Best reverse osmosis systems

Compare cost and filtration stages to find the right RO system for you

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    Reverse osmosis (RO) is a type of water filtration system that forces water through a thin, semipermeable membrane or filter to remove impurities. In homes with RO water systems, water is pumped through the filter and separated from dissolved salts and other impurities.

    The RO system blocks contaminants, ultimately flushing them down the drain, and stores filtered water for the future. The result is highly purified water available for drinking, cooking and other uses in your home.

    Key insights

    • Reverse osmosis systems separate pollutants and salts from your drinking water.
    • Generally, there are four steps to reverse osmosis: pre-filtration, reverse osmosis, drainage and storage.
    • A reverse osmosis system can remove up to 99.99% of pollutants from your water.

    How does reverse osmosis work?

    In an RO system, a high-pressure pump is used to force water molecules through a reverse osmosis filter, also known as an RO membrane.

    As water moves across the RO membrane, it’s divided into two streams: One carries the filtered water to your tap, and the other carries rejected pollutants and salts to the drain. The process is not unlike larger, state-of-the-art reverse osmosis desalination plants, which turn seawater into drinking water.

    Brands may vary, but generally all RO water systems perform pre-filtration, reverse osmosis, drainage and storage.

    1. Pre-filtration

    When water first enters an RO system, it goes through pre-filtration to get rid of sediment, contaminants and other particles that can cause bad taste and odor. It passes a particle filter, removing impurities like salt and sand, and an activated carbon filter, which traps and removes minerals, pesticides and chemicals like chlorine, mercury and copper.

    2. Reverse osmosis

    After pre-filtration, the water undergoes reverse osmosis, where it’s forced through the semipermeable RO membrane. Here, particles even too small to be seen with an electron microscope are trapped and removed, allowing only filtered water to pass through.

    3. Drainage

    Removed contaminants are flushed away in the final discharge stage, with all rejected impurities carried down the drain. Because these pollutants are carried away with the brine water that initially comes into the system, they’re unable to clog the RO membrane.

    4. Storage

    Meanwhile, filtered water flows to a storage tank, where it’s held until needed. Before it reaches a faucet, it undergoes a final activated carbon filtration to improve taste and quality for household use.

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    What does reverse osmosis remove?

    Depending on the quality of your initial water source, whether it be an onsite well or municipal water line, an RO system is capable of removing up to 99.99% of the contaminants in your water.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reverse osmosis systems are highly effective in removing protozoa, bacteria, viruses and common chemical contaminants like sodium, chloride, chromium and lead. They may also reduce arsenic, fluoride, radium and sulfate, among other pollutants.

    Contaminants removed by reverse osmosis

    • Arsenic: 95%
    • Aluminum: 97%
    • Barium: 95%
    • Bicarbonate: 95%
    • Cadmium: 97%
    • Calcium: 97%
    • Chloride: 94%
    • Chromium: 97%
    • Copper: 98%
    • Fluoride: 95%
    • Iron: 98%
    • Lead: 97%
    • Magnesium: 97%
    • Manganese: 97%
    • Mercury: 97%
    • Nitrate: 95%
    • Potassium: 92%
    • Radium: 97%
    • Selenium: 97%
    • Silver: 96%
    • Sodium: 95%
    • Sulfate: 95%
    • Zinc: 98%
    • 2,4-D Pesticides: 95%
    • Protozoa: 99%
    • Asbestos: 99%
    • Trihalomethane (THM): 98%

    How much is a reverse osmosis system?

    Commercial-grade varieties of whole RO systems average $10,000 or more. Self-installed, under-sink models range from $150 to $400 on the low end or $500 to $750 on the high end as of publishing.

    As of publishing, you can expect to spend a few hundred dollars for an under-sink RO system.

    The specific reverse osmosis system price will depend on the sophistication of the unit; those with multiple stages of purification cost more. If the system contains an additional UV treatment feature or adds minerals back into the filtered water, it could be over $1,000 for a home unit. Units that must be professionally installed and maintained cost thousands of dollars.

    Reverse osmosis pros and cons

    RO systems are great for removing harmful pollutants from your water, but there are some downsides.

    Reverse osmosis benefits

    A reverse osmosis system’s ability to remove lead, sodium and other contaminants make it extremely useful to individuals with weakened immune systems, high blood pressure and kidney or liver disease.

    • Provides clean water: RO technology can remove 95% to 99% of total dissolved solids (TDS) from source water, as well as chlorine, fluoride and other impurities, greatly reducing odor and improving taste.
    • Uses little to no energy: Because they use the water pressure already coming into the house, reverse osmosis systems require little to no energy to function.
    • Easy to maintain: Depending on use and water quality, most filters need to be replaced once every six to 12 months, while semipermeable membranes can last two to three years. Beyond that, an RO system usually requires only annual cleaning and sterilization and has a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years.

    Reverse osmosis disadvantages

    A RO system’s capacity to clean can also be a detriment because water filtered through reverse osmosis is stripped of body-nourishing vitamins and minerals.

    • Purification leaves water "dead": Since the process doesn’t discriminate, good stuff is filtered out along with the bad, leaving the water pure but also “dead,” according to critics, who say it contributes to vitamin and mineral deficiencies in users.
    • Process is slow: Because reverse osmosis uses household water pressure to push water through the RO membrane, the process takes time. If you need a lot of filtered water quickly and empty the system’s holding at once, it’ll take time to refill the holding tank.
    • Creates large amount of wastewater: A large portion of the water that runs through the system is rejected and sent down the drain, which doesn’t bode well for the environment. Water bills may also increase as a result.

    » MORE: How to save energy at home

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      Can you drink reverse osmosis water?

      Water treated with reverse osmosis is drinkable. In areas where water has been chemically compromised, reverse osmosis systems can help remove contaminants and make it safe to drink. For example, the U.S. military has used the process to transform saltwater into freshwater for troops.

      Do reverse osmosis systems remove vitamins in water?

      Reverse osmosis technology doesn’t differentiate between bad substances and good ones, so nutrients the body needs wind up being eliminated along with all undesirable substances. If you drink reverse osmosis water, couple it with a diet rich in vitamins and minerals in order to avoid deficiency.

      How long does reverse osmosis take?

      The reverse osmosis filtration process can take as long as 4 hours.

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