Do you need a $249 'smart' water filter?


There seem to be three mindsets when it comes to the water we drink. You can care a lot about it and buy bottled; care a lot about it and have a water filter; or you just drink from the tap. Maybe it's because I fit into the third category that water filters don't really seem like a growth market to me. A casual survey of my colleagues tells me there are lots of people that do care, though. Cove is built for them. The pitch is simple: Our natural water is full of crap. Harmful chemicals, heavy metals, pathogens. You name it; it's in there. Most filters do a good job at removing chlorine and other elements, but according to some studies, many introduce bacteria into your water. Cove's new filtration system apparently solves that issue, and, this being 2015, it's wrapped up in a "smart" housing that talks to your phone.

So I think you'll agree this thing looks really attractive. Cove CEO Alex Totterman says he wanted the product to offer a "desirable experience." He's taken cues from the way other companies have tried to reinvigorate staid markets like razors and mattresses with good design, simple-to-use products and innovative business models. Purely from a design perspective, this works for me way more than the transparent plastic jug my parents have used for the past few decades. My inner consumer wants one -- it'd sit nicely in my kitchen, next to the panini press I never use and that Nespresso machine I feel terrible about, but use daily.

Thanks to its design, Cove's mechanics are neatly enclosed, but they're probably the most interesting thing about it. The first part of the filtration system uses "responsibly sourced" filtering materials that Totterman says absorb impurities, and include silver to prevent a buildup of bacteria. The second stage utilizes a miniature pump that pushes water through more mineral and filtering blocks and silver-coated, laser-etched membranes to catch further contaminates. What you're left with, says Cove, is purified water that hasn't been stripped of its minerals.

I spoke to a couple of experts on water contamination, and neither was willing to give a verdict (or have their names linked to an article) without more details on the product. Regardless, the makeup of Cove's anti-bacterial filter (catalytic-activated coconut shell carbon impregnated with silver) seems to be scientifically sound. Once we get our hands on a unit, we should be able to be more scientific with our analysis of the company's claims.

Assuming that the filtration process is as good as Totterman says it is, it's still only one part of what Cove's selling here. Now I'm probably not alone in rolling my eyes at the idea that my home needs yet another "revolutionary smart device," but Cove's smarts likely comprise a large chunk of its asking price, and they're well worth talking about. They include the ability to serve water at a range of temperatures, change the color of its lights to match your decor, monitor water quality to tell you when you need to order a new filter (which you can do through its app) and monitor how much water you're drinking and (optionally) send you notifications to let you know when you should be drinking more.

The quality monitoring is a nice touch. Many filters feature electronics, but they're usually acting as a glorified counter, only guessing when the filter has run its course, despite water hardness and quality varying dramatically from region to region. As for the "you need to drink water" alerts, I'm pretty sure my nervous system can send me push notifications by itself.

Drink Water Notification

There's also more to Cove than the company is letting on. Totterman was very coy when pressed, obviously afraid of giving away future business plans, but it's clear the sensors and electronics enclosed are capable of much more than the company is talking about right now. "We can collect data on the quality of the water, how it's being used. We can create all these algorithms that will then determine how we deliver certain filters to consumers."

That's an interesting thought: If the company can get enough Coves into homes around the world, it can build an independent map of water quality, work out the quirks of local supplies and tailor its product to better meet the needs of its users. It's essentially treating kitchen hardware the same way Google and others approach software: as an evolving product that gets better with time, that can become more effective as it learns about you, and your environment. If Cove wants to take even more cues from Google, the door could also be open to monetize that data at some point.

My thought going into this was that water filters were mostly a con. I have a pretty strong bias here: People are neurotic, and selling them an even-more-expensive filter is callously taking advantage of those neuroses. Speaking with Totterman at least convinced me he isn't simply trying to scare people into buying a product they don't need. I quizzed him about the claims existing water filters weren't up to the task, and the basis for Cove's belief that US drinking water is often contaminated. He's suggesting that drinking water in the US is at the very least unhealthy, if not dangerous. And when pressed to back this up, he cited (admittedly dated) independent studies and journalistic investigations. I'm not about to believe that anyone drinking water from the tap is in mortal danger, but he's clearly done his homework.

After our interview, Totterman sent along an essay on water safety and the weaknesses of various filtration systems he'd written on Medium a few weeks prior to Cove's launch. Although it's well-researched, it doesn't really explain in any real detail why his system is any better, and also somewhat unfairly includes purification systems that aren't really commonplace in the kitchen, like UV, which is used by campers to clean water when away from a power source.

Cove pre-orders kicked off this week at $249, and shipments start later this year. That's a lot of money to throw at a water filter, and way past my upper limit of an impulse buy. Despite giving Totterman a free pass on taking advantage of people's neuroses, it's likely that anyone picking up a $249 water filter is going to be hugely anxious about germs and other harmful things finding their way into drinking water. I'm a little uncomfortable about that, but if the market exists, it may as well be served properly.