Tap Vs. Bottled Taste Test: Consumers Weigh In
DC Water’s taste test shines the spotlight on municipal water quality, public perception, and consumer relations.
Each year, DC Water conducts a taste test pitting its own water against bottled water, with an obvious undercurrent of confidence that the municipally treated water will fare well by comparison. Of course, figuratively speaking, bottled water always leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those who work for or sympathize with public utilities, but what about the person on the street?
From a consumer standpoint, there is no denying bottled water’s popularity. The industry has become a juggernaut in recent years, grossing $11.8 billion in the U.S. in 2012. This despite the fact that bottled water costs 300 times more than tap water, while the latter is proven safe and clean — meeting “much stricter water quality standards than bottled water,” according to DC Water — in addition to being better for the environment. And for bottled water customers who imagine they’re drinking from some rarified, distant source (visions of mountain streams), many would be surprised to hear that, oftentimes, bottled water is tap water.
But I’m preaching to the choir. The real mission is to convince the uninitiated, which was the focus of DC Water’s summer-long campaign. Like the supposed wine connoisseur who can’t tell a fine wine from the cheap stuff, the utility aimed to see if the bottled water faithful could really taste a difference between bottled and tap. In a fun and eye-opening outreach effort, DC Water put the public — and its drinking water — to the test.
The result: 63 percent of the nearly 600 participants either preferred the taste of DC Water’s product over bottled water, or couldn’t tell the difference between the two.
Credit for such quality control goes to DC Water, but even more so to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Washington Aqueduct (Aqueduct), the federally owned agency that actually treats the water. Aqueduct’s water, drawn from the Potomac River, is sold to DC Water for distribution to approximately 1 million customers in D.C. and the surrounding area. The treatment method may be somewhat conventional, but the final water quality is noteworthy, especially considering the outcome of the taste test.
“The results show that that our tap water is delicious,” said DC Water General Manager George S. Hawkins. “Why pay more for bottled water that doesn’t taste as good?”
DC Water also stresses that tap water is the eco-friendly option. The production of bottled water requires large volumes of oil and (ironically) water, and the plastic contributes to pollution and landfill waste.
The taste test is just one of the ways DC Water promotes its product and instills consumer confidence. The utility offers free water quality testing to its customers and has partnered with local businesses in the TapIt program. TapIt locations, which can be found through a dedicated phone app, provide free municipal water to anyone with a refillable bottle. Through these initiatives, DC Water is leading by example as utilities nationwide look for ways to promote their product, recover costs, and educate the public on the value of water — specifically municipal water.
In the midst of this bottled water (r)age, utilities need all the help they can get.
What campaigns have you successfully used to promote municipal drinking water? Share your stories and ideas below…
Image credit: "Untitled," © 2010 Daniel Oines, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en