Bacteria contamination in 5-gallon dispensers

To start with, this is in no way condemning the use of 5-gallon water dispensers.  We know that some offices are unable to install a Point-of-use water dispenser.  Whilst we would love every office in Dubai to have a plastic free water solution, we know it is simply not possible due to the lack of water connections in some office blocks.

For those of you who have never heard of us before, we help organisations implement plastic free drinking water solutions into their offices.  We install a little dispenser that connects and filters the main supply water, thus doing away with all plastic bottles.  After EVERY install, we have an independent laboratory come and take a water sample and we receive a complete biological and chemical composition certificate for that sample.  

We recently installed machines at a new clients office, as we do most weeks.  During the initial meetings it was agreed that to help the employees embrace the change from plastic bottled water to plastic free and to help with the psychological aspects of drinking filter tap water, the lab would not only take a sample from our machines but also a comparison sample from one of their existing 5 Gallon dispensers that they had been using for years.

All samples were taken in line with international water sampling standards; the technician (wearing a freshly ironed white lab coat, face mask as well as sterile gloves) cleans the outside of the machines with an ethanol sanitising mix.  The technician then flushes approximately 4 litres of water from the machines to avoid any contamination at the point of dispensing.  The water sample is dispensed into sterile bottles and then kept in a cooler box for transportation to the lab.

Fast forward a week as we receive a phone call from the lab which I personally will not forget. To get to the point (and to keep this blog as short as possible...attention span etc.), the results from the Sprudel machines were, as usual, pristine.  However, the samples from the 5 gallon dispenser came back with a bacteria count that was off the chart and way above the allowable levels.  The Total Bacteria Count is one of the key indicators in the field of hygiene management. It indicates how many microorganisms are present in a sample. Monitoring the total bacteria count is necessary, because the number of microorganisms shouldn’t exceed certain guide values.  To get geeky once again, the Total Bacteria Count has a limit set from the Gulf Standard Organisation, based on World Health Organisation guidelines and that limit is 500CFU/ml (colony-forming units per milliliter)The results came back with 650CFU/ml, and therefore the office's supply from the 5-gallon dispenser did not meet the requirements of healthy drinking water.

Another test which is conducted is for Pseudomonas aeruginosa.  The standard dictates there should be Zero CFU/100ml (colony-forming units per one hundred milliliter) the result came back with 750CFU/100ml.  You may read from various sources that this of type bacteria is not harmful and it is in fact found in a lot of food items.  You may also read that this type of bacteria can cause infection in some groups of people.  We'll leave that up to you to decide.

The results certainly surprised our client because they had been using this dispenser for quite some time.  It surprised many of the employees who, at the time of machine installation, were quite adamant that we were going to poison them with filtered tap water and stated they would complain to the management to keep the existing dispensers for them (and no, we did not take pleasure in telling them).  But is it that surprising when you think about it?  How often do you see a 5-gallon dispenser being cleaned?  How often do you see anyone taking water samples and presenting a certificate to show you exactly what is in the water?  We, on the other hand, are data-driven.  We test the water of EVERY machine we install and do so many times.  We change filters regularly.  We disinfect our machines regularly.  We service our machines according to the manufacturer guidelines.  We do everything in-house (except the lab testing.  What kind of a company would do their own water testing?!  That MUST be done independently for complete transparency.  If a company tells you they test the water themselves, you should seriously question the rigor of their processes and service..... I digress).  Compare that to your average 5 Gallon dispenser.  Just saying.

The question 'Is this the fault of the machine or the water supplier?' is a valid one and one that we cannot answer.  We can only provide you with the facts and data that we have gathered from this one-off test.  We know that most 5-gallon water companies offer a sanitising service in the booklet of coupons that consumers buy.  We can't emphasise this enough, but USE THAT SERVICE!  For double peace of mind, get your water checked by a laboratory for bacteria.  It really is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to this!

We were conflicted as to whether or not we should write this blog but we feel it is our duty to let people know what we have found.  What you do with this information is entirely up to you. As we said at the start, we are not out to attack nor defend 5 gallon bottles or water companies in general.  We are just here to educate. 

If you want to test your water dispensers, get in touch.  We can give you the contact of the laboratory we use.  That way you know exactly the quality of water you are drinking.  If you want to go plastic free, get in touch too.  We can have you plastic free, supported by data and certification in no time!  It really is as easy as it sounds.

PS. If you were wondering, the tests from our machines came back (touch wood, as always) with Zero bacteria counts. Yay!