How to Buy a Water Cooler or Dispenser

Water dispenser in corner of room with large blue plastic container on top

The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

Hailed as the iconic office spot for workplace gossip, a water cooler or water dispenser has also become convenient, and in many cases, an essential appliance for the home, especially for larger families. Quite simply, a water dispenser or cooler encourages family members to drink water, the perfect zero-calorie beverage for quenching thirst, rehydrating your body, and maintaining health.

There are many products on the market, from dispensers, coolers, and bottle-less filters; it can get confusing sifting through the options. Read on to learn the differences between the systems, the variations in costs, and all the unique features to consider before buying.

Before Buying a Water Cooler or Dispenser

Coolers, dispensers, and bottle-less (point-of-use) systems each have an expense. But, if you're a family that drinks a lot of water, a dispenser will alleviate the cost of purchasing cases of single-use bottles, also making it a more environmentally friendly.

To quickly summarize the three most common systems: A dispenser is a receptacle for room-temperature water that comes out of a spigot using a water jug as its water source. A cooler will cool (and often heat) the water before dispensing from a spigot/s from a jug or, if using a bottle-less system, from your tap water line.

Buying Considerations for a New Water Cooler or Dispenser

Space

One of the best places to put a water cooler or dispenser is in the kitchen. High-traffic communal areas like a family room, wet bar, den, workout room, or home office are usually good spots for the water dispenser or cooler. Wherever you decide to put it, do not place a system that uses water bottles in direct sunlight. The sun will heat the water, can alter the water's taste, and can make it turn green.

Material

Dispensers and water coolers come in all different shapes and sizes and colors. The outside of the cabinet can be made of plastic or metal to match your space.

However, there are big differences in the reservoir or receptacle where the water is held. Most dispenser units have a stainless steel or plastic reservoir. Stainless steel is more hygienic and easier to clean than the plastic alternative. It also keeps the plastic taste out of the water, leaving you with a pure, refreshing taste. However, you can also get a porcelain dispenser.

Porcelain models are few, but they are popular with consumers. These appliances are not electric, so there's no operating cost. They are fitted with a single tap to dispense room-temperature water. The reservoir crock is 100 percent vitrified porcelain but is breakable, which might be a consideration if you have active children or large pets.

Size

The footprint of most water dispensers is usually about 1 square foot. Many water coolers or dispensers will accommodate standard pre-filled plastic water bottles in 2-, 4-, and 5-gallon sizes. Countertop models are limited to smaller bottle sizes. Large plastic bottles can be manually refilled with potable water and reused, though this method is not recommended. You would need to disinfect your bottle with a solution of water and a little bleach before refilling. Rinsing well is essential.

Point-of-use water coolers do not have a capacity limit as long as the water connection is flowing.

If you have a large family and know the water dispenser will get a lot of use, consider a point-of-use unit or get larger capacity bottles. If you will not frequently use the cooler, smaller water bottles are better options. Stagnant water sitting long can become a breeding ground for bacteria.

Features

In addition to the primary decision of whether to buy a standard dispenser, a heating/cooling appliance, a floor model, or a countertop model, there are other variables to consider when purchasing a water dispenser, such as tap design, a water purification system, and more.

  • Tap design: If you want to refill personal water bottles, tall glasses, or travel mugs, there should be adequate spacing between the drip tray and faucet, and the nozzle should be small enough to insert into your personal-use bottle for refilling.
  • Drip Tray: Is the drip tray removable? Models that come with a removable drip tray are easier to clean.
  • Purification System: Some systems come with a filtration kit or reverse osmosis filtration system to remove small particles, sediment, lead, and chlorine from the tap water line.
  • Cup Holders: Although the trend is moving away from using disposable cups, with the sustainable preference being reusable water bottles, you can still find models that offer holders for drinking cup storage.
  • Conversion Kits: Some bottle dispensing units have the option of being converted to a point-of-use (bottle-less) system. To give yourself more flexibility in the future, consider a model with this option.
  • Self-cleaning mode: Water coolers and dispensers need cleaning to keep bacteria at bay. Some systems offer an ozone self-cleaning feature with the press of a button
  • Pet Station: Some systems have a dog or cat water bowl that you can pull out at the bottom of the dispenser that is refillable with the press of a button.
  • Child Locks: This feature will help prevent accidental dispensing of water by children while still making it simple and easy to dispense by adults. This feature is critical if your unit can dispense hot water, which can cause scalding burns.

Water Bottle Refills

If you prefer the convenience of a service that brings you new water jugs and removes your used bottles, confirm the availability of bottled water service in your area before buying a refillable cooler—the service exchanges bottles on a regular schedule. Also, many retailers offer bottle return discounts.

If you want to use a water jug system but have physical limitations, you can usually downsize to a 2-gallon jug if a 5-gallon size is challenging to carry or load onto your water cooler. Also, consider a bottom-loading system or a bottle-less system to avoid too much lifting.

You can also buy water jugs at most stores where they sell water, order refills online, and physically refill jugs at water refilling stations.

Types of Water Coolers or Dispensers

Dispensers

Water dispensers usually are simple appliances in which large bottles (2 to 5 gallons) of water sit at the top of the dispenser and feed water down to the tap through gravity. The bottles are swapped out when empty. These simple water dispensers are the classic appliance that was once standard in offices across the United States and are still popular thanks to their low cost and ease of use. Water dispensers have a simple tap that allows you to pour out the water at room temperature. They do not require an electric outlet and have no electric usage costs.

Water Coolers and Heaters

The most popular option are electrically powered dispensers that feature cooling coils that allow water to be chilled as it is dispensed via 2- to 5-gallon jugs of purified water. Many models also offer a second tap that can dispense hot water for making hot drinks or instant soups. These appliances often look much like a simple dispenser, but they require a plug-in outlet to run the cooling and heating features. Some water coolers use the same top-loading design as basic water dispensers, but others hide the water jugs in a cabinet beneath the taps.

Water temperature tends to vary between models and brands for cooling or heating models. Cold water temperature depends mainly on the size and type of compressor or other technology used in the design. If this is important to you, confirm that the advertised water temperature meets your preferences.

Freestanding Floor Models vs. Countertop Dispensers

Whether you choose a standard dispenser or an electric dispenser that heats or cools the water, you also have the option of buying an upright, freestanding floor model or one designed to sit on a countertop or other surface. Freestanding floor models are most often used in offices, but large, busy families might also find the 4- or 5-gallon capacity worthwhile. If you don't have the kitchen floor space or need a large capacity, a countertop model that uses 1- or 2-gallon bottles is probably sufficient. Remember that water coolers or heaters need to be plugged in, so they must be positioned near an outlet.

Bottom-Load Cooler

You can get a bottom-load or bottom-mount water cooler if you don't want to see the bottle. These don't require as much heavy lifting either. Instead of sitting on top of the dispenser, which also takes up more space, you can use a 2-to 5-gallon bottle placed in the cabinet in the lower part of the unit. Coolers with bottom-load bottles and those smaller models that sit on a countertop typically do not chill the water as much as freestanding top-mount models.

Bottle-less Dispenser or Point of Use Filter

Another option for purified drinking water is to install a point-of-use filter system directly to a supply line carrying household tap water. These systems come in many styles, often with multi-stage filters designed to capture many different types of contaminants. The filter canisters can be located under the kitchen sink, in a dispenser cabinet, or another nearby room connected to a cold tap water line. The filter's spigot can be mounted on the sink deck, on a countertop near the sink, or a water dispenser reachable by the whole family. These systems require hook-up to your water supply with a thin tube. You can also get a whole-house filter system to purify all water in the home, but these are often installed and serviced by a water appliance company, such as a water softener vendor.

Water Pumps for Bottles

The cheapest option, not necessitating a cabinet or a separate system, is a water pump assembly fitted to the top of a 2- to 5-gallon water bottle. Think of it like a top-mounted spigot. This option is great if you're on the go, at a family picnic with friends, or a children's sports game. The water pump assembly universally fits a water jug that you normally use in a water cooler with a 2.16-inch rim. With the push of a button, the pump dispenses the water through a spout. Most are battery-operated. The water is not cooled; it remains at room temperature.

Cost

The costs of getting a water dispenser system depend on the route you decide to go. There are many options, such as getting a water service, where you would rent the water dispenser for a monthly fee and regularly get replacement jugs. If you decide on renting for an average household, it could cost between $30 to $50 per month.

If you have a type that uses jugs, another option is buying your water dispenser outright. Then, you could get a water delivery service to replace your jugs, buy replacement water jugs at the store, or refill your jugs at a water refill station. Water coolers or dispensers can cost $50 to $500, depending on the features you want. At the low end is a non-electric ceramic reservoir dispenser, while for $500, you can get a bottom-filling cabinet with a self-cleaning water purification system.

Costs will vary based on your water consumption and how often you need refills. For a frame of reference, a replacement 5-gallon jug purchased at the store or online costs about $10 to $15, on average. If you order through a water replenishment service, it can cost you a little less per jug based on your service agreement.

If you went the route of bottle-less or a point-of-use system, though it's more expensive upfront, these water coolers have a lower operational cost than their bottled competitors. You don't have to think about replacement water bottles. Point-of-use water coolers take water directly from your water line. High-end types have a reverse osmosis system to ensure the highest water quality. You don't have to think about delivery bills or storage issues with replacement bottles or empty jugs lying around. These dispensers can cost $300 to $1,000.

If you're on the go and want a water pump to get water out of a 5-gallon jug, then you can buy an assembly that fits on the top of a jug. It siphons out the water through a spout that empties into your cup. Battery-operated models can cost between $15 to $50.

How to Choose a Water Dispenser or Cooler

The decision on which water dispensing system to buy should depend on several variables. For example, your usage needs, the features you like, your water service options, the capability to move, store, and replace giant, heavy water jugs, and your budget.

Do you have a water service near you?

Before anything, check to see if you have a water replenishment service that delivers near you. This system removes the hassle of thinking about going out to buy bottles. Also, the service representative can walk you through the various methods, the different costs, and they can install everything. A service is the most hassle-free option, but its fees can build over time and may end up being the most expensive option. If you prefer to go with a bottle-free option, they can install a bottle-less system, too.

Will you be using the water dispenser a lot?

You will likely want to look at a bottle-less system for heavy water drinkers. If you're handy, you can set it up yourself, or you can pay a one-time installation fee. In the long run, this will be the most economical option; even if you get an expensive unit with reverse osmosis filtration, it pays for itself in the end. And, you never have to think about purchasing, storage, or refilling water jugs.

On a tight budget? Want something immediately?

The least expensive options have the fewest bells and whistles. If you look at getting a water pump topper for a water jug or a ceramic water dispenser, these are your quickest, cheapest, and easiest ways. Water is served at room temperature, but you can still get clean water to many people.

Which option offers the best drinking water?

Reverse osmosis water filtration is the primary choice for water filtration systems. It's become the industry standard and is one of the more energy-efficient methods by using membranes to filter out particulates and chemicals.

Don't want to lift heavy bottles?

Heavy water jugs are a detractor for some. A water bottle cooler can be empty for days because changing the water bottle is a chore no one ever wants to do. For some, it's a matter of physical incapacity. Homes with older residents, residents who have back problems, or pregnant moms-to-be may not be able to lift the bottles safely. In this case, your best option is a bottle-less system, a bottom-loading system, or a buy smaller-capacity jugs, such as a 2-gallon jug, which weigh about 16 pounds versus 41 pounds for a 5-gallon jug.

Where to Shop

Buying In-Store

If you want to buy a water dispenser from a store, you can shop for them at home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowes, department stores like Target, Walmart, or Sears, and wholesale clubs like BJs, Costco, and Sam's Club. Most stores do not have many floor models (if any) to see in person. You're better off searching online and selecting from the vast array available.

Buying Online

Online, you will find the most options for water dispensers, water coolers, and home water systems. Check to see if you have a water home delivery service near you. If so, it can't hurt to talk to a representative to see your options and get a rundown on costs. A service is the most convenient of the options, but in the end, it may not be your cheapest.

If you know you don't want a water delivery service but prefer to buy your dispenser; then you'll find plenty of online sellers, from the big box stores to water specialty online stores. Find out about delivery fees and, if you choose a bottle-less system, will they do the installation too? Look into various manufacturer warranties on their systems.

Where to Buy a Water Dispenser or Cooler

When it comes to deciding where to buy, you have many options at big-box stores, water service companies, and online outlets. Strike a balance between convenience, preferences, function, and price. A reverse osmosis system may be a pricier option, but if you're looking for a bottle-less system with ultra-purified drinking water, it's hard to go wrong.

FAQ
  • Any other considerations when buying a water cooler or dispenser?

    Though most systems operate silently, read reviews to make sure that the model you're considering is noiseless. Specific models can make a lot of noise.

  • How much energy does a water cooler use?

    Energy Star Ratings are used to compare water coolers and their brands. Water coolers that have received the Energy Star Ratings use up to 50% less than water coolers without the certification. For reference, to be labeled an Energy Star-rated unit, it uses less than 0.16 kWh per day.

  • How much does using water from the tap line cost versus buying gallon jugs?

    If considering a bottle-less system, on average, filtering tap water will cost you $1.50 per 1,000 gallons, costing only a fraction of a cent per gallon. Meanwhile, a 5-gallon jug's average cost is $10.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. “Water.” The Nutrition Source, 24 Sept. 2019, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/water/.

  2. FARHADKHANI, Marzieh, et al. “Assessment of Drinking Water Quality from Bottled Water Coolers.” Iranian Journal of Public Health, vol. 43, no. 5, May 2014, pp. 674–81.

  3. Reverse Osmosis - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/reverse-osmosis.