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One of our most used and enjoyed off-grid systems is our Big Berkey water purifier. How do we use it from day to day and how do we like it? Here’s what we’ve discovered after
one yearfour years of using our Big Berkey off the grid.
Update October 2021: The Berkey is still going strong in our house! We keep it clean as recommended in the user manual, but it’s otherwise a very low maintenance item and it’s performing just as strong as ever. Continue below for our detailed review.
Several years back, my husband and I were working on the plans for our off-grid cordwood home. As we looked at our building site and started figuring out what systems we might have in place for power and water, it became clear that we were too far from the road to reasonably connect to grid water.
Instead, we opted for rainwater catchment with a cistern. Obviously, the rainwater doesn’t come in pure and clean. Even if you put in preventative measures, like first flush diverters, the water that gets to the cistern is often full of stuff you wouldn’t want to drink. Think dirt, dead bugs, bird droppings, and the microorganisms that accompany all that. We have a two-stage particulate filter that removes the dirt and such from the water as it enters the house, but what about the microorganisms that make it past the filter?
For that, we ultimately purchased a Big Berkey water purification system and LOVE it! We joke that it’s like the fourth member of our family. In this post, I’m going to show you exactly what it is, how our family uses it, what we DON’T like, and the info you need to decide if it’s right for your family.
What is a Berkey Water Filter?
Berkey Filters are gravity filters, meaning they use the force of gravity to feed water through the filter from the top chamber to the bottom chamber. There are no moving parts or electricity required, so it’s perfect for off-grid applications like ours.
All of the models except for the Berkey Light are stainless steel construction (double bonus of less plastic AND sturdiness).
What is it capable of filtering?
We’ve found that our Big Berkey with two of the regular black filters will process about 2 gallons in 1-2 hours. According to their website, the black filters are capable of removing “99.9999999% of pathogenic bacteria (log 9 reduction) and 99.999% of viruses”.
You can read more about their specs here, but the quick version is that they remove:
- Viruses: Removed to >99.999% (Log 5) MS2 Coliphage – FR Coliphage
- Pathogenic Bacteria (And Surrogates): Removed to >99.9999%
- Trihalomethanes: Removed to >99.8%
- Inorganic Minerals Chloramine; Chloride; Chlorine Residual (Total Residual Chlorine); Free Chlorine
- Heavy Metals (High & Low pH Levels) (see complete list)
- Micro-Organisms: Removed to >99.9% Including: Total Coliform, Fecal Coliform, e.Coli
- Pharmaceutical Drug Contaminants: Removed to >99.9% (see complete list)
- Pesticides & Volatile Organic Compounds: Removed to Below Lab Detectable Limits
And YES, since I’m asked a lot, it DOES REMOVE THE EGG SMELL if you have sulfur in your water.
It removes a TON of other compounds that are too lengthy to list here. Note also that it leaves in the beneficial minerals that your body needs to function properly. You can read their complete specs and see independent lab results here.
Note: We don’t have fluoride filters since our water has no fluoride in it. You can add separate fluoride filters to your system if you desire.
Why We Chose the Big Berkey
Like I said, we have a cistern with rainwater catchment. When we first moved in, it became pretty obvious that we’d need to have some source of fresh drinking water and that our cistern water had a serious potential to make us sick. With a small child in the house, I didn’t want to chance it.
BUT I also hate spending money. So as I was walking around a big box store one day I saw the Pur MaxION. I looked it up and it said it was supposed to remove microbial cysts, and since it was only $25 I gave it a shot. Wow was that a mistake.
In theory, the Pur should be fine for municipal water, but when you’re dependent on a filter to make your cistern or well water safe its performance is extra important. I didn’t have any real guarantees that it would remove the smaller pathogens I was worried about, and usually boiled my water just to be safe.
Beyond that, it filtered SOOOOOO SLOWLY. I could fill it at night and it would only have filtered a few cups by morning. A cursory search showed this to be a common issue because the top chamber would seal itself shut. I couldn’t guarantee I’d have enough fresh drinking water on demand to meet our needs, so I ended up supplementing with gallons of bottled water from the grocery store. If you’ve followed me at all, you know how much I HATE PLASTIC, so this was a purchase I loathed making.
I knew there had to be something better, so I researched.
There are several different options out there, including the Propure Big and Alexapure Pro. I even looked to see if I could rig up a LifeStraw Family filter for kitchen use, but ultimately chose the Big Berkey because:
- It has a lifetime warranty.
- Two-year warranty on the black filter elements
- Stainless steel construction
- Minimal plastic components
- A long track record of success in the off-grid community
- Awesome customer service…seriously some of the nicest people I’ve ever dealt with!
The Big Berkey also has a good capacity for us as a family of 3. Even if we have guests over, it’s not too hard to filter several pitchers of water to have on hand since it filters so quickly compared to any of the store-bought filters we’ve had over the years.
There is a pretty wide variety of sizes to choose from, which accommodate different size households or usage situations (i.e. it’s in a B&B, faculty lounge, emergency center, etc.). Read this post to learn how to choose the right size Berkey for you.
How is a Berkey better or different from those filters you get at the grocery store?
For starters, the little Brita or Pur filters you get at the store don’t remove harmful pathogens, nor do they completely remove many of the herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and other harmful contaminants (ex: LEAD) that the Berkey does. Store filters can reduce them but not eliminate them. You can get all of the info and see various side-by-side comparisons via this page. Because the Berkey can remove these contaminants it’s considered a water purifier and not just a filter.
Not only are the Berkey filters better at removing contaminants, but they also cost WAY less than store filters.
Sure, it costs more upfront to buy a Berkey system, but when you run the numbers the lifetime savings are staggeringly obvious. Let’s compare:
And $900 is on the LOW end of prices, considering what I usually see 3-packs of plastic filters going for at the grocery store or on Amazon. Paying 9 times the money for vastly inferior water and way more plastic waste? No thanks.
How Our Family Uses the Big Berkey
Our household consists of myself, my husband, and our young son. Since we live off the grid, our water comes out of our concrete cistern that collects rainwater from our metal roof. We typically refill our Berkey each night before going to bed and wake up to 2.5 gallons of fresh filtered water. The water is ready to drink and doesn’t require additional boiling to get rid of any pathogens that might be lurking.
During the fall, winter, and spring, the capacity of the Big Berkey is more than enough for our daily drinking needs. We make coffee and tea with it every day and drink straight out of the Berkey for all other drinks. We don’t keep soft drinks around and rarely have juice, so it’s mostly water around here.
During the summer we drink a LOT of water, especially since our cordwood home doesn’t have air conditioning (Update 2021: we DO have A/C off the grid now!), so I’ll often refill it two or even three times in a single day if we’re home and drinking a lot of water.
Aside from drinking the water, we also keep a bottle of water in our bathroom for brushing teeth. Additionally, for a while, I kept a spare bottle of Berkey water/apple cider vinegar in the bathroom for rinsing my hair, since the cistern water made my hair feel kind of greasy no matter what I did. Berkey makes a filtering shower head but I haven’t tried it out yet. We’d actually used another shower filter for a time along with a water-saving head but took it off because it made the head too low for my husband to stand under it, plus the filter/head combo made the pressure so low that our on-demand water heater would turn off mid-shower. So I took it off. Perhaps I’ll try a Berkey shower head at some point but for now, a bottle of homemade hair rinse works just fine.
Is there anything we DON’T like about the Berkey?
Not much, really. The only thing to know is that it does require a bit more in terms of setup and upkeep, but don’t read that to mean it takes a lot of work. The most we really do is clean out the reservoirs every month and clean off the filters. Aside from that, if we go out of town for longer than 5 days we make sure to follow the instructions for storing, cleaning, and re-priming the Berkey black filter elements when we get back. FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS IN THE MANUAL AND YOU WILL BE FINE.
That’s it though! A bit more work than simply soaking one of those store filters in a glass of water before use, but nothing I’d call a detriment. Any kind of home system that is of higher quality will require a bit more thought than a cheap solution will. It’s totally worth it for us in an off-grid home.
Is a Berkey right for your family?
Maybe, maybe not. I’m obviously pretty in love with ours and will shout it from the rooftops, but that doesn’t make it right for all families.
If you have a reliable and safe source of city water, you’re probably okay with a standard filter or perhaps nothing at all.
BUT, if you fit any of the following:
- Have a questionable city water source
- Experience frequent boil water advisories
- Are in an area with known lead issues in the water
- Are on well water
- Have a cistern (even if you haul city water)
- Catch rainwater for consumption in the home
- Already use a store-bought filter pitcher or faucet mount and want to reduce costs
- Frequently spend money on bottled water in any quantity
- Want to have a source of safe water in a grid-down situation
Then I would HIGHLY suggest getting a Berkey filter for your home. The taste is amazing, the lifetime cost is outrageously low, and the security of having safe drinking water is completely worth the hype.
If you’re considering getting a Berkey for your family, read this post about how to choose the right size to get the best deal for your unique family.
Click the banner below to get an additional 5% system bundles. Bundles typically include your choice of stainless steel tumblers, water bottles, a stand for the unit, the stainless steel spigot, and/or other items depending on the deals that are happening. Depending on what you’re looking for, this can be a HUGE deal so check them out:
Additionally, I take time every year to analyze their holiday sales to break down the best deals (and tell you which ones you can skip). Check that out HERE.
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And if building your own off-grid homestead is on your bucket list, download this handy checklist to see how ready you might be to get started.