Drinking Water in the UK: What You Need to Know

Drinking water in the UK What You Need to Know

When travelling overseas one of the key questions that always pops up is about whether water is safe to drink. After all, staying hydrated is important, especially when you are travelling. 

Is it safe to drink tap water in the UK?  Yes. Tap water in the UK is rigorously and regularly tested to ensure it is safe for human consumption.  Drinking from taps is generally considered safe. As a tourist, you need to worry less about water safety than finding drinking water.

Why UK Tap Water is Safe to Drink

The United Kingdom has some of the most stringent water standards.  A robust testing and monitoring program which ensures the quality of the water in the UK.

Each of the countries in the UK tests their water independently, and the results have to be published on an annual basis.  These results are overwhelmingly positive. For example, in 2014 a total of 3,853,350 water quality tests were carried out. Only 32,427 (or 0.04%) of those tests showed water that did not fully comply with water quality standards, according to a report by the Drinking Water Inspector.

By law, water companies in Great Britain are required to provide water suitable for drinking, cooking and washing. The results of those tests are required to be made available for consumers if they request them.

In addition, the results are published online annually. If you are interested in looking at some of the data, you can find out more about water quality at DiscoverWater.co.uk.

“Water coming from UK taps is the most stringently tested in the world,” said Prof Paul Younger, of Glasgow University.

Source: The Telegraph

Great Britain Compares Well Against Other Countries

The Global Data Index is another source that rates water.  It lists the UK’s drinking water quality as the 13th best in the world.  The index uses data from a variety of testing sources, looking for data on the following chemicals:

  • Nitrates
  • Faecal coliform
  • Fluoride levels
  • Total Dissolved Solids
  • Data for each water source

The data is combined and measured against other countries to come up with a country’s ranking.  Great Britain’s water quality is equal to the United States’ and higher than France’s, Denmark, and Canada, among others.

 Drinking Water’s Sources

Some parts of Great Britain have a reputation for having “bad” water, especially London and the area around it.   Since the water is thoroughly tested, why does London’s water get such a bad rap?   

It’s because of the source of the water. Most tap water in the southeast of England—where London is located—is groundwater, which is water that has filtered through underground rocks, gathering minerals.  Surface water, which is water from lakes, pond, and rivers, contains far fewer minerals. 

Because of the additional minerals, groundwater has a taste that many describe as “hard.”  Hard water picks up minerals, especially calcium and magnesium, as it passes through limestone.  Water that is purer does not contain those minerals and is considered “soft.”

What About the Rest of Great Britain?

The further north one travels from London, the softer the water becomes. The main factor behind this is the trace amounts of minerals found in surface water. Northern England, Scotland, and, to a lesser degree, Wales are home to numerous large freshwater lakes, and these lakes provide much of the drinking water for those areas.

The rainfall that the UK is known for constantly provides fresh water, which helps the surface water remain fresh instead of stagnant.

Ensuring Drinking Water is Safe

To ensure the water is safe, water companies use a complex filtration process. The process is:

  • Surface water is kept in reservoirs to help organic matter break down
  • Then it is filtered to remove floating objects
  • Chemicals are added to make removing silt particles easier
  • Water is aerated so that gases like carbon dioxide can be removed
  • Then organic compounds are removed so the water is clear
  • Ozone injection comes next to break down any pesticides present
  • Finally, chlorine is added to kill any bacteria that is still remaining.

Ironically, the taste of chlorine shows up more in the soft water.  The minerals in hard water cover up the chlorine taste better.   

How the British Consume Water

Tappwater surveyed people throughout the UK to find out what they thought about their water.  The results show that the further north, the lower the percentage of people who drink get their drinking water primarily from bottled water.

  • In England, 15% of people drink mainly bottled water
  • In Scotland, the percentage is 4%
  • In Wales, it’s 13%
  • Northern Ireland has the highest percentage of 17% choosing to drink bottled water.

The majority of residents in the UK obviously trust their drinking water, though many purchase a water filter, through companies such as Tappwater.

Water Advice

Clearly, British water is rigorously tested, is judged very safe by independent sources and is provided by people who take their responsibility to provide safe water seriously.  As a tourist, however, you might still have some questions.

Can You Drink Water from Bathroom Taps?

Bathroom in St Johns Hotel Manchester

Yes. The water in bathrooms comes from the same water supply as water in sinks.  Sometimes a public bathroom telling you not to drink the water. If so, it’s probably because of an uncovered storage tank in either the basement or attic. If you don’t see a sign and you are thirsty, drink away.

Can I Order Tap Water in Restaurants?

If you are eating out, it is acceptable to ask for plain water—ask for taps—and they shouldn’t charge you.

What About Warm Water?

Generally, the advice is to avoid drinking from the hot tap.  The reason given is that hot water coming from a storage tank or water heater might not be as fresh. Hotels and other public venues are required to indicate which taps (what the British call faucets) you shouldn’t drink from.

What If the Water is Cloudy?

Sometimes tap water looks cloudy, this isn’t something to worry about. Air trapped in the pipework or dissolved chalk particles are usually the cause.

Air Bubbles

If repairs or maintenance work is done by the water company are done nearby, air can enter the water supply. A pocket of air can also become trapped in a building’s pipework.

The concentration of thousands of air bubbles causes the water’s milky appearance. The water will clear in a few minutes, clearing first in the bottom of the glass. Trapped air can also water to sputter from the tap. Let the water run for a minute or two and the problem should “clear” up.

Chalk Deposits

If you have cloudy water and the water clears from the top and takes a long time, then you are drinking water with chalk deposits.  Chalk is one of the natural minerals in groundwater, so you most likely won’t encounter chalky water unless you are in Southeast England. The water is still safe to drink, but it certainly won’t be appealing.

Isn’t Bottled Water Safer?

If you are thinking that bottled water will be safer, you might want to keep a few things in mind. There are fewer regulations around bottled water and testing. Bottled water is only mandated to be tested at least once a month, whereas, drinking water must be checked daily before it leaves a pumping station. 

Bottled water can contain toxins due to the plastic, even with the move to BPA free bottles you can still find them laced with other chemicals. These can seep out if bottles are exposed to heat or sit around for a long time.

Best Places to Find Free Drinking Water in the UK

The best way to get free drinking water in the UK is using the Refill app or website. The biggest contributor to the scheme is Pret Manger, if you’ve been to the UK before there is no shortage of these stores.

Refill is a campaign that is attempting to make it easier for people to refill water bottles as a way to cut down on plastic bottle waste. They sign up businesses that will become “Refill Stations.”

Finding water fountains in the UK is a little difficult. There are more popping up in train stations and bigger tourists’ areas to help reduce plastic water bottles. If you use the Re-fill app then this will let you know where the closest fountain or store that you can get water from

Water Fountain at National Rail Station in the UK
Water Fountain at National Rail Station in the UK

Another great source for finding water is Find-a-Fountain. They are trying to rectify the problem by mapping water fountains throughout London. They even have a free app. Make sure you read the description before you head out to the water fountain. The app will highlight the water fountains in their database are not functioning which is super handy.

Unlike the rest of Europe, tap water is provided and you should never have to pay for water. So ask the pub, café, restaurants, bar or wherever you stop in for a drink or some food if they would kindly fill up your water bottle or check if they have a water station. I’ve never had anyone reject filling up my water bottle so just ask.

What about Water Bottles?

The cost of buying bottled water can add up quickly so unless your preference is drinking bottled water there are other options. There are plenty of free options; I recommend buying a reusable water bottler like the Super Sparrow Stainless Steel Vacuum Insulated Water Bottle (my go-to water bottle).  Alternatively, as space is a premium when flying, especially overseas, a collapsible bottle is something to consider. There are many different kinds and styles available, such as this one.

Otherwise, you can buy a plastic bottle when you arrive and continue re-filling.  Water bottles can be purchased anywhere.  

Purchasing a Filtered Water Bottle

If you have decided that you are going to fill up a water bottle before you leave your hotel room but are still not convinced the water will be safe, then consider a filtered water bottle.

The LifeStraw Go Water Filter Bottle is a wonderful example that filters water while you drink it. Perfect for travelling around the UK.

These bottles work on one of two principles:

  • Some filter the water as you drink it
  • While others filter the water as it is going into the bottle

Both use charcoal as the primary filtering agent. 

Not All Filters Are Created Equal

Some filtered water bottles are designed to remove minerals and chemicals so that the water tastes better. Other bottles have filters that remove bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Read the label carefully. In most cases, the more a filter removes, the more expensive it becomes.  You might decide that a trip to the UK doesn’t warrant the same level of filtration as a camping trip or less well-developed countries.

Filters will also need to be replaced. Most bottles list how long their filters last, but some do so by listing gallons (or litres) and others by how the number of cycles. Honestly, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference how long they last. 

Not All Bottles Are Created Equal

Water bottles are made from four different materials, and each has its benefits and drawbacks.

MaterialBenefitsDrawbacks
AluminiumLightweight and recyclableAluminium changes the taste of water
Check the label to see if the manufacturer is using BPA-free plastic as a liner
GlassNo health risk associated with it
Easy to keep clean
Keeps water tasting fresh
Not good for sports enthusiasts
Heavy
Stainless
steel
Clean and durable
Needs no lining to keep water tasting fresh
Typically the most expensive choice
PlasticUsually, the least expensive
Easy to find
Durability can be an issue
Tendency to scratch

Bottle-less Filters

There are also several filters that are water bottle filters. These filters are designed to be used with a variety of bottles.  One advantage of these is they are much smaller and lighter, which can be helpful for packing. Another is that these filters can be used with most existing water bottles. Lifestraw is one manufacturer of bottle-less filters. 

Water Bottles and Airport Security

Wondering if you can bring a bottle of water through airport security? The regulations for bringing water from the TSA website state:  

Thirsty flyers—Bottled water: You can’t bring a bottle of water through the checkpoint, but you can bring an empty bottle through the checkpoint and then fill it up once you’re through security. That will even save you a few bucks.

To make my process easier through airport security, I always remove my water bottle out of my bag so the security guard can quickly verify my water bottle is empty. I have saved my bag from additional checks so many times by doing this.

Essentially, Water is Essential

To sum it up, the UK has some of the best water and I recommend bringing a water bottle with you or keep refilling a plastic bottle. Refill will guide you to your closest free water, Pret A Mangers are always nearby or just ask when you’re sitting down for food or a drink if they’d kindly fill your bottle up.

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