By Tina Donda, CWS-VI
Let’s take a walk through time, back to when employees stood around the water cooler sipping icy cold fresh water during a quick break before we had to scramble back to our desks. Nobody really noticed the fancy looking Gold Seal label on the cooler.
Certification for water coolers
Water coolers are an interesting breed of products in the marketplace. There are so many different kinds but they all fall under the umbrella of water coolers. The certifications which companies can obtain may also gravitate toward the specific type of cooler. These certifications are based upon a set of industry consensus standards that establish minimum testing criteria for each product. In order to become certified, the products are evaluated and tested according to the provisions established by the standards. These standards provide a consistent and equivalent way to perform testing for all companies that would like to obtain certification. Without the standards, companies would all test according to different protocols and consumers would have no legitimate way to compare one product with another. Certification is voluntary; therefore, companies that obtain certification have chosen to establish that the certified product performs as it is advertised to perform.
Water coolers with no contaminant reduction capabilities
In the marketplace, there are water coolers that do simply what their name implies: make room-temperature water cold. These products do not have the ability to take the tap water and remove, for example, chlorine. For this family of coolers, the certification available for them is quite simple and only includes a possibility of two aspects. The first and foremost category in which these products are evaluated against is materials safety. Each and every material the system is made of that comes into contact with the drinking water is extensively reviewed and tested to ensure that the materials themselves do not contain chemicals or ingredients that will leach harmful contaminants into the water. The other aspect that may be evaluated (only as applicable) is the structural integrity of the unit. For those coolers that are plumbed in, this evaluation would be applicable. Structural integrity testing does exactly what the name implies. This testing will ensure that the product will maintain its shape and will not leak under elevated pressures. This testing represents years and years of cycling water through the system, as well as testing to insure against isolated events, such as water hammer or surges of pressure.
Water coolers with contaminant reduction capabilities
There are some water coolers that incorporate the use of technology that has the ability to reduce contaminants from drinking water. Under most circumstances, additional reduction is not required because municipally supplied water meets US EPA drinking water regulations. Some people, however, prefer to have a final barrier available for a variety of different reasons. For example, the US EPA’s acceptable level for lead is 0.015 mg/L. While this level is perfectly acceptable for human consumption, there is a network of people that prefer to reduce the amount of that lead from their drinking water even further. A cooler that has the ability to reduce lead is perfect for their needs because it will provide the final barrier they are seeking. Others may be less concerned about the US EPA’s acceptable levels for contaminants than they are about how the water tastes. Because so much municipally supplied water is disinfected with chlorine and often includes the taste and odor of chlorine when it reaches the tap, many purchase bottled water rather than consuming water from the water cooler. There are water cooler products that can provide the exact final barrier to remove the chlorine taste and odor.
Water coolers come in many different designs and function capabilities. Fancy ones may be electronic and provide water at the touch of a button. More traditional coolers require jugs of water to be placed on top of the unit. For many, the cooler may only be used for its original purpose, to cool the water, so the materials safety certification is all that the manufacturer obtains. However, others that intend to provide a final barrier to the consumer incorporate the use of technologies such as filtration, RO or UV disinfection for reduction capabilities.
The NSF/ANSI 42 and NSF/ANSI 53 standards are dedicated to the system’s ability to use some sort of filtration technology to remove contaminants. Each of those standards includes a large number of contaminant removal claims for which systems can be certified. NSF/ANSI 42 is dedicated to aesthetic claims (things that will not harm you), while NSF/ANSI 53 is dedicated to providing parameters for tests associated with health-related claims. NSF/ANSI 58 relates to a system that includes a complicated RO system. This standard, like the filtration standards, has a number of different claims available for certification. Of greatest significance is a TDS claim that every certified RO system must meet in order to obtain certification. Also worthy of noting are the most common contaminants RO systems are capable of rejecting: arsenic, cadmium, copper, fluoride, selenium, lead, nitrate/nitrite and hexavalent and trivalent chromium. Further, some products maintain an NSF/ANSI 55 certification for UV disinfection. UV systems use ultraviolet light to destroy microorganisms in the water.
For each of the standards listed above, in addition to the performance capabilities already mentioned, there are three other sections of the standard in which the products must comply in order to be considered eligible for certification. The first is the materials safety section, which encompasses two separate parts. The first is a very detailed scrutiny of each and every material formulation and/or chemical formulation to determine exactly what type of contaminants may become part of the drinking water simply through contact with water. This is called a formulation review, from which a toxicologist will set a test battery for the product to be evaluated against. The test battery is used for the second part of the materials safety section, which is the actual physical testing the product undergoes in order to determine compliance. Essentially, products are filled with water and left for specific periods of time and then collected for analysis. These water samples are analyzed according to the test battery established through the formulation review. All analytes are then verified to ensure that they are at or below allowable established levels. If a contaminant extracts that is not at or below allowable levels, that contaminant will undergo extensive research by toxicologists to determine a safe level for human consumption. If a safe level cannot be established, the product would not be considered for certification.
The second set of criteria these standards establish has to do with the structural integrity of products that are plumbed in. For each cooler that is actually plumbed into a water source, a series of very stringent tests are conducted in order to verify that the product will maintain its integrity under pressure, including periodic surges. For one of the tests, systems are subjected to up to 100,000 cycles of pressure from zero to 150 psi in a matter of seconds for each cycle. In another test, they are required to hold a pressure for 15 minutes, equal to that of three times the maximum pressure they are rated for. These tests provide assurance that when these products are used in the home, there is little to no concern that they will leak and/or crack under pressure.
The final section all of the above standards is a literature section. Companies that produce certified products must also produce literature that meets a specific, standard set of criteria. The literature requirements ensure that consumers are made fully aware of a system’s capabilities with relation to how it was evaluated according to the testing requirements within the standard.
Beyond that, there are other certifications applicable to water coolers. Some water coolers may be certified to NSF/ANSI 61, which means the product has been evaluated solely to ensure that the materials the product is made of are safe. The two steps mentioned above regarding materials safety are the same under NSF/ASNI 61. Toxicological reviews and testing are both completed to evaluate the safety of the coolers themselves.
Is there more?
Is certification really as simple as testing products according to a standard? Absolutely not. Anyone could create a mark and call a product certified. When looking for a certified product, it is important to make sure that the product is certified by a reputable agency, which can be verified by ensuring that the certification body issuing the mark has obtained an accredited status for the certifications they are providing. In the US, the most common (but not only) accreditation agency is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
The company that manufactures a certified product is required to adhere to many other strict requirements and policies, not only to obtain the certification but to maintain it. For example, each location at which certified products are manufactured must be audited annually. This inspection includes reviewing quality-control procedures over manufacturing processes to ensure that each and every product manufactured is the same, all the way down to maintaining a process to handle incoming complaints.
Few people understand the significance of the Gold Seal label but a little research will inform them of the intense efforts by the manufacturer to ensure they always have a safe and reliable supply of drinking water. Times may have changed and employees may not gather around the venerated water cooler as much, but the quality of the equipment and the availability of high-quality water for homes and businesses are further assured by that often-overlooked Gold Seal.
About the author
Tina Donda, CWS-VI, Product Certification Supervisor for the Water Quality Association’s Gold Seal Program, joined WQA’s team in 2001. She is dedicated to developing the program’s recognition and establishing the most reliable and customer-friendly certification program available.
About the company
The Water Quality Association is an international not-for-profit trade association representing retailers, dealers, manufacturers and suppliers in the residential, commercial and industrial water treatment industry. WQA’s Product Certification Program is an accredited certification body that offers product testing and certification according to industry standards. The Gold Seal Program has been accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) to ensure that the certification program meets regulatory needs and requirements in order to sell or distribute products throughout North America. The Gold Seal gives a company’s product an edge against competitors and provides proof to consumers that their product is as effective as they claim.