Tap Water vs. Bottled Water… What’s the Real Story?

March 17th, 2014

Tap Water vs. Bottled Water… What’s the Real Story?

Written By: Jerry Alonzy
waterbottlesImage via Klearchos Kapoutsis (Flickr)

Those of us who have lived in areas with clean smelling, pure well water are sometimes shocked at the pungent odor of chlorine in city water. When I was young, we never really thought about the water we were drinking and if someone asked for a glass of water, we ran over to the kitchen faucet and filled a cup.

Over the years, though, a mix of sales propaganda, scare tactics and a pinch of reality have thoroughly indoctrinated us into thinking that bottled water is the better choice, a cure for our water ills. Is it? Or have we been hoodwinked? If so, at what cost? You’ll be amazed!

According to a ConsumerReports.org investigation, the difference in cost between drinking tap water vs. bottled water is staggering. Assuming you purchased one bottle of water per day at a cost of $1.00 instead of drinking average priced tap water, you would spend $346 over the year. (This assumes you returned the bottles for the 5 cent deposit.) 

The estimated cost of the tap water? Please sit down so you don’t get hurt when you keel over. It’s 48 cents! That’s right… based on their research, bottled water cost 700 times more than tap water. “Ouch” says the wallet! And remember… that’s only one bottle a day. How many of you drink two or more a day?

You might retort, “But the tap water smells funny and I don’t know what’s in it.” That’s true, but drinking tap water isn’t like going to the edge of the river and taking a huge gulp, trying to ignore the fact that upstream animals are bathing, people are washing clothes and alligators are on the prowl! City water is so regulated today that you are as likely to find contaminants in fresh-smelling well water.

Perhaps the most glaring addition to city water is chlorine (the odor I mentioned earlier). Chlorine is a disinfectant and, as anyone who does laundry knows, does a great job in killing bacteria and neutralizing all sorts of nasty stuff that can cause disease. Though much has been made in some circles regarding the possibly negative effects of chlorine in the body, low levels show no discernible hazard. And unlike heavy metals, chlorine is very reactive meaning that its effects are quick and short-lived. Most of what you think is chlorine in city water is actually nothing more than a residual odor left by the water treatment process. This can easily be filtered out by any one of a number of home filtration systems, such as the Berkey line.

Then, have you ever wondered what is really in this purportedly clean, pure bottled water and where it comes from? Going way back to 2008, the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit group, determined through chemical analysis (similar to what you would perform on your own water if you were unsure of its quality) that many brands of bottled water were of a lower quality than average tap water. At the time, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not require bottled water to meet any higher standard than the minimum quality of tap water. In other words, bottled water did not have to meet any standard aside from being “palatable”, meaning that bottled water could conceivably be of worse quality than your tap water, depending on where your municipal system gets the water.

A great example of a fine public water system is New York City. Their water source, according to the New York City website NYC.gov, is a network of 19 reservoirs and three lakes supplied from a watershed the size of Delaware! The water supply is so pure that they are only one of 5 large cities to receive the FAD from the EPA. FAD is short for “filtration avoidance determination”, meaning that the water flowing to the city is so clean that water filtration is not necessary!

Despite greater scrutiny by the FDA, the fact is that even to this day there is no higher standard for bottled water vs. city water. But then, purity is and never was the driving force in the bottled water market. It is profit, as with all business, and the success of the industry is remarkable. Considering the aforementioned cost of bottled water vs. tap water, it is breathtaking that bottled water is the second most purchased beverage in any given year going back decades, next to soft drinks. Juice drinks and so-called sports beverage sales fall far behind bottled water, as little as one seventh of the market according to the International Bottle Water Association in 2012.

It would be unfair to leave you with the impression that bottled water is nothing more than Uncle Fred filling plastic bottles in his kitchen. Depending on the source of the water, all bottled water is treated in some fashion. To avoid the smell of chlorine, bottlers use ozone gas as an antimicrobial to disinfect the water. This is essential to give the bottled water a safe long life on the shelf or in your pantry. Furthermore, there is typically some level of filtration to remove dirt and small parasites that occur naturally in reservoirs.

You may be wondering why municipal water supplies don’t use ozone gas instead of chlorine for disinfection. The reason is simple… it just isn’t affordable on the huge volumes of water they must supply to millions of homes. But then again, they are also not charging a 700 percent markup on their product!

Needless to say, the FDA has done a good job in establishing standards for all bottled water, whether domestic or imported. First and foremost, there was recognition that there are different types of bottled water and each should be labeled appropriately. Well water is not the same as purified or spring water. For example, mineral water should include naturally-occurring, beneficial minerals and not have any minerals added. Here is a chart from the FDA with a breakdown of water types:


So you can see that there is not just one “bottled water”. Unless you read the label, you’ll never know exactly what you’re drinking.

Now that you know what bottled water really is, without the health hype and marketing gimmickry, you should ask yourself whether or not having shelves full of bottled water in your home is really the best way to provide your family with pure water.

In looking at the options available, the most economical and sensible solution is to purify the water yourself at home. As more and more folks have embraced do-it-yourself water purification, companies have begun selling quality reusable water bottles made from easy-to-clean stainless steel and non-toxic plastics to let you take water on the road, in your car or to the health club.

Considering how expensive bottled water really is, a quality filtering system for your entire home or a stand-alone unit such as those offered by Berkey may, in a sane world, be the healthiest solution to your water concerns!


Author information:
Jerry Alonzy, a.k.a the Natural Handyman, has been an active handyman for over 30 years with experience in most areas of home repair and renovation. As a do-it-yourself author and web developer since 1995, he has been featured in USA Today, the Today Show and on radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites, including his own at www.naturalhandyman.com.

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