Drinking from the Tap vs. Brita: Are Water Filter Pitchers Actually Better?
If you have a water filter pitcher sitting in your fridge right now, you probably don’t think much of it — just fill it up and you’re good to go, right? But when was the last time you changed the filter?
If you’ve been sipping on that Brita water because you can’t stand tap water and haven’t swapped in a new filter yet, we’ve got some news for you. Your filtered water may not be that pure after all.
In fact, it may even be worse than when it came from the tap. But before you freak out, here’s everything you need to know about water filter pitchers, and how to find out if you’re using them — and protecting yourself — properly.
“Different pitcher filters have different types of media in them, depending on the brand — most use activated carbon to reduce contaminants and impurities,” says Rick Andrew, director of the NSF International Global Water program. “Activated carbon works through adsorption, meaning that it attracts the contaminant molecules and they adhere strongly to the carbon.”
The large surface area of the carbon acts like a sponge that absorbs contaminants as tap water passes through. These filters remove:
- metals like lead, copper, and mercury
- chemicals like chlorine and pesticides
- organic compounds that affect the taste and smell of water
For example, the Brita water filter pitcher uses a coconut-based activated carbon filter that removes chlorine, zinc, copper, cadmium and mercury.
However, activated carbon filters don’t remove all nitrates, dissolved minerals, or bacteria and viruses in water through the absorption process. Unlike metals, they pass through the filter because these don’t bind to the carbon.
That said, dissolved minerals in water aren’t necessarily hazardous and most tap water has already been treated to remove bacteria and other harmful microorganisms. So, it’s not usually a big deal if this stuff slips through.
Some filter types include a material called ion exchange resin which can remove “hardness” from water, or calcium and magnesium ions.
Water filter pitchers are an affordable, easy-to-use option for purifying your water, which is why they’re so popular. According to Consumer Reports, annual filter costs per year range from $32 to $180.
Ideally, your water pitcher filter label should indicate it’s NSF-certifiedTrusted Source, which means it meets certain standards for sanitation and efficacy. “Certification of filters lets everyone know the product has been tested and meets the requirements of NSF/ANSI 53,” says Andrew.
Other at-home filter treatments include reverse osmosis and distillation units, which are the most effective but also much more expensive and complex. These include things like refrigerator filters, under-the-sink filters, and even filtrations systems for your entire house.
When you need to change your filter depends on the brand and model you have.
“The most important thing for consumers to remember is that they really need to change those filters according to the manufacturers’ recommendations or they aren’t going to be effective,” says Andrew. “They are certified to reduce contaminants only according to the manufacturer’s instructions.”
The product instructions should tell you how long your filter will last. It’s typically measured in months or how much water has been filtered, usually in gallons. Some pitchers also have sensors that indicate when it’s time to swap in a new one.
Product and filter life
Here are examples of how often you need to replace the filter for five popular brands of water filter pitchers.
|Brand and model||Filter replacement requirements|
|Brita Grand 10-cup pitcher||every 2 months or after 40 gallons|
|PUR Classic 11-cup pitcher||every 2 months|
|Zerowater 10-cup pitcher||after 25–40 gallons, depending on tap water quality|
|Clearly Filtered 8-cup pitcher||every 4 months or after 100 gallons|
|Aquagear 8-cup pitcher||every 6 months or after 150 gallons|
These may vary slightly depending on how often you use the pitcher. But if we’re being honest, most of us probably aren’t diligent about replacing the filter every two months — let alone every 6 months… or every year.
An old filter is not only going to be less effective — and crazy slow — but also really gross and grimy. So, you’re putting yourself at risk for drinking whatever contaminants are in the tap water to begin with and whatever is growing (yes, growing) in that old filter.
“Filters that are not changed at the proper time may not work to reduce the contaminants that they were originally designed to address. If it’s not filtered out, that contaminant might result in potentially harmful health effects,” said Andrew.
As we mentioned, your water filter is not killing bacteria. Microbes can both be trapped and flow into your water, and it’s bacteria stuck in your filter that you should be worried about.
Yes, your old filter can add bacteria to your water
The moist environment in the pitcher filter is perfect for multiplication, so bacteria can reach higher concentrations. This can make you sick if you continue to use the old filter.
An older German studyTrusted Source found that the amount of bacteria was less in tap water than filtered water after one week of use at two different temperatures. Researchers concluded that the filter had a biofilm growing on it, and in some cases the bacteria colony counts in the filtered water was up to 10,000 times those in the tap water. Yikes.
First things first: Tap water that hasn’t been filtered isn’t the same as untreated or “raw” water that you get from dipping your cup in a stream. This water isn’t safe to drink. But even treated water can still contain physical, biological, chemical, and even radiological contaminants. Where you live and where your water comes from — a well, ground water, city — as well as safety regulations and how it’s treated are all factors that can determine what’s lurking in your water.
Contaminants can be naturally occurring or caused by human activity. The list of junk that can end up in your drinking water is pretty extensive, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and can include things like lead, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and other heavy metals. Some contaminants are harmless, but others can be harmful at high levels.
Lead poisoning can occur if lead pipes or faucets are used in your plumbing system, typically when they corrode. Poisoning can cause delays in development and learning disabilities in children. In adults, it can cause kidney issues and high blood pressure.
The only way to know if there is lead in your water is to have it tested, because you cannot see, smell or taste it, according to the CDCTrusted Source.
Biological contaminants include:
- bacteria like E. coli and Legionella
- viruses like norovirus and rotavirus
- parasites like Giardia and Cryptosporidium
These can make you really sick, often causing gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and other complications. Tap water is usually sanitized to remove these but outbreaks can happen.
Again, these contaminants can be present in unfiltered, treated tap water or water that’s passed through an expired, ineffective filter.
Generally, you’ll know if the tap water in your area or a place you are visiting isn’t suitable for drinking.
Most tap water in the United States meets the proper sanitation standards and is safe to drink — with exceptions of course. But if you really aren’t sure whether tap water or water in your filter pitcher is safe to drink, there are a few ways to find out.
One way is to tell is by looking. Fill up a glass and see if you notice any cloudiness or sediment in your water. These may be signs of contamination and you either shouldn’t drink it or make sure it’s properly filtered first.
What if the cloudy water is from your water pitcher filter?
“If the filter remains in place beyond its lifespan, the water can become cloudy due to the impact of microorganisms that have colonized the filter,” says Andrew. “These organisms are typically harmless, but unpleasant, due to their presence in the filtered water.” But if you can’t tell for sure, it’s best to just get a new filter for your pitcher ASAP.
What if your water looks completely normal — how can you tell if it’s possibly contaminated?
“It is essential that consumers know what is in their water to determine if they need a filter,” says Andrew. “Local water utilities can provide a copy of their consumer confidence report, which details the quality of drinking water. People can also have their water independently tested so they can treat for specific contaminants if necessary.”
If you want to check the drinking water quality in your area, you can go to the EPA’s Consumer Confidence Report to find data specific to your area. This was established by the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments that required states to do assessments of all public water systems.
You can also test your water quality at home. Your state or local health department may offer testing kits for free, or you can purchase them online or from a home improvement store. You can also have your water tested by an EPA-certified laboratory , or call the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 for more information.
While it isn’t essential to have a water pitcher filter in your refrigerator, these carbon filters can help purify and remove a host of contaminants that affect the taste and smell of your water.
However, they won’t kill bacteria and if too much gets trapped in an unchanged filter, those microbes can multiply to levels that can make you sick.
So, if you can’t remember the last time you changed out your filter, it’s definitely time to do so. And if you love drinking from the tap, keep doing you. Happy hydrating!
How to Filter Water at Home: Tips, Safety, and Instructions
A good way to ensure you’re drinking clean water is by filtering it.
While you can purchase bottled water that a company has already filtered, you can also filter water yourself. The method you choose to do this — and there are several — will likely depend on your:
- water quality goals
- desired level of effort
This article focuses on do-it-yourself (DIY) water filtration methods, which you can use whether you’re at home, traveling, or in nature.
The best water filtration method for you will depend on your environment, your budget, and how much effort you want to invest.
You can purchase relatively small home water filters at many hardware and homeware stores. Many of them are canister-style filters that couple directly with your kitchen faucet.
Some offer a variety of filtration cartridges to choose from, depending on your filtering needs.
You can also use a number of DIY methods to filter, disinfect, and purify water yourself. They may come in handy, especially when traditional systems aren’t an option.
Below are some common DIY water filtering methods you can use.
Heating water at a rolling boil for 1 minute makes it safe to drink. Boil it for 3 minutes if you’re at an elevation above 6,500 feet (1,981 meters).
Tablets or drops
Some common water purification or disinfecting tablets and drops include:
- sodium dichloroisocyanurate
- chlorine dioxide
- tetraglycine hydroperiodide
To use, follow the instructions on the package and drop the tablets into the water to purify it, letting them sit for a directed period of time.
In this approach, you allow ultraviolet sunlight to shine through the water. This damages the DNA of harmful germs, disinfecting the water by removing bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms.
Adding lime juice can help speed up the solar treatment process (3Trusted Source).
Activated charcoal can take up and store toxic compounds, smell, and germs. It can also reduce fluoride and heavy metals.
To use it, simply put the charcoal in a sock or cloth bag and pour water through.
Travel-size sediment filters
These store-bought filters are designed to remove germs and bacteria from natural water. Companies may design them to use once or multiple times.
They come in the following forms:
- a hand-pump machine
- a filtering straw or water bottle
- squeezable pouch filters
- a filtering water pitcher
DIY portable sediment filters
You can create your own water filter to remove smell and debris by layering a mix of gravel, play sand, and activated carbon in a bucket drilled with a hole and fit with plumbing to pour water through.
Fruit peel filters
People sometimes use fruit peels, such as apple peels, for water purification in remote villages that rely on contaminated water for everyday needs.
You could potentially adapt this method into a DIY water filtration system. However, this may not be a good idea until scientists have done more research on the safety and effectiveness of this method for DIY use (7Trusted Source).
SUMMARYWhen traditional water filtration methods are unavailable, you have plenty of other options, such as boiling, UV treatment, disinfectant tablets, portable sediment filters, and activated charcoal.
You may be interested in filtering your water for many reasons.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets certain standards for tap water in homes throughout the United States. However, these may not be enough to align with your water quality goals.
For example, the maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) for arsenic, a known human carcinogen, is 0.0 mg/L. However, the maximum amount the EPA allows in tap water is 0.01 mg/L (8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).
The MCLG is the highest amount of a contaminant allowed in tap water before there is concern for adverse health effects. This means it’s possible people could experience harmful effects from arsenic by drinking tap water that adheres to EPA water quality standards.
Some people are also concerned that they can’t know or control what may happen to their drinking water between the time it leaves the treatment facility and pours into their glass, or how their municipality functions.
In the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, the city failed to treat the water after changes in water source. As a result, lead leached into the city water from pipes and the contaminated water reached people’s homes (12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source).
For indoor water use, it may be a good idea to keep a stock of filtered water available in case of emergency water shutoffs or other events that result in a lack of clean drinking water. Having a water filter at home may come in handy, too.
For outdoor activities, like camping and backpacking, consider bringing a method to filter water. This will help you avoid consuming harmful germs or other contaminants in natural water, which may result from wild animals or other human traffic.
Filtering water can not only remove contaminants and debris, it can also make your water taste better. Additionally, it can be a more eco-friendly way to enjoy clean water because it helps you cut down on single-use plastic bottles.
SUMMARYWater filtration may further improve some aspects of tap water. It can also be helpful in water shutoff situations or scenarios when clean drinking water isn’t readily available, like in remote locations.