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Thoughts on ceramic water filters?

Hi all from Chile, I'm writting an essay about water filtering and I own both MSR ceramic pump and gravity autoflow filters.

In your opinion, due to the advantages of autoflow filters (weight, quantity and filtering speed), do you consider that the ceramic filter will be obsolete?

Which circumstances do you consider the most advantageous ceramic filter? Personally I only find the fact that the gravity filter will damage if it freezes.

Really apprecite your comments.

Best,

Carlos Abellanosa

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6 Replies

@cAbellanosa Thanks for reaching out, Carlos!

I own the MSR Miniworks Water Filter as well as the MSR Trail Base Gravity system. I had the ceramic miniworks filter for a very long time (probably 10 years) before I finally purchased a gravity system. I really appreciated how field maintainable the Miniworks Water Filter is, I've always been able to work out any issue I had with it and get it working. 

However, it is almost impossible to beat the weight, versatility, and volume of water that can run through the Trail Base Gravity system. I participate in a lot of different outdoor activities and I have yet to find one that the Trail Base System doesn't work for. Like you, the only drawback I see is having to keep it from freezing (I live in Alaska, so that's a potentially year-round issue). Otherwise, it has been great for me from bike-packing with a group to solo day hikes.

If I were going on a prolonged kayak/canoe trip or in some situation where weight wasn't as important of a factor I may consider taking the Miniworks over the Trail Base. Although with the ease of the gravity system and how small and light it is I might just take both! If I were leaving it at a cabin or a yurt for prolonged periods of time I would go with the Miniworks as it is very easy to clean up and get running again.

I don't think the ceramic systems will be rendered obsolete, I hung on to mine for a very long time before fully committing to the Trail Base. But I definitely see the versatility, weight, and speed of the gravity systems continuing to help them grow in popularity.

It sounds like you and I see those two systems in a pretty similar light. I hope this helps!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

@cAbellanosa Ceramic will never go obsolete as they're usefulness becomes more apparent when you have stagnate water, in order to pull the water from the source you have use a pump method. some places even in the saturated pacific northwest has only sources of water to be pulled from small holes. A gravity filter won't pull water as it has no pumping action.   

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Sorry for so late reply and thank all for your advise wich are really good points.

When I was caving with carbide we always carried a syringe to be able to fill the water tanks reaching the smallest holes. Since then I always carry a syringe (without needle) in my first aid kit.

Best

For me, the most important thing is the filtering efficiency of the system and that varies widely between brands and styles.  Ceramics tend to be very efficient, again with variations between brands.  One also needs to look at pore size as some filters get the prions and some don't.  If you are going somewhere that is know to have a prion disease in the water, then you need to have a filter that will handle that.  That varies greatly between brands and styles.  The filter I carry is relatively heavy for a filter but I know it's getting the really nasty stuff.

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Found Myself Outside
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While I agree ceramic filters are good, last year I switched to Grayl and have been very happy with the results.

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@Luv2KayakInteresting about prions. I was surprised to see that as a concern and am curious where you have heard that may be an issue.  From my research...

Prion infection from water while it may be possible has never been confirmed as far as I can find and a study I did find indicates it is unlikely since infectious prions apparently do break down in water where prions in general may not.

https://ascelibrary.org/doi/pdf/10.1061/41203%28425%2943

Prion infection in humans is rare and when it has happened it has been associated with consuming infected beef products generally derived from brain or nervous system material which finds its way in to highly processed meat products like hotdogs and pre-made burger patties  (see "mad cow disease" ), with certain surgical procedures and with certain religious practices (aka cannibalism where human brain tissue is consumed). Still rare but more commonly, late onset prion disease can supposedly can occur "naturally" and is thought to be inherited.

To filter out prions from water it seems you need a filter better than 0.003-0.004 microns. Of note is that prions cannot generally be inactivated by heat, UV or potable chemical means.

https://www.elgalabwater.com/blog/prions-purified-water

A study I found tested a 0.015 micron "viral" filter which was shown to be only partially effective at removing infectious prions.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19931469/

I am not aware of any practical backpacking filters that are as fine as 0.015 let alone 0.004. Most are O.1-0.2 microns good for protozoa and bacteria and some are 0.02 microns good for most viruses.

That said it seems that an active carbon filter should be reasonably effective at inactivating prions since prions like to bind to surfaces and will bind to carbon.

https://wcponline.com/2001/04/15/waterborne-prion-disease-transmission-assessing-risks/

A filter that includes an active carbon element (generally a limited life disposable stage) is probably your best bet if water borne prions are a concern.

I believe lightweight ceramic filters may capable of achieving 0.02 microns but I don't know if there are any current backpacking ceramic filters that claim that. The only current ceramic backpacking filters I came across in a quick search are the MSR Miniworks EX and the Katadyn Vario both of which are 0.2 micron ceramic bacteria capable filters.  However their more interesting feature is that they both have carbon elements although only the Vario's is separately replaceable from the ceramic filter element as far as I can tell.

It seems ceramic filters as such have largely been replaced by hollow fiber filters. The 0.02 micron $350 MSR Guardian is a good example of a current hollow fiber virus capable filter.  The commonly used $30 Squeeze is a 0.1 absolute micron bacteria capable filter which also does not have a carbon element.  Notably neither of those filters have a carbon element. 

0.1-0.2 micron Bacteria capable filters are generally considered adequate for the US backcountry.  Adding a chemical purifier or heating the filtered water for a water source used by stock or at heavily used poorly situated campsites is probably wise.  Using an additional carbon filter available for some filters like the Platypus Gravity, HydoBlu Versa or a filter with an included carbon element like the Miniworks, Vario or Katadyn Hiker if traveling where there is intensive stock and potential chemical agricultural run off may also be a good idea.

The main problems with ceramic filter elements are that they are fragile and prone to cracking. I suspect they are also fairly expensive to make compared to hollow fibers and generally they require a pump to work so they are associated with heavier filter designs. Their advantages are 1) being arguably easier to clean in the field since you can abrade the ceramic to remove the top layer of clogged material and 2) having a long operating life (if not broken).  They are possibly more resistant to freeze damage although I suspect only if the filter body is empty of water.  Except for freeze damage, hollow fiber filters can also be field serviceable and have a very long operating life although this does depend on the design and on regular maintenance...The hollow fiber MSR Guardian claims to be engineered to resist freezing.   

So on balance I would say that ceramic filters are "obsolete" for backpacking because there are lighter, cheaper, as effective (possibly more effective) and as long lived filters available...generally the effective definition of "obsolete".  You can certainly still use a ceramic filter effectively subject to it its specification but I think you would have to have some specific and personal requirement to purchase one new.  Their apparent typical combination with a carbon filter may be such a reason but that is not really a choosing a ceramic filter but being limited by the available choices.  There are other types of filters available with carbon elements like the Katadyn Hiker cartridge based filter and the Versa Blue hollow fiber filter that has an optional carbon stage.

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