Drinking clean water does a lot to keep you healthy. It dissolves fat and fibers in your stomach. It makes it easier to exercise. It improves kidney function. It heightens focus. It prevents headaches. It lubricates cartilage in your joints. It reduces the risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, and bladder cancer. It can even help you lose weight. No wonder so many Americans are searching for ways to improve the quality of their drinking water, either by filtering their tap water or buying bottled water. Americans spend roughly $11 billion a year on bottled water and there’s a lot about whether it’s money well-spent or money wasted. Bottled water advocates point out that it’s clean and convenient. Critics counter that home filters do a much better job at a fraction of the cost, without any generating any trash. Are they right? Is bottled water all it’s cracked up to be or would we be better off switching to filtered water instead? We took a look at both sides to see which, if any, had the advantage.
Criteria – Bottled Water vs. Filtered Water
To get to the bottom of this issue, we judged the efficacy of bottled water vs. filtered using three criteria:
- Cleanliness: How clean is the water they provide?
- Convenience: How easy is it to use each one?
- Cost: How expensive is bottled water vs. filtered water?
- Impact: How do bottled water and filtered water affect the environment?
This is the primary reason why so many people prefer bottled water over tap water. Bottled water companies are very good at eliminating pollutants and contaminants from their products. Different companies use different methods, but their financial resource give them access to advanced treatment techniques that aren’t feasible for home filters. For example, Sparkletts Bottled Water hires licensed geologists to ensure the quality of their springs. They also purify their water using ultraviolet light and ozonation. Ultraviolet light breaks down the DNA of microorganisms, rendering them inert. Ozonation saturates water with ozone gas. The oxygen molecules we breathe are made of two oxygen atoms. Ozone is made of three. It’s also highly unstable and degrades back into normal O2 gas very quickly, leaving behind a free oxygen atom. When ozone gas is pumped into water, this free oxygen atom latches onto and neutralizes any stray particles, including bacteria, viruses, hydrogen sulfide, and heavy metals such as iron and manganese.
Other companies use reverse osmosis filters, which is available for home use even though it’s expensive. Reverse osmosis machines pass water through a semi-permeable membrane that traps contaminants. They also use more common methods, like granulated carbon, but pair them with more expensive techniques like reverse osmosis, creating a multi-stage filtration process that leaves behind nothing but pure, clean water.
Bottled water manufacturers can afford to spend more filtering water because the costs are spread over their entire customer base. Sadly, home filters don’t enjoy the same advantage, so their effectiveness varies considerably and cleanliness normally degrades with price. Most home filters use granulated carbon as their primary filtration method. It’s made from coconut husks that have been heated in an oxygen-free environment and then ground into fine grains. It’s good, but its effectiveness varies depending on how much is used.
|Whole House||Most effective home filtration system. Intercepts water as it enters your home using carbon filters to remove chlorine, chloramines, odors, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene and methylene|
|Reverse Osmosis||Installed under the sink. Normally paired with a granulated carbon filter to remove chlorine. Takes time and traps large amounts of water as well|
|Gravity-Fed Filters||These filters are divided in two chambers divided by a carbon filter. You pour water in the top and wait for it to pass through the filter and drip into the bottom chamber . Traps chlorine, fluoride, parasites, and heavy metals. Advanced filters like ProPur are even more effective than reverse osmosis|
|Faucet Filters||Attach to your kitchen faucet. Uses granulated carbon filters. Have difficulty removing chlorine, metals, pesticides, and odors.|
|Pitcher Filters||Least effective home filtration system. Use granulated carbon. Also has difficulty removing chlorine, metals, pesticides, and odors.|
Despite their different levels of effectiveness, home filters do have one advantage over bottled water. They carry no risk of phthalate contamination. Phthalate is a colorless chemical used to increase the flexibility of plastic and it can give bottled water a bitter, unpleasant taste.
Bottled water is pretty ubiquitous. If you don’t want to go out any buy it, there are companies that will actually come and deliver it to your door. This type of service is normally used in conjunction with a water dispenser, which is the best way to enjoy bottled water. Water dispensers chill and heat water using a small compressor and keeps it at the perfect temperature for you to drink. Modern water dispensers are also easier than ever to load. Top loading dispenser have spikes in the baffle that puncture the cap and prevent spills. Bottom loading water dispensers, which don’t require you to lift heavy bottles, are also becoming popular. How often you need to refill your water cooler depends on how often its used and how many people drink from it. A family of four will probably go through 2-5 bottles a month. Companies with 20-25 employees will go through about 20. Bottled water delivery companies operate in most metropolitan areas and will even take the empty bottles away with them whenever they drop off new bottles.
Filtered water uses the water in your home, so you’ll always have some on hand and you never have to worry about running out. The only downside is that filters become less effective the more you use them. Each particle latches onto a different part of the filter, and once its absorption surface is full, it stops working. This problem is especially acute in areas with hard water. It contains high levels of minerals, which clog filters even faster. The lifespan of a filter depends on its size and construction. Pitcher filters have to be replaced every 40 gallons; faucet filters after every 100 gallons. Whole house filters have to be changed every 3-6 months, while reverse osmosis filters generally last for about a year. Some gravity-fed water filters can actually be cleaned and reused, which means sometimes can last for several years.
An ordinary bottle of water costs $1-2 at a grocery store or gas station. If you’re buying a jug for your water cooler, the cost is about $7-$9 per bottle. You can reduce your costs by refilling the bottles yourself at a refilling station. Water there costs about $0.40 per gallon. You can find them at grocery and convenience stores. If you don’t know where the closest station is, you can search for them online. Instead of charging by the bottles, some delivery companies charge a flat, monthly fee. Prices vary, but some can be as low as $10 for an ordinary household.
The cost of a home filter system varies at lot depending on what type of system you buy and how often the filters have to be replaced. Advanced systems tend to cost more and have more expensive filters. Here’s a quick breakdown:
Installation Fee: $100-$500
The good news is that home filters don’t cost anything to run. They’re passive systems, so they only thing you have to pay for is the tap water, which costs approximately $0.004 per gallon.
The environmental impact of bottled water depends on whether the bottles are thrown away or recycled. Plastic takes about 450 years to decompose, so tossing a water bottle in the trash has a big impact on landfill overflow. On the other hand, most water bottles can now be recycled and reused, which considerably lessens their impact on the environment. If you own a water cooler, most water delivery companies will actually do this for you, carting away your empty bottles so they can be refilled and sent out again.
The environmental impact of filtered water is lower than bottled water. Most home filters come in plastic containers, so if you throw them out, they’ll contribute to landfill overflow the same way as bottled water. However, since filters use less plastic and are thrown out less often, they don’t have as big an impact as water bottles. In fact, some filters can now be recycled. You can drop them off at a recycling center or mail them back to the manufacturer so they can be reused.
The Bottom Line
Filtered water doesn’t have all the advantages over bottled water its advocates think it does. Depending on how you do it, filtered water can actually end up costing you more than bottled water. The up-front costs for a high-end unit are a lot steeper and replacement filters aren’t cheap. Even less expensive units can be costly because they require more filter changes, and they may not be able to deliver water that’s as clean. Filtered water is a bit more convenient, but now that you can get bottled water delivered to your door, it doesn’t have the edge it used to. It isn’t much better for the environment either. It generates less waste than bottled water, but only because filters use less plastic. If you take care to recycle your water bottles, the impact is about the same. Filtered water isn’t a bad investment, but it’s not better than bottled water. In the long run, their advantages and disadvantages tend to balance each other out.