It's not known exactly when people started gathering around the workplace water cooler to exchange gossip, but an educated guess is not too long after the water cooler was invented by Halsey Willard Taylor and Luther Haws in 1906. At the time, one of the leading causes of sickness, even death, was contaminated water. It was the death of Haws' father due to drinking water contaminated by typhoid that became the impetus for his invention, the "purified water dispenser," or water cooler.
Today, we expect our tap water to be safe – to look clean, and to taste fresh. The National Resources Defense Council reports that "one in three gastrointestinal illnesses - often chalked up to stomach flu - [is] caused by drinking water contaminated with microorganisms." So if you're thinking of providing water to your employees, it's important to ensure the water is safe and sanitized.
Here are some systems to consider for your company:
Bottled Workplace Water Systems
Many offices stock individual bottles of water and workers continue to literally drink them up. The advantages of a bottled water system are that you buy what you need when you need it; there is no machinery to break down or to clean, so it's easy.
However, there are many disadvantages to a bottled water system for the office or workplace. First is the expense. Bottled water will set you back about 50% more than 5-gallon container water. The bottle costs more than the water in it. The second problem is the weight. A 24-pack of bottled water weighs about 24 lbs. It can get tiring lugging that to the car, to the workplace, to the storage area and to the break area. A 5-gallon jug weighs over 40 pounds, but they're usually delivered to your workplace storage area for you.
Perhaps the main reason to avoid using a bottled workplace water system is the damaging environmental impact. According to a report by The Pacific Institute:
"Bottled water production also consumes water itself: to produce one liter of bottled water, one must use up to three liters of tap water... [F]rom start to finish bottled water consumes between 1100 and 2000 times more energy than tap water... [S]ixty million plastic bottles end up in American landfills daily... [L]ess than five percent of [plastic bottles are] recycled... Producing the bottles for American consumption requires the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil, not including the energy for transportation."
Given that plastic water bottles are expensive, heavy, result in waste and may be seen as contrary to a company's commitment to "green" principles, the two best choices for workplace water solutions are:
- Jugged Workplace Water System
- Filtered Workplace Water System
Jugged Workplace Water Systems
Jugged is most common type of water system found in the workplace and is probably the type of water system that comes to most people's minds when they think of a workplace water cooler. It's a large jug, usually 5 gallons in size (although smaller 3-gallon and 2-gallon jugs may be an option for small spaces), that sits upon either a floor stand or a counter stand.
The floor stand takes up about one square foot of floor space. Counter stands are more suitable for small kitchens and break rooms. They are both usually available in white or black plastic, with optional stainless steel and aluminum models available as an upgrade. Floor-standing models are larger and therefore more expensive than countertops.
Jugged water coolers depend on gravity for the water to travel from the jug to a dispensing spigot, although usually there is a compressor to cool the water and an electric heating element to warm it. Most workplace water dispensers have two dispensing levers: one for cold water, the other for hot water. Some models offer a third lever to dispense room-temperature water. Water coolers with compressors to chill the water can be noisy and may not be suited to workplaces where noise is a problem.
Typically a dispenser of small disposable paper or Styrofoam cups is provided for individual use. However, many companies encourage employees to use their own cups to cut down on the creation of waste.
One 5-gallon jug is equal to about 38 single-serve (16.9 oz.) plastic bottles and weighs about 42 pounds. A big disadvantage of the jug system is handling those heavy 5-gallon containers. In some cases, workplace water companies will not only deliver the water but replace near-empty jugs with full ones. The empty or near-empty jug is lifted off the stand, automatically sealing itself to prevent leakage. A full jug is then placed on the stand, and the seal is opened to allow the water to flow.
Jugs are usually filled with natural spring water, although most services offer the additional options of distilled, demineralized, or fluoridated.
The water cooler service sets up the initial installation and then schedules regular delivery to pick up empty jugs and replace them with filled jugs. Used jugs are cleaned and sanitized before they are refilled. Jugs are usually retired after about 50 uses and recycled.
Filtered Workplace Water Systems
Filtered water systems literally tap into your regular water system and filter your own water. This eliminates the need for jugs, although most filtered water systems still feature a receptacle for filtered water that sits on your countertop or stands on the floor.
The filters remove impurities from municipal or well water and must be changed regularly. The filter typically is a carbon cartridge that traps minerals and other contaminants. It will only work for so long before becoming overloaded and ceasing to remove contaminants.
A filtered water system can also slow the rate of flow as the water is processed through the filter. Some models contain more than one filter for extra purification and there are also optional "specialty" filters designed to protect against specific contaminants such as perchlorate and VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
Like jugged water coolers, filtered water cooler stands usually offer a choice of cold and hot water. Stands are usually black-and-white plastic, with stainless steel as an upgrade option. Floor-standing models are usually more expensive than countertops.
You can install a workplace water filtration system yourself, using systems such as Pur or Britta that attach to the spigot and purify on demand. However, the cost-per-gallon for this kind of system is quite high, compared with the cost of using a workplace water service. And the quality depends on frequently replacing the filters, something a service supplier can usually do for you.
Workplace water service companies hook the water filtration unit up to your water line, schedule regular replacement of the filters, and schedule periodic maintenance and sanitation of the unit. There may be rent-to-purchase agreements as well as outright purchase agreements available.