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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 August, 2003, 11:28 GMT 12:28 UK
The next step for bottled water
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online

It's clear, tasteless and quite literally on tap - yet each day we spend more than 2m on bottled water. And now the office water cooler is about to become the latest must-have accessory - in people's kitchens at home.

Water cooler
The quality of tap water is at an all-time high, yet we cannot seem get enough of the bottled stuff - coolers are as common a sight in the workplace as the photocopier, and even the corner shop will now offer a choice of still or sparkling.

The success of commercial water coolers - not to mention booming sales of bottles - has prompted manufacturers to look to an as yet untapped market in the UK: water coolers for the home.

The aim is for residential customers to take delivery of 18-litre bottles of spring or mineral water - just like those delivered to offices, usually by guys in shorts - for the dispenser sitting in their kitchens.

In the United States and Canada, the water cooler industry is split roughly 50-50 between commercial and home use; but in the UK, residential customers account for just 1% of business. Manufacturers hope that will swell to between 20 and 30% in five years.

Water home delivery, photo by Nature Springs
It's 1,000 times as expensive as tap water
We spend 1bn a year on it
In 1998 that figure was 360m
We each drink 70 litres of bottled water a year - up from seven in 1991
It's the fastest growing sector of the drinks market
"Our residential customers think, 'I drink from a water cooler at work; why not at home?'" says Gil Gibson, a regional director with the water giant Danone, who talks of bottled water being a "value-added" product, and of "educating" potential customers.

"Sure tap water has improved but as with any product, there are some people who love it, some who are lukewarm and some who detest it. We provide for the lukewarm and detest categories."

How much is used depends on the size of the household and how the water cooler is used - some people just use it for drinking water, others cook with it. Mr Gibson estimates that a home with two adults and two children would get through 25 to 38 bottles a year, at a cost of about 30 month for delivery, hire of the machine and the water itself.

While few - if any - firms currently pitch sales at home users, it is only a matter of time. Summer is boom time for water consumption, and Mr Gibson says marketing campaigns will start appearing next spring.

On tap

Mike Greeves, of Hepscott Water Systems in Northumberland, says the tiny residential market is split between water coolers and filters plumbed into the mains (a popular choice for those fed up with filling and refilling jug-type filters).

Empty water bottles stack up
Just watch those empties stack up
"I doubt the home water cooler market will grow as much as the big players hope it will. These only work in countries like Israel where it's very hot; or in the US because it is the home of the water cooler."

Mr Greeves instead expects more large organisations to switch from water coolers to plumbed-in filters, to save on the expense and hassle of getting bottles delivered.

"In London this market is growing 40% a year; it's like the water cooler market was six years ago. One of our clients used to get through 300 bottles a week - it was practically a fulltime job to deliver that water to each of 32 floors. So they decided to use the water already in the building."

Children at a water fountain
Children get dehydrated easily
His company is taking part in a Department of Health pilot scheme to put plumbed-in water filters into local schools; if successful, it could be rolled out across the UK.

So why not just drink straight from the tap? "There's not much difference in this part of the country as our water is exceptionally good. Once you filter the chlorine out, it tastes as good as mineral water. The difference between filtered and unfiltered is more noticeable in London. Besides, when water is chilled, one type is much like another," Mr Greeves says.

If chilling is the answer, then most homes are already equipped with the ideal equipment. A tap and a fridge.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

When we first moved here, we went out for a meal somewhere in the mountains. Just as I was about to order mineral water, we noticed everyone else just had carafes of tap water. Trying to act as locals, we ordered one too - not only was the taste OK, it was free. At City Hall there's a notice, updated regularly, with an analysis of the local water. When we receive the water bill, there's an overview of exactly which sources are used for our village. It also states how often the water was checked and any abnormalities found. The procedure is crystal clear as is the water, and the taste is superb.
Adrian Froon, France

Here in north Scotland we have the biggest concentration of properties with private water supplies. My supply has been "poisoned" at least three times in the past two years, so now we only drink bottled water. For me to have a mains water supply installed would cost in excess of 20K. As someone who carries home dozens of bottles a week, I'd be delighted to sign up for a regular delivery.
Colin Turnbull, Scotland

Our water is from our own well, not uncommon in the US, which is why we have our drinking water delivered. However, if I lived in the UK again where the mains water is nothing to complain about, I would never go back to lugging 5 gallon bottles about. Never mind the taste, just thinking of my back.
Heather S, US/UK

Germany has introduced a refund on plastic bottles where the deposit costs more than the water. I recently took in a bag of empties to a superstore in Berlin and came out with a four-step aluminium ladder. I've had home water deliveries for seven years and use an energy-saving ceramic cistern, not an electricity-hungry cooler.
Gregg McKenzie, UK

What about the cost to our environment of the extra vans on the road delivering plastic bottles of water?
Adrian Clarke, UK

Here in Texas where it is 100+F for weeks, our refrigerator has an ice maker built in. It also has an ice (cubed or crushed) and water dispenser in the door. It is plumbed in and filtered. Taste is great. No muss, no fuss. Helps us to cope with the heat. Rather typical here.
John H, Texas

If you want to drink cold water without the chlorine, just fill a bottle or jug and stick it in the fridge. You don't need fancy filters (which can harbour bacteria) or expensive bottled water. Just remember to replace the water after 24 hours, as the loss of the chlorine will enable bacteria to grow... that's why they put the chlorine in in the first place.
Lisa T, UK

Bottled water? Pah! To all the people that drink it, Evian spelt backwards is NAIVE.
Peter Hewett, Canada

US tap water is great, unless you live in a really big city or Arizona. And water collers are ugly - why would anyone want to ruin their kitchen like that? They make too much noise, and what about the extra freons?

I've seen adverts for gadgets to soften water. Since we pay over the odds for our water bills, why don't water companies fit these to their own pipes for better tasting water without limescale?
Andy T, UK

Soft water may taste better than hard, but is not advisable to drink. Most water softeners advise against connecting to your drinking water supply. The lime in hard water is beneficial the cardio vascular system. This is backed up by medical studies that link the lower incidence of coronary heart disease in the south (hard water) and the north, where it's soft. [And softened water is not suitable for consumption by babies or those on a low-sodium diet.]
Martin Wingate, UK

The main reason bottled water is such a big thing in the US is the level of chlorination in tap water is so high as to make it practically unusable for anything except bathing. Our tap water is much more palatable, so it seems unlikely the market will ever be as big here.
Ian Jenkins, UK

The water from these bottles is no good for boiling in kettles because the minerals coat the elements in scale. We use these bottles to fill our kettle at work, and it is absolutely coated in gunge.
Ian, UK

We switched from a cooler with bottles in the office to a plumbed-in filter. It tastes no different and I don't have to worry about lifting 19 litres of water at a time.
Jane, UK

I defy anybody to notice the difference between chilled tap water, chilled & filtered and chilled bottled. Except in their wallet. I don't care what other people spend their money on, but all those bottles going to landfill annoys me.
Rik, Norfolk, UK

I've been using a water cooler for over eight years now. I will accept Rik's challenge any time - and my bottles are collected fortnightly and taken away by the water company for refilling.
Chris Boote, UK

Having moved from the north-east (soft water) to Surrey (hard), I have to say the difference in water quality is very marked. I had a tap water filter fitted in my kitchen simply to save my kettle from being destroyed by lime scale and to make the water taste more palatable.
Lisa K, Surrey, UK

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