Chloramines also wreak havoc on equipment. For example, they convert to hydraulic acid when in a steam oven, which leads to faster corrosion. Chloramines can also attack plastic and gaskets, forcing some OEM manufacturers to create new products that resist the chemical thus avoiding leaks, according to another industry expert.

RO and Blending

Reverse osmosis systems use pressure to force water through a pre-filter to remove larger particles, and then through a very fine, semi-permeable membrane for deeper filtration. The purified water is stored in a small tank until it's needed, but before the water is dispensed, it runs through a post-filter to remove any remaining tastes or smells without using any electricity.

While the idea of using an RO in a one-size-fits-all setup for drinking water, coffee brewing and equipment water supply might sound appealing, that's not always the best-case scenario, plus it can be expensive. For example, if a foodservice operator were to use RO for warewashing or hand sinks it would outstrip the available water supply And, while RO might make drinking and cooking water exceptional, it can actually degrade the quality of coffee. That's because RO makes the water more acidic, and in that sense it can make coffee come out a little bitter. Coffee and tea actually require a certain level of minerality — 100 to 200 parts per million (ppm) to be exact — compared to the average 300 ppm minerality found in most tap water. To achieve that, you must add back in minerality after stripping it away during RO.

Many operators serious about their water choose to subscribe to this blending method, whereby they may use multiple types of water filtration to come up with the right water recipes for different uses.

Some operators have even gone as far as duplicating water from certain regions of the country and world to recreate popular foods and beers. For example operators that want New York-like water for pizza, can now duplicate the same mineral content, calcium magnesium levels, chloride, chlorine and other key components of that water.

Another growing area in water filtration is developing water recipes for in-house beer brewing.
But formulated water can be pretty expensive and it's not something most restaurants need. However, it can elevate a business from its competition and offer a quality and marketing value-add.

The Future of Water Filtration

Demand for more sophisticated levels of water filtration still remains low, particularly in areas with more direct access to fresh water, such as in the Midwest. This attitude is similar to water savings in general in these areas. At the very least, though, more operators are noticing the cost savings and environmental impact they have from using softeners to reduce the stress on their equipment. As many seek energy-efficient equipment, the use of water filitration only helps enhance these efforts.

Still, customization of water is a growing trend, particularly among larger chains and high-volume operations with money to spend, most industry observers agree. More restaurants serve premium coffee and other specialty beverages and want to be able to customize and improve their water source.

As part of a move to totally renovate a historic bank space in Cleveland, Crop Bar & Bistro chef/owner Steve Schimoler, looked to position the new location as both an upscale restaurant with expanded special events space as well as a "center" for customer and consumer food and beverage testing as part of his Rolling Fire Foods consulting business. Part of that testing included working with a local water filtration company to test the effect of different types of filtered water on drinking, cooking and equipment.

"We have four levels of filtration in the restaurant: macro-filtration, which removes all minerals and solids; carbon filtration; softening and reverse osmosis," he says. "We installed these filtration systems with an ability to blend different water and send them to different areas."

The reverse osmosis system, which takes up six-to-eight foot area of the kitchen, provides completely pure water for all the drinking stations, soda machines, ice machines and the pot-filling station for pasta, rice and other cooking needs such, soup and stock water in the kitchen. Softened water goes to the dishmachine, steam-generated kettles, combi oven and other water-based equipment for preventative maintenance, and carbon filtration goes to the coffee and tea brewing area to remove chloride but maintain a desired level of minerality for taste.

The team has worked with its water filtration supplier for almost a year to perform various tests to see how equipment performs under different waters. "We've actually tested how our dishmachine performs using reverse osmosis at the final rinse, and have found that this rinse eliminates the need for manual glass polishing totally." In addition, Schimoler found he's reduced detergent use by 30 percent using the RO rinse.

Surprisingly, RO water had a negative affect when supplied to the combi oven. "The water was too pure so the electrodes didn't sense it," Schimoler says. As a result, Crop primarily uses simple softened water for the equipment lines.

Schimoler and his team also have conducted blind tasting tests to see if customers can taste the difference in his food when using RO water. "We brought in local chefs for a panel and made rice with RO water, Cleveland tap water, well water — mimicking the bottom of the barrel water in rural locations and at our restaurant in Vermont," he says. The RO water won the test, hands-down.

"As a chef, I am convinced that cooking with RO water is the ultimate ingredient because you're not competing with any other off-flavors like sulfur, chlorine, heavy iron or other aromas, minerals and particulates," he says. "We took the rice test further by adding a trace amount of lemongrass to the mixture — the RO water version was the only one where you could actually taste the lemongrass."

Schimoler, who spent years as a research and development specialist with Nestle and other corporations, can't understand why more restaurants don't use filtered water for cooking in the same way these manufacturers do, although he acknowledges price is a major issue. "When working on product development in manufacturing facilities, we've had to control water filtration because of USDA and FDA regulations," he says. "We even used ultraviolet lights to make sure there was absolutely no microbiological activity going on in the water we were using. You take for granted that you have a filtration system making that food safe and taste good on a consistent basis. Now, looking at RO water from a restaurateur and culinary perspective, I can't use anything else for cooking."

Schimoler also ran tests trying to duplicate New York water for a special pizza and bagel dough, but found in consumer focus groups that the RO water actually made the dough more pliable and taste better.

"We were able to get chemical analysis of Manhattan water, and then took our Cleveland tap water, stripped it down through reverse osmosis, then blended back by percentage of minerality, alkalinity, pH and softness to duplicate New York water," he says. "The results were not a huge difference — in fact, our testers preferred the RO water. At the end of the day the difference of taste was that there was a more minerally taste to the New York dough, but it's not necessarily beneficial, people are just used to it."

The quality of the drinking water has improved tremendously with the RO water, and this has served as a powerful marketing tool as well as and a way to cut down on plastic bottle waste. "We use gorgeous glass bottles etched with our water story on them," Schimoler says. "Even before the branded bottles people would — unsolicited — say to us, 'your water is really good.'"

As a next step, Schimoler's team is working on installing a carbonation-tap system at the bar to develop a line of naturally flavored specialty sodas, like cucumber-mint or lemon-thyme spritzers, and to support cocktail making. Where Crop might give away the filtered tap water for free, they hope to charge for specialty sodas to boost profit margins.

Schimoler has also tested water at both Crop Bistro & Brewery in Vermont and at the Cleveland location for in-house beer brewing. "We're experimenting with using RO water for beer and also duplicating Bavarian water to see what that tastes like," he says. "Beer is a little different because you need certain alkalinity and pH levels for the yeast to develop, so you often need to blend back in certain minerality."

The costs for these filtration and blending systems in Schimolers' eyes are well worth it because he finds they both save his equipment and lead to better tasting food and drinks. "We had a health inspector in recently and he opened the ice machines to inspect them and said, 'wow, you must have just cleaned these.'" he says. "In actuality, I hadn't cleaned them or had to de-lime the equipment in 12 months and we've been extremely busy."

Another less noticeable benefit is the "back-up" protection RO water filtration tanks provide a restaurant. "Look at what happened in New York with Superstorm Sandy — their water supply was completely cut-off in areas and they had a boil alert throughout the city," he says. "If there was a major flood here or anything happened here with our water supply, I know I don't have to worry about it because our water is safe and we have storage.