Water Distillation
Water Distillation
Water distillation is the process of boiling water into steam and then condensing the steam back into liquid water. It is the crown jewel of water purification. Even though carbon filter devices by far outsell them, distillers make the purest water. In fact, it is the only kind of water scientists use because they must be sure their water has nothing in it to influence their experiments.
Water distillation Effectively Removes: All bacteria and microorganisms including viruses; Soluble inorganic salts such as fluoride, sodium, nitrates; Organic chemicals like pesticides, PCBs, THMs; Radionuclide; Heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, etc.; Soluble minerals: calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, etc.

It can be argued that distillation is the most natural of all water purification methods. Rainwater is nature's way of distilling water. Water on the ground evaporates and rises into the air as vapor (steam) until it reaches a certain altitude where it cools and falls back to earth as rain. Unfortunately, our air quality is not as pure as in the days of the Garden of Eden. So today, our rain passes through a lot of dirty air on its way down including such contaminants as sulfuric acid and nitric acid which make the infamous acid rain.

Distillers work the same way, but without the air pollution. First the water is boiled, then cooled and condensed back into water. The boiling is usually done in a pot-like stainless steel chamber. Most distillers use electricity to heat the water, although you can find some that boil on top of a gas stove and even others that use solar heat. The boiled off steam is then captured and passed through a condensing chamber. This is usually a coiled tube typically made of stainless steel, glass or aluminum. Surrounding the tube is cool water that lowers the temperature of the steam creating water droplets. Most distillers use fans to cool down the steam rather than water. The water vapor is then collected drop by drop into a sterile container. This natural process takes time - between 2 and 4 hours to collect one gallon! This is the same process, by the way, used to manufacture gasoline from oil, and liquor from corn.

Advantages of Water Distillers
Distillers effectively remove bacteria, viruses, mineral salts such as fluoride, sodium, nitrates, asbestos, and all minerals including heavy metals. The water has no odor, no color, and no taste. This is the nature of distilled water. Prices for home distillers range from $300 to $1,500, so there are differences that affect performance and the quality of the resulting water.

Features of Different Distillers
There is a great diversity of distillers in the marketplace. This is most likely because there are many different ways to condense water. It is so simple; you can even make your own distiller with a basic chemistry set. Since the 1960s when water pollution scares made front page headlines, clean water companies have poured into the market. Diversity is typically a wonderful asset, but when shopping for a distiller, it can also mean confusion.

The first thing most people consider when shopping for a distiller is price. The price of a distiller has much to do with the volume of water it can produce and how fast it can produce it. Beyond that, price is very dependent on extra features such as cold and hot water dispensers, ice cube makers, automatic on and off, size of reservoir, stainless steel vs. aluminum or plastic components, etc. Buy only the features you need and you will save money. A little ingenuity will also help. Stainless steel, for example, is expensive and a stainless steel collection reservoir can cost from $100 to $200. But a 5 gallon polycarbonate bottle (the kind you find in office water dispensers) costs less than $20. Large glass bottles are another economical alternative.

Some other features are more essential. Self-cleaning or easy cleaning is very important. Because distillers remove minerals and heavy metals, they can build up scale in their boiling chambers, especially if you have hard water. It is common to be lazy about cleaning out the scale, but also unwise to continue to distill from an excessively scaly chamber that might affect the purity of the output. Scale solvents are a good way to clean your distiller and are easy to use. They are readily available at housewares stores (for irons and humidifiers) or from your distiller dealer. It is also nice to have a boiling chamber with easy access so you can go in there and scrub if you need to. Some distillers have self-cleaning mechanisms that constantly flush out the dirty water thereby stretching the time between cleanings to as few as once per year.

Water, Air, and Electricity
A few distillers are water cooled, most are air cooled, and some have both. If a distiller is water cooled, you will use approximately 6 gallons of coolant water to make 1 gallon of the pure water. This may not be ideal if water is scarce or expensive. Air cooling is done by fans and in some models, wastes no water at all. However, fans do add some “white” noise and slightly increase the use of electricity.

Speaking of electricity, distillers typically use between 500 and 1500 watts per hour. Some use as much as 3000 watts, others use none at all; they use gas. To get the model with the lowest wattage, however, is not necessarily best. There is a ratio between the use of electricity and rate of distillation that is important to balance. Low wattage machines, 500 watts for example, may take 6 hours to 1 make one gallon. That adds up to 3500 watts per gallon. On the other hand, a 1500 watt machine makes a gallon in 2 hours for a total of 3000 watts per gallon. This relationship between electricity and rate of distillation determines your machine's efficiency and economy. The average distilling time of an efficient, high volume distiller is between 2 and 3 hours per gallon and approximately 3 kilowatt-hours per gallon. Your final cost should be approximately 25 cents per gallon including the cost of replacing the accompanying charcoal filters.

Automatic Operation
Automatic feeding is a valuable feature. Some distillers connect to your cold water line or faucet and receive their water from it. The distiller adjusts the incoming flow of water automatically through a valve. Better machines also have the ability to shut off if, for some reason, the house water supply fails. Automatic feeding is far more convenient than the “pot boiler” type of distiller that needs to be filled manually every gallon or so. However, it is again a question of need. A small household of two persons may do very well with a manual feed machine. It is a question of budget, lifestyle, and usage.

Importance of Quality Materials
The materials used in the distiller you choose should, of course, be nontoxic. Aluminum or low grade plastics may break down and contaminate your distilled water. Only stainless steel or glass should be used in the parts that contact the distilled water. Plastic exteriors or aluminum boiling chambers may be perfectly acceptable since the final distilled water never touches them. Since having stainless steel in every part of a machine makes it more expensive, shop for a distiller that has it only where you need it. Plastic tubing is common in distillers, and is fine. Such plastic is made of high quality, surgical grade material that can withstand temperatures of up to 600 degrees. Plastics today go to the moon and back, so they can be quite safe and functional.

Elimination of Gases
From the standpoint of health, the most important function of a distiller is its ability to eliminate various gases and volatile organic compounds. These are liquids that have boiling points lower or approximately the same as water and can thus be carried over with the purified water. Chloroform is one example of a pollutant that can be transported over with the distilled water. This is the Achilles' heel of distillation. But quality distillation systems have different ways of dealing with it.

Carbon filters can assist the distiller in eliminating these gases. Carbon excels in adsorbing gases and volatile organic compounds. The combination of the two methods makes a perfect marriage in water purification. The carbon takes care of the gases and the distiller virtually eliminates heavy metals and inorganic compounds. The boiling process of distillation also kills the bacteria that would ordinarily breed in a charcoal filter. In effect, each method fills in for the other's weaknesses.

Filters can be located on the distiller in either of two places. In an auto-fill distiller, a pre-filter is situated on the line between the faucet and the unit or under the sink on the cold water line. A post carbon filter is located on the distilled water exit just before the collecting bottle. The post filter, however, is subject to some of the same problems of all simple carbon filters. It can breed bacteria. The carbon can also suffer some damage due to the heat of the effluent water. On the positive side, the likelihood of breeding bacteria is limited since the source water has already been sterilized (boiled) and the slow drop by drop action through the carbon affords the water maximum contact time and therefore greatest adsorption. Post filters are inexpensive and are built-in to many distillers, although you can run the machine with or without it. Pre-filters are more sophisticated and more expensive. Even if your distiller does not come with a pre-filter, you can still add it as an independent unit.

The most common method for eliminating gases in distillers is the pre-boiling chamber and escape vent. The water to be distilled is first detained in a boiling chamber for several minutes (the length of time depends on the design). The longer it boils, the more toxic gases escape through the vent. Even here, there are differences between good distillers and bad. Poorly designed distillers allow for very short detention periods. Others do not provide a sufficient enough venting area.

Disadvantages of Distillers
Although distillation is the most thorough method of water purification, like all other methods, it has its disadvantages. Probably the biggest complaint about distillers is the inconvenience of not having water on demand. From the point of view of the average American surrounded by appliances designed to make their kitchen life more convenient, the requirement of plugging something in and waiting hours to get a drink is a bit much...especially when you are thirsty! High output distillers take an average of 3 hours to make a gallon of water. Stove top distillers can take as long as 6 hours to make a gallon. Of course, if you can buy a fully automatic model, you will never have to wait for your water.

As mentioned in our discussion on electricity, most distillers use this commodity and depending on the efficiency of your machine, they will have an impact on your electric bill. Before you choose a distiller, estimate the cost per gallon to operate it. Some machines are definitely more economical than others. In some areas, running your distiller overnight may take advantage of lower utility rates. Summertime can be an uncomfortable time to run a distiller, depending on its location. Electric rates are often higher and heat and humidity from the distiller only add to the battle between your air conditioner and your sweat glands. On the other hand, most appliances in your house use electricity. Your laundry machine, dryer, and refrigerator use lots of electricity, but you would not choose to eliminate them. Getting pure water is certainly just as valuable a commodity.

Water is another form of energy that distillers use. On the average, water cooled distillers use 6 gallons of waste water in the process of making one gallon of distilled water. If water is scarce or expensive in your area, it may not be practical to own this kind of distiller. A fan cooled distiller saves water by cooling with air.

Of course, you must consider size and price when shopping for a distiller. There are countertop models for $300 and there are completely automated floor models that cost in the $1,500 range and need to be located in your laundry room, basement, or garage.

Probably the last straw for thirsty Americans is the typical complaint about its “tasteless taste.” True pure water has no taste. However, even nothing, tastes like something, relative to everything else. Of course, if you buy it in a flaccid HDPE plastic bottle (#2 in the triangle on the bottom), it will have a taste of plastic! Distilled water leaves no aftertaste because it is free of the chemicals and impurities that create taste. Most people quickly get used to this “non-taste” many actually prefer it, and others don't even notice it. Taste is a subjective experience. After drinking any water consistently, every other water tastes funny.

Storage of Distilled Water
One more disadvantage of distillers is not in the making of the water, but in the storage of it. Distilled water, like any food, is subject to spoilage if left open and unrefrigerated for many days. Storage bottles should be sterilized so that bacteria cannot build up in them. This can be as simple as rinsing with hot water, if it is a half or one gallon jar. A five gallon tank, however, requires more work. Large tanks or five gallon jugs can be sterilized with a small amount of chlorine bleach. Add one tablespoon to one gallon of water and let stand for one hour. Rinse thoroughly afterwards. As an alternative to chlorine, you can use hydrogen peroxide or boiling water. For long term storage, keep your water refrigerated. If using a five gallon reservoir, use up your water within a week and sterilize the reservoir periodically.

Cleaning these large bottles can be a nuisance. But extracting the water from them is yet another problem. Special pumps and dispenser stands are available for 5 gallon bottles. Again, this raises the issue of proper sterilization as well as floor space. It is inconveniences like these that prompt the plea: Wouldn't it be nice to just press a lever and get a drink of water?

Convenient Distilled Water
Top of the line distillers provide all the conveniences you need, but they are big. These units should be located in a utility room alongside the laundry machine, basement, or garage. These fully automated machines turn on when their reservoirs are low and turn off when they are full. Water is piped from the distiller to the kitchen and/or bathroom wherever drinking water is required. In the kitchen, there is a water fountain spigot that delivers water. These distillers are so sophisticated, they can even deliver ice. (It tastes like gourmet ice!) These models serve large families and are the epitome of convenience. Yes, they are the most expensive machines and involve the most complex installation. But if Americans put a fraction of the investment into their water that they now spend on their cars or furnishings in their homes, we'd all be a lot healthier for it.

Distilled Water Vs. Spring Water
One of the greatest controversies in the arena of water and health has to do with the desirability of drinking spring water vs. distilled water. Spring water has a natural mineral content. Distilled water has no minerals and because it is sterile, it is often referred to as “lifeless” water. The spring water advocates say spring water provides necessary minerals. They also say because distilled water is void of minerals, it robs them from the body. The distilled water advocates say food is a better source of organic minerals than water and the minerals in water are not fully utilized by the body. Like most controversies, there is truth on both sides. However, a clearer understanding can be found by putting these truths in perspective.

Distilled water has been described by its adversaries as dead water because it is sterile, with no mineral or organic life in it. For this reason it is highly unstable and will attract any organic material that comes in contact with it. Once it is “contaminated” by organic matter, it becomes stable. This is the property that gives distilled water its alleged ability to leach minerals from the body. However, distilled water cannot attract organically bound minerals from our bones and cells. Minerals found in spring water are inorganic; they are run off from stone, soil, and rock dissolved in water. Scientists tell us that only plants can convert inorganic minerals to a useable form which can be absorbed by our digestive tract. Fresh fruits and vegetables are our best source of absorbable minerals. Distilled water can “leach” inorganic minerals, but as soon as it comes in contact with the contents of our stomach, it is immediately neutralized. Thus, although it is technically correct to claim that distilled water can leach, it has no practical impact on human health. Tens of thousands of kidney patients using distilled water in their dialysis machines attest to the fact that distilled 'J water will not leach organic minerals from our bodies.

The Leaching Controversy
Here are some further points to help interpret the truths on both sides of this controversy. First of all, never buy distilled water in HOPE flexible plastic containers (#2 on the bottom of the bottle). Because of its unstable nature, distilled water will pick up plastic from the walls of this container and it will be noticeable in the taste. On the other hand, you can take advantage of distilled water's naturally aggressive, chelating ability and put something healthy in it. A few grains of rice per gallon of water, for example, will stabilize the distilled water in minutes and add organic minerals to it. You will have produced, in effect, your own homemade mineral water. Now it is “alive” with nutrients and organic minerals and should be refrigerated or drunk within a few days. It is, in fact, more dependable than spring or mineral water, because you can trust that it comes from an absolutely pure source. “Compare that to all the unknowns of choosing between the various brands of bottled waters. You can no more digest inorganic minerals than you can dirt.” Paul Bragg, N.D., Ph.D.

This principle of stabilization also applies to any kitchen use of distilled water. Any time you use distilled water as an ingredient of a dressing or a soup, it is immediately stabilized. When you drink distilled water, it will likewise stabilize as it mixes with the contents of your stomach. Only when you drink distilled water repeatedly on a fast, can it have the potential to leach minerals from the body, and then only when the process of genuine starvation has commenced. This extreme circumstance affirms the mineral-leaching theory, but it bears no relevance to normal human nutrition.

Here are some questions to consider: how much and what does distilled water leach out? Does it take out more minerals than what comes in? Lastly, are there any advantages to this leaching?