It’s not a minor question—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that 4 of 10 Americans use a home water treatment system. Should you use a water filter system in your RV, and if so, what kind? We’ll look at various water systems in an attempt to dilute your concerns.
Water, Water, Everywhere
The EPA says that, “Drinking water can reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. As long as those contaminants are no higher than EPA standards, the water is considered safe to drink for healthy people.” All well and good, and in most areas one can obtain information about what those contaminants are, and in what levels they exist. But as travelers, we don’t often have the time and resources to find out the nitty-gritty, and then make the call as to whether we’re willing to accept those con-taminants as safe for us.
Just because water may be safe to drink doesn’t mean it’s going to please the palate. A good chug of mineralized tap water can really spoil a pleasant meal. So water filters can do a job of removing contaminants, as well as improving taste.
What types of filters are there, and what do they do? Basically home treatment systems break down into two varieties. Point of use treatment systems treat water on the spot. For example, a “filter pitcher” system treats small quantities of water for drinking; an “under-counter” filter does the same on a tap at a single sink. Point of entry devices treat all the water entering the house—or in our case—into our RVs. All the water, including that run in the shower or flushed down the toilet, is treated.
Let’s examine the various kinds of filters and other water treatment systems and see what they work on.
Point of Use Systems
Filter Pitchers: These are fairly inexpensive and are probably the most common system in use. Most use activated carbon and resins to filter out some contaminants, and they often improve the taste of water. What kinds of contaminants are removed vary by the design of the filter and the size of the pores in the filter. You’ll need to read the labels closely to determine just what gets filtered out—and what comes into your drinking glass.
Filters in these types of systems have a limited shelf life, and it’s wise to keep a spare filter on hand when traveling, as they may not be available where you go.
Sink Filters: These attach to the faucet, or to the water line serving a faucet. These are much like the filters in a pitcher system; some will reduce lead and bacterial contamination. They too, have a limited shelf life and need to be serviced regularly.
Distillers: They heat water to the boil, and then condense the water vapor, killing bugs that cause disease and leaving many chemical contaminants behind. However, radon and petroleum distillates (like groundwater contaminated with gasoline) can make their way past a distiller.
Distillers use a lot of power to operate and aren’t real practical for folks who boondock. If you spend a lot of time with electrical hookups, they might work for you. The finished product, distilled water, is good for use in your rig’s batteries, but some find the taste rather flat. Some improvement might be had if you shake a container of distilled water with a fair amount of air space in the container, aerating the water.
Ultraviolet light: UV light systems are often combined with other filters in a sort of package deal. UV light kills bacteria and viruses, as well as Giardia and cryptosporidium. Check to see how any prospective UV filter is “powered.” If it’s operated on shore power, is it compatible with your boondocking electric source?
Reverse osmosis: These critters force city water through a membrane under pressure, leaving the contaminants behind. They will remove disease-causing organisms, many chemical contaminants, and according to published reports, are probably the only effective way to get rid of prescription drug contaminants. They do substantially improve water taste.
These systems require water pressure to operate; they aren’t as practical for boondockers. They also waste a lot of water to produce a small amount of drinking water—on the order of 40 to 90 gallons of water to produce 5 gallons of finished product. Like other filters, these require maintenance, and replacement filters are expensive.
Point of Entry Units
Set up on the waterline coming into the RV, these units can be a bit more challenging. While some simply screw onto the water line, between the “city water” supply and the RV city water inlet, others might be happier “plumbed” into the RV system itself.
Adsorptive media filters: Solids, liquids, dissolved, and suspended matter adhere to the surface of these filters. Large carbon filters fit this description. A lot of RVers use large carbon filters when filling up their fresh water tanks to improve the taste quality.
There are a lot of different filters to choose from: Be sure to read the fine print carefully to ensure the filter does the job you want it to.
Water softeners: These use a resin bed to “grab hold” of hard water particles of calcium and/or magnesium. These hardness ions are then replaced with sodium or potassium ions. The EPA says water softeners will remove radium and barium at the same time as they remove hard water ions.
These units must be “recharged,” often with salt. Those that recharge with salt add sodium to the treated water, which in itself can be a health concern for some.
There’s a lot to look at when considering this issue. If you do most of your RVing while attached to city water supplies at say, an RV park or public campground, your water supply is more than likely inspected by a government agency and likely meets those EPA “safe to drink for healthy people” standards.
If you get your water from a well or some type of unknown source, drinking water issues could become a much greater concern. An appropriate water filter system may be what you’ll want to install. What if you don’t want the hassle of installing or maintaining a water system? The alternative is bottled water. Is it any better than tap water?
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) undertook a four-year study of bottled water and came up with some interesting findings: Of 1,000 bottles tested, 25 percent were simply bottled tap water. Most of the “tap water” bottles were safe; however some did have contaminants that could cause problems for folks with weakened immune systems.
Read the label on the bottle. If it says, “From a municipal source,” or “From a community water system,” then it’s probably just tap water. The label will usually indicate if additional treatment has been given the water once it left the city tap. The NRDC suggests if you’re concerned about drinking water quality to buy bottled water from companies that get their water from a known, protected source.
Whether you choose to take steps to improve your RV water quality, or go the bottled route, be sure to read the labels. And for more information on water filters, check out Uncle Sam’s publishing house at www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/health/filtration/filtration.htm.
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics. They also provide great resources in their book, Camp Hosting USA—Your Guide to State Park Volunteering. Visit www.icanrv.com for more information.