A Better Vintage of Tap Water (© SuperStock)

The war for your tap — and shower, ice maker and water bottle — is on.

Manufacturers are pitching a bevy of new products that filter water in the home, promising to deliver everything from safer sipping and bathing to more youthful skin.

Shower filters touting "softer skin & hair in 1 week" are now the biggest seller for Fort Worth, Texas-based Sun Water Systems Inc.'s Aquasana brand.

Wellness Enterprises LLC, Gainesville, Fla., launched last summer a portable water bottle with a filter built into the straw that claims to remove chlorine and lead, among other things.

Atmospheric Water Systems Inc. of San Luis Obispo, Calif., recently introduced a $1,595 dehumidifier/purification unit that bypasses water pipes altogether, pulling moisture from the air and sending it through a multistep filtration process to produce drinking water.

The economic downturn has whetted consumers' appetite for tap water. The average per capita consumption of bottled water slipped an estimated 3.5% last year from 2008, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp. "What turned the tide for us was the huge negative PR effort behind bottled water from a green standpoint, and then the economy hit the skids and people were looking for a way to save money," says Doug Kellam, chief executive of Zero Technologies LLC. His company makes a pitcher that promises to remove 100% of detectable dissolved solids (minerals, salts, metals) and comes with a meter to prove it.



According to a Gallup poll released last year, pollution of drinking water is Americans' No. 1 environmental concern. Many express worries about the risk of diseases, including cancer, that can be associated with contaminants such as arsenic, chlorine and pharmaceuticals sometimes found in drinking water.

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Shopping for a treatment system can be confusing. Different systems tackle different contaminants at different spots in the house, from whole-house filters that clean water when it enters the home to "point-of-use" devices such as shower, pitcher and faucet filters. Treatment technology differs, too. Carbon filters are most common, typically reducing chlorine and improving taste and odor while sometimes removing things such as mercury, copper and lead. Other systems employ reverse osmosis, which uses a semi-permeable membrane to strip out some contaminants not necessarily caught by carbon. Ultraviolet-light treatment helps keep bacteria from reproducing. Sediment filters typically catch larger particles like sand, dirt and rust.

"Consumers are looking to have simple answers to a complex category," says Tom Bruursema, manager for drinking-water treatment systems with NSF International Inc., a not-for-profit organization that certifies the claims of water-treatment products. Other certification bodies include the Water Quality Association and Underwriters Laboratories Inc.

For its part, the bottled-water industry isn't buying the filtration industry's marketing line. The International Bottled Water Association released an analysis recently saying that the average single-serve plastic water bottle has slimmed down by nearly 33% over the past eight years. "When coupled with bottled water's safety, convenience and healthfulness, the 'total bottled water package' is one consumers can feel proud about,"said Joseph Doss, the association's chief executive.

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Nevertheless, sales of home water-filtration products are forecast to grow about 18% between this year and 2013, to $2.91 billion annually from $2.47 billion, according to market-research firm Mintel International Group Ltd. At waterfilters.net, which sells a range of filter products from well-known brands such as Culligan, GE and Pentek, sales climbed to $5.5 million last year from $3.7 million in 2008.

New designs are one factor. New York-based Green Depot sells the $650 Aquaovo Ovopur, a filtered dispenser resembling a giant porcelain egg, while Design Within Reach markets a slender $85 glass vessel with stones from the Sea of Japan coast and Binchotan charcoal for "odor-free water." Wellness makes a $30 wand for chlorine removal on-the-go. Even mass-market players are thirsting for their share: Procter & Gamble Co.'s Pur brand is rolling out a faucet-mount filter boasting one-click installation. And Clorox Co.'s Brita brand is adding Bella to its lineup — a sleek pitcher it says is "fit to put on the dinner table for guests."

Still, the filter industry faces marketing hurdles. First, there's the cost of replacements (and the bother of remembering to buy them) as well as the environmental question of what happens to old cartridges. Brita and Zero Technologies both offer filter recycling programs but consumer participation is small.