The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 1 in 12 Americans is exposed to potentially harmful microbes, pesticides, lead, or radioactive radon with every drink of tap water and every time they take a shower (R). For Native Americans living on tribal land, this figure rises to a staggering 1 in 4 without access to safe water in their homes. In Canada, some communities have been without safe drinking water for decades, and while many of us in big cities are quite nonchalant about our water, in some ways our tap water has never been more vulnerable to safety issues.
The chemicals and organisms contaminating drinking water can cause infection, poisoning, endocrine (hormone) disruption, and a host of health conditions. Poor water safety can cause serious disease outbreaks, shorten lifespan, reduce quality of life, and affect childhood growth and development. The main reasons for water contamination include crumbling water treatment infrastructure, hazardous agricultural practices (largely animal agriculture and feed lots), fracking, pipelines, and other industrial activities, and failing environmental protections and oversight. Even in economically developed countries, then, millions of people are living without safe, potable water in their homes.
Fortunately, innovative new technologies mean that, while governments play catch up, we can quickly and easily use water filtration systems at home to dramatically improve the potability and safety of what comes out of our faucets. And, home filtration systems are nothing new. Humans have been filtering water at home since 4,000 B.C. or so, with charcoal, sunlight, boiling, and mechanical filtering all popular methods in Ancient Greek and Roman times.
Of course, our ancestors didn’t have the benefit of being able to test drinking water for safety like we do. And, thanks to new technology, home water filtration is now simple and easy to install and use every day.
Why you need a water filter
An effective water filtration system is a good idea for every home, given the potential for contamination and the low standards set by many governmental bodies. Regulators are mostly concerned with basic water safety (is it riddled with bacteria and lead) rather than testing water to see if it is optimal for consumption in the home. And, when it comes to water contamination, what doesn’t kill you (in the short term) certainly isn’t likely to make you any stronger going forward.
Water filtration is particularly important for individuals who are more sensitive to contaminants or more at risk to infections than the general population. This includes young children, older adults, and people with impaired immune, liver, or kidney function. Depending on where you live, your health, medications, metabolism, diet, and genetics, the water you drink every day could prove problematic if unfiltered. Some regions have a high copper content, for example, which may leave your body low in zinc. Other areas have water high in iron, added fluoride and chloride, and other elements that may interact with your medications and basic physiological processes. And, of course, there’s always the risk of microbes, benzene, radionucleides, arsenic, and nitrates that can have adverse health effects.
What contaminants are found in tap water?
Some of the contaminants that can be found in tap water, well water, and other water sources people drink every day worldwide include:
- Viruses and bacteria – including coliphage, Escherichia coli, Salmonella enterica, Giardia, Cryptosporidium
- Trihalomethanes – including bromodichloromethane, bromoform, chloroform, and dibromochloromethane
- Inorganic minerals – including chloramine, chloride, free and total chlorine
- Heavy metals – including aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, bismuth, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, vanadium, and zinc
- Pharmaceuticals – including, acetaminophen, caffeine, carbamazepine, ciprofloxacin, erythromycin, sulfamethoxazole, trimethoprim, bisphenol A, diclofenac, progesterone, ibuprofen, naproxen, and triclosan.
Other contaminants can include crude oil, kerosene, mineral spirits, diesel, selenium, thallium, rust, silt, sediment, foul tastes and odors, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Arsenic contamination of drinking water is a serious health risk for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. In the U.S., 43 million people use private wells for water, and an estimated 3 million people drink well water that contains arsenic levels above the World Health Organization (WHO) standard and the EPA maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 μg/L (R). The responsibility for testing well water rests with the individual homeowner, who will then need to take steps to reduce arsenic content if it is high. Methods for arsenic removal include anion exchange, adsorptive media and reverse osmosis.
Water filtration and purification technologies
Although the words filtration and purification are often used interchangeably, the two terms are not synonymous. Water filtration is simply that: filtering water to remove larger contaminants. Purification removes almost all contaminants, no matter how small. As such, filtration systems should only be used on water that has already been treated for contamination, while purification systems can be used on highly contaminated or untreated water.
To be certified as a water purification system, a unit needs to be able to remove at least 95% of contaminants. Most reverse osmosis systems will remove up to 99% of contaminants. In contrast, filtration systems can help make water clearer and odor free, but the water may still be harmful to health if not treated for contamination in some other way.
Let’s take a look at two purification systems first and then options for water filtration at home, with recommendations for some of the best water filtration and purification systems on the market currently.
Distillation is an effective water treatment technology for use in the home and in a commercial capacity. This process purifies water by boiling it in a container, collecting the steam in a series of cooling tubes, and then condensing the steam in a second container to give distilled water. Almost all of the original water’s impurities remain in the first container, and the process is effective for removing:
- Hardness (calcium salts, for instance)
- Dissolved solids
- Most organic compounds
Distillation does not always remove contaminants that can be turned into gases, however, including gasoline components and radon. Some distillation systems do contain filters that remove these contaminants, or a separate filter can be used after distillation (R).
It’s also important to note that distilled water lacks any salts, including sodium and calcium salts that the human body needs as electrolytes. Drinking a lot of distilled water exclusively could make you feel thirsty as your body can have problems holding onto water without the right electrolyte balance. Water filtration systems that work by distillation have been shown to remove fluoride at a high rate (R).
Reverse osmosis (RO) is a popular water purification technique that removes numerous contaminants and produces clear, odor free water. It was originally developed to process saltwater into freshwater and uses a semi-permeable membrane to filter out contaminants as water is forced through the membrane at high pressure. RO systems have also been shown to remove fluoride at a high rate (R), and RO systems also remove other elements, resulting in an acidic hypotonic water. For this reason, some people choose to add minerals back into water that has been purified using reverse osmosis.
High quality RO systems do a first pass to filter out larger particles, and then send pressurized water through the membrane to filter out impurities as small as 0.001 microns, resulting in safe, clean, drinking water. Two of the best RO systems are the Watts Premier RO-Pure 531411 and the iSpring 75GPD 5-Stage Water Filter.
UV water filters
Ultraviolet (UV) filtration systems are a relatively environmentally friendly water purification option and one of the newest water treatment technologies. These systems use UV light to destroy bacteria and don’t involve the use of chemicals or heat, making them relatively inexpensive to run once set-up. That said, they can be fiddly to set up, particularly if you’re installing a complete home filtration system to purify all the water that enters the house. And, once set up, yearly maintenance is required, and some parts may need replacing every so often.
The capacity for these systems ranges from 1 gallon-per-minute up to 40 gallons-per-minute. A UV water purification system effectively destroys 99.9% of waterborne microorganisms including chlorine-resistant microorganisms such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium. One of the best options for UV purification is the HQUA Ultraviolet Water Purifier. More details on this system can be found here (R).
UV systems do have several disadvantages, however. This technology does not remove any other contaminants from water, meaning that separate filtration systems need to be used to remove heavy metals, salts, chlorine, gasoline products, pharmaceuticals, and so forth. In addition, the UV filter only works for ‘clear’ water, so a first-pass filtration will need to be done if water is cloudy or full of sediment. UV systems also require electricity, so are not suitable for rural or emergency needs.
Activated carbon filtration
Activated carbon filters are typically effective at removing some but not all impurities from water, with a few exceptions, such as the Berkey system which goes above and beyond. When bike touring in remote areas with no potable water sources, I have made use of travel-size bottles that incorporate this filtration technology to quickly filter water from rivers. These filters are good for removing sediment and silt from water as they attract and absorb these particles, and they are also fairly effective at removing chlorine and other larger contaminants.
Most activated charcoal filters do not remove smaller microorganisms, so it is generally a good idea to use these in combination with other types of filtration technology or water purification, such as RO, distillation, and iodine treatment. There are some exceptions, with some systems able to remove some organisms and toxins produced by these organisms, such as cyanotoxins produced by blue green algae (R). As such, it is best to go for a system that has been independently certified for its capacity to purify rather than simply filter water.
Faucet filters incorporating activated carbon technology offer an inexpensive way to quickly filter tap water at home. These may be a good option if your water is treated for microbial contamination but is often hard, cloudy, fluoridated or chlorinated to excess. Some systems are certified to reduce sediment, bacteria, microorganisms, cysts, chlorine, and other contaminants from water, including the relatively inexpensive DuPont WFFM100XCH Premier Faucet Mount Drinking Water Filter. This system can filter 100 gallons of water, meaning that it’s best to change the filters at least every two months.
The best activated carbon filtration and purification system available, however, is hands-down the Berkey. This power gravity filtration and purification system uses self-sterilizing and cleanable elements with micro-pores small enough to stop pathogenic bacteria from passing through. The Black Berkey filters have consistently performed at a high level in independent third-party testing, helping to remove 99.999999% of contaminants. The ceramic filters contain granular activated carbon and are just as effective but are slightly more durable for traveling.
Gravity filtration is a popular option for relief organizations such as UNICEF, the Peace Corps, and the Red Cross. This is because systems like the Berkey are portable, require no plumbing knowledge or household modifications to set up, and don’t require electricity. They can easily purify tap water, but really shine when used to purify untreated water from lakes and streams. The Berkey not only looks great in the kitchen, then, it is also the perfect camping companion. And, the Berkey is invaluable in the event of an earthquake, blackout, hurricane, flood, or other local or national emergency when treated tap water may not be available.
The Berkey filters out cysts and parasites and unhealthy chemical contaminants and impurities, but retains essential minerals, making the resulting water arguably healthier than water produced by distillation or RO. The durable filters can process up to 3,000 gallons of water, meaning that at a rate of ten gallons a week, the filters can last up to eleven and a half years. Specialized Berkey filters can also remove fluoride and arsenic.
In order to be classified as a water purifier, a water treatment device must remove at least 99.9999% of pathogenic bacteria and reduce viruses by 99.99%. The Black Berkey Purification Elements remove 99.9999999% of pathogenic bacteria and 99.999% of viruses, greatly exceeding the standards required for purification status and earning them the seal of approval by State and EPA accredited laboratories testing for NSF/ANSI Standard 53.
As a side note, alkaline or water ionizer systems are not filtration or purification systems. These systems simply pass water over electrically charged plates to separate alkaline and acidic water. The resulting alkaline water is softer and negatively charged. This is the same for infrared filters which use heat and light to negatively charge water. These two types of system can be useful if you live in an area with hard water but should be combined with actual filtration or purification technology.
What about bottled water?
If there are benefits to filtering and/or purifying tap water, doesn’t it just make the most sense to switch to bottled water and let someone else do all the hard work for you? In short, no. Bottled water is supposed to be tested for some contaminants, but not every bottle will have gone through the same quality control, and the levels set by the US Food and Drug Administration for contaminants aren’t always all that robust. Bottled water may also contain chlorine as some companies use this to disinfect the water, and, some bottled water contains fluoride either because it was present in the natural water source or has been added.
To find out what is in a bottle of water, the onus is on the consumer to call the bottling company and find out. NSF International is also a great resource for information as this non-profit organization provides resources on bottled water contaminants and safety and independently certifies filtration systems within the United States.
There’s also another problem with bottled water: the environmental impact. According to Penn State University, an estimated 42.6 billion plastic water bottles are purchased each year in the U.S., at a total cost of around $11.8 million for consumers. As a rough estimate, using a $20 reusable water bottle, filled using tap water filtered through a $300 home system, could save an individual as much as $5800 over five years. And, if you look after your reusable bottle and properly maintain the filtration system, the savings will continue to rack up over subsequent years.
Switching to a reusable bottle could save around 217 plastic water bottles from going into landfill every year (R). And, good quality reusable bottles are also free from lead and BPA and reduce exposure to soft plastics that can leach harmful chemicals into the water, particularly if a plastic bottle is left in the sunshine or a hot place.
Whole home water filtration systems
Whole home water filter systems are increasingly popular as once you’ve got one installed they’re effective, produce clean and clear water, and are fairly easy to maintain. Home water filtration systems can also be better for the environment than some other filter systems as they don’t require significant energy to function and usually run effectively for many years without needing replacement parts.
One of the most sought-after systems is the Aquasana 10-Year, 1,000,000 Gallon Whole House Water Filter. This unit is very low maintenance, has quality parts that are unlikely to need replacing, and has a water softener cylinder that can last a decade or more with normal use. After installing this unit (which may require you making friends with a plumber if you don’t have a pex crimper), you will immediately notice the difference in the taste and smell of your tap water.
The iSpring WGB32B 3-Stage Whole House Water Filtration System is another good option, with a 100,000-gallon activated carbon filter that should cover a household for a year or two, depending on water consumption. The iSpring is certified by the NSF to remove any particles larger than 5 microns and is effective at removing chlorine, sediment, herbicides, pesticides, rust, and up to 95% of the contaminants in your water.
The iSpring also has the advantage of allowing up to 15 gallons of water to filter through the system every minute. Unlike other units, then, this system doesn’t typically cause a sharp reduction in water pressure. One thing to note with this unit, however, is that you’ll want to use Teflon tape to secure the connections, otherwise some leaking is likely to occur.
What about filtered water pitchers?
If your budget doesn’t quite stretch to a Berkey or a complete home filtration system, a simple water pitcher with a filter can still help clean up your tap water. There is a lot of variation in these pitchers, with some providing robust filtration for a variety of potential contaminants while others do very little.
Lead is often a problem in old houses where plumbing had not been updated. This heavy metal is very harmful to health, so if you aren’t sure if your home has lead pipes, contact your water utility or your health department and ask if there are lead pipes and/or if they can test your water supply for lead. Replacing lead pipes is the best option but, in the meantime, it is a good idea to use filter technology to remove lead from your water.
To make sure you get an effective water filter pitcher, opt for a product with NSF certification, such as the ZeroWater 23 Cup Dispenser XD-018. This brand offers the only plastic water dispensers certified by the NSF to reduce lead, chromium, and mercury from drinking water. This particular model also comes with a TDS Meter (Total Dissolved Solids), so you can get a sense of what’s in your water. This pitcher quickly and effectively removes chlorine too, meaning that the taste and smell of your tap water will improve noticeably.
Whether you’re interested in water filtration or purification for aesthetic or health reasons, the right kind of system can make a real difference to the quality of the water in your home. Given that the human body comprises about 55-65% water, the smart move is to grab a reusable bottle and fill it up from your Berkey or with filtered tap water, so you can feel good about what you’re drinking every day!