Taste-Test Experiment: Bottled Waters vs. Filtered Tap

When I was a kid back in the 1970s most everybody drank water from their tap.

When me and my friends were playing outside and we needed to quench our thirst, we ran up to the nearest neighbor’s water spigot and grabbed a drink from the hose.

Not any more.   Now it seems like almost everybody drinks bottled water.

I even see the neighborhood kids carrying around bottles of water now when they play outside – mine included.

Oh, I’ve laid down the law and demanded that they drink from the hose like I used to, but I still catch them at times sneaking a bottle from the garage anyway.

Maybe I am becoming just a bit of a curmudgeon, but dammit, when compared to filtered tap water, the bottled stuff is expensive and generates a lot of trash too.

Not All Bottled Waters Are Created Equally

In the United States, bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug and Administration, which mandates that it must be labeled according to one or more of the classifications listed below:

Spring Water – Water that comes to the surface naturally.   It can only be collected at the spring, or from an underground aquifer feeding the spring.

Mineral Water – Water that contains natural mineral elements that are derived from the source.

Purified Water – Water that has undergone any of several processes such as deionization, reverse osmosis or distillation.

Sparkling Bottled Water – Also known as “sparkling spring water”, “sparkling drinking water”, and “sparkling mineral water,” this water is carbonated via the addition of carbon dioxide.

Well Water – Water from a hole that is bored or drilled into a layer of very porous rock or sediment called an aquifer.

Artesian Water – Water that comes from an aquifer, but unlike well water, the water from an Artesian well is tapped at a point some level above the bedrock.

The Experiment

The point of this experiment, was simple: Find out if the taste of bottled water is superior enough to justify the extra cost when filtered tap is available.

As with my store-brand vs. name-brand taste test challenges, I decided to convene my now very-seasoned panel of experts to sample each of the items in a blind taste test.

I prepared individual samples of three varieties of water: a premium brand, a store brand, and filtered tap water.   I allowed the waters to sit in the same room until all of the samples reached close to room temperature.

To ensure the taste test was a blind comparison, each sample was marked only as either ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or ‘C.’   The panel was then asked to taste and record which product they preferred; they were also free to note any accompanying comments they had regarding a particular product.   When comparing products, panelists that could not discern a clear winner were allowed to give a vote for more than one sample.

As always, before we get to the results, I want to introduce our distinguished panel of experts – my wacky family, who I’m sure my regular readers know well-enough by now that they consider them to be family too (as well they should):

DorisAunt Doris
Birthplace:   London, England
Age:   25   (Eat your heart out, Lady Gaga.)
Favorite Movie: Last of the Dogmen (1995)

PaulUncle Paul
Birthplace:   Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 80
Favorite Movie: The Wizard of Oz (1939 – Coincidentally, that’s the last movie he saw at a theater.)

MarilynAunt Mary Jane
Birthplace:   New Orleans, Louisiana
Age: Invoked her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Favorite Movie: Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (1966)

DadDad
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 72
Favorite Movie: The Godfather (1972)

MomMom
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 69
Favorite Movie: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).

RoseRose
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California
Age: Old enough to be my mother-in-law.
Favorite Movie: “Some old mermaid movie I saw on TV.   It’s in black and white.   I can’t remember the name, but I think it’s from the 1950s.”   (Thanks, Rose.)

KevinKevin
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 57
Favorite Movie: Waking Ned Devine (1998).

ChrisChris
Birthplace: Hemet, California
Age: Classified
Favorite Movie: Also classified.

HoneybeeThe Honeybee
Birthplace: Whittier, California
Age: 42
Favorite Movie: Pretty Woman (1990)

Evan Evan
Birthplace: Escondido, California
Age: 31
Favorite Movie: Forrest Gump (1994)

MarkMark
Birthplace: Escondido, California
Age: 29
Favorite Movie: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Matthew Matthew
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 12
Favorite Movie: Zombieland (2009)

Nina Nina

Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 10
Favorite Movie: UHF (1989)

Major1 Major
Birthplace: Julian, California
Age: 6
Favorite Movie: Best in Show (2000)

For this experiment, I went to my local Stater Brothers grocery store and bought bottled waters bearing their store-brand label, as well as the premium Arrowhead-brand bottled water.

For tap water, I used the filtered tap water from my refrigerator; the filter was new and was therefore assumed to be working at peak efficiency.

Here now, in order of preference, are the results of the taste test experiment based upon the inputs received from the panel of experts.

1.   Stater Brothers Purified Water

Price: $0.79 per gallon
Panel Scoring: 8 votes

The Verdict: The label of the store-brand Stater Brothers brand says it is purified water with sources from “deep protected wells in Southern California.”     There is definitely no attempt to mislead the public by Stater Brothers.     No images on the plain blue label of fast-running mountain streams, cold fresh-water springs, or the snow-capped craggy peaks of Mount Baldy.   In fact, I’ll bet if I went to their “deep protected wells” I’d probably find a nondescript site somewhere in the middle of San Bernardino surrounded by a chain link fence with a barbed wire top.     No matter.   This water was the clear victor, garnering eight votes from my crack expert panel of 14 tasters.   Both Mark and Evan noted the crisp taste of the Staters water, while Nina remarked that it quite simply had the best overall   taste.     Not everybody agreed though.   The Honeybee felt the store-brand had an unpleasant aftertaste.

(tie) 2.   Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water

Price: $1.10 per gallon
Panel Scoring: 4 votes

The Verdict: Unlike the Staters’ brand, which was purified well water, the name-brand Arrowhead was spring water.   Arrowhead, is a division of the better-known Nestle Corp., which also markets water under the Nestle Pure Life label.   According to the Arrowhead label, the water came from one or more of six separate springs scattered across San Bernardino, San Diego and/or Inyo Counties.   I would have thought that spring water would have had a decided advantage over purified well water, but apparently not.   Only three of the panel members that walk on two legs felt the name-brand spring water was the superior drink.   Doris and Nina both thought the Arrowhead spring water had a bit of an aftertaste, while Evan complained that the Arrowhead tasted “bleached-out.”   Hardly the ringing endorsement you want to hear considering the Arrowhead cost 39% more than the store-brand label.   Well, at least Major seemed to like it.   He quickly lapped up his dixie cup full of H2O and hardly spilled a drop.   Then again, Major didn’t discriminate against any of the three candidates.

(tie) 2.   “Penzo Springs” Filtered Tap Water

Price: $0.005 per gallon
Panel Scoring: 4 votes

The Verdict: Yep.   My “home brand” filtered tap water actually performed as well as the name-brand Arrowhead water.   Of the panelists who preferred the filtered tap water, Dad liked it because it had “the mildest” taste, while Uncle Paul said it had “the most neutral taste”of the three.   The filtered water had its detractors though.   Mark said the filtered tap was stale.   Meanwhile, Mom said it tasted flat, and Nina thought it tasted “mucky.”   But although the filtered tap water only garnered three votes from panel members that use a method other than panting to keep their body temperature in check, on a cost-per-votes basis it actually trounced the name-brand spring water.   Looking at my water bill, I paid all of $29.64 last month for 8 HCF of water.   HCF stands for “Hundred Cubic Feet,” and one HCF is equal to 748 gallons of water, which means my household used 5984 gallons of water.   Based upon those figures, I was able to determine that my very own “Penzo Springs” Filtered Tap Water costs less than one-half cent per gallon.   That’s right.   Less than a penny per gallon!   That is so darn cheap I’m seriously considering starting up a side business selling the “Penzo Springs” label.   I’ve even got a tag line – “Penzo Springs Filtered Tap Water – From My House to Yours!”

Here is a summary of the panel’s voting:

WaterChallenge

In Conclusion…

So what can I conclude from this experiment?   Is the taste of bottled water so much better than the filtered water that comes out of my home’s tap that it justifies the extra cost?

Well, that depends.

The store-brand Stater Brothers purified bottled water was the panel’s clear favorite but even its discounted cost, relative to the national Arrowhead spring water brand, was astronomical when compared to the cost of my filtered tap water.   A household that drinks two gallons of the store-brand water per day will spend $47.40 per month.   If they drink the same amount of filtered tap, they will spend only 30 cents!   So on a pure cost-comparison basis, the answer is clearly no.

My household goes through about a gallon of bottled water per day – that comes to less than $25 per month.   Hardly enough for me to worry about – so for now, I think we’ll continue to pay the premium for bottled water.

I’m sure my kids will drink to that.

Hey, Readers!

Do you have a suggestion for a particular product YOU would like to see tested?   If so, let me know!   You just might see it in my next experiment.



Comments

  1. 1

    David says

    Don’t forget to add to the per gallon cost of the filtered tap water the cost of the filter, divided by the number of gallons the filter can process. Fridge filters are particularly expensive–the one for our fridge costs $50.00, and says that is is good for 300 gallons. In our case, even after adding that cost, filtered water is still 8x cheaper than bottled store brand water from a warehouse club, but it’s not quite the savings one would expect just from looking at a water bill.

    • 2

      says

      Good point, David! My filter only costs me $19.97 and it is supposed to be replaced every three months. That adds another $6.66 per month to my overall tap water bill. The end result is my per-gallon cost for filtered tap water increases by one-tenth of a cent to – six-tenths of a cent! As you mentioned – that is still a great deal! :-)

  2. 3

    Mr. Moneybags says

    It’s articles like these that really make me appreciate buying liquid diamond by the gallon…it’s not particularly nutritious nor thirst-quenching but at least I can! And that’s all that matters, right?

  3. 4

    says

    I have been filtering my own water for the past 20 years. I have my own BPA-free water bottles and I reuse them. The only time I buy bottled water is for camping.

    What most people don’t realize is that bottled water often has as much chlorine as tap water. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have a very long shelf-life. So, in addition to saving money and the environment by drinking filtered water, you can cut down on the amount of chlorine, BPA and PET you ingest.
    .-= Bret @ Hope to Prosper´s last blog ..Investing in a Shaky Market =-.

  4. 5

    says

    Sorry Len, I’m going to be the consciencious objector here. I won’t pay for a bottle of anything that I can get practically for free from my own tap!

    If you have to (???) drink bottled water, I’m with Bret @ Hope to Prosper, get some bottles and re-use them. Discarded water bottles will last in landfills longer than we’ll be on the planet!
    .-= Kevin@OutOfYourRut´s last blog ..New Car or Used Car — Which is the Better Deal? =-.

    • 6

      says

      @Mr.M: Bottled or tap liquid diamond? Now I know the source of your sparkling personality! ;-)
      @Bret: Great tips, Bret!
      @Kevin: No worries. You’re POV actually is more sensible, both economically and ecologically. And you make a good point – I think it’s extremely tough for most people to make a credible case that they HAVE to drink bottled water.

  5. 8

    says

    I drink the filtered tap from the Glacier water. At 30-cents a gallon, it’s a deal. And I have my own recyclable 3-gallon jug. :) My tap water tastes like chlorine, and I really can’t stand that taste, free or not.

    I was more shocked that you have kids playing outside on your block. I haven’t seen kids play out front in years!
    .-= Little House´s last blog ..Making the Most of a 3-Day Weekend =-.

  6. 10

    says

    One thing to consider is that the quality of water in different parts of the country can differ greatly. For example, if you live in the pacific northwest, the quality of the water coming out of the tap is superior to the H2O coming out of pipe on the east coast.
    .-= James ´s last blog ..Sunk Costs =-.

    • 11

      says

      @LittleHouse: Yeah, I don’t see that too often anymore either. We are blessed to live on a cul de sac with lots and lots of kids who like to play outside.
      @Mr.CC: By drinking filtered tap you’re doing the right thing – financially speaking, at least. When it comes to my decision to continue to drink bottled water, I need to toughen up.
      @James: Great point and very true! I’ve traveled all over the US and have noticed a wide variety of quality and tastes. Some places have water so bad, I almost have to hold my nose to get it down.

  7. 12

    says

    Excellent post. No one should be drinking bottled water. And some of it is municipal water anyway.

    In Ireland it was found that there was a high presence of E-coli in bottled water in comparison to tap water. As for the taste, I doubt many people could tell the difference between filtered tap water and bottled water.

    Great stuff.

  8. 13

    says

    haha…oh man dude this must have taken FOREVER to write up! but my damn is it good ;) having once spent $40 on a bottle of water (Bling H20 – mainly just to see what the fuss was about), I can really appreciate this.

    I will continue rockin’ the bottled water though! The extra cost is well worth it to me:

    1) It’s much more portable! Yes you can fill up used bottles and all, but I’m too lazy. And DC water tastes like crack. and not the good kind. (haha…not that I’d know)

    2) It DOES taste better to me – even if just psychologically. Dasani water being my favorite. I think it’s all the blue in the plastic ;)

    • 14

      says

      @J: Wow… $40 for a bottle of water. So was it worth it? And, yes, DC water is bad – so I don’t blame you either. No need to feel guilty, my man!

  9. 15

    Ronnie says

    Excellent write-up! I almost never drink bottled water; I just use whatever I’ve got filtered. And I lived in DC for 7 years (now I’m just over in Arlington), and I found that if I ran the water through the PUR filter into the Brita pitcher, that I was fine. Both were gifts so it wasn’t a huge strain financially, but even with both filters the cost per gallon is much less than with bottled.

  10. 16

    philip says

    Why has no one said anything about just drinking it out of the tap, no filtering necessary?

    I drink about 3 liters(because that is the size of the reusable bottle) of water per day. Straight out of the tap and usually let it stay in the fridge for about 12 hours or more so it is chilled at least to start drinking that bottle. Am I missing something that makes it so horrible to drink without filtering? Go for a month (maybe even just a week) and you will be find drinking just tap. Honestly now the bottled waters taste funny, kinda plasticy most of the time.

    • 17

      says

      @Ronnie: Thanks, I am glad you enjoyed it! I think the decision folks who are weighing decisions purely on a financial basis have to make is whether or not the monthly costs for bottled are really so great as to be worth cutting from their budgets.
      @Phillip: Great point! I too have noticed that if you leave unfiltered tap water in the refrigerator, or even out of the fridge, the taste improves markedly. I am not sure if that is because the chlorine breaks down somewhat or some other factor, but I definitely notice an improvement.

  11. 18

    says

    My husband shamed me into switching from bottled to filtered tap water by using the “green” card. It worked and I’m okay with it a year later.

    Have you done a coffee comparison? Is Starbucks really better? I have my opinion but wonder what your distinguished panel of experts think.
    .-= Bucksome Boomer´s last blog ..Grins from Google Alerts =-.

  12. 19

    ischriscrazy says

    Try refrigerating the tap water for 24 hours, don’t filter it. The water here in the East Bay has a superior taste. The flavor, if thats what you want to call it, is about the same as the overpriced snooty French water. Sometimes filters make the water taste funny.

    • 20

      says

      @Boomer: The coffee test is in the queue. I am working on getting the panel together.
      @Chris: I was not aware that filters could actually add taste, but I guess anything is possible.

  13. 21

    Canuck Linda says

    Caution needed. Most tap waters have both chlorine and flouride added. Flouride and chlorine both cause cancer and are very unhealthy. They are mass medicating us. Of course, the same could be said for bottled water – who knows what is in it? Most filters do NOT remove flouride. It is extremely unhealthy and it is considered a toxic waste product unless it is dumped into the water system. And contrary to popular belief, there is NO scientific evidence or studies to back up that there is ANY medical benefits, even though it is ADA approved/recommended – look for the independent research studies that prove it – you won’t find any…would appreciate anyone who can tell me how to remove flouride from drinking water…

    • 22

      says

      Thanks for the comments! You definitely bring up some good points. I think the risk of having unchlorinated water is much higher than the risk of cancer it imposes. That is a trade I can definitely live with. I think the benefits of chlorine far out weigh the risks. But I agree with you regarding flouride in the water supply. That, to me, is a bit more complex – although I think I am still willing to live with the risk of flouridated water. I think in the end it comes down to trading the risk of getting cancer versus the risk of losing teeth due to tooth decay. It is a trade-off that will depend on each individual’s tolerance.

  14. 23

    says

    I tend to take the results of this test with more than just a grain of salt. When I worked for a fortune 500 personal care co we use to run focus groups in this way. My interest was which was the best water to brew coffee. This shows that one cannot make a blanket statement but has to just try the various waters (in a similar way one cannot just buy Kenyan Coffee and expect the best, one has to actually try various microlots). Anyway, thanks for a terrific article. Theo

  15. 24

    badfrog says

    Grew up in Denver and drank the perfectly excellent water there, as an adult lived also in Boulder and Golden (drinking the same water they used to make Coors with). Never even thought about using a filter, and bottled water–are you KIDDING?

    Then I moved to the Connecticut coast–what a difference. The water was brackish and tasted terrible. A Brita filter and refrigeration made it palatable to me, although my wife flatly refused to drink it, living on tea, coffee, soda, and such. We used to look forward to our day trips to New York City in part because the water there was so excellent, taking a few gallon jugs and refilling them there.

    Then I moved back to the Colorado mountains. Our well there has so much iron in that my teeth feel slippery. Even filters don’t work there, and I spent about USD6.00 per week on bottled water.

    Also might mention the water where my mother was born and grew up, in southwest Missouri One word. Sulfur. Nothing cuts that, and everyone who can afford it, even native born, drinks bottled.

    Now I live on the Sonora coast in Mexico. Mexico drinks more bottled water per capita than any other country. A combination of a long seacoast with brackish water, and iffy water systems, especially outside of big cities, drives everyone here, even those who can’t afford it, to drink reverse osmosis treated water. It is distributed free to the ejidos and small towns, we have a Seri Indian fishing village and the city drives a water truck in twice a week so they can fill their bottles. Some wealthier people have filtration systems built into their houses.

    On the plus side, a 5 gallon garaphon is ten pesos (80 cents) here in Gringo country, 7 pesos in the suburbs, and if I ever really feel like saving a few pennies I can go downtown and pay 5 pesos for 5 gallons.

    Anyway, sometimes bottled is the only realistic choice, but you can buy smarter than 16 ounce bottles.

    • 25

      Len Penzo says

      I have relative on the Connecticut coast and can vouch for your assessment of the terrible-tasting water there.

      During my countless business travels, I’ve tasted tap water from too many places in the US to count. I have to say, where I live in Southern California has about the best-tasting water in the US. It is clean with no aftertaste. (Which is all the more reason I can’t understand why bottle water is so successful out here. I guess we’re just so conditioned to buying it now. I know; poor excuse.)

  16. 26

    Joanne says

    What about all that garbage associated that you were mentioning. and the environmental costs, and the floating island of plastic, encouraging a throw away culture, and the irresponsibility assocaiated with water bottles?

  17. 27

    mario says

    well I drink tap water and water thru the hose thru 70″s and the 80″s ,but in the 90″s they start making big business with bottle water ,everything is for business, corporation never gonna say that tap water its ok to drink because they re gonna start loosing money all for money ,tap water is good

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