Water: Filters versus Tablets

21 July, 2011

Agua Mineral Natural
Creative Commons License photo credit: Gonmi
Everyone seem to get the fact that water is not just interesting, but kind of important. It’s a pretty Big Deal(tm). I won’t bother to enumerate out the reasons we need water, because even the most brain-dead plant is born knowing that we need water. We Need Water. If you’re reading this webpage, you probably enjoy a nice first-world life style and the availability of fresh, clean drinking water is something we all-but take for granted. The system that brings this water to us is limited and surprisingly fragile. Large and small scale emergencies can put you in a situation where clean drinking water is not available. With a little practice and some flexible thinking, you’ll find that you can often locate water wherever you are – but clean, safe to drink water? That’s another matter.

The camping and military industries have provided people like us with some great technologies for making dirty water into drinking water. For the most part these break down into two categories: Water treatment tools that make the unsafe safe (or at least, safer) and water purification or filtration that tries to remove the unsafe material from the water. Both have some advantages and disadvantages.
Here’s a common example item:

Iodine-based tablets can quickly and easily disinfect potentially contaminated water. They work by killing off the kinds of organisms that live in water that are hostile to humans. One tablet is, typically, good for about a quart of water. Different manufacturers use slightly different details, but the concept is roughly the same: Drop the chemical in the water, wait a short while, then drink-up.

  • No clean up – Unlike filters, there’s nothing to setup or tear down. The tablet dissovles and that’s the end of the story. 
  •  Dirty water is dirty water – While the organisms that kill are taken care of, muddy or other dirtied water is still dirty.
  •  Taste – Even otherwise pure water tastes positively dreadful after being hit by iodine. Some newer versions have agents to counter the taste, but they only work so-well.
  • Not for long term use – You can only use water treated this way for so long. A few days is one thing, but longer term is not recommended.
  • Measurements challenges – if you misjudge the quantity of water, you can use too much or too little disinfectant
This is the other option: filtration. There are simple “straw” type models like this or more complicated, heavier duty models. This operate by filtering out all of the impurities leaving only clean water behind. With a good quality filter, nothing gets through that you don’t want.

  • Cleans and purifies – Not only are the organisms removed, so are things like dirt and other non-biological contamenents.
  • No taste – Leaves not trace, so the flavor is quite good.
  • Easy – These straw-style models are terrifically easy to use.


  • Expensive – High end models can get very expensive very quickly.
  • Maintenance – Even simple models require a little setup and tear down. After use, a straw model like this is still a wet straw in your pack.
Both paths are pretty light and compact. Neither need to be terribly expensive, though the higher-end filtration systmes can be. I tend to favor the filters, because they can generally do everything the tablets can, and then some. Their ease of use and total cleaning capability make them my go-to-pick for clean water tools.

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