A Diversity of Bottles: The companies who produce bottled water package it in containers of diverse shapes, sizes and styles. Each is intended for a specific type of end use or a specific marketing program. Image © iStockphoto, alenkadr.
Is Bottled Water High Priced Tap Water?
It often is. About 25% of the bottled water sold in the United States comes straight out of a tap. It can cost over 1000 times as much as tap water. The FDA requires bottlers to identify what type of water is in every bottle. If the label says "from a community water system" or "from a municipal source" or something similar, you are buying the equivalent of tap water.
The bottler might treat municipal or community water so that it meets the United States government's definition of "purified water", "demineralized water", "deionized water", "distilled water" or "reverse osmosis water". It can then be labeled with those names.
All of this processing, bottling and labeling has a cost. Generally, the highest cost waters are those in single-serving containers. When water is purchased in larger containers the cost per gallon declines.
Vintage Water Jug: An early jug used for the sale of mineral water from Oregon's Wild Pigeon Springs. Mineral water was traditionally consumed at the spring where it was produced. Then, enterprising businesses decided to bottle it for distributed sales, in this case by the Skidmore Drug Company. Image by the United States Bureau of Mines.
Waters from Geological Sources
Some bottled waters are specially produced and marketed as being from a natural water source. These are also regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and must be labeled according to FDA definitions. Listed below are some of the more common water identities.
"Mineral water" is a natural water produced from a well or spring that naturally contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids. These dissolved solids could be considered impurities. However some people believe that the dissolved minerals provide specific health benefits.
There are very few rigorous studies on the health benefits of ineral waters produced from specific sources. The FDA does not allow the producer to add additional minerals to the water or claim that mineral water provides any unproven "health benefit".
"Spring water" must be produced from a natural spring. A spring is a location where water flows naturally to earth's surface. In the past many people believed that spring water was special because it emerged from the ground and had not been used before. However, the processes which form springs are now well understood and the water that flows from them is simply groundwater with no special qualities.
Artesian Aquifer: Cross section showing an aquifer tapped by artesian wells. Pressure within the aquifer forces water up the wells. The well on the right side of the diagram is a flowing artesian well that yields water without pumping. The artesian well on the left has a water level that is higher than the top of the aquifer; however, it is not a flowing artesian well. USGS Image.
"Artesian water" is water produced from an artesian well. To be an artesian well the water in the aquifer (a subsurface rock unit that holds and transmits water) must be under enough pressure to force it up the well to a level that is higher than the top of the aquifer. Although this is an interesting geological situation, artesian water has no special chemical or medicinal qualities.
"Sparkling water" is produced from a spring or well that naturally contains dissolved carbon dioxide - thus the water is naturally carbonated. The producer may artificially replace any carbon dioxide that is lost during processing but may not add more than what the water had when it emerged from the ground. Although this is a rare geological situation the water is a novelty rather than being a product that provides special health benefits.
Well Water: Cross section showing deep and shallow wells used to produce groundwater. The deep well penetrates to a depth below the seasonal low water table. It has the ability to produce water during times of drought when the water table falls and shallow wells go dry. The shallow well is not deep enough to produce a sustained flow of water during times of drought. USGS Image.
Ground Water and Well Water
"Ground water" and "well water" are names used for water that is produced from a well that penetrates the water table. The water table is a level in the ground below which all pore spaces are filled with water. Many community and municipal water systems produce their water from a well. There is nothing special about these waters. They have no natural properties that make them superior to other commercial waters. They are what many people on public and private water systems receive from their tap every day.
Emergency Water Source
Perhaps the most important use of bottled water is as a source of emergency supply. When water supplies are cut off or contaminated, bottled water is often the only readily available source of water. Many individuals, families, companies, organizations, government agencies, and the military hold stocks of bottled water for emergency use. If you regularly use bottled water, this doesn't have to be an expense. Just buy ahead and rotate your stock.
Water for Emergency: When a disaster such as a hurricane, flood, or earthquake strikes, water distribution systems are often damaged or contaminated - making tap water unavailable or unsafe for use. This is when bottled water is extremely important. Bottled water is a priority item in a family's emergency supply closet. Commercially bottled water can be stored for about two years.