By Rehan Iqbal
Why are Berkey water filters popular with preppers? Instead of depending on water pressure or pumps, it uses gravity to filter out contaminates. That means you don’t running water or a power source to get clean water. However, if you look into their products, you may have some concerns. Why aren’t they allowed to sell their filters in all 50 states? Especially California and Iowa?
Why do they make a big deal about not being NSF certified? Are they a good alternative to more common filter options, or are they just people who expect society to end at any moment? We’re here to answer these questions, so you can decide if these filters are right for you.
From the outside, a Berkey filter looks like a coffee dispenser. Inside the stainless steel case, you’ll find two sections. Water is poured into the top of the case, where it percolates through the filters to a storage chamber at the bottom of the tank. Filtered water is accessed via a small tap on the side of the housing. In many ways, it acts like a scaled-up water filter pitcher.
The components of the filter system are made from stainless steel, silicone, polyethylene and rubber. The rubber components can give water an off taste, but this dissipates after a few uses. Berkey fits their systems with two types of filters: the Black Berkey and a chlorine filter.
Cut open a Black Berkey filter cartridge, and you’ll find a thick tube made of what looks like block carbon. Berkey says their filters use 6 types of media, but the only filter layer they name is activated carbon. Their filtration claims suggest the Black Berkey only contains activated carbon and a fine sediment filtering layers.
As the surface layer of the filter clogs up with contaminates, it can be removed by scrubbing the filter with a toothbrush or Scotch Brite pad. This reveals a fresh layer of media underneath. Once water passes through the Black Berkey filters, the water goes through a chlorine filter to remove both chlorine and chloramides.
Berkey offers their systems in several sizes, and most models let you choose how many Black Berkey filters you want to use. The more filters are installed, the faster the system filters water. Most systems support two or four filters, delivering a flow rate of one to two gallons per hour.
The Crown holds up to 8 filters for a maximum filtration rate of 4 GPH. Each time the system is used, the top chamber must be filled to the top. This spreads wear out evenly across the filter.
Since these filter systems are mostly intended for emergency use, care must be taken to dry the system completely before storage. Otherwise, bacteria can grow on the filter media. Berkey includes extensive instructions on proper care and storage to keep this from happening.
Why are Berkey Water Filters Banned in California and Iowa, and Why Aren’t They NSF Certified?
Between 2006 and 2009, California passed California AB 1953, SB 1334 & 1395 and HSC Section 116875 2009, collectively known as the “no lead laws.” These laws require all water filtration products and components to be NSF/ANSI 61 approved.
To meet this standard, filters must be tested for lead by a third party. Iowa requires similar third party testing. Their laws don’t name NSF specifically, but manufacturers typically use their tests, since they’re standard across the industry.
Berkey claims this testing requirement creates too high of a barrier for them to enter these markets. That may seem odd, if you’re cross-shopping their products with conventional filter options. However, that’s not unusual for gravity filters. The only manufacturer that offers NSF certified filters is ProOne, but their products are only certified for material safety, not filtration performance.
That said, Berkey might be avoiding NSF certification for marketing purposes. By keeping what’s in their filters a secret, Berkey can prevent consumers from doing an apples-to-apples comparison with competitors. It’s highly unlikely that their Black Berkey filters contain materials or use manufacturing processes that aren’t readily available from other manufacturers.
Can I Buy a Berkey Water Filter in California or Iowa?
California’s no lead laws only cover systems for home use. Berkey’s Sport, Travel and Light water filters are categorized as outdoor filters, making them legal for sale in this state.
Berkey filters cannot be sold in Iowa. Their regulations require manufacturers to back their filtration claims with third party testing, no matter where they are used.
What Does Berkey Filter Claim to Remove?
Berkey says their filters were “tested to NSF standards.” This is not the same as NSF certification. If their products were certified, they would be tested at multiple points in a filter’s life to ensure they maintain performance. Their manufacturing facility would also need to be audited to ensure production filters and components are identical to tested components.
The test results provided by Berkey’s tests seem to cover new filters, and there’s nothing to keep them from cherry picking filters to get the best results. In other words, you should take these claims with a grain of salt. Here’s what they say their filters will remove from water:
Berkey claims their filters remove heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and mercury. However, they don’t specify the types of arsenic that their filters remove. Usually, Arsenic 3 must be oxidized, turning it into Aresnic 5 before it’s removed by a carbon filter.
Activated alumina removes Arsenic 3, although its primary use is removing chlorine. Berkey’s marketing suggests the chlorine filters only remove chlorine and chlorimide, so it’s not made of activated alumina. If there was activated alumina in the Black Berkey filter, the chlorine filter would be redundant.
Berkey says their filters do not remove minerals, nitrates or nitrides. This is a concern for emergency water use, especially if you live near farmland. Fertilizer runoff leads to high levels of nitrate contamination, which can lead to serious health problems in infants.
How Long do Berkey Filters Last?
Berkey says their Black Berkey filters process 3,000 gallons of water, so a dual filter system can handle 6,000 gallons before replacing the filter elements. Fluoride filters need to be changed every 1,000 gallons.
Is Berkey Better than Reverse Osmosis?
Yes and no. Reverse osmosis systems typically combine reverse osmosis, activated carbon, catalytic carbon and sediment filters. This allows them to filter everything the Berkey removes, plus many other contaminates, including nitrates and nitrides.
Most reverse osmosis systems on the market meet NSF standards, which makes their test results trustworthy. However, these systems require pressure to work. If you’re in an emergency situation where you don’t have access to running water, you can still use the Berkey.
How Much Do Berkey Filters Cost?
Up front costs and filter costs for this system are high compared to other gravity feed systems. The average cost is somewhere between $350 and $500 for a Berkey system, depending on its size. A pair of replacement Black Berkey filters cost $170, while a pair of fluoride filters costs $80.
That works out to a cost of about 7 cents per gallon just for filters. Most competing gravity systems use some combination of activated carbon, ceramic sediment filters and sand polishing filters. Performance is roughly the same as the Berkey, but price can vary widely. Cheaper systems cut costs by using less expensive components, including plastic tanks and smaller filters that flow less and require more frequent replacements.
These may make sense if your main worry is up front cost. The cheapest filters only cost $100, and they’re good enough for short term emergencies. However, if you need to filter a lot of water, the Berkey might be cheaper than other gravity-fed systems once you account for filter changes.
Is a Berkey cheaper than a pitcher filter? Yes, but only if you need a lot of filtered water. Brita’s LongLast and Elite filters handle up to 120 gallons of water. With two packs of Elite filters costing around $30, that works out to around 12.5 cents per gallon. The cheapest pitcher that includes an Elite filter costs $27.
If you buy the cheapest Berkey, a pair of Berkey Black filters, and three sets of chlorine filters, you’ll spend $760 to filter 6,000 gallons of water. If you spend $760 on a Brita pitcher and filters, you’ll end up with just enough to capacity to filter the same amount of water. However, there’s a good chance you’ll break the pitcher at some point after using it with 50 filter cartridges.
This gives the Berkey a slight advantage. That said, a Brita water pitcher uses activated carbon and nothing else. It isn’t effective at removing pathogens, so it should only be used with well or municipal water. Meanwhile, the Berkey will filter any water you have access to.
How Does the Sport Berkey Compare to Other Berkey Filters and Competitors?
The Sport Berkey is a sports bottle with a miniature version of the Black Berkey filter. While it’s convenient for clean water on the go, it has some serious limitations.
When you squeeze the bottle, if forces untreated water through the filter and into the straw. Each filter processes up to 27.5 gallons of untreated water, or 110 gallons of tap water. It does not include a chlorine filter.
The Sport Berkey water bottle costs $46, and a filter costs around $30. That’s a little more expensive than bottle-based systems like Brita’s, but it can filter raw water. However, competing UV and hollow membrane filters cost about the same as a single Sport Berkey replacement filter, and they process thousands of gallons of water.
These filters also don’t require a proprietary bottle. Most membrane filters have threads that are compatible with a wide range of off-the-shelf bottles, including soda and water bottles. The Sport Berkey also isn’t useful for long periods out in the woods.
The filter system doesn’t work unless the bottle is upright, so you can’t use it to purify and fill multiple water bottles. If you want a filter system for thru-hiking, bikepacking or expedition hunting, look elsewhere.
When Should I Consider a Berkey Water Filter?
Do you need a water filtration system you can use in emergencies? The Berkey is a great choice, since it doesn’t depend on water pressure, and it removes pathogens. There are cheaper options for short term use, but you’re probably better off with a Berkey if you may experience weeks without clean water.
Want an alternative to a filter pitcher? The high price of a Berkey system isn’t going to be worth it, unless you need a lot of purified water.
Are you looking for the highest quality filter? You may want to look for an NSF certified system. However, you’ll be hard pressed to find a certified system that works without water pressure or an external pump.