Review: Berkey Water Filter Systems – Pros, Problems & Complaints
Written by: Gene Fitzgerald // Last Updated:
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Berkey systems are well known gravity water filters especially in the SHTF community. In this guide, we are going to outline what their strengths are and where their weaknesses lie.
1. Best for Home Use & Emergency Scenarios: Big Berkey Gravity Water Filter
Berkey gravity water filters come in various sizes. Since the Big Berkey is the top choice among customers – it’s also our number one gravity water filter in 2023 – we wanted to make sure to review it more thoroughly.
Simply put, the Big Berkey can turn fresh water from almost any source (creek water, lake water, tap water, well water, etc.) into potable water that’s safe to drink. How effective is the filtration process? Well, it easily meets drinking water standards.
In addition, the system is easy to assemble and use, and doesn’t require much time servicing.
The Big Berkey is ideal for families of up to 4 people.
As much as 7 gallons per hour water flow rate and 2¼ gallon filtered water storage capacity provide convenience of use and eliminate long waiting times.
Water contaminants down to the submicron level are being removed, such as: Viruses (>99.999%), bacteria (>99.9999%), cysts, chlorine and chloramine, arsenic, aluminum (>99%), cadmium (>99.7%), chromium-6 (>99.85%), lead (>99.9%), mercury (>99.9%), pharmaceuticals like Ibuprofen (>99.9%), pesticides, VOCs, sediments, turbidity, and overall bad taste and odor.
Some of the most thorough water filter testing we’ve seen against NSF standard 42 and 53. The successful results guarantee highly effective filtration.
System assembly is quick and easy, no tools required.
The Black Berkey filter elements last 3,000 gallons of water or up to 3 years, whichever comes first. The long lasting filters save you from frequent replacements, which otherwise would cost time and money.
The PF-2 fluoride filters can be used for 1,000 gallons per set of 2.
A lifetime product warranty has you covered in case anything goes wrong.
Filters may need re-priming every once in a while.
Additional fluoride filters are quite expensive.
Filtration does not stop once the lower tank is full which might cause leakage.
The dispenser is prone to leaking.
The Big Berkey gravity drinking water filter is best for home use as well as emergency preparedness.
2. Best for Clean Shower Water: Berkey Shower Filter
What most people don’t know is that apart from gravity systems, Berkey also sells a filter for treating shower water, which can either be used with your own or Berkey’s massage shower head.
The filter itself is mainly used for chlorine reduction (up to 95%). But it will also help with impurities including hydrogen sulfide to get rid of that rotten egg smell, water-soluble heavy metals – think lead – and scale.
By the way, the reason why you want to have chlorine and other contaminants removed is not only because it will make your shower water smell more pleasant, it also reduces the amount of chemicals etc. that can damage your hair and skin.
Another reason is that your skin won’t absorb and your lungs won’t inhale as many potentially harmful substances.
With so many different Berkey systems and filters to choose from, the wide range of products can seem overwhelming. However, choosing the setup best suited to your needs actually couldn’t be easier. All you have to do is answer the following 2 questions:
How much purified water do you need on a daily basis?
Do you require additional fluoride reduction?
Regarding question 1:
There is no difference between the various Berkey models except for their size which determines water filtration speed and holding capacity. Other than that, they all consist of an upper and lower chamber, a spigot at the bottom and a lid on top (and a rubber gasket to protect your countertop from scratches).
No difference also means that all Berkey systems work with the same filter elements meaning that no matter which one you choose, you always achieve the same level of water purity.
To get clean water, you simply fill the upper chamber with your feed water and wait while it’s forced through the filters with the help of gravity. The pure H2O is then collected in the lower chamber.
By the way, New Millennium Concepts, Ltd. (NMCL) is the company behind Berkey.
What Makes Berkey Special?
There are a couple of things that make Berkey filters stand out from the rest.
First and foremost, they provide a very thorough filtration. Contaminants that will be removed from your water include viruses (most competitor models won’t remove these), bacteria, heavy metals like lead and mercury, VOCs, chlorine – and the list goes on and on.
In fact, Black Berkey purification elements can be classified as water purifiers since they remove 99.9999% of pathogenic bacteria and 99.999% of viruses as tests conducted by an accredited laboratory have shown. The test results exceed NSF Standard 53 requirements.
How is that even possible? Well, turns out that water processed by a Berkey system has an extended contact period with the filter elements, opposed to filtration systems that work based on pressure to force water molecules through their different stages.
Secondly, the filters have high capacities and can last a very long time which not only saves you money – if you do the math, you end up paying cents for 1 gallon of filtered water – it also saves you time and inconvenience by not having to buy new cartridges and replace old ones every month or so.
What we also like is that beneficial minerals like calcium and magnesium will be preserved in your water. Unlike a reverse osmosis system or distiller that may remove all the bad stuff, but also the good.
You can find a full list of all advantages + disadvantage below.
Comparison: Choosing the Right Size
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, which are the different Berkey models you can choose from and what are their sizes?
Okay, so there are 7 different systems available. All of them except for the Berkey Light are made from 304 food-grade stainless steel for longevity:
(Mobile Hint: Swipe to Scroll)
Maximum Flow Rate When Full
~ 1 Quart
1 Filt. Element
~ 1.0 Gallon/h
~ 1.5 Gallons
2 Filt. Elements
~ 2.75 Gallons/h
~ 2.25 Gallons
4 Filt. Elements
~ 7.0 Gallons/h
~ 3.25 Gallons
4 Filt. Elements
~ 8.0 Gallons/h
~ 4.5 Gallons
6 Filt. Elements
~ 16.5 Gallons/h
~ 6.5 Gallons
8 Filt. Elements
~ 26.0 Gallons/h
~ 2.75 Gallons
4 Filt. Elements
~ 7.50 Gallons/h
As you can see, the larger the system, the higher the number of filtration elements it can employ. Thus the increasing flow rates. However, if you own a Big Berkey for example and you don’t want to use all 4 slots at once, you can use the provided blocking plugs to close unused holes.
FYI: Since Berkey systems rely on gravity, their flow rate also depends on how much water sits in the top reservoir. That’s why in the table it says “Maximum Flow Rate When Full“.
In a Nutshell:
The Big Berkey is the most popular by far. It has the perfect size to serve enough water to a family of 4 and is not too bulky for most kitchens. Another benefit is that it’s still portable and can be moved around without problems.
The Go Berkey is smallest in size. It’s ideal for on the go or camping trips where not a whole lot of filtered water is needed. The unit comes with the Berkey Sport water bottle.
Next in line is the Travel Berkey. It’s a little bit bigger than the Go but compact enough to fit in most suitcases. It can provide purified H2O for up to 3 people and is popular among singles and people living in smaller apartments.
If you need larger amounts of water, you should consider the Royal Berkey or Imperial Berkey.
The Crown is the largest unit and can hold as much as 6.5 gallons of filtered water. It’s flow rate is also exceptionally high for a gravity based system if you install all 8 filter elements. So no waiting times at all.
And lastly, the Berkey Light for indoor & outdoor use, which is a bit of an exception since it’s made from BPA-free copolyester (plastic) instead of stainless steel. Why plastic? Because it’s meant for people on a tight budget. This is also why it uses special Berkey Earth ceramic filters which provide solid water quality at a lower price tag (more on that in a second).
If you were to ask a dealer, he would tell you that bigger is always better. And it makes sense: The larger the system, the more water it can hold and the less often you will need to refill – translates into more convenience.
At the same time, the cost for a Berkey gradually increases with its size so you have to have the budget. But when you consider that you will be using it for many years, hopefully more than a decade, the price gap becomes almost insignificant.
There is only 1 type of standard filter element that you can use with Berkey systems and that is the Black Berkey. Black Berkeys are housed in the upper chamber. One element has a filtration capacity of approx. 3,000 gallons and traps impurities down to a submicron level.
By the way, upping the number of filters that you use side by side will only increase the filtration speed but not the degree of water purity.
If you struggle with fluoride (sodium fluoride, sodium fluorosilicate, fluorosilicic acid) and/or arsenic (arsenic(III) and pre-oxidized arsenic(V)), you would additionally have to install the optional Berkey PF-2 filters in the lower chamber. The PF-2 are matched with the Black Berkey elements on top – easy. They are tested to remove more than 97% of fluoride and last 1,000 gallons per set of 2.
Like we said, the exception to the rule is the Berkey Light which uses Earth ceramic filters. Their advantage is that they cost less than a third of what you pay for Black Berkeys. On the downside, their flow rate is much, much slower. Or as Berkey puts it: “For the price conscious consumer (…) where the speed of water production is not a major consideration.” In addition, submicron filtration is not provided.
Capacity: Up to 3,000 gallons or 3 years.
And of course you also have the option to add a post-filter to Earth ceramic elements in order to get rid of fluoride. In that case, choose the PF-4 which last for 6 months.
Black Berkey Filter Elements: Lab Results
According to New Millennium Concepts, their Black Berkeys where designed for the most powerful filtration in the quickest way possible. And we have to say that this is not exaggerated.
The elements which are comprised of different media types such as high grade carbon can take on
Pathogenic bacteria (>99.9999%)
Chlorine, chloramine (removed to below lab detectable limits)
Heavy metals like aluminum (>99%), barium (>80%), cadmium (>99.7%), chromium-6 (>99.85%), lead (>99.9%) and mercury (>99.9%)
THMs (removed to below lab detectable limits)
Pharmaceutical drug contaminants such as Acetaminophen, Bisphenol A, Progestrone, Ibuprofen (removed >99.9%)
Pesticides and VOCs (removed to below detectable limits)
Rust, sediment, silt, turbidity, taste and odors
and many more contaminants. All this according to NSF Standards 42 and 53.
Earth Ceramic Filter Elements: Lab Results
Berkey’s Earth filters combine granular activated carbon and diatomaceous earth a.k.a. kieselgur with other filtration media to reduce contaminants to the bacteria level as well as SOME viruses. That’s the big difference compared to the Black elements.
Chemicals such as chlorine, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, VOC’s, THM’s, heavy metals and other contaminants are reduced likewise to levels of up to 99.9% and above.
Pros, Cons and a Little Controversy
In the beginning, we already mentioned a couple of advantages that Berkey water systems provide.
For one, while preserving all the healthy essential minerals in your water, the purity they achieve is exceptional. What’s more, their filters last for a long time for added convenience. Other benefits are:
The water they produce tastes great!
They look good – although that’s a matter of taste.
Since they work with gravity, Berkey systems do not require electricity to run. This is (A) good for the environment, (B) good for your wallet and (C) the ideal solution for any emergency situation or power outage.
You can use almost any water as your feed source. Just be aware that contaminant levels in lakes, rivers, wells, etc. can vary so your filter elements may not reach their usual gallon capacity.
Thanks to the countertop design they are easy to use and highly portable. And there is no plumbing involved in their installation. In other words, you are flexible which is great if you don’t have a permanent living situation at this point.
Cons (Problems & Complaints)
While the systems themselves are relatively cheap to buy, the replacement cartridges are rather expensive. Of course, their longevity evens that out. Still, they definitely cost more than most replacement filters for other filtration systems. Also, the fluoride elements cost extra which will increase your price per gallon.
Especially the larger systems can be hard to fit into your kitchen. Also, it’s more difficult to reach their top for refilling.
The filtration does not stop once the lower chamber is full. So be careful to prevent overfilling.
With the standard version there is no easy way to check how much purified water is left in the reservoir. You have to lift the top chamber up and peek in.
Some users have complained about the plastic spigot breaking easily.
Sometimes due to negative pressure the water flow from the spigot is really slow, although there is enough water in the lower chamber. One simple trick is to slip a small piece of plastic between the chambers allowing air to flow inside.
Another issue is the drop in filtration speed that you will likely see after having used a Black Berkey for a couple of weeks/months. We are going to discuss this issue in more detail in the maintenance section below.
The Berkey Water Filter Scam
There always is some controversy going on about any topic that’s being discussed online. In this case, it’s the Berkey water filter scam.
As far as we can tell, Berkey opponents claim that the lab reports that Berkey has provided are fake and that the filters don’t remove sh*t. This is also supposedly why not all Berkey systems are available for sale in California and none in Iowa.
Proponents say that this is only because these two states have established their own regulations and procedures for the sale of (indoor) water systems. These rules require certification by an independent third-party testing agency, such as NSF, before any system can be considered eligible for sale.
Furthermore, Berkey stated that their own tests were much more rigorous than those required by the NSF. Not only that, they are also sufficient for all 49 other states in the U.S. After going back and forth, Berkey decided not to offer their products in California (with a few exceptions) nor Iowa to avoid high certification costs.
How to Assemble a Berkey Filter System
Assembling a Berkey system is a breeze. It can be done without tools in 5 to 10 minutes. Here’s how:
Attach the lid knob.
Insert a washer onto the threaded part of the spigot.
Insert the spigot into the hole of the lower chamber turning it to 9 o’clock position.
Insert a washer to the threaded part of the spigot inside the lower chamber.
Secure the spigot with a nut.
Hold the nut from the inside and turn the spigot into upright position.
Install the plugs into the holes that you are not going to use.
Prime the filtration elements.
Install filters to holes in the upper chamber using washers and wing nuts. Be careful to not overtighten.
Place the upper chamber on top of the lower chamber.
Fill the upper chamber with water.
Place the lid on top.
Black Berkeys require priming before use. Don’t worry, this sounds more complicated than it really is…
Locate the circular priming button contained in the box.
Press the button onto the threaded stem of the filter element.
Carefully press the filter with the priming button on top against your kitchen faucet.
Slowly turn on the cold water to allow it to flow inside.
After a moment the water will start to run down the filter side.
Wait another 5 seconds and repeat the process with the next element.
For PF-2 fluoride elements, the priming (or purging) goes like this:
Wash the exterior with mild dish soap.
Remove the blue caps from both ends.
Place the priming button on top of the filter. Which end you choose doesn’t matter.
Press the purging button up against your faucet.
Slowly turn on the cold water.
Wait until water starts to come out of the other end to rinse away any residual process dust from the media.
Allow the water to discharge until it becomes clear. This may actually take a few minutes.
Turn the filter upside down and repeat.
You may need to purge each element more than once in each direction.
Maintenance – How to Clean Berkey Filters
And finally, what do you have to do to keep your Berkey system in good shape?
For one, the filter elements need to be cleaned from time to time. How often depends on your feed water quality and how much turbidity and sediment it contains. As soon as you notice that it takes much longer to produce a certain amount of water, it’s probably time for another cleaning round.
Also, the filters that usually get clogged first are the Black elements, so they are what you should be focusing on. Simply remove them from your system and scrub their exterior with a brush or scouring pad. Basically, what you do is rub off the outside layer that has absorbed all the impurities.
The process is not overly complicated and doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes. When done, re-prime each filter before reinstalling it.
Another tip that we stumbled upon in a forum is to use a vegetable peeler and peel away a thin outside layer under running water.
Washing the lower chamber with soapy dishwater about monthly might be a good idea, as well. And if you live in an area with very hard water, it can happen that the spigot will clog up so that you will have to remove it and soak it in vinegar to get off all the scale.
This completes our Berkey water filter reviews guide. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!
About the Author Gene Fitzgerald
Gene Fitzgerald has been with BOS since the very beginning. She is head of content creation and has fully immersed herself into the home water treatment industry only to become an expert herself. Outside of BOS, Gene loves reading books on philosophy & social issues, making music, and hiking.
Learn more about Gene and the rest of the BOS Team.
Do you know why the spigot would get clogged and scaly? Wouldn’t that be the clean, purified water that would be coming through the spigot? Confused. Thank You, SteveReply