there is a standard available which overcomes the shortcomings of formazin. This has been developed by the American company, Advanced Polymer Systems, and is a suspended mixture of styrene divinylbenzene polymer spheres. These standards have the following characteristics:

Stability: AMCO AEPA-1 turbidity standards are a stabilized suspension of cross linked styrene divinylbenzene copolymer microbeads in ultrapure water. These beads are chemically inert and keep their chemical balance in a water medium regardless of concentration.

The size scatter of the beads only ranges from 0.06 to 0.2 microns. This small size accounts for random Brownian movement of these beads in suspension, keeping them in constant motion and totally dispersed within the ultra-pure water matrix.

Physical properties: Particle size, uniform shape and refractive index make these spheres ideal to characterize light absorption and scatter for 90° behavior in the UV-VIS range. In addition, the bead’s spherical shape and size impedes the agglomeration or precipitation of the standard. For these reasons, the AMCO AEPA-1 standards are very stable.

Reliability: These standards are prepared and bottled in a clean room facility. They are tested for accuracy and stability, fully validated before bottling, and free from any toxic or carcinogenic chemicals or compounds.

Hanna turbidity calibration standards are prepared from NIST traceable primary standard reference materials. All prepared standards are compared to formazin turbidity standard solutions. The values reported on Hanna Certificate of Analysis are the results obtained on the date of analysis. The evaluation of these data is based on Standard Methods.

Purification of Drinking Water

Turbidity is one of the most important parameters used to determine the quality of drinking water. Public water suppliers are required to treat their water to remove turbidity. In the United States, for systems that use conventional or direct filtration methods, turbidity cannot be higher than 1.0 nephelometric turbidity units (NTU) at the plant outlet, and all samples for turbidity must be less than or equal to 0.3 NTU for at least 95% of the samples in any month. Adequately treated surface water does not usually present a turbidity problem. The World Health Organization indicates 5 NTU as the reference turbidity value of water for trade. This value has been established based on the aesthetic characteristics of water. From a hygienic point of view, 1 NTU is the recommended value. Many drinking water utilities strive to achieve levels as low as 0.1 NTU.

Turbidity is an indicator and will not give results for a specific pollutant. It will, however, provide information on the degree of overall contamination. The flow chart for the water treatment process of drinking water shows the turbidity reference values for each phase.

Typical sources of turbidity in drinking water include the following:

  • Waste discharge
  • Run-off from watersheds, especially those that are disturbed or eroding
  • Algae or aquatic weeds and products of their breakdown in water reservoirs, rivers, or lakes
  • Humic acids and other organic compounds resulting from decay of plants, leaves, etc.in water sources
  • High iron concentrations which give water a rust-red coloration (mainly in ground water and ground water under the direct influence of surface water)
  • Air bubbles and particles from the treatment process

Treatment Process of Drinking Water

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