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Simply Sustainable: Water treatment: Tap water, home purification and bottled water

Water is essential for all life, it aids in dissolving and transporting nutrients inside our bodies. Our bodies are even made up of about 60% water. We should be consuming water everyday but do you ever think about where that water is coming from and the processes it goes through that makes it safe for us to drink?

Typically water treatment facilities treat and filter the water that is supplied to the sinks we use in our homes, offices, restaurants, etc. These facilities process water from sources like groundwater, rivers, lakes or water stored in wells, reservoirs and other storage tanks. 

What happens at a Water Treatment Facility?

Treatment facilities remove impurities from the water:

  • Bacteria 
  • Algae 
  • Fungi
  • Parasites 
  • Heavy Metals (Copper + Lead)
  • Chemical Pollutants 

Once water enters a filtration facility it goes through many levels of purification before it comes out of our taps:

  1. Coagulation and flocculation: This is the first step, positively charged chemicals are added to the water so they can bond with the negatively charged chemicals are create larger particles called floc. 
  2. Sedimentation: The floc created in the first step settle at the bottom because they are heavier and then can be removed easily.
  3. Filtration: After removing the floc, the rest of the water is put through various filters (sand, gravel, charcoal) to remove the smaller dissolved particles like dust, bacteria/viruses and chemicals.
  4. Disinfection: After the water is filtered, a disinfectant like chlorine is added to remove any remaining viruses and bacteria before it is pumped to our taps. 

What happens next: Is it safe to drink tap water?

In most western countries, consuming tap water is usually safe. But this largely depends on where you live, it can often still contain trace contaminants. The EPA sets country-wide tap water standards but each state is able to regulate their own water facilities as long as they meet the EPA's general  requirements. 

If you are interested in learning more about the water supplied to your house, you can contact your local facility to learn more about their process. You can also check the Environmental Working Groups tap water database where you can view your tap water's safety by entering your zip code. 

At-home water purification

If you are worried about tap water, there are several at-home water purification systems that allow you to further filter your drinking water. You probably already have something like this at home but here are the most common in-home purification systems:

Water filter pitcher / countertop filtration systems: These are a super easy option to further filter your tap water. Either you have a pitcher or tank that you can fill with tap water that runs it through a small filter. They are inexpensive but filters need to be replaced often and usually filters pretty slowly. A great option if you do not have a refrigerator filter. 

 

Refrigerator filters: These are filtration systems built right into your fridge, and they typically come with most refrigerators. They even often also include an ice maker. These don't require you to have to continually fill up a tank or pitcher but you will have to replace your filter fairly often. 

 

Faucet-mounted filters: These are attached right onto your faucet and allow you to switch between filtered and regular tap water. They are also typically pretty cheap but do not work with every type of faucet. 

 

Built-in faucet filter: These filters require installation, typically under the sink, and they purify the water coming right out of your faucet. Like the mounted filters, they allow you to switch between filtered and tap water but they are much more costly and require installation. 

 

Whole-house filtration systems: These systems treat all water in the house, not just your drinking water. This is often very beneficial for homes or buildings that struggle with hard water. These can be very expensive, require installation and often extra plumbing modifications and even need professional maintenance. 

Figuring out what type of at-home water filtration system is right for you largely depends on where you live, what you can afford and personal preference. If you have health conditions, talk to your doctor about which type of water is best for you. 

How do these systems filter your water?

There are 3 main ways that these systems filter water. 

  1. Activated carbon: Carbon systems filter water by sending the water through a filter of tiny granules of carbon which absorb particles like heavy metals. This is best at removing additives like chlorine that can give water an unpleasant taste and odor. This filter process is used in pitcher/countertop filters, refrigerators and some faucet-mounted filters.
  2. Ion exchange unit: This system works by removing dissolved ionic contaminants, it basically replaces the unwanted compounds for more desirable ones. A great example of these are water softeners, these remove elements that make water "hard" and replace it with sodium. This usually is common with whole house water treatments. 
  3. Reverse osmosis unit: This works by pumping water across a barrier/membrane that leaves the unwanted particles behind. Reverse osmosis units are not typically recommended because they can have negative health and environmental impacts. This is typically used in built in faucet filters and some countertop tank filters. 

What about distilled water?

Distilled water is basically just a type of purified water. It is filtered by boiling and then steam condensed, this leaves you with almost completely pure water. It is safe to drink but its not really beneficial, it does not contain any extra minerals and will probably taste pretty bland. 

There is no universal answer to which water you should drink, if it is safe for you to drink your tap water and you like it then go for it! But, it is likely that you have some type of filtration system at your house. 

Bottled Water Breakdown

There are an overwhelming amount of water choices on the shelves all making different claims -- mineral, spring, electrolyte, pH-balanced, alkaline, etc. What do these all mean? Where is bottled water sourced from? Besides just looking at the cost, these are all things to take into account because they can affect flavor, texture, and smell. 

Mineral Water

Mineral water is water that comes from a confined reservoir or aquifer, typically underground. Since it is usually surrounded by rocks it naturally contains minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium bicarbonate and iron. 

Our bodies cannot create these minerals so mineral water is claimed to have health benefits, but there really is not any guideline to which ones you should and should not drink. 

When discussing water it is important to look at the waters total dissolved solids (TDS), which is just the concentration of dissolved solids. Generally the best TDS is anything between 50-150. 

Mineral water can have a higher TDS depending on the concentration of dissolved minerals present. Higher TDS means the water might have more of a taste, texture or smell but it is really a personal preference. 

Some examples of common bottled mineral waters are: Fiji Water, Voss, & Hildon Water

Electrolyte Water

Electrolyte water is technically mineral water but not natural mineral water. Mineral water contains natural minerals that it receives from its environment, electrolyte water contains minerals that are manually added. The source is typically ground water but it goes through a full purification process and then electrically-charged minerals are added back to the water. 

Most water, unless it is labeled "distilled" is going to have some trace of minerals/electrolytes in it. But some are present naturally and some are added in during the process of bottling the water. 

"Electrolyte" is used to market many different types of exercise and sports drinks. This is because you can drink electrolyte-enhanced drinks to aid with hydration during exercise -- you lose water when you sweat and need additional fluid. 

Examples of common bottled electrolyte waters are: CORE Water & Propel 

Spring Water

Bottled spring water is water that claims to be bottled at the source. A spring is the point where water is flowing from an underground aquifer to the earths surface. 

It is naturally rich in minerals like magnesium, potassium, calcium and sodium. It is further filtered before it is bottled but filtration does not remove the essential minerals. 

Like mineral water, spring water often has a higher concentration of total dissolved solids (TDS) because the water is naturally drained through the ground. 

How is spring water different than mineral water?

Both spring water and mineral water are sourced from underground aquifers, but the differentiator is that spring water flow naturally to the earths surface. Mineral water does not naturally flow to the earths surface and stays contained underground. 

Some popular bottled spring waters are: Crystal Geyser & Evian 

Alkaline Water

Alkaline water is water that has a higher pH compared to other types of bottled water. Normal water is pH-balanced and typically has a pH anywhere between 7-7.5, while alkaline water has a pH between 8-9. 

What is pH? pH is a score that defines the acidity or alkalinity of a substance. The scale goes from 0-14, 7 being neutral. A substance is alkaline (basic) if its pH is higher than 7. 

Because alkaline water has a higher pH, it is said to help neutralize acid in the body. But, there are not any confirmed health benefits from drinking alkaline water and many doctors say normal drinking water is best for most people. 

Mineral and other types of water can also be alkaline, the pH level just has to be above 7 for it to be considered alkaline. 

Water can be naturally alkaline, especially when it comes from aquifers and springs because it picks up natural minerals from the rocks. 

But a lot of bottled alkaline water is essentially tap water that goes through a process called electrolysis. This process uses electricity to separate water molecules so that the more acidic water can be removed. 

Drinking alkaline water is generally safe but doctors warn against believing any health claims made about alkaline water. 

Some common bottled alkaline waters are: Icelandic Glacial, Flow Alkaline Spring Water & Essentia Ionized Alkaline 9.5 pH Water

SUR Bottled Water Taste Test

At SUR we were interested in seeing if we could tell the difference between different brands of bottled water. We conducted a blind bottled water taste test where we had participants grade the water on its taste and guess which brand they thought they were tasting. 

The 10 different water brands we tested were:

  1. CORE Hydration Water - pH: 7.4
  2. Evian Natural Spring Water - pH: 6.75
  3. Voss Artesian Water - pH: 5.9
  4. Smart Water - pH: 4.5
  5. Dasani - pH: 4.5
  6. Eternal - pH: 7.7-8.2
  7. Crystal Geyser - pH: 5.4
  8. Fiji Water - pH: 7.4
  9. Aquafina - pH: 4.5
  10. Icelandic Natural Spring Water - pH: 8.4

Participants were given a glass of water and asked to rate it on the scale of 1-10 for taste and guess which brand. The overall consensus was that participants were surprised when they rated water they enjoyed drinking a low score. 

Results:

The highest rated water was Crystal Geyser. 

The lowest rated water was tied between CORE and Smart Water.

Now lets break these down:

Crystal Geyser is bottled from various natural springs in Tennessee and California. Because it claims to be a natural spring water, it naturally contains minerals and electrolytes. It is filtered through absolute filtration which removes any particles that are larger than 1/10,000 of a millimeter. It is said to have a clean, natural taste which explains its popularity. 

CORE Hydration Water is bottled tap water that is filtered through reverse osmosis. Electrolytes and minerals are manually added which can cause the water to have a different taste and or thicker texture. 

Smart Water claims it comes from a British spring and is then vapor-distilled and loaded with electrolytes but other sources claim it is tap water. Vapor distillation results in distilled water, which has no minerals or nutrients. 

Overall very few participants were able to correctly guess the water brand and the overall results opened peoples eyes to the different tastes and textures bottle water brands have.

We encourage you to try this at home but be sure to recycle your bottles! Overall, it is best to drink at-home purified water that you can put in a refillable bottle. 

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