Berkey vs. Reverse Osmosis: Which Is Better for You?(2024)

Reviewed by: James Layton
Updated on:
March 11, 2024

In your search for home water filtration systems, you’ve no doubt come across Berkey filters and reverse osmosis (RO).

If you’re unfamiliar with these filters, they can seem really similar, and it can be hard to know which one will suit you better. 

To help you out, I’ve done a complete comparison of the two.

Working alongside one of our in-house water filtration experts, James Layton, we’ve dissected both types of filters and answered some of the more pressing questions. 

This should help clear things up and point you to the right product.

Key Takeaways

  • Berkey is a brand of filters whereas reverse osmosis is a method of filtration offered by a wide variety of filter companies. For this comparison, we’ve lined Berkey up next to the SpringWell Reverse Osmosis Water Filter system.
  • Berkey filters and reverse osmosis filters remove many but not all the same contaminants from your water, using different methods.
  • Berkey filters cannot be used with a water softener. If you have hard water, you should use a water softener with a reverse osmosis filter to protect the RO membrane.
  • For city water users, your decision comes down to whether you want a portable countertop unit (Berkey) or a permanent under-sink unit (reverse osmosis).
  • For well owners, reverse osmosis is the better choice.

Berkey or Reverse Osmosis: Which One Should You Buy?

I go into all the specifics about these two different products below, but if you’re looking for a quick answer, here it is:

Buy a Berkey if…

  • You have city water and want to remove sediment, harmful chemicals, and cleaning agents such as chlorine, as well as lead and 200+ other contaminants.
  • You don’t want or can’t have an under-sink unit.
  • You don’t mind a large water dispenser taking up space on your counter.
  • You don’t want to filter fluoride (fluoride filters exist but they are extra).
  • You have hard water and you don’t want to invest in a water softener.
  • You want a filter that doesn’t waste water.
  • You don’t mind refilling the tank yourself at least once a day. 
  • You don’t mind waiting 1–3 hours for clean water.

Get a Berkey filter here.

Buy a SpringWell Reverse Osmosis system if…

  • You prefer an under-sink, out-of-the way solution.
  • You want to filter fluoride from your water for less money.
  • You have hard water and use a water softener.
  • You need to remove sodium from your water supply (common for well owners in coastal areas).
  • You don’t want to refill the tank all the time.
  • You want instant access to clean drinking water at all times.
  • You don’t mind the extra maintenance.

Get the SpringWell Reverse Osmosis Water Filter System here.

Comparing Berkey and Reverse Osmosis: Expert Reviews From Real-World Experts

Truthfully, measuring Berkey filters and reverse osmosis against one another is a bit of an unbalanced comparison. It’s like comparing a specific car, like the Ford Mustang, with all “trucks.” 

This is why we chose to compare Berkey systems with our top choice for reverse osmosis systems, the SpringWell Reverse Osmosis Water Filter

It’s an under-sink unit with a 3.2-gallon storage tank that includes RO as part of a four-stage filtration package. 

Once we established what we were actually comparing, we applied our seven-point water research methodology to thoroughly test each aspect of the products to give you an accurate comparison. 

We’ve got the full review below, but if you’re brand new to the world of water filtration, read our water filter buying guide.

Now let’s get into it.

What Is Berkey?

Berkey is a water filtration brand that primarily makes gravity filters. 

Like all gravity filters, a Berkey water filter features two chambers that sit one atop the other.

The water you add to the top chamber slowly drips into the lower chamber (thanks to gravity) after passing through the filter media.

This leaves clean, clear drinking water you can access anytime you want. 

Berkey filters are also self-contained, countertop units. This means everything is housed inside the filter, often out of sight, and you put it on your counter or table. Or anywhere, really. 

One of the key benefits of Berkey filters is that they are portable. 

Under the hood, so to speak, the Berkey system uses three-stage filtration: 

  • Microfiltration: This is a fancy word for a sediment filter. Basically, the water runs through a fine screen or mesh capable of catching really small particles and removing them from the water. 
  • Activated carbon: The Berkey uses coconut shell, a popular choice for activated carbon filter media due to its effectiveness. It applies a combination of adsorption and absorption to remove a host of contaminants. 
  • Mystery filter media: Berkey’s third, proprietary filtration stage removes heavy metals. Our best guess is this is some combination of KDF media with something else that reacts to certain metals, but the company will not reveal more. 

What does Berkey filter?

Berkey water filters were designed to remove over 200 different possible contaminants from your water, including sediment such as sand, dirt, silt, clay, etc.

It also removes chlorine, chloramine, VOCs, PFAs, disinfection by-products, herbicides, pesticides, and more. 

The test data confirms this. 

I don’t love that Berkey won’t tell us what’s inside stage three. But there’s enough verifiable data out there for us to feel comfortable backing company claims about contaminant removal.

In addition to what’s mentioned above, Berkey can also remove bacteria, parasites, viruses, and loads of other industrial chemicals that sometimes find their way into your water. 

Berkey lists all the contaminants it can remove on its website, which makes it look super impressive.

But the reality is that a vast majority of these contaminants are not found in municipal water. 

For some, this is, nevertheless, good to know because it provides peace of mind.

Limitations of Berkey Filters

Berkey systems do not remove certain minerals, such as calcium and magnesium. These are the minerals that make water “hard.” 

In low levels, these minerals cause no issues. At higher levels, they cause scale buildup on fixtures and appliances, leave streaks and stains on glassware, interfere with soap lathering, and irritate your skin. 

The solution is a water softener, but Berkey explicitly states you should not use its filters with a water softener.

Something in the mystery filter media must react with the sodium by-product that comes from water softening and causes it to clog. 

If you have excessively hard water and want to buy a Berkey, you could opt for a salt-free conditioner to reduce the impacts of hard water around your home and also maintain the effectiveness of a Berkey filter.

Something to note is that if you use a Berkey filter with hard water and use a total dissolved solids (TDS) meter to test your water, you will likely see no change. 

TDS refers to the total number of dissolved organic and inorganic matter in water, such as hardness minerals, and is considered a secondary water quality standard

This means it is not an immediate health concern. In fact, some would say it’s a benefit that Berkey doesn’t remove beneficial minerals like calcium and magnesium.

But many people use these tests to determine water quality, even if they’re not entirely accurate.

What Is Reverse Osmosis?

Reverse osmosis (RO) filtration uses pressure to push water through a semipermeable membrane.

Due to the small size of the pores on this membrane, RO removes a massive number of contaminants. 

The pressure sends water through the membrane in the opposite direction it wants to go naturally.

By doing this, it separates the water into two different supplies: one that is concentrated and one that is not. 

The concentrated water is “dirty” and is sent down the drain. The other water is “clean” and is sent into a storage tank for you to access when you need it. 

For this reason, reverse osmosis is said to “produce” clean water. It’s not actually producing it, but the process of separating clean and dirty water supplies makes it seem like it.

Unfortunately, this process wastes water. Typically, for every three gallons of water produced by RO filters, one gallon is flushed away, though this number can vary by each brand and unit.

What does reverse osmosis filter?

Due to the super small pores on the semipermeable membrane, reverse osmosis removes tons of solid particles and unwanted or harmful contaminants from your water:

  • Lead
  • Copper
  • Arsenic
  • Chromium
  • Fluoride
  • Calcium and magnesium (hardness minerals)
  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Parasites
  • Salts (a common issue for well owners in coastal areas)
  • Sediment
  • And more

Due to the size of the pores on RO membranes, they will reduce TDS in your drinking water, unlike Berkey filters.

Limitations of reverse osmosis

The super small pores of an RO membrane catch almost anything, which is why this is such an effective filter.

But this also means that if used on their own, RO systems are easily clogged and/or damaged. 

This is why countertop RO systems are almost never sold on their own. Instead, they are usually bundled with a number of pre-filters. 

Typically, these pre-filters include a sediment filter to remove dirt, dust, clay, sand, etc. from your water. The second stage is almost always activated carbon. 

This is because RO on its own is ineffective against such pollutants as herbicides, pesticides, VOCs, and PFAs.

An activated carbon pre-filter removes these contaminants before the water gets to the RO membrane.

Most, such as the SpringWell Reverse Osmosis system, also come with activated carbon post-filters to catch any chemicals that didn’t get filtered in the first two stages.

Finally, while RO systems can remove calcium and magnesium, aka hardness minerals, if you leave your RO system to do this, scale buildup on the membrane will eventually damage it and require you to replace it sooner than you might like. 

Reverse osmosis systems usually do not come with water softeners included. Still, it’s a good idea to use them in tandem to increase the reverse osmosis filter’s effectiveness and lifespan.

If you do have hard water and want to go this route, check out my review of the best water softeners.

In-Depth Feature Comparison

Now that you understand the difference between these two filters, let’s take a look at how their individual features compare.

Which filters water more effectively?

Winner: Reverse osmosis

Berkey and reverse osmosis systems such as the SpringWell RO unit remove many of the same contaminants. For city water users, these two filters are effectively tied in terms of how they filter. 

They both efficiently remove the most common nasties from your water.

Reverse osmosis might have a slight edge because it removes fluoride by design, which some city water users want. 

Fluoride is added to many municipal water supplies to promote dental health. Not everyone digs this public health decision, and RO is a good way to deal with it.

Berkey filters can also remove fluoride, but you need to buy an extra filter for it. 

At the time of writing, this added an additional $100 to the initial purchase price. 

If you do use a private well, reverse osmosis comes out on top because it can remove things, such as sodium (an issue in coastal areas), that Berkey filters can’t.

It can also remove naturally occurring fluoride, which is present in some private well sources. 

Due to its slight edge for city water and its more significant edge in well water filtration, RO is technically the better filter. But the two are very, very close. 

Which is more convenient to use?

Winner: Reverse osmosis

The SpringWell reverse osmosis system gets installed under your sink and connects to your water lines. Besides changing filters every 6–12 months, you don’t need to do anything else for it to work.

It produces clean water until the 3.2-gallon tank is full. When you draw water from the tank using the dedicated faucet you install on your sink (where the sprayer goes), the system will automatically begin producing water to keep the tank full.

It has a maximum production capacity of 75 gallons per day. 

Berkey filters need to be refilled by hand.

The largest one has a six-gallon tank and, with the standard configuration, filters at a rate of six gallons per hour, meaning it takes an hour for your tank to be full again. Filtering one gallon will take 10 minutes. 

This is fine if you remember to fill your tank frequently. But if you forget and it runs dry, you will need to wait to access clean water.

You can speed this up by increasing the number of filters on your unit, but this can add hundreds of dollars to the price. 

Unlike other types of filters, gravity filters, like the Berkey, work better with more filters.

They allow more water to pass from the top chamber to the bottom at once, speeding up total filtration time.

One feature of the Berkey that makes it more convenient is its portability. The SpringWell RO system is not.

However, the entire Berkey unit is around 30 lbs and two feet tall, so it’s not exactly something you could take on a hike. But you could bring it to an outdoor party or a friend’s house if needed.

Which one is more affordable?

Winner: Berkey

The Berkey filter costs less up front, and even if you opt for the fluoride filters ($100 per year), the replacement filters, called Black Berkey filters, cost less. 

As of right now, a full set of replacement filters for a Berkey costs around $250. These need to be replaced every 3,000 gallons.

Depending on how much water your household consumes, this could be once a year or once every other year.

Assuming once per year and including the initial cost of the unit, the 10-year cost of ownership is around $2,900.

SpringWell’s reverse osmosis system costs a bit more up front, and three of the four filters need to be replaced twice a year.

They are cheaper, but that still comes out to about $160 per year, plus the RO membrane, which needs to be replaced every other year (~$200).

This puts the total cost of ownership at around $3,250. 

In the end, it’s only a few hundred bucks over the course of 10 years. But Berkey is cheaper. It’s up to you how much of a difference that makes.

Which one requires less maintenance?

Winner: Berkey

Berkey units come standard with two Berkey filters, which you need to swap out every 12–24 months and that’s it. 

Since SpringWell’s reverse osmosis unit comes with three additional pre/post-filters, you need to be paying closer attention and swapping them out at the right intervals (every two years for RO and every six months for everything else). 

SpringWell uses a convenient ¼ turn design that makes this easy, but it’s still objectively up to you. 

The Bottom Line

When it comes to filter effectiveness, these two filtration systems are very similar. 

The differences come down to what you want from your filter system. 

If you want a low-maintenance countertop filter and don’t mind refilling it once a day or more, then the Berkey filtration system is going to be for you. 

If you prefer not having to refill your filter every day and don’t mind swapping filters out a bit more frequently, and you’d like to remove fluoride without spending extra money, the SpringWell Reverse Osmosis Water Filter System is for you. 

Research Methodology

To complete this comparison, we put each filter through the same product-testing methodology we use for all of our water filter reviews. 

If you want to learn more, feel free to read more about how we review water filters. But here’s a summary of what it involves: 

Use analysis

The first step in any of our reviews is to do a use analysis. During this stage of the process, we determine the best use for each of the filters we’re looking at. 

Water filter manufacturers and retailers often try to position the same product as ideal for multiple uses, but this doesn’t always make sense.

This first step ensures all the products we’re looking at are up for the job in question. 

For a comparison review, this involves looking at what each option is designed to do and what its limitations are. 

Learn more about how we do our use analysis.

Tech check

There’s a lot of science going on in the background of water filtration. But unless you have a degree in biology or chemistry, it can be hard to know if the jargon and buzzwords being tossed around actually mean anything. 

We sift through all this noise, using our industry contacts and peer-reviewed journals to make sure the technology in these filters is effective for each specific use. 

Learn more about how we do our tech check.

Water test data

It’s one thing for the science to be sound in theory, it’s another for the data to support all the claims being made. 

This is why when we look at filters, we always go after data and work to independently verify it. When needed, we’ll collect our own so we can say with confidence the filters we review are up to the task.

Learn more about how we use water test data in our reviews.

Installation test

Making sure the filters we recommend offer superior performance is just half the battle. We also want to make sure they’re user friendly. While some filtration systems are inherently more complex and require a professional to install, the easier a company makes it, the better. 

Learn more about how the installation process factors into our reviews.

Cost-of-ownership analysis

When you buy any type of water filter, you need to consider two types of costs: initial and ongoing. 

Replacement filters are the biggest ongoing costs, but there are other things to consider depending on the filter. When we look at products, we typically calculate the total cost over a 10-year period, so you know exactly which product is the best buy. 

Learn more about how we do our cost-of-ownership analysis

Warranty check

When we buy water filters for our homes, we want them to last. And we want the same for you. We wouldn’t recommend a product without first checking to make sure it has a solid warranty. This means reading all the terms and the fine print to fully understand what’s covered and what’s not. 

Learn more about how we do our warranty checks.

Customer service test

In addition to warranties, we want to make sure the products we recommend come from companies that are easy to work with after you’ve made a purchase. To do this, we reach out to customer support and run tests to see what it would be like for you down the road. 

Learn more about how we conduct our customer service tests

Before You Buy a Berkey or Reverse Osmosis System

If you’re just getting into the world of home water filtration, know that there’s a lot more to it than just Berkey vs reverse osmosis. 

For one, finding the right filtration solution involves matching a product with what’s actually in your water.

This means first testing your water and then looking for a filter that matches your needs. 

Both Berkey filters and reverse osmosis systems remove a wide range of contaminants, so you’re probably covered.

But if you don’t test and there’s something in your water these systems don’t remove, you’ve just invested a lot of money for pretty much nothing. 

Well water vs. city water

Another thing to consider is what type of water you have: well or city. 

City water is water you pay for every month. It’s pre-treated at a facility and sent to your home “clean” and ready to drink, though there’s still plenty of stuff in it. 

Well water is pumped from underground and is completely free. But it’s also entirely untreated. It could be clean and delicious, or it could not be. There’s no way to know for sure without testing.

For private wells, it’s best to test once a year because conditions may change. 

The Berkey system is definitely best for city water. The contaminants it’s designed to trap are most commonly found in municipal water supplies. 

Reverse osmosis systems are effective for either city or well water. But if you use it for well water, you may need to add other layers of pre-treatment, such as a water softener. 

Whole-house vs. point-of-use filters

Lastly, another decision you’ll need to make is between a whole-house or point-of-use water filter solution. 

As the name suggests, whole-house filters treat water as it enters your home and makes every tap safe to drink from. They tend to be more expensive up front but require less maintenance. 

Point-of-use filters are installed on a single faucet. They are smaller and typically less expensive, but they only deliver clean drinking water to one tap in your home. 

Both Berkey and reverse osmosis systems are point-of-use, but Berkey filters are countertop units whereas most reverse osmosis systems are installed under the sink. 

The benefit of these is that they are usually less expensive up front and easier to install. The downside is you only get clean drinking water from one source in your home. 

If you have other concerns about your water quality, such as a burning sensation in the shower from chlorine or excessive scale buildup due to hard water or staining due to iron, you may want to consider a whole-house solution.

However, if your only concern is to be able to have clean drinking water, point-of-use systems, such as Berkey or reverse osmosis, are a great option. 

Hopefully, this information makes it easier for you to understand the differences between Berkey water filters and reverse osmosis and to choose the right one for you.

If you need more information, check out the links to specific guides in the next section.

Back to product comparison

Dive Deeper: In-Depth Water Filtration Guides

For further information on water filters, Berkey, and reverse osmosis, check out the following resources:

If you’re looking to compare various water filtration options further, there are several other vital factors for you to delve into. Take a look at our well water filter recommendations on our pages below:

Frequently Asked Questions 

Which is better for well water, reverse osmosis or Berkey?

Reverse osmosis is better for well water but only if the water is properly pre-treated. RO is better at lowering total dissolved solids (TDS), which is often a concern for well water.

Berkey filters will remove sediment and a few other well water contaminants, but it’s more specifically designed for city water.

Which is better, reverse osmosis or Berkey?

Neither is necessarily better. Reverse osmosis is better at removing total dissolved solids (TDS), but the Berkey doesn’t waste water and can be transported to wherever it is the most useful.

The overwhelming majority of reverse osmosis systems are installed at one spot and can’t be moved. 

Is there anything better than a Berkey?

Our review of the best gravity water filters found the ProPure PureOne gravity filter to be better overall, though the Berkey filter is an excellent option.

Is there anything better than reverse osmosis?

Reverse osmosis is one of the best ways to filter out total dissolved solids (TDS) as well as heavy metals, bacteria, and viruses.

But proper pre-filtration is important to protect its effectiveness and lifespan. 

Also, if your water has other contaminants, such as chlorine, chloramines, sulfur, manganese, or iron, reverse osmosis on its own will not remove these and another filter is going to be better.

Why is there a lawsuit about Berkey?

The EPA labeled Berkey filters as a pesticide in response to a new interpretation of its regulations.

The company promptly filed a lawsuit against the EPA to fight this classification, which is still ongoing. 

Berkey filters have been around for more than two decades, but the EPA decided to make this designation in 2023.

We’ll provide details of the case as soon as they’re made available to the public.

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You wrote down some very interesting questions you wanted to answer in your product analysis. Can you share the answers you found? What is the difference in flow rate for example?

James Layton

Hi Jan, The main take-away is that RO and Berkey use two different technologies and provide two different types of filtered water. RO is a world standard water filtration technology that is used as a stand-alone filter or in combination with other types of filters to produce pharmaceutical-grade water, drinking water, and even aquarium water for raising captive corals. The Berkey is a gravity-fed system and is designed to achieve certain types of filtration under gravity pressure conditions. For many people this is enough “purification” for their needs. Plus, it is portable and requires no plumbing, although you can find counter-top RO systems that are self-contained but require electric. I recommend looking at what each filter can and can’t do and decide which one works for you.