Worldwide, water cooler sanitation has emerged as an increasingly important issue for consumers and industry alike. Today, consumers have more choices available for the water they drink, and as they choose water from water coolers and bottles with increasing frequency, issues such as cleanliness, quality, odor and consistent taste are becoming critical competitive differentiators in the industry.
As we learn more about factors that can affect the quality of drinking water, consumers will gravitate toward the companies that are developing innovative methods of ensuring cleanliness. This trend is already evident in Europe, and the rest of the global marketplace is just beginning to follow suit.
Water coolers can become contaminated by bacteria through the natural microbial flora in the water, or inadvertently added when users touch bottles and equipment. Because the water cooler components are regularly exposed to moisture, a biofilm, which is a microcolony of bacteria, can form on the wetted surfaces. While biofilm does not always affect the quality of the water, it can clog components and affect the taste and odor of drinking water.
In an attempt to ensure water quality and address water cooler hygiene through cost-effective and efficient processes, companies throughout Europe and the U.S. are turning to new methods of sanitation. One company, Cosmetal, an international leader in the manufacturing of water coolers, has gained recognition from the European Bottled Water Association (EBWA) for its use of an innovative cleaning method: the incorporation of an antimicrobial compound into its water coolers.
In Europe, the issue of cleanliness has been addressed at a regulatory level, with the EBWA recommending that bottled water coolers be sanitized at least once each quarter. Meeting these regulations involves having water cooler technicians clean water coolers with chemicals that are strong enough to kill bacteria that can accumulate on the surfaces of water cooler components. This process is time-consuming and expensive, with labor costs ranging anywhere from $50 to $70 a visit, four times each year.
In an effort to ensure more consistent and effective cleanliness and reduce the need for quarterly cleanings, Cosmetal partnered with AgION Technologies, Inc., a company that has developed a silver-based antimicrobial compound, to create Cosmetal’s Self-Sanitizing Technology (SST). The AgION antimicrobial compound is composed of naturally occurring silver ions and is registered in the U.S. and Europe for food and water contact. The antimicrobial compound provides protection from microbes by releasing silver ions to the surface at a slow and steady rate. This creates a self-cleaning surface that provides safe, continuous, long-term protection from bacteria, mold and fungus.
Silver has long been recognized for its antimicrobial properties, and humans have used silver to fight microbes for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians used silver to line their water cisterns; the American pioneers placed silver coins in water and milk containers to prevent the growth of bacteria and algae; and, more recently, NASA used silver to purify water on spacecrafts.
In Cosmetal’s SST system, the AgION compound is incorporated into polymeric water cooler components—the entire inner water path including the no-spill system, reservoir, water separator and tubing. All plastic parts in direct contact with water are treated because bacterial contamination can occur if any component is unprotected.
In April 2006, after careful consideration and testing, the EBWA stated that water coolers featuring Cosmetal’s SST with built-in AgION antimicrobial protection meet the good hygiene requirements set by the association. As part of this recognition, cleaning requirements for the company’s SST coolers can be reduced to once per year as opposed to the association’s recommended quarterly sanitation. In fact, the EBWA hygienic criteria states that a surface swab taken immediately after cleaning should show less than 1,000 CFU/cm2, with less than 500 CFU/cm2 preferred. The Cosmetal SST coolers meet the less than 500 CFU/cm2 criteria after a full year without a manual cleaning, thus maintaining cooler hygiene consistently, and not just periodically, for the year.
Cosmetal’s SST system is designed to maintain the quality of the water contained in a water bottle for a period of 12 months, based on annual consumption of 5-gal water bottles. Because it continuously inhibits the growth of bacteria, water coolers that feature SST provide cleaner and better-tasting water over a one-year period of use than water coolers without antimicrobial protection. Also, by eliminating the need for the EBWA’s recommended quarterly cleanings, costs associated with maintaining the water coolers that feature SST are significantly reduced. It is estimated that, on average, an SST cooler pays for itself in just three months.
The recognition Cosmetal received from the EBWA is only the beginning of a trend toward more strict hygienic standards in drinking water dispensing systems worldwide. Globally, the water cooler industry is growing at a rapid pace, and more consumers are turning to water coolers and bottled water over tap water. The increase in consumer interest in buying tap water alternatives has resulted in an enhanced emphasis on the importance of ensuring and regulating the cleanliness of water coolers.