The war for your tap—and shower, ice maker and water bottle—is on.
Manufacturers are pitching a bevy of new products that filter water in the home promising to deliver everything from safer sipping and bathing, to more youthful skin.
3:52With concerns mounting about tap-water purity, there are a slew of new products on the market. About the House columnist Wendy Bounds samples filters for faucets, showers, water bottles and pitchers – and even enlists the help of some thirsty friends to determine which filtered pitcher emerges as the winner of a taste-test.
Shower filters touting “softer skin & hair in 1 week” are now the biggest seller for Fort Worth, Texas-based Sun Water Systems Inc.’s Aquasana brand. Wellness Enterprises LLC, Gainesville, Fla., launched last summer a portable water bottle with a filter built into the straw that claims to remove chlorine and lead, among other things. And Atmospheric Water Systems Inc. of San Luis Obispo, Calif., recently introduced a $1,595 dehumidifier/purification unit that bypasses water pipes altogether, pulling moisture from the air and sending it through a multi-step filtration process to produce drinking water.
The economic downturn has whetted consumers’ appetite for tap water. The average per capita consumption of bottled water slipped an estimated 3.5% last year from 2008, according to Beverage Marketing Corp. “What turned the tide for us was the huge negative PR effort behind bottled water from a green standpoint, and then the economy hit the skids and people were looking for a way to save money,” says Doug Kellam, chief executive of Zero Technologies LLC. His company makes a pitcher that promises to remove 100% of detectable dissolved solids (minerals, salts, metals) and comes with a meter to prove it.
Sales growth forecast for home water-filtration products from 2010 to 2013.
Many consumers don’t want their tap water au naturel, however. According to a Gallup poll released last year, pollution of drinking water is Americans’ No. 1 environmental concern. Many express worries about the risk of diseases, including cancer, that can be associated with contaminants such as arsenic, chlorine and pharmaceuticals sometimes found in drinking water.
Six months ago, Joe Ulland changed his drinking habits. Weary of pouring water into a clean glass only to “see stuff floating in it,” the 40-year-old Lakeville, Minn., father of three invested in a home filtration system he bought from waterfilters.net. It cost $75, is connected to plumbing under his kitchen sink and filters his drinking water and refrigerator ice maker. Now his kids fill reusable bottles at the kitchen sink before sports practice instead of grabbing store-bought bottled water. “I think this is cheaper and more economical and better for the planet,” he says.
Shopping for a treatment system can be confusing. Different systems tackle different contaminants at different spots in the house—from whole-house filters that clean water when it first enters the home to “point-of-use” devices such as shower, pitcher and faucet filters. Treatment technology differs, too. Carbon filters are most common, typically reducing chlorine and improving taste and odor while sometimes removing things such as mercury, copper and lead. Other systems employ reverse osmosis, which uses a semi-permeable membrane to strip out some contaminants not necessarily caught by carbon. Ultraviolet-light treatment helps keep bacteria from reproducing. Sediment filters typically catch larger particles like sand, dirt and rust.
Drinking it in…
Below, a snapshot of home water treatment and sample pricing. Product claims may be certified by third-party groups including, NSF International, Water Quality Association, Underwriters Laboratories Inc.
- Item: Portable Water Bottle/Wand
How it works: Bottle typically uses a filter integrated in cap or straw. Wand is a pen you swirl in glass. May reduce chlorine, odor and more.
Pros/Cons: Good for travel, unfamiliar water. Pricier than average water bottle.
Price: Bottle: $15.99, clear2o.com; Wand: $30, wellnessfilter.com
- Item: Pitcher filter
How it works: Most remove chlorine, mercury, and copper though others may tackle lead, gasoline additives, and pesticides among other contaminants.
Pros/Cons: No installation; helps remove contaminants picked up in home pipes. Can require frequent filter changes; takes up counter or fridge space.
Price: Basic pitcher$11 to $35, brita.com; purwater.com; zerowater.com. “Aquaova Ovopur” dispenser $650, greendepot.c
- Item: Refrigerator filter
How it works: Filter cartridge connected to water supply for fridge’s ice-maker and water dispenser.
Pros/Cons: Many new fridges include built-in filters; “inline filters” can be added to existing units. Hard to fill large pots. Must remember to change.
Price: $9-$80 replacements for many models, waterfilters.net
- Item: Faucet-mounted filter
How it works: Attaches to end of faucet. Typically removes similar contaminants to pitcher filters. May allow user to switch between filtered and unfiltered H20.
Pros/Cons: Do-it-yourself project. Convenient. Won’t work with all faucet styles, such as pull-out spray handles.
Price: $30 to $50, purwater.com; Culligan faucet filter, $25.99 @ amazon.com
- Item: Countertop/Under-sink treatment system
How it works: May remove more contaminants than faucet-mounts and pitchers using carbon and other technologies, such as reverse osmosis or ultraviolet light.
Pros/Cons: Filters home’s main drinking water supply. Can require professional installation.
Price: $125 to $220, aquasana.com, GE Reverse Osmosis Filtration System, $279 @ homedepot.com
- Item: Shower filter
How it works: Attaches before showerhead or wherever water enters shower stall.
Pros/Cons: Reduces chlorine; may protect against inhalation of other contaminants and reduce scale on fixtures. Some promise “anti-aging” through skin hydration.
Price: $84, aquasana.com; $189, wellnessfilter.com
- Item: Whole House treatment system
How it works: Filters all water coming into the house. Some remove limited contaminants, such as sediment. High-end models may remove more, including heavy metals, chlorine and volatile organic compounds and require less maintenance.
Pros/Cons: May still need point-of-use systems to filter contaminants such as lead picked up in home pipes. Sizing critical for proper flow.
Price: $75-$400 for basic sediment and/or carbon systems @ waterfilters.net; $999, aquasana.com; and $5950, wellnessfilter.com
- Item: Dehumidifier/water-generator/filter system
How it works: Extracts moisture from air, filters, then dispenses as drinking water
Pros/Cons: Bypasses water stream and potential contaminants altogether. Up to 8.4 gallons of water daily. Can be loud & space consuming.
Sources: NSF International, Environmental Working Group, Water Quality Association, Underwriters Laboratories, water filter companies
“Consumers are looking to have simple answers to a complex category,” says Tom Bruursema, manager for drinking-water treatment systems with NSF International Inc., a not-for-profit organization that certifies the claims of water-treatment products. Other certification bodies include the Water Quality Association and Underwriters Laboratories Inc.
For its part, the bottled-water industry isn’t buying the filtration industry’s marketing line. Last month the International Bottled Water Association released an analysis saying that the average single-serve plastic bottled-water container has slimmed down by nearly 33% over the past eight years. “When coupled with bottled water’s safety, convenience and healthfulness, the ‘total bottled water package’ is one consumers can feel proud about,” said Joseph Doss, the association’s chief executive.
Nevertheless, sales of home water-filtration products are forecast to grow about 18% between this year and 2013, to $2.91 billion annually from $2.47 billion, according to market-research firm Mintel International Group Ltd. At waterfilters.net, which sells a range of filter products from well-known brands such as Culligan, GE and Pentek, sales climbed to $5.5 million last year from $3.7 in 2008.
New designs are one factor. New York-based Green Depot sells the $650 Aquaovo Ovopur, a filtered dispenser resembling a giant porcelain egg, while Design Within Reach markets a slender $85 glass vessel with stones from the Sea of Japan coast and Binchotan charcoal for “odor-free water.” Wellness makes a $30 wand for chlorine removal on-the-go. Even mass-market players are thirsting for their share: Procter & Gamble Co.’s PUR brand is rolling out a faucet-mount filter boasting one-click installation. And this month, Clorox Co.’s Brita brand is adding “Bella” to its line-up—a sleek pitcher it says is “fit to put on the dinner table for guests.”
Still, the filter industry faces marketing hurdles. First, there’s the cost of replacements (and the bother of remembering to buy them) as well as the environmental question of what happens to old cartridges. Brita and Zero Technologies both offer filter recycling programs but consumer participation is small.
The Environmental Protection Agency says most people don’t need to treat their drinking water at home to make it safe. But the agency adds that a home water-treatment unit can improve water’s taste, or provide an extra margin of safety for people “more vulnerable to the effects of waterborne illness” such as infants, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. The EPA sets standards for about 90 contaminants that can end up in drinking water supplies—from micro-organisms to herbicides and discharge from industrial-chemical factories.
For each, the agency dictates a “maximum” amount allowed, and utilities are required to treat water and issue an annual report to customers about what’s detected. (If you’re drinking from a private well, you’re on your own.)
A home-treatment device may reduce such contaminants even further. Plus, the EPA sets drinking-water standards for just a fraction of the some 15,000 chemicals used in the U.S. In December, the not-for-profit Environmental Working Group released results of a three-year analysis of 20 million tap water quality tests performed by water utilities and found some 202 currently unregulated chemicals in water supplied across the country. That included rocket-fuel component perchlorate and MTBE, a gasoline additive. Other contaminants, such as copper and lead, may be introduced through corrosion of a homeowner’s own pipes or through leaching of brass or chrome-plated faucets and fixtures. There are DIY test kits starting at about $10 that can detect some contaminants, but a thorough analysis will require a professional to collect samples and send to a private lab.
“In almost every case, the utilities comply with federal standards but that doesn’t ensure that the water is safe to drink,” says Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research for EWG. The EPA is evaluating the health effects of more than 100 contaminants currently unregulated in drinking water, including pharmaceuticals and disinfection byproducts, for possible regulation by 2013.
Mr. Bruursema, of NSF International, and Ms. Houlihan say if taste is the primary concern, an inexpensive pitcher, refrigerator or faucet attachment with a carbon filter will likely do the trick. For those wanting the most protection, they agree one approach would be to combine a whole-house filtration system with a point-of-use model—such as reverse osmosis combined with a carbon filter—at the primary drinking outlet, usually the kitchen sink. A shower filter may offer extra security for those worried about dermal and inhalation contamination.
Both the NSF Web site (nsf.org) and that of EWG (ewg.org) offer searchable databases for certified water-treatment products based on filter type and what contaminants they tackle.
Write to Gwendolyn Bounds at firstname.lastname@example.org