Best Spends

There's a Good Chance You're Wasting Money on That Filtered-Water Pitcher

Remember when you got your first Brita pitcher? How it transformed your atrocious tap water into a glistening glacial elixir? How you patiently waited 10 minutes for that first glorious taste of pure filtered delight? That was the day you knew you'd moved up in life. Just like your POG collection and portable CD player, having a Brita in the ‘90s became synonymous with success and status.   

But just like your parents' car phone, it might be time to retire that old pitcher. While it may serve as a beautiful centerpiece to your refrigerator shelves, its usefulness might not extend far beyond that. In fact, there's a good chance it's only making matters worse.

The tap isn't as bad as you think it is

In the eyes of many Americans, tap water is the devil. If you happen to live in certain parts of the country (*cough* Flint *cough*), the feeling is totally justified. But for most people, American tap water is just fine; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces pretty tight standards on municipal water, even requiring that every water supply company release annual drinking water reports.

The EPA regulates more than 50 water contaminants, including the likes of acrylamide and carbofuran, so don't be surprised if your water report looks like a terrifying science-fiction novel. Many of these regulated contaminants pose serious health risks (lead, mercury, arsenic, etc.), but others are little more than aesthetic compounds that only affect taste and smell. Either way, the EPA works diligently to keep them out of your tap. Actual health hazards are given priority over aesthetics, so it should come as no surprise that water comes in a variety of smells and flavors around the country. But considering most of us don't want our water to smell or taste like anything, water filters seem worth it for the aesthetic reasons alone.

Unlike your tap, water filters aren't regulated

But being shallow has its consequences. While the EPA monitors and regulates all those contaminants in tap water, the same can't be said for your pretty little Brita. Instead of government regulations, water filters get certified by the NSF, an independent public health and safety organization. If you glance at the packaging of most water filters, you'll likely find a very official looking NSF seal with a line that says something about that product "being tested and certified against NSF/ANSI Standards 42 and 53 for the reduction of the claims specified on the Performance Data Sheet."

As impressive as this sounds, it's actually incredibly broad: even if a filter only treats three aesthetic compounds and one hazardous compound, it'll receive the same certification as a filter that treats every compound. You'd never know this though, because those "Performance Data Sheets" are buried under a mountain of technical jargon that might as well be Dothraki.

So if you're trying to avoid stuff like lead, you might just be SOL (despite that beautiful certification). According to Brita's own website, only one of its filtration systems actually removes lead, and it's not the kind sitting in your fridge right now.

Lead is just one of dozens of contaminants not filtered by the majority of pitcher-based water filtration systems. Most contaminants you probably don't even realize exist because filters only describe what they do filter, not what they don't. Chances are, if your tap water actually does require filtering, you'll need something that catches far more than just zinc and chlorine. But if you've purchased the most common Brita filter or a dozen others, that's all it's good for. And that's assuming it's new and working properly. That's a big assumption, because...

You probably don't replace the filter frequently enough

Brita recommends that you change your water filter every 40 gallons. So let's see: your family drinks a gallon a day, over the last six months, plus water used for cooking, carry the 2, minus a week vacation time, and that comes to... who the hell even knows. The chipper green indicator light has been a fiery red Terminator eye for the last few weeks, so it's still good, right? Well, if you consider a dark, damp net that's been catching bacteria for the last four months to be "good," then sure.

Despite what most of us want to believe, Brita filters aren't designed to filter out bacteria or viruses. What's even scarier are the results of a study that compared the microbiological contamination of tap water to Brita filtered water. In some cases, the filtered water contained a whopping 10,000 times the bacteria colony count as tap water.

Granted, these were new Brita filters, so these findings probably don't apply to your aging filter... because it's probably much worse (bazinga!). Now, not only is your filter completely ineffective at filtering out actual dangers in your water, but it's also providing a romantic getaway for bacteria colonies. What's a thirsty girl to do?

Put in a little work

When it comes to your water, knowing really is half the battle. Thanks to those handy EPA water reports, you can pretty easily find out what's lurking in your tap water. Once you've seen the report (and probably scared yourself half to death), finding the right filter is pretty straightforward. If your water is full of legionella, bromate, and barium, just make sure those are listed contaminants on the water filter. You can always enter the filter's model number on the NSF site just to double check; if your water's contaminants are nowhere to be found, then put that glorified pitcher back down, and move on to the next one. Your bff in Houston might sweeeear by the filter she uses. But if you're in Kansas City, that filter might be about as useful to you as an asshole on your elbow. And just in case it's not clear, that's pretty useless.

And if you're looking for a comprehensive guide to water filters, the Environmental Working Group has done tremendous work cataloging the various options by filtration type and contaminants in its water filter buying guide. Using the right water filter can be the difference between a BB gun and a bazooka. Buy the wrong one, and you might as well be filtering your water with a cheese cloth. Life is in the details, so always check the fine print (in your water report and the water filter) to make sure you're not just tossing your money down the drain.

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Nicholas Knock is a freelance writer for Thrillist who's been drinking straight from the tap for years, and he turned out just dandy. You can follow him on Twitter @nickaknock.