Water Works

Life Solutions offers an alterative in the continuing bottled vs. tap water debate

For such a simple, tiny “object,” water is complicated. It is the most abundant single substance on the planet and in our bodies. It is a source of paranoia (Canadians are convinced Americans are out to get their fresh water) and political action (Bolivia made headlines for its Cochabamba Water Wars in 2000). In bottles, it’s an estimated US$60 billion dollar industry.

Here in Hong Kong, the myth of dangerous drinking water persists, as if an Asian version of Montezuma’s revenge lurked in our taps. Contrary to popular belief, Hong Kong has some of the best quality tap water in the world. “In Hong Kong you don’t need to be buying bottles,” says Blake Ireland, founder and managing director of water treatment service provider Life Solutions. Ireland makes a living “fixing” the water that comes from our faucets, but he’s not afraid to defy the lingering gospel. Nonetheless, he has a solid roster of consumer and corporate clients. “It’s personal choice at home, or from an employer’s point of view to provide a better water source,” he states simply.

Since 2003, Life Solutions has been installing water systems for home and office. Though all water can be filtered, Ireland and Co. specialise in our drinking water. “We provide a very comprehensive service. It’s not just about the equipment, because whatever you use — the best filters, the best machinery — if you don’t maintain it properly it’s not going to work,” he explains. “It’s like a car. If you don’t maintain a Rolls Royce properly it’s not going to be worth much a year down the road.” Life Solutions’ core product parts — the filters — come from the United States or Europe and the rest of the equipment comes largely from Taiwan. Life Solutions’ crew puts the final piece together here. All the filters are NSF International-certified, and contracts include the key element in improving water quality: maintenance. “[After] we install it we enter into annual maintenance contracts. Essentially we take away all the work from the end-user.” The service contract comprises warranties, systems checks and filter changes.

Ireland isn’t out to evangelise, but he would like to see the bane of his existence — bottled water — vanish, and that starts with challenging that aforementioned lingering gospel. Using health concerns and dangers to our children are the most common way to justify bottled water purchases. “The whole bottled water industry is so bad, so fraudulent, so unsustainable, and the fact you pay more than petrol for drinking water is absurd. Obviously in environments that lack piped water, bottled water is quite important. But I think in the next 15 to 20 years bottled water will be phased out,” Ireland theorises.

Bottled water comes in various standards, the most common of which are not really that good for you. Distilled water is pure, but is dehydrating and totally lacking in any valuable minerals or, yes, bacteria (which can bolster growing immune systems). It also leaches important elements from the body. That said, “It’s okay if you’re hung-over,” Ireland quips.

Then there’s the mineral water grey zone. While mineral waters may be “better” than their distilled cousins, Ireland is baffled by the perceived disconnect between it and our taps. “Most tap waters, especially in a place where the water is well maintained, and this would apply to Hong Kong, is well within WHO guidelines,” he begins. “In theory you can go home, turn on the tap, do a very simple treatment and you could put it in a bottle and sell it as mineral water.” Countless studies have alleged hazardous chemicals transfer into bottled water as a result of temperature changes during transport, and then there’s the garbage derived from shipping and the bottles themselves. “It’s a total and utter scam.”

But isn’t convincing people to drink the water out of the tap contrary to Ireland’s job? He doesn’t think so. “To educate people, you can’t just say, ‘Take it from me,’ especially in an office environment.” And offices account for a great deal of Life Solutions business, as corporations feel they’re expected to make “good” water available to staff. Further to that, the smell and resulting taste gets in the way. The common practice of boiling tap water is misguided; it would actually take two hours at 160 degrees to properly clean it. “Because the disinfectant the WSD uses is chlorine, which is actually a dangerous material, [Hong Kong tap water] smells. A bad smell tells your brain something doesn’t taste good. Poor taste makes one think the water is unsafe or unhealthy. Not true … As provided by the Water Supplies Department, the quality is very good. [But] once it gets into the private building, they don’t have any more responsibility for it.”

That’s technically true, but Swire Properties for example, enrolled in the WSD’s Quality Water Recognition Scheme for Buildings, a voluntary programme designed to encourage more management companies to meet residential and commercial needs with respect to tap water quality. Swire also takes “active measures to ensure that our water is clean, including inspecting our plumbing systems, cleaning the water tanks and performing regular water sample tests. All of these measures are conducted at timed intervals to meet the operational needs of our different properties,” according to Amie Lai, Swire Properties’ Environmental Affairs Manager.

If that’s still not comforting, Life Solutions remains an option. There’s a distinct cost benefit to an under-counter system, as the annual costs of running a property filtration system versus supplying bottled water is a no-brainer. It’s cheaper, cleaner, and takes up less space.

“Some people are happy to drink tap water and they won’t become our clients. But a lot are not because of the taste. Corporate clients can’t provide their staff with something perceived as acceptable … There are a lot of people out there that want a certain quality, certain guarantees, and they can’t get that from the tap … It’s that extra peace of mind.”