Water Dispensers - Everything You Need To Know, And More ...
Are you just curious about water dispensers, or are you looking for more information because you are interested in buying one? Either way, you have come to the right place. This article will explain:
- What is a water dispenser?
- What types of water dispenser are there in the market?
- Do you really need a water dispenser?
- Why would you get a water dispenser, and what type of water dispenser should you get?
- How do water dispensers work?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of water dispenser?
- If you don't get a water dispenser, what are your alternatives?
What is a water dispenser?
Basically, any system which dispenses water for drinking can be called a water dispenser. What image actually comes up in your mind would depend on your upbringing, where you work/study, and how actively the water dispenser manufacturers/sellers are in advertising their wares in your locality.
Generally, if you are still studying in a college, or working in a large company, your image of a water dispenser is that of a free-standing watercooler connected to a water pipe. In a small shop, a clinic or the reception area, a water is probably dispensed from a large 5-gallon water bottle. In many small offices, water dispensers could even be a simple "air pot", constantly topped up with water from the toilet tap, which keeps water heated for making coffee.
Besides dispensing water, most systems also heat or chill the water. Tap-fed water dispensers may also include various filters to purify the water of contaminants, or may have some means of disinfecting their water supply.
What types of water dispenser are there?
That depends on how you choose to classify them. For example, there are bottled-water dispensers, and then there are water dispensers feeding off a water pipe or tap. The bottled-water dispenser usually feeds off a 5-gallon or 3-gallon plastic bottle, and you can often see a stack of these bottles next to it (especially in an office environment). These dispensers are often rented, but sometimes supplied free-of-charge to customers who sign up for a long-term supply of bottled water.
Some water dispensers only supply room temperature water, although others have added functions like supplying cold water and/or hot water. However, this is mainly for dispensers feeding off water bottles. Water dispensers feeding off a pipe or tap usually chill the water, unless it is a public drinking fountain.
Most water dispensers are typically free-standing or wall-mounted. Wall-mounted water dispensers usually feed off a water pipe, while free-standing dispensers can feed off a pipe or a bottle. More recently, manufacturers are selling desktop water dispensers using bottles.
Do you really need a water dispenser?
This depends on where you live. Obviously, if you live in a First World nation, your government, public utilities board or company will tell you that they already supply you with clean water, so water dispensers are generally a needless expense (especially for residential use). After all, saying "No" would cause taxpayers and paying customers to ask uncomfortable questions ... questions which could lead to charges of abuse of public trust, incompetence, negligence, cheating and malfeasance.
So am I saying that your government is lying to you? Not necessarily. If you know that the source of your water supply (whether it is a dam, an artesian well, a spring, lake, river, etc.) is clean, and your water pipelines and other related infrastructure are new, then you are probably okay. The problem comes when you do not know where your water really comes from, and you know your pipes (or the water plant) has been around for the past few decades. Let's face it - most industrialized countries are good at building infrastructure, but few are any good at maintaining their infrastructure beyond the first decade. The only exception might be Japan, whose citizens have an insane level of hygienic standards, and whose government continues to spend money building and replacing public infrastructure to create jobs.
Why would you get a water dispenser, and what type of water dispenser should you get?
If your office does not have its own kitchen, you may not have any choice but to get a water dispenser using bottled water. Not unless you want your workers to clutter up their desks with their own water bottles or cans of Coke (or other drink of choice). After all, you probably don't want them to make frequent trips to the local cafeteria to buy their drinks.
In your home, if you suspect that your water quality is compromised, or if you know that your water supply is not clean, you may want to get a water dispenser which filter/purifies the water of contaminants like dirt and chemicals as well as kills germs. If you are paranoid, and believe that your government is poisoning your water supply, or fear some industrial accident or terrorist act that could affect your water supply, you might be best off getting a bottled water dispenser to give you distilled water or reverse osmosis treated water.
Of course, maybe all you want is a way to conveniently get hot water and cold water. This is a good reason for large families where running out of ice cubes for cold drinks and hot water for coffee or tea is a frequent occurrence. For someone staying alone, or for a couple, a stand-alone water dispenser is probably overkill. On the other hand, if you don't want a refridgerator and kettle, it might be a good idea after all.
The last group of people who might want to get a water dispenser would be those who just don't like the taste of their tap water but still prefer to drink water rather than carbonated drinks or coffee/tea. Maybe the smell or taste of the chlorine used to treat the water is too strong for them, or maybe their local water supply only gives them hard water. A small water dispenser which filters their water of chlorine and removes the hardness of the water is a good choice, especially a unit which plugs into their kitchen sink.
How do water dispensers work?
At the simplest end of the spectrum, your typical public drinking fountain is just a fancy tap plugged into a water pipe. No cooling, no heating, no filtering or purification or any special treatment. In cold weather, it gives you cold water. In hot weather, it gives you warm water. The end of the water pipe (where you drink) is usually thinner than the inlet. This creates a higher water pressure which causes the water to spurt out.
Slightly higher up in complexity are the water coolers you often see in college/university campuses and large companies. These water dispensers only chill the water. Higher end units may come equipped with a simple water filter, often some form of sediment filter to remove dirt.
Water dispensers used in companies and offices usually provide both hot water and cold water. There are normally two separate taps, the blue tap for cold water and the red tap for hot water to make coffee or tea. The hot water taps of newer water dispensers usually have a form of lock which needs to be disengaged to prevent accidents.
High-end water dispensers feeding off a water pipe may have one or more of the following three features:
- A carbon block filter - it is overkill for dealing with dirt and sediment, but is good at removing chlorine and many organic chemicals, among them many pesticides and herbicides in use today. Higher quality, very fine activated carbon filters are also able to remove some forms of bacteria. The practice of using carbon to clean water is thousands of years old, documented in both ancient Egyptian and Indian texts. The latest carbon block filter design actually dates from the 1970s, and is nearly 40 years old.
- Reverse osmosis filter - overkill for dirt/sediment, good at removing both organic chemicals (pesticides and herbicides) and inorganic chemicals (heavy metals like mercury, nitrates/nitrites like fertilizer). Industrial-grade RO filters are good at removing bacteria, although the filters in a water dispenser vary in effectiveness. While the technology has been around since the 1970s (originally developed as a cheaper means of desalination than distillation), reverse osmosis has only made its way into water dispensers in the past few years.
- UV lamp - effectively kills bacteria.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of water dispenser?
The public drinking fountain is nothing more than a fancy tap connected to a standard water pipe. It is relatively cheap, which is why you can find it in parks and other public places.
The water cooler often seen in college campuses and the hallways of large companies is basically more of the same, only with a way to chill the water. The obvious disadvantage of this water dispenser is that it needs to be near a water pipe to supply water, a drain to remove the overflow, and an electrical outlet for the cooling unit. Models which come with a filter also need regular maintenance.
Bottled water dispensers have several major advantages:
- Does not need to be near a water pipe. If you do not have a handy water pipe and drain, this is your only choice.
- Don't need to worry about replacing water filters.
- Flexible - you can ask for mineral water, reverse osmosis water or distilled water.
- Some bottled water suppliers offer the dispenser free-of-charge.
- If there is a heater or cooler, you still need a nearby electrical socket to plug in the bottled water dispenser.
- If you run out of water bottles, there is a delay and extra charge to deliver more bottles.
- You need space to store the bottles (both the filled bottles as well as the empty bottles).
- Lugging a 5-gallon water bottle into its correct position on the water dispenser is no joking matter. This type of water dispenser is NOT a good choice for an office full of nerdy computer programmers. Neither is it a good choice for an office full of elderly clerks.
- An expensive choice if you live in a rural area away from the usual delivery routes.
- If you choose to be supplied with mineral water, there is a possibility of contamination. In the past few years, there have been reports of groundwater contamination in the artesian wells which usually supply the cheaper brands of mineral water. The contamination comes from industrial areas, farms and oil/gas drilling activities near the wells used by the water supplier.
- Pure water treated using distillation or reverse osmosis have all their essential minerals stripped away. This could be a problem for some people.
Water dispensers using carbon block filters to purify water are relatively cheap. Many people also say they improve the taste of the water. However, they do have some disadvantages:
- Not good at removing inorganic contaminants like iron, mercury and other heavy metals. If you suspect heavy metals in your water supply, you should consider an RO unit or bottled water instead.
- The filters need regular replacement, otherwise there is a risk of bacterial (or some other microorganism) growth.
- Easily clogged up by dirt/sediment in the water supply. You should consider a water dispenser which also has a sediment pre-filter. While the initial cost is more expensive, the long-term cost of replacing the carbon filter makes it worthwhile.
Water dispensers using reverse osmosis systems are very, very good at what they do. They remove practically everything. Unfortunately there is some disinformation about them:
- Many people claim that RO water dispensers do not remove organic contaminants like pesticides and herbicides because their molecules are smaller than water molecules. This is simply not true. A water molecule has only 3 atoms - one oxygen and two hydrogen. On the other hand the smallest organic compound is methane, which contains one carbon atom and four hydrogen atom, which is much larger than a water molecule. Every other organic compound, including most pesticides/herbicides which are derived from petroleum (hydrocarbon) compounds, long chains these carbon and hydrogen atoms, making them much larger.
- There is another frequently heard claim - that RO-treated water becomes acidic. This is also not true. Pure water, regardless of how you get it, whether through distillation or reverse osmosis, is pH7 neutral. Water only becomes acidic when there are positively charged hydrogen ions in it, and that only happens when there are other charged molecules present, for example, the sulfates from acid rain or some other compound contaminating the water. On the other hand, water only becomes alkaline when there are negatively charged salts of metallic compounds contaminating it. So once RO removes all these contaminants, only pure neutral water is left.
Here are the real disadvantages of water dispensers using reverse osmosis:
- Both the water dispenser and the reverse osmosis filters are expensive. Before you choose an RO water dispenser, make sure you can fit in the filter replacement into your budget. There have been many complaints that the theoretical lifetime of the filter (some manufacturers claim their filters can last several years) is wildly over-optimistic.
- It removes practically everything, including all essential minerals. This means, like drinking too much distilled water, drinking too much RO-treated water could leach essential minerals from your body if you do not get enough nutrients from your day-to-day diet. This is one reason why Singapore, which uses reverse osmosis to reclaim their drinking water, mixes the processed water back into their reservoirs. On the other hand, most people who are not eating healthy diets are also mainly drinking coffee or carbonated drinks like Coca-Cola, which is much worse. This problem is easily solved by supplementing your diet with multivitamins and minerals.
- RO filters tend to degrade when they deal with chlorine. You'll need a carbon pre-filter for your water dispenser.
- Easily clogged up by dirt and sediment in the water supply. Apart from the carbon pre-filter for the chlorine, you'll also want a sediment pre-filter.
- Expensive to operate. Home-based water dispensers are only 5% to 15% efficient. This means that every 5 gallons of pure water produced results in up to 95 gallons wasted.
- Requires a minimum amount of water pressure. If your home has low water pressure, an RO water dispenser is not a good choice.
- Reverse osmosis works slowly.
Should you get a water dispenser, and if not, what are the alternatives?
Not everyone needs a water dispenser. A good cheap alternative if your water supply is relatively safe is to get a water filter with a sediment pre-filter and a carbon block filter which attaches to the tap. To deal with bacteria and other micro-organisms, all you need to do is boil your water before you use it. You can boil water using a stove, in an electric kettle or using an airpot. While electric kettles are not common in the US, they are common in every other industrialized nation, even some in the 3rd World. A good quality electric kettle can boil a 1/2 gallon of water within 5 minutes (at the US power supply of 120V). At the more common worldwide standard of 240V, boiling can occur in half the time. On the other hand, while an airpot can also boil your water, its main job is to keep your water warm at nearly boiling temperature throughout the day. At just under 100 degrees Celsius (or 212 degrees Fahrenhait), this will still kill a lot of germs. Compare this with pasteurization, at the lower temperature of 71.7 degrees Celsius (or 161 degrees Fahrenhait), which kills 99.999% of germs.