What to Know Before Buying a Water Cooler or Dispenser

Male hand serving water of a water cooler
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No longer an office icon, a water cooler has become convenient and for some, a must-have appliance for the home. A water cooler encourages everyone to drink more water, and when it comes to a cool, refreshing drink on a hot day, it can't be beaten.

But a water cooler can differ from a water dispenser, and there are some must-have features, so be informed before you start shopping to get the right one for your home.

Water Cooler vs. Water Dispenser

While both types are dispensers, a water dispenser is not necessarily a water cooler. There are two types of water dispensers: one that does not cool the water (usually non-electric) and an electric water cooler that cools and dispenses the water.

Either type will usually accommodate standard water bottles (two-, four-, or five-gallon) that you can buy already filled either with potable spring, distilled, or treated water or that you have filled yourself with proper drinking water.

Benefits of a Water Cooler

While some use a water cooler out of necessity for drinking water, others with treated water like to dispense (better tasting) water if theirs is heavily chlorinated. And others will use a cooler merely to have cold drinking water available without having to run (metered) water for several minutes to get it cold, thus realizing some energy savings.

Whatever the reason, everyone seems to like dispensing water from a cooler, and it can quickly become the place even the kids will gravitate to get a refreshing drink. Even a dispenser (without the cooling) can provide a room-temperature or cool drink of water.

Countertop vs. Freestanding Water Coolers or Dispensers

Water coolers or dispensers are available as a countertop or freestanding units with the freestanding being the more expensive. When deciding which to buy, consider where you will place it in your home, garden shed, patio, or family room. Either style needs an electrical outlet, and it should be placed on a solid platform. A countertop unit can be placed on a counter or table, not too high for dispensing or changing the large water bottle. You may want to avoid placing it on a rug if you expect the occasional spill. Note: A countertop model may have a smaller compressor, so water may not be as cold as the freestanding unit.

Drinking-Water Temperature

There is no standard, and the water temperature tends to vary between models and brands. Cold drinking temperature depends largely on the size and type of compressor or other technology used in the design.

The temperature varies widely from one dispenser to the next, and these specs are not often available. However, a water cooler that has a storage area at the bottom and smaller countertop dispensers will more than likely dispense water that is not as colds as other models.

Best Water Cooler or Dispenser Features

Either type will have at least one faucet, but it may also have another for hot water. Though not at boiling temperature, it's handy for making a hot chocolate or a quick cup of tea. You may want to skip the hot water faucet if it's not something you'll use. You can turn the hot water off at the back of the unit to save a little in energy.

The best feature is a stainless steel water reservoir. It eliminates the "plastic" water taste, which is quite common with some coolers. Most hot water faucets have safety child locks. 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 to insert into your bottle.

Pros and Cons of a Porcelain Water Dispenser

There are only a few porcelain models around, but they have become very popular with consumers. Though breakable should you drop one, they are fairly durable and made with a 100 percent vitrified porcelain crock. These are not electric--so there's no operating cost. They are fitted with a single faucet and dispense room-temperature water, which is usually cool when kept in a porcelain crock.

They can accommodate the standard two-, four-, or five-gallon water bottles and are available in either a countertop or freestanding unit--the difference being a wooden rack to stand it on. Consumers love the nostalgic look and feel of these.

Coolers or Dispensers With Filtration

Some models incorporate a filtration system into a special water bottle. You fill this bottle and place it on the unit, where some of the "new" water will filter down into a holding reservoir ready for dispensing. These are popular with those who want to filter their water without the expense of buying pre-filled water bottles. There are also various filtration systems available with dispensing features.

Capacity Notes

Most water coolers or dispensers will accommodate standard-size pre-filled water bottles in two-, four-, and five-gallon sizes, but you should confirm this before buying. Though not recommended, these large plastic bottles can be manually refilled with potable water and reused, but always disinfect your bottle with a solution of water and a little bleach. Rinsing well is essential.

You should confirm the availability of bottled water in your area before buying a cooler. Many retailers offer bottle return discounts. For those who may have limitations, keep in mind that you can downsize the bottle if a five-gallon size is difficult to carry or load onto your water cooler.