Bottled or Tap: The Right Choice for Water May Surprise You


Did you know that bottled water sales have more than tripled over the last 10 years? It's true! Annually, this business as a whole pulls in a staggering $11 billion a year. On... water. The most perplexing part: "Tap water [from regulated public versus private sources, for the purpose of this article] and bottled water are generally comparable in terms of safety." (See also: Bottled Water Hype)

So, then, why are so many of us choosing to literally pour our dollars down the drain? Here are some things to consider before you take your next sip.

1. Taste Differences

Well, just because water is safe to drink doesn't necessarily mean it tastes the best. Plus, as discerning consumers, we're all about options.

If you drink water from taps across the country, you'll definitely notice a difference. Some spouts are generally taste-neutral while others are laced with a hint of chlorine (sometimes even an overpowering flavor, as chlorination is one popular method used to purify water for drinking). From there, the taste may differ depending on mineral content or a number of other factors. (See also: The Best Eco-Friendly Water Bottles)

Thing is, bottled water, too, has its own different production processes. And as a result, bottled water will also produce a range of pleasing or pungent flavors and notes, making it just as difficult to identify in blindfolded taste tests. Looking beyond the pretty packaging, you might not be able to tell your favorite brand from your tap. So, if safety and taste aren't really pulling you in either direction — the dollars and cents should.

2. Money Matters

How much money are we talking about? One estimate I encountered: Bottled water costs 240 to over 10,000 times more per gallon than tap water. Once you pick your jaw off the floor (I had to!) and let that set in, the choice between the two seems much easier. Plus, if you consider that some bottled waters might actually just be tap water in disguise — you're being up-charged considerably. (See also: 25 Things To Do With Reusable Water Bottles)

That's right: "25% (to as much as 40%) of the bottled waters consumed in the U.S. come from municipal water supplies." That sounds just plain criminal to me (or, alternatively, like an incredibly lucrative business idea). So far, tap water is winning with regard to safety, taste, and dollars. If you choose to save your pennies by drinking from your own tap, then next question becomes: To filter or not to filter?

3. Trickle Down

Well, that's where this whole issue gets particularly slippery. In an informal study conducted at the offices of Mother Jones, staff members actually voted San Francisco tap water — which is sourced from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park — straight out of the tap better than its filtered counterpart. However, we can't all enjoy such pristine sources.

In fact, a 2009 analysis conducted by the Environmental Working Group found 315 pollutants, including freaky stuff like arsenic, hiding in EPA-approved taps across the country. What's even more difficult is that water within the same area can vary in safety from home to home due to pipe age, material, and other pesky factors.

What to Do?

If you're confused, you're in good company. It seems there's no clear-cut answer to what is truly the best choice for our bodies. Though, what we can all agree upon is that bottled water surely comes at a premium and may very well not be worth the added cost.

The best advice I've found is to familiarize yourself with common contaminants and to have your tap water tested. If you choose to filter, there are various techniques, though not one will clear out all possible impurities. Also important: "A home water filter won't protect you from water that has been declared unsafe" by municipalities during natural disasters like floods. And generally, you can avoid consuming lead from tap water by using "cold tap for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula and to let the water run for a minute before using it."

Do you drink bottled water? If not, do you filter your tap water?

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