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Do Carbon Water Filters Get Rid of Bacteria?

Carbon filters are a popular way to make your water taste better, and you don’t have to install anything on your sink to use them. Many drinking bottles and pitchers have built-in filters to make it easy to have cold beverages ahead of time. 

But what does carbon actually do, and can it get rid of bacteria if you’re not sure about the cleanliness of your water source?

We’re diving into the wide world of water filters so you can know precisely what they do (and don’t) remove.

Let’s drink up!

What Are Carbon Water Filters?

Carbon water filters use activated charcoal to improve the taste and odor of your drink. Some use cartridges filled with sand-like grains, while others are tight blocks that remove sediment. They work through a process called adsorption. 

Ancient Egyptians were the first to use coal as a filter. But with modern technology, we can activate carbon with heat, salts, acids, or bases, making it more effective. Sometimes other additives are used for broader treatment applications. 

Chemicals in your water will stick to the charcoal. Because it has a lot of surface area in all the nooks and crannies, it can clean many gallons. However, it isn’t instantaneous. The more contact time it has, the better it works. 

These products are becoming more popular as people learn of pollutants in their water supply. If you’ve ever used a pitcher-style filter, you’ve seen carbon in action. Water drips through slowly, so there’s enough time to remove chemicals and leave you with a refreshing beverage.

Activated carbon is used in many industries to clean liquids and even air. They’re used to cleanse sugar products and purify gold. Doctors use charcoal to treat overdoses and poisonings, and dentists may use it for teeth whitening.

Pro Tip: Want to find the perfect water filter for your RV? We compared RV Water Filters: Good, Better & Best

Are Carbon Filters Good for Drinking Water?

Carbon filters are a great way to get better-tasting water. Municipal treatment plants remove bacteria and other yucky things you don’t want to drink. But they don’t always produce the best-tasting product. 

Sometimes pollution gets into local reservoirs. Oil and gas companies, chemical manufacturers, drug makers, and plastic industries are big offenders. Byproducts from these plants can remain even after the city treats the reservoir for public use. 

Using activated charcoal will remove bad tastes and odors, so you can hydrate without worry. They can also treat a variety of harmful chemicals. However, they aren’t perfect. If you’re buying a carbon filter, consider what you want to treat. You should also understand the advantages and disadvantages of carbon. 

Getting a glass of water from water filter
Carbon water filters ensure you can always have a fresh glass of water.

What Are the Advantages of Carbon Water Filters?

Carbon filters are cheap and reliable. They also happen to be the best treatment for some of the nasty things that get into your water supply. 

Organic and volatile organic compounds, as well as pesticides and herbicides, show up in city and well water alike. But activated charcoal makes short work of these harmful chemicals. The best part is they don’t let pesky particles sneak into your beverage if you change them regularly. 

They’re a natural filter with centuries of science to back them up. And they come in various easy-to-use options that don’t require installation. 

Pitcher and bottle filters can make fresh water ahead of time, so you’ll have a cool drink ready. Even under-sink or refrigerator filters are easy to use. They require very little maintenance and can remove plenty of contaminants.

What Are the Disadvantages of Carbon Water Filters?

The main thing to remember is that your filter will only work if you change it regularly. Different brands have different capacity levels on the label, and you need to replace your cartridge as required for the best results.

While activated charcoal is excellent at removing free chlorine and other chemicals, a standard water filter can’t eliminate some things.

Arsenic and lead are both major problems in drinking water. Because these elements dissolve quickly, they don’t stick to carbon. Filters that remove these contaminants vary widely in quality, and you may need to replace some more often than others. 

But one of the most significant disadvantages comes from a change in local treatment methods. Many cities have switched to chloramine instead of chlorine because it’s more stable. It doesn’t evaporate as quickly and can prevent bacterial regrowth. However, activated charcoal has a harder time removing chloramine from water. 

Several upgraded types of purifiers can handle these issues. But understanding which one is the best requires reading beyond the marketing. While you can get a better-tasting drink from any carbon water filter, the best ones require installation. 

Man installing water filter
Installing a carbon water filter is a great investment for your home.

What Filters Will Remove Bacteria from Water?

Standard carbon filters can’t remove bacteria. Using activated charcoal on untreated water may make it taste better, but you could get very sick. 

However, some charcoal has additives or physical properties that can reduce or remove bacteria. They may have tight pores that block bacteria from passing through. Silver-impregnated cartridges can prevent bacteria from growing. Neither of these is perfect, especially for people with vulnerable immune systems.

To kill the bacteria, you can use a purifier with ultra-violet light. You can also buy chemical tablets to sanitize water in an emergency. Then you can filter it through carbon for a better-tasting drink.

Ceramic filters can remove bacteria without added chemicals. They have very tight pores that are small enough for water to pass through while blocking bacteria, fungi, and parasites that cause illnesses. You can even reuse them indefinitely by cleaning them with soap. They’ll still work as long as there aren’t any cracks. 

You can find portable versions of most of these products to carry with you while hiking. This can give you a safe way to hydrate in an emergency.

Pro Tip: If you prefer sparkling water over filtered tap water, We Tried 5 Lemon-Lime Sparkling Water Brands, Here’s the Best.

How To Choose a Water Filter

The best way to choose a filter is to know what’s in your water. You can purchase a lab test or read your municipal water report to see what they’ve found. Generally speaking, though, the larger a cartridge is, the more effective it’ll be. The bigger size means there’s more contact time to get it clean.

A catalytic carbon water filter is your best bet if your city uses chloramine. You may also find units that claim to remove lead, fluoride, arsenic, and other contaminants. Still, water treatment is a complicated science. 

The more things a single-stage filter claims to do, the more you should read the label. These often use a mix of media with their carbon. So while it may work on all those things for a short while, they’ll hit capacity sooner than they claim. 

If you want the purest product, invest in a distiller or reverse osmosis (RO) unit. However, distillers require power and have many parts that can fail. They’re harder to fix without professional help and only work on dissolved contaminants without additional filtering.

RO units last a long time and generally only require cartridge changes once a year. They’re also much easier to troubleshoot. Because they use filters in addition to an RO membrane, they get rid of just about everything. However, these can take up a lot of space under your sink. You’ll also need to install a specialty faucet because water production is considerably slower. 

Are These Filters Worth It?

Water sources across the country have different contaminants, and lab testing is the only way to know what’s in yours. Municipal utilities usually offer current lab reports for folks using city water. They might even be enclosed with your monthly bill.

But if you’re camping, don’t expect carbon filters to make water safe to drink. Bacteria and other germs can make for a very unpleasant vacation, especially when there’s no bathroom nearby. However, it’s never a bad idea to keep a portable filter on hand in case of an emergency.

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