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

If concerns over what's in a glass of water have grown rapidly 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 third-party certification is one way installers, regulators and users alike can verify that products treat water exactly as manufacturers say they do.

“A certified product means piece 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.

Certification programs don't recommend, rate or compare product. What they do includes testing, retesting, and third-party inspections and audits. Testing procedures for drinking water treatment systems are designed to ensure that products meet five basic requirements of certification:

  • The manufacturer's contaminant reduction claims are true.

  • The system does not add anything harmful to the water.

  • The system is structurally sound.

  • The advertising, literature and labeling are not misleading.

  • The materials and manufacturing processes used to produce the system are not changed.
“I think a certified water treatment product provides an extra measure of safety at the point of last resort,” Ferguson adds.

Keep in mind that many smaller municipal treatment plants around the country do not meet all Environmental Protection Agency standards for providing treated water. “It's not as if they don't want to,” Ferguson explains. “But they may not have had the funding for the necessary equipment.”

Plus, Ferguson says, no matter how great the treatment plant is, 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.”

Ultimately, we're talking about ANSI/NSF standards. The American National Standards Institute coordinates voluntary standards for the country's private sector on plenty of matters other than water treatment. Since it does not develop the national standards itself, it relies on the National Sanitation Foundation, an ANSI-accredited standards developer, to determine standards for water treatment equipment.

In turn, NSF can accredit other independent laboratories to certify drinking water treatment units. By and large, that leaves three groups in the business of third-party certification:

  • NSF International, not surprisingly the largest certifier of the bunch with more than 5,000 certified components. 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 under its own “Gold Seal” program, and recently gained NSF accreditation a few years ago.

  • The UL, founded in 1894, may be the new kid on the block when it comes to certifying water treatment equipment. The UL introduced its EPH Mark (for “Environmental and Public Health”) in 2000.
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 its products. Since all three are accredited certifiers, they all 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 an EPH symbol. While certain tests along the way may be accepted, 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 it to spring a leak a week after the installation.”

    Testing may include pressure testing depending on the type of product, and designed to replicate years of 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 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.

Water Matters

  • About two-thirds of the human body is water. Some parts contain more water than others. For example, 70 percent of your skin is water.

  • There are approximately 1 million miles of pipelines and aqueducts that carry water in the United States and Canada. That's enough to circle the earth 40 times.

  • Typically, households consume at least half of their water by watering the lawn. Inside, toilets use the most water, with an average of 27 gallons per person per day.

  • Each person uses about 100 gallons of water a day at home.

  • The average five-minute shower takes between 15 to 25 gallons of water.

  • You can refill an 8-ounce glass water approximately 15,000 times for the same cost as a six-pack of soda.

  • Public water suppliers process 38 billion gallons of water per day for domestics and public use.

  • About 800,000 water wells are drilled each year in the United States for domestic, farming, commercial and water-testing purposes.

  • More than 13 million households get their water from their own private wells and are responsible for treating and pumping the water themselves.

  • The average daily requirement for fresh water in the United States is about 40 billion gallons a day, and another 300 billion gallons of untreated water is used for agriculture and commercial purposes.

    Source: American Water Works Association