Choosing the Right Water Filter

By Carolyn Shearlock, copyright 2011 . All rights reserved.

Choosing the right water filter for your application can be a daunting task.  What are the differences between various types?  Does it really matter if I’ve got the right microns?

I’ve looked all over — in stores and on the internet — and never been able to find much in the way of a “which filter is right for me?” guide.  The longer we cruised, and used filters for various purposes, the more I had to learn about the topic.  The following summarizes what I know, but always check manufacturer documentation if using a filter as part of another system, such as a watermaker — I can give some general guidelines below, but your system may have specific requirements.

Water filters — called “cartridges” by manufacturers — have 3 basic differences from one to another:

  • Size. Obviously, you need the right size to fit your housing.  The standard size used in most housings is called 10″ by 2-1/2″ diameter.  Note that although it’s called 10″ long, the filters are actually about 9-3/4.”  While many other sizes are available, this is the size that I discuss in my article on water filtration systems and in this article.
  • Type. Six types of filters are commonly found:  pleated paper, string wound, polyspun, carbon wrapped/impregnated, granular carbon and carbon block.  More on these below — the various types do look different, which can help if they are labeled in a language that you’re not totally fluent in.
  • Micron rating. Filters all have a micron rating on the label.  The smaller the number, the finer the filtration.  I’ve seen them as large as 40 microns, but 20, 10 and 5 are far more common.  The smallest I’ve seen is 0.5 microns.  Finer filtration can slow down water flow, but that is usually more of a problem in houses (where people expect greater flow) than in boats.

You really don’t have a choice on the size, so I’ll look at the various types and the micron ratings.  Prices that I list are for buying online in the US or in big-box stores.  In other locations, prices can vary considerably!

One online source that has pretty good prices is DiscountFilters.com, which graciously allowed me to use their images of the various filter types.

Dirt and Sediment Filters

Image of pleated filter

Photo courtesy of DiscountFilters.com

Pleated filters. Pleated filters only filter dirt and sediment from the water.  They do nothing to improve taste or remove chlorine or microorganisms. They are fairly inexpensive, generally costing less than $5 each.

Pleated filters come in two varieties: pleated paper and pleated polyester.  The paper are generally the cheapest but can deteriorate quickly, while the polyester are far more bacteria- and chemical-resistant.

Pleated filters are most often used as a prefilter for the salt water intake on watermakers.  Most people don’t use them in drinking water systems.

Most watermaker companies recommend a 5 micron pleated polyester filter as a prefilter, but you should check the specs for your particular system.  Many cruisers try to rinse these and reuse them, with varying success.

Image of string wound filter

Photo courtesy of DiscountFilters.com

String wound. String wound filters look just like they sound — a bunch of string wound around.  As with the pleated filters, these are for dirt and sediment only and are used almost exclusively for watermaker prefilters.

Many of these now have dual filtration levels, with water passing first through a larger micron level to get the larger particles, then a smaller level.  The theory is that the filter will last longer before it gets plugged up.

String wound filters are relatively inexpensive, often under $5 but $7 or $8 for the dual-layer ones.  They cannot be rinsed and reused.

Image of polyspun filter

Photo courtesy of DiscountFilters.com

Polyspun filters. Polyspun filters are the third style of dirt and sediment filters. I’ve found several reviews stating that polyspun filters seem to last slightly longer than string wound, and may be slightly cheaper.  Again, they cannot be rinsed and reused.

Our Experience: We used all three of the above types for our watermaker prefilter, depending on what was available where we were.  Focus more on getting the correct micron rating for your application and don’t worry which of these types you’re getting.

All of them work well for dirt, sediment and rust; none will improve taste, remove chlorine or filter bacteria or other microorganisms.

Carbon Filters

Then we come to the three types of carbon filters:  carbon-wrapped/impregnated, granulated carbon and carbon block.  All three will improve taste and remove chlorine, but they do have important differences in how well they do it and what else they do.

These are generally used in drinking water systems and sometimes as part of a watermaker fresh water flush system (to remove chlorine if you use bleach in your water tanks).

Carbon wrapped filter Carbon wrapped or impregnated. These are generally the cheapest of the carbon filters.  They are also the type of carbon filter that is easiest to find.  If you are simply seeking to improve the taste of your water, most will work fine.

However, it’s important to note that they REDUCE the chlorine in the water, they do not totally eliminate it.  Do not use these in any application — such as the freshwater flush system of a watermaker — where total removal of chlorine is needed.  Any amount of chlorine will damage a watermaker membrane.

Generally, these are polyspun or, less often, pleated filters that have a covering of carbon.  Most often, they are offer filtration levels of 2 to 20 microns.  I’ve never seen one that is fine enough to remove bacteria or other microorganisms.  If you just want something that will remove most dirt and chlorine from your drinking water, these will work.  They typically cost just under $10.

Granulated charcoal filter

Photo courtesy of DiscountFilters.com

Granulated Charcoal. The big thing to know about granulated charcoal filters is that they do little to filter sediment from the water.  Further, they do not come in fine enough filtering to remove giardia.  They are easy to identify as they have a solid plastic outer casing.

Granulated charcoal filters are reasonably good at removing chlorine, volatile organic compunds, pesticides and many other man-made substances. They typically come in 2 to 20 micron filtration levels.

The best use for granulated charcoal filters is simply to remove bad taste from drinking water.  Like the charcoal wrapped filters, they do not sufficiently remove chlorine to use on a freshwater flush system with a watermaker if you use bleach in your tanks (or if you alternate watermaker water with city water that could contain chlorine).

Granulated carbon filter typically cost $10 to $12.

Carbon block filter

Photo courtesy of DiscountFilters.com

Carbon block filters. The most all-encompassing filters are carbon block filters, but that doesn’t mean that just any carbon block filter will do.

Only the finest 0.5 micron carbon block filters will remove giardia and cryptosporidium, both of which can cause severe diarrhea.  The 0.5 micron carbon block filter is also virtually 100% effective in removing chlorine, and is what most watermaker manufacturers recommend on their freshwater flush systems to ensure that no chlorine reaches the membrane.

Our boat came with a Seagull filter for our drinking and cooking water, and they use a proprietary filter cartridge.  However, if we’d had to install a filter ourselves, the 0.5 micron carbon block filter is what we would have used for our drinking water.

A carbon block filter’s effectiveness at removing sediment is dependent upon the micron rating of the filter, although water with visible dirt and sediment will quickly foul the highest quality carbon block filters.  Carbon block filters can remove small quantities of heavy metals, but they can’t cope with high concentrations and shouldn’t be relied upon for that.

Carbon block filters can be made from any of several materials; coconut shell carbon is the best, but also costs a little more.  A 0.5 micron carbon block filter will cost $18 to $20 (some brands more).

While sediment-only filters can simply be changed when the flow rate has noticeably lessened, carbon filters will lose their full effectiveness long before taste is affected.  If you are using a very fine carbon block filter, be sure to change it according to the manufacturer’s directions in order to get the full benefit.

One final note:  we could never be certain of finding the really good carbon block filters in Mexico and Central America, and would buy them on trips back to the US and take them back in our luggage.  Since I could never be certain of finding them in local stores, so I simply resorted to buying them online.    Try DiscountFilters.com.

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Comments

  1. I use a .1 micron on my house with a 20″ filter. I was surprised at the high flow rate. I precede this with a sediment filter and after it with an iron reduction filter. I live in the swamps of the Chesapeake Bay.

  2. Thank you for the info, learned something new.

  3. Randy Price on Facebook says:

    Great read. We use a 4 stage system after a standard strainer – 5 micron, 1 micron, solid block carbon, followed and polished off by a UV light. Hasn’t let us down yet.

  4. Thank you for this very informative post. I found it very helpful in selecting which filters to purchase. Ryan, East Hawaii

  5. How long on average does a filter last?

    • It really depends on the size (microns), the water quality, and how much water you put through it. Putting a large volume of somewhat dirty water through a very fine filter will cause it to plug up much more quickly than half as much clean water going through a coarse filter. Typically, they’d last about 3 months for us . . . but whenever we were heading to out of the way places, we’d assume they’d only last a month and stock up. The non-charcoal filters will slowly allow less and less water through, and you can simply change them when it gets unacceptably low. The charcoal filters will usually be labeled with how often to change them.

      • Stu Meisner says:

        Can a hand pump such as a small fynspray be used with a system with fine filters one could buy at a plumbing supply. In your initial article you said that these plumbing supply systems could be used with a foot pump, but does that include both a hand pump and fine filters ?
        Stu

        • I haven’t personally tried it. A lot will depend on how much “suck” the pump can develop — a foot pump is pushing the water through the filter, which is much more efficient than a hand pump, which by its very nature, is right at the outlet and hence trying to suck the water through the filter. I’d check with the manufacturer of the hand pump if it’s critical.

  6. Thanks, Carolyn! Do you have an article on watermakers? I would like to know how we should be testing our water, what ppm is typical and acceptable, and how to tell if the membrane is still good.

    • Hi June! That’s one topic that I haven’t written about, partially because there is such variety between systems. Most systems have some way to divert a bit of product water into a glass and then you can use a tester like this one (this is the one we had and many other boats did too, costs under $20) — there’s a sticker on the back of it to tell you what acceptable tds (total dissolved solids) levels are.

      Membranes will fail in one of two ways — either plug up so that the output just gets lower and lower, or be “destroyed” so that it’s not doing as good a job and the tds level will get higher and higher until it’s unacceptable.

  7. Blue96bird says:

    Thanks for the info!! You’re right. This is about the only site with a good write-up.

  8. which carbon block filter from discount filters would you recommend? (general drinking cooking use)

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