This is a totally independent, and unaffiliated Big Berkey water filter review. I purchased a Big Berkey after quite a lot of research into providing filtered water for us to drink at home.
A bit of background info
I have always hated the taste of tap water. When I was at school I thought that I was just the kind of person that didn’t like water, until we went to Wales on a school trip for a week. In the evenings we were served dinner along with water in big jugs on the table. On the first evening I reluctantly poured myself some, only to discover that it tasted wonderful. It was earthy, deep and rich and I was instantly converted into a water lover.
A Welsh water lover.
Which was no good because I lived in Essex.
I went back to avoiding water for the next couple of years while I finished my A-levels, and then I went to university – in Wales!
It was great. For three years I drank happily from the tap.
But this is when the problem really started.
[warning – plastic waste alert]
Whenever I came home from Wales in the holidays I started buying water in plastic bottles because I didn’t like it out of the tap. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I have always recycled my bottles, but lately I have become aware that even recycling plastic is not the answer.
[end plastic waste alert]
So I started to do some research. Perhaps it was time to suck-up the taste and go back to the tap.
But then I thought about the news reports of pharmaceuticals in tap water I’d read over the years.
And the awful taste.
So I decided there had to be another way.
Water quality matters
I am not saying for a second that tap water is unfit to drink. I know we are extremely lucky to live in a place where cleaned water is piped directly to our home.
However, what it is important to be aware that both tap water and bottled water have their own set of problems.
Tap water problems
Tap water contains traces of the drugs that people take. They get into the water from our urine. From the contraceptive pill to antidepressants, antibiotics, sedatives, and illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin, it’s all there.[1,2,3] Water also contains traces of the drugs given to farmed fish and animals.
There are currently no standards for the acceptable level of pharmaceuticals in tap water.
The official focus is still on the fact that no single drug seems to be present in high levels, and it ignores the possibility that the combination of several hundred drugs, all delivered at the same time, every day, may be harmful to your health.
It also ignores the rather terrifying fact that farmed fish have been developing both testes and an ovary due to water-borne hormone exposure from contraceptive pill users.
Pesticides (which include herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and nematocides) are always present in tap water. Water treatment plants do work hard to reduce them to acceptable levels. However, there are more than 1,000 pesticides in use around the world, but from reading water quality reports, most UK water companies only test for around 30 of them.
94% of tap water in the US and 72% in the UK contains micro plastics. Worldwide, 83% of tap water is contaminated with micro plastics. These tiny pieces of plastic (usually broken down from larger plastics over time) are so small they can migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other bodily organs.
Bottled water problems
Bottled water is not immune to these issues.
Firstly a huge amount of bottled water (almost half) is exactly that. It’s just bottled tap water. It doesn’t come from a spring or a well. It’s just sold for convenience.
Secondly, even bottled mineral water has been found to contain traces of drugs.
Molecules from pesticides banned back in 2001 – almost two decades ago – were found in various French mineral waters when tested. These were minute traces, but the point it that even water that comes up through billion-year old rocks miles deep in the earth is not safe from human pollution.
Bottled water is no better than tap water. A study by Orb Media tested 259 bottles across 11 brands and found that 93% of them contained microplastics.
The likely source seemed to be the bottling process itself (I dread to think how much of this I have ingested over the years).
Plastic leaching into water
I could write a lot about this, but I’ll keep it simple. The entire internet is awash with articles that say plastic categorically does NOT leach into food and water, and that plastic categorically DOES leach into food and water, with lots of caveats about storage time and temperature.
I’ll just leave this study here that explains that almost all the commercially available plastic samples they tested leached chemicals, even the BPA free ones.
Home water filters
If you’re anything like me, you’ll be pretty much ready to give up water altogether at this point.
Onto a solution.
Home water filters come in so many permutations that I’d need a whole post to explain them all. I won’t cover them here. My criteria were simply:
- I didn’t want to overhaul the plumbing in the house initially (this may be something I do further down the line)
- I didn’t want a small jug in the fridge or on the counter because they tend to be made of plastic, the filters are made of plastic, and also they aren’t really big enough to meet our demand for water in drinks and cooking
This left me with gravity fed, counter top filters.
Why I chose a Berkey Water Filter
In the end I chose a Berkey mainly because Doulton use ceramic filters. Their standard ceramic filters are great, they are all natural, they do an amazing job, but they don’t filter organic contaminants (pesticides, chlorine, and petroleum by-products) as well as carbon filters.
Also, I found the Doulton range of filters a little confusing (they have seven different versions, and some have a carbon core to improve their filtration).
Berkey just has one filter that does everything (you can buy an additional fluoride filter, but we are lucky enough to live in an un-fluoridated area, so no need for those at present).
The Big Berkey holds about 8.5 litres of water (~2.25 US gallons). This is great for us as a family of four as I don’t need to worry about running out or refilling it during the day.
What a Berkey does
It’s pretty impressive. The full list, which includes viruses, pathogenic bacteria, lead, arsenic, iron, mercury, chlorine, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and BPA can be found on their website.
There is no mention of microplastics here, so I asked on the Osmio Water website if the Berkley could filter microplastics.
They answered as follows:
Plastic Fibers, also known as Microplastics, are small plastic pieces that can enter and contaminate drinking water. Scientists are studying the exact pathways that allow microplastics to enter into the drinking water supply. An extensive investigation on microplastics in water found that these analyses caught particles of more than 2.5 microns in size,” 2.5 microns would be 2.5 micrometers.
A “micron” is an abbreviated term for “micrometer”, or a millionth of a meter (1/1,000,000 meters). This is about .00004 inches. For Size comparison, a human red blood cell is about 5 microns across. A human hair is about 75 microns across (depending on the person).
Working down to a smaller scale 2.5 microns would be 2,500 nanometers.
The Black Berkey® purification elements can reduce viruses down to the nanometer scale, in the tested range of 24-26 nanometers:
24-26 nanometers is .024 to .026 microns…in other words, much smaller than the plastic particles being found in water. The fact that Black Berkey® purification elements have been tested to remove viruses to the nanometer range suggests that contaminants much larger in size, such as plastic fibers should also be removed. Nonetheless, since actual testing of plastic fibers has not yet been conducted, we can’t officially make that claim.
So, in brief, there’s no official test results yet, but the because the filters remove particles much smaller than microplastics, plastic fibres should also be removed as they can’t fit through the pores.
Filter life is good for both Berkley and Doulton (especially compared to jug filters), but slightly better for the Berkey:
- 11,300 litres (3,000 US gallons) for Berkey
- 2,000-3,800 litres (535-1000 US gallons) for Doulton
They are expected to last around 6 months, and you can clean them by scrubbing lightly in water.
Berkey are a US company and you can only buy them from a few suppliers here in the UK. I used Osmio Water. They have free next day delivery and great customer service (I called once after it arrived – see why below).
The Berkey lives on the kitchen counter and you fill the top chamber with water. The filters fit inside the top chamber and the water filters through to the bottom chamber underneath.
Installation was pretty straightforward.
I unpacked everything and checked I had all the bits. It looked very shiny and impressive.
The first thing I did was run the two chambers through the dishwasher. They just fitted in underneath the water spinner on the bottom rack. Once they were dry installation consisted of the following:
1. Screw the handle onto the lid
2. Fit the blocking plugs into the spare holes
The Berkey comes with four holes in the top chamber, so you can fit four filters for a faster flow rate. I went with the standard two, which I think most people would do. This means you have to block the other two holes with a plastic nut and washers. The first time I did this I didn’t tighten them enough and I noticed that when I lifted the top chamber I could see water dripping from the blocking plugs underneath.
The instructions say hand-tighten, but I am just a weak girl (haha), so I used a wrench to tighten them up by another turn. That seemed to do the trick.
3. Prime the filter elements
This involves putting a washer on the top, holding them hard under the tap and letting water flow in until the filters sweat little beads of water.
We have mains pressure cold water so I turned the tap on and literally sprayed myself and the entire kitchen with water when I first tried this.
The trick is to let the water trickle into the hole at the top til it’s full. Then, with the water still at a trickle, push the washer against the tap (support the top of the tap – you don’t want to snap the tap off the sink or anything).
Once filled this way it only takes about 10-15 seconds for the water beads to appear. It’s very pretty when it happens. The tiny drops of water look like hundreds of little lights bursting forth from all over the body of the filter.
4. Fit the filter elements
This is almost identical to the previous step. In fact, the instructions tell you to fit the filters first, but I opted to do the blocking plugs first because once the filters are in there is less room to manoeuvre.
I had exactly the same issue – one filter was leaking at the nut, so again I used the wrench to tighten it by one complete turn.
Here’s the bottom of the top chamber once the filters and blocking plugs are fitted. The condensation is from the filter being in a warm kitchen all day:
5. Fit the spigot
This seems to be the bit that leaks from what I’d read online before I bought mine. I was wary of this, so I did it up and gave it an extra turn with the wrench, and then I left the whole thing on the edge of the sink overnight to be sure it wasn’t going to flood my house when I wasn’t looking.
No leaks from the spigot, so I was really pleased about that 🙂
6. Pop the top chamber on the bottom chamber, fill up and add the lid
When I first put the top chamber on I noticed that there was a bit of a wobble to it. Although my unit looked perfect, it was as though the circle was distorted and it didn’t sit correctly. I was expecting it to fit securely (like a saucepan lid), so I called customer services.
I spoke to a nice man who explained the wobble is deliberate because it allows air to circulate and the water to flow freely down into the chamber. If the lid fitted tightly it would create a vacuum affect and the water flow rate would slow down (science bods can tell me if this is accurate, it sounded sensible to me).
With my only concern appeased I was ready to go.
After running one complete fill through the filter and emptying it, I filled it up for real (note: you don’t have to do that, I just felt better about flushing it out once before I used it).
It’s really easy to use. Chuck water in the top, take it out the bottom. The filter flow rate isn’t super fast, but it holds enough water that we don’t run out during the day. You can’t see the level in the bottom chamber without lifting the top (don’t try this when you’ve just filled it). If you’re worried about overfilling it, you can buy a glass water level display. I didn’t bother with this, as I’m happy to take a peek and I’m pretty good at estimating what we use. I just add a couple of jugfuls to the top before I go to bed.
The kids love the fact that they can help themselves to a drink without getting a stool for the sink.
I love how it looks. It’s so shiny. It doesn’t take up very much space and it would look equally good in a modern or traditional kitchen.
Or even in a tired, tatty, yellow, eighties kitchen if you’ve got one like mine.
Funnily enough, this was the bit I was most nervous about. My kids couldn’t wait to have a go, but I was reluctant to try it at first in case I hated the taste and it had all been a waste of time. However, I tentatively poured myself a glass and lo and behold… it was really nice. It’s not rich and earthy like Welsh water, or as distinct as mineral water, but just really clean and light and refreshing. There was not a hint of anything chemical or stale.
I poured myself some tap water to compare with and that was when I realised how effective it was. The tap water tasted totally different. The tap water even had a smell before you got it into your mouth (the Berkey removes chlorine too).
Tea comes out lovely as well. No film, and no weird taste. I’m a big tea drinker and it’s noticeably better from the filter.
So far it’s been great. All the kids use it and I’ve just about got used to putting the kettle under the spigot instead of the tap.
Overall I am really pleased with the Big Berkey. It arrived quickly, it was easy to put together (with a bit of delicate help from an adjustable wrench), and it’s really easy to use.
I think it would be interesting to know how many people use four filters – fitting the plastic blocking nuts is an additional risk for contaminated water above dripping through (if you were purifying it from a non-drinkable source). I was pretty diligent about checking this, but you could easily fit them and have leaks that you didn’t know about because they are inside the filter.
You can also fit fluoride filters in the Berkey. However be aware that the fluoride filters hang down into the clean water chamber (they screw onto the drainage holes of the upper filters) and are made of plastic. We don’t have added fluoride here, so it wasn’t a problem for me, but I’m not sure how happy I would be about this configuration otherwise.
The lack of a water level gauge wasn’t an issue, but I can see that some people would prefer to add the glass water indicator.
The filter rate is decent and the filter lifespan is good. It takes almost everything you can think of that’s nasty out of your water.
The kids love it, and so do I. Plus, I never have to buy another plastic bottle of water ever again 🙂
If you’re a water connoisseur (or fussy, as I tend to call myself), the taste is definitely far better than tap water, and better even than some mineral brands (like Evian, which I never really enjoyed). The water that comes out is very light and refreshing to drink.
The Berkley is still very new, so I will update this review in a few months if I have anything to add.
In the meantime, I can definitely recommend it if you’re keen to reduce your exposure to water-borne pollutants, cut plastic waste, and reduce your exposure to microplastics.