Zero contaminants in drinking water?

SmartPlanet talks to the CEO of ZeroWater about water filter hype, the next era in filtration and how much we should trust the reports from our public utilities.

I continue my search for the best water filter solution for my home in Washington, and what a complex world it is. I’ve been talking to my local water utility, calling regional labs and studying Consumer Reports. I don’t know if I’ve made any progress.

Last month I interviewed an expert at NSF, which certifies water filtration products. One of the pitchers it has certified is manufactured by ZeroWater. I’d heard a bit about their filters, being comparable to a reverse osmosis system, and when I started reading, I came across “TDS,” or total dissolved solids, for the first time.

According to ZeroWater, removing TDS is the primary reason to filter your water, and if you believe the meter that comes with their pitcher, ZeroWater—with its five-stage ion-exchange filter--can in fact get the TDS down to zero parts per million (average TDS in tap water is 127 parts per million). But what does it all mean? Is this really different from traditional pitcher filters? And are filters generally over-hyped? I called ZeroWater CEO Doug Kellam recently to find out.

Were you involved in the founding of ZeroWater?

The company has been around for several years. It began as family business. I’m a hired gun. They came up with the technology and tried all different ways of marketing it, which wasn’t very efficient. I came in three years ago and changed the way we were going to market.

So what was your marketing strategy and your way of connecting with consumers?

We had been developing a pitcher—a Brita-on-steroids type pitcher. So our approach was head-to-head. They’re a well-branded existing product, but they haven't changed in about 20 years. It’s a classic better mousetrap strategy.

In your marketing material you talk about TDS—total dissolved solids I hadn’t heard of this before.

It’s always been there obviously. You don’t want to educate people on the technical side of [the contaminants] because it’s not needed. So you want to take the consumer approach. But if you talk to experts in water quality, they all know what TDS is. It’s just that stuff that you know is there that makes the water taste bad—it could be dangerous stuff or more mundane things like salt.

How do you measure it?

We have a water meter that comes with the filter. It’s a standard meter, but it measures to parts per million. The purpose is to measure the overall dissolved solids. If you do a side-by-side test and take average tap water and put a TDS meter in, you’ll get 220ppm reading. That’s typical. If you put it through a pitcher filter from one of our competitors—Brita or Pur--you’ll get it to 150 to 110, about half the TDS. If you run it through Zero, you’ll get all the measurable TDS out.

The way our filter works—we’re the only people who have a mixed bed of ion exchange resin—which deionizes the water. If you consult any expert source—which I’m not—there’s three ways to purify water: distillation, reverse osmosis and deionization or ion exchange. The bottom line for our filter is that there’s a deionization process that happens after it goes through the carbon filter.

Is the market for these filters more in places where the water quality is poor, or more where consumers are better educated?

We skim off the top of the people who are more tuned in with their water. The performance difference is night and day. So the people who really care are the ones that are buying us. Brita and others have done a really good job. It’s a well penetrated category. There’s a high level of awareness. It’s not a small niche group.

Would you say there’s much hype?

Sure. The question is, on any of these things, is it over-hyped or under-hyped. I come from a beverage business background and even in that industry, people are sensitive to it. The bottled water business is a business that’s not even needed. The water in the U.S. is perfectly safe. It’s not a third-world country. People are now used to spending money on water in the U.S.

But while some people hype it, it’s clearly a slow creep--the aging infrastructure in the U.S. We’re used to safe water, but I’ve seen how much it would cost to update our water systems in the U.S., and it’s like as much as the Iraq war. It’s something that probably won’t ever get the attention in Washington that it needs. In the process, things will keep getting older and older. One of the most active areas is New York City, where there’s a huge controversy about installing purification plants, and they already have some of the best water in the world. I don’t think our water will get as bad as China’s anytime soon, but I think you’ll see degradation.

The Environmental Working Group has been very active. Their last study was on chromium. They also did one on pharmaceuticals and one on fluoride. These are all controversial areas. Fluoride has done good things for kids’ teeth over the years, but it’s not even necessary anymore.

Some people hype it a little too far. You could argue on the chromium issue—was Erin Brockovich a trouble-maker, or was she saving a town? In my mind, if you have a known carcinogen, you probably ought to err on the side of safety.

Do most people buy filters for health reasons or to improve the taste?

Data shows that taste wins over health consistently, year after year. But health comes up not too far behind. I do, however, think that in the big picture, there’s these inseparable qualities to water—pure, health, taste. Generally, the more pure it is, the healthier and better tasting.

I called my water company recently, and they pretty much said there’s no reason to get my water tested for contaminants. I’m wondering what you think about how much we can trust the reports from the utilities.

That’s a touchy area. Generally you can trust them. They’re not out to get anybody. I live in the Chicago area, and there’s been some controversies here. Some small municipalities had some cover-ups. But largely it’s not an issue of trust. It’s an issue of how often do mistakes happen where something gets in the water that goes beyond EPA standards. And is the EPA doing the right thing?

If you read about chromium-6, the Environmental Working Group has lobbied Congress and the EPA to tighten the standards, saying that the current standards are too lax. California has significantly tightened their standards, and the EPA has agreed to re-look at the standard and will probably tighten it in the fall.

You claim that your pitcher is just as effective as reverse osmosis?

We don’t actually state that much in our packaging. These things are all subjective. But in terms of removing TDS, yes, it’s just as effective as RO. But generally, ion exchange against a large body of contaminants will do just as well as RO. There’s so many things that could be in your water. The point is that it’s far closer to RO than typical gravity filters.

What’s the next stage in water filtration?

At least in the U.S. there’s really not any emerging new technology. I think you’ll see people enter the category through pitcher filters—the easiest, cheapest category. But I think it’ll just go from a luxury to a requirement.


This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com