Third-party testing and certification takes the guesswork out of choosing water treatment equipment.

If concerns over just what's in a glass of water have grown exponentially in the past decade, then it's no surprise that the number of water treatment devices on the market should be just as expansive. Want a simple water filter? There are more than 2,500 different kinds on the market.

Independent testing and certification is one way installers, regulators and users alike can verify that products treat water exactly as manufacturers say they do.

"Ultimately, a certified product means peace of mind that this is one product that has passed some very rigorous testing and will do just what it claims," says John B. Ferguson, communications manager for the Water Quality Association.

Third-party certification assures that:

  • contaminant reduction claims are true;
  • the product itself does not add anything harmful to the water;
  • the product is structurally sound; and
  • advertising, literature and labeling are not misleading.
One other important component to the process is ongoing factory audits made after certification to ensure that materials and manufacturing processes remain consistent.

Peace of mind also means more than just getting what you paid for. "I think a certified water treatment product provides an extra measure of safety at the point of last resort," Ferguson adds.

Many smaller municipal treatment plants do not meet all EPA standards for providing treated water. "It's not as if they don't want to," he explains. "But they may not have the funding for the necessary equipment." Plus, something may go wrong along the way delivering the water from plant to home.

"We certainly want people to have water treatment equipment if they need it," Ferguson says. "And if they do need equipment, certified equipment is an extra plus."

By and large, three groups are in the business of testing and certification:
  • NSF International, the largest certifier of the bunch with more than 5,000 certified components, also helped develop many of the various standards adopted by ANSI, which cover individual water treatment equipment and other performance standards. The group bestows what it simply calls its Mark upon certification.

  • The Water Quality Association, a national trade association for water treatment manufacturers as well as dealers, has been testing and certifying since the 1950s. The group awards its Gold Seal only to those systems that meet NSF/ANSI standards.

  • The UL, founded in 1894, may be the new kid on the block when it comes to this type of testing and certification to NSF/ANSI standards. The UL introduced its EPH Mark (for "Environmental and Public Health") in 2000, and has since certified more than 2,500 water treatment products.
Each group certainly appeals to a particular manufacturer. Thanks to its reputation for electrical safety, the UL considers itself a one-stop shop, according to AnnMarie Gebhart, business manager for UL's EPH division. "In addition to the standards for water treatment, we can also certify the electrical components to the appropriate ANSI/UL standards."

UL's long-standing public safety campaigns certainly also help the relatively new EPH designation. And both the NSF and UL designations may have more of global cachet.

"Thanks to the operations we have around the world, the NSF Mark is the default recognition for this type of certification outside the United States," says Tom Bruursema, general manager of the Drinking Water Treatment Unit Program at NSF. "That's certainly a big plus for American companies that sell overseas."

Then again, the WQA is the only one of the three that specializes in testing and certifying drinking water treatment equipment.

"We certainly want to offer a choice," Ferguson says. "Our lab may be smaller, but we may be faster since we are dedicated to the POU/POE market and do not have a backlog of other products waiting to be tested first."

It's also not unusual for manufacturers to want all three designations on their products. What's more, all three are "ANSI-accredited" product certifiers, which is pretty much a seal of approval for the testing each organization does. The American National Standards Institute is the prime organization to provide assurance of the competence of "conformity assessment" by independent, third-party product certification services. Bottom line - each group's certification is on par with the others.

In addition, all three have "reciprocity" with each other, meaning that, in many cases, data for tests are approved regardless of which group did the original tests. (Reciprocity, however, does not mean that just because one manufacturer received an NSF Mark that they also automatically receive a WQA Gold Seal. Certain tests along the way may be accepted, but manufacturers still need to go through each group's own certification process.)

While each group may compete for market share, reciprocity means a more gentlemanly approach to getting that business.

"We're not about to say that one lab is better than another," Ferguson adds. "After all, that's the whole point of reciprocity."

To help understand the certification process regardless of which group does it, let's take a quick review of the steps taken to evaluate the products. Keep in mind that, for the purposes of this story, we will only talk about that class of product termed, "Drinking Water Treatment Units," which includes water softeners, filters, RO, distillation and ultraviolet systems. While the process may be similar, all three organizations also test and certify components and additives that come in contact with drinking water, plus plumbing fixtures, such as faucets, valves and pipe.

Each NSF/ANSI drinking water treatment standard may subject particular products to individual performance requirements - NSF/ANSI Standard 58 for RO systems or NSF/ANSI Standard 44 for water softeners. However, there are four general similarities regardless of the type of product:
  • Structural Integrity: Tests that determine the ability of the product to withstand extended periods of use.

    "We certainly want the product to remove contaminants," explains Tom Palkon, director of product certification for the WQA, "but we also don't want to spring a leak a week after the installation."

    Testing may include a pressure test depending on the type of product, and designed to replicate a year's service.

  • Material Evaluation: A review of the components that come in contact with the drinking water. Additional tests also assure the treatment system does not introduce anything harmful into the treated drinking water.

  • Contaminant Reduction Testing: Basically, evaluates the product's ability to remove the contaminants at the levels manufacturers specifically claim.

  • Literature Review: A review of the written documentation, including installation manuals, product data plates and performance data sheets, for accurate claims of actual performance.
While many of these tests are going on, a member of the certification team visits the production site to review the consistency of the manufacturing process.

If all goes as planned, the manufacturer can then place the certification mark on its products. Typically, certification is granted for five years. Annual audits are still performed at the production site. Once the five years is up, the process must be repeated from start to finish.

One More Mark

The Environmental Protection Agency does not approve water treatment devices. However, products that contain activated carbon impregnated with silver are required to register with the EPA.

The label, however, doesn't mean that the product won't ever leach silver and function as claimed. Any EPA label on a product or in the installation material just means that the product has been registered.