Calculated by mass, the average human is made of 18.5% carbon. If you exclude oxygen, you have more carbon than any other element. Carbon also powers most of our world through coal and oil and it’s one of the best natural filters of water we have. Without carbon, life would look pretty different, or more likely, may not even exist.
Humans have found a lot of ways to employ carbon to fit our many needs, including water filtration.
One of the more important discoveries we made was that increasing the surface area of carbon — activating it — makes it better at water treatment. We also learned that impregnating carbon with other elements can help remove specific contaminants, like with catalytic carbon filters.
Catalytic carbon supercharges activated carbon, making it more effective against a larger variety of contaminants we find in our tap water.
In this article, we’re going to explain catalytic carbon vs. activated carbon, and tell you about the benefits of catalytic carbon filtration and how it can improve your drinking water at home.
Catalytic carbon (or catalytic activated carbon) is a form of activated carbon that is treated with high-temperature gas to alter its surface structure. The altered surface makes it a catalyst for various chemical reactions, which improve its water filtering abilities.
Using catalytic carbon vs. activated carbon is better to remove chloramines, which may be used to treat municipal water supplies. Where activated carbon struggles, catalytic carbon causes a chemical reaction that turns chloramines into harmless chloride.
Similarly, catalytic activity can break down hydrogen sulfides, which cause a bad taste and rotten egg smell in well water. Standard activated carbon is not effective here.
As a water filter media, catalytic carbon is a major improvement on activated carbon.
Activated carbon, or activated charcoal, is carbon treated to massively increase its surface area. With greater surface area, activated carbon can adsorb far more contaminants than it otherwise could. In some cases, activated carbon water filters have over 4,200 square meters of surface area per gram.
Activated carbon can be created by super heating carbon rich materials like wood, fibers, and coal without oxygen. It’s heated a second time in an oxygenated environment while being exposed to nitrogen or argon.
This unique, two-step burning process makes the carbon very porous, which increases its surface area. As water passes through and around the porous surface of activated carbon, many contaminants get pulled in and trapped, leaving your water cleaner.
Activated carbon is widely used because it's cheap and abundant, it’s very simple in the way it works, and it excels at removing some common contaminants like chlorine, which hurt your water quality.
One of the most widely used varieties in water filters is coconut shell carbon.
Catalytic carbon is a type of activated carbon but they are not the same. They differ in how they are made and how they react to different water contaminants.
Catalytic carbon is a type of activated carbon that goes through an extra treatment step to make it more reactive to certain contaminants.
To make catalytic carbon, activated carbon’s surface is altered by a high-temperature gas treatment to increase its catalytic properties. This makes it a better catalyst for promoting and accelerating chemical reactions — helping it to remove more contaminants from water than regular activated carbon.
In water and air filters, you’ll find activated carbon more often than you’ll find catalytic carbon. This is due to the low cost and abundance of activated carbon. If your water filter needs are simple, using a standard activated carbon filter could be a great way to keep your costs down while improving your water quality.
If your water filtering needs are a bit more complex, the added effectiveness of catalytic carbon might be able to meet your needs without resorting to more expensive reverse osmosis systems.
The benefits of catalytic carbon filters are that they remove or reduce a wide variety of contaminants from drinking water. These include:
Chlorine is the most common disinfectant used in public water systems. While it is very good at killing pathogens in your water, it can dry out your skin and make your water taste and smell like a swimming pool. It also creates dangerous disinfection byproducts.
This disinfectant is made by combining chlorine and ammonia. It is commonly used in municipal water systems because it lasts longer than chlorine. Like chlorine, chloramines can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems and also react to organic material in water to form harmful disinfectant byproducts like trihalomethanes.
These chemical compounds can form when chlorine and chloramines are used to disinfect water. THMs have been linked to a range of health problems, including cancer and reproductive issues. Catalytic carbon media removes trihalomethanes and other disinfection byproducts.
If you’ve ever wondered why well water smells so bad, hydrogen sulfide is your answer. This gas that smells like rotten eggs can also corrode your metal pipes and fixtures.
Pesticides and Herbicides
These dangerous chemicals commonly contaminate public and private water supplies as they are used heavily in both agriculture and lawn care. Catalytic carbon media helps you remove many of these harmful chemicals from your water.
Iron and Manganese
These metals stain your clothing and fixtures and can clog your pipes. If you have hard water, these minerals can make it worse. In fact, if you can remove iron before it hits your water softener, you may increase its efficiency and save some money on salt.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
These are organic chemicals that can evaporate into the air at room temperature. VOCs are in industrial and household products, and they can have negative health effects with prolonged exposure. Some of the VOCs that catalytic carbon removes are:
As you can see, the benefits of catalytic carbon filters are far beyond improving taste. This unique charcoal filter media also improves the quality of your water.
Catalytic carbon does reduce the concentrations of various heavy metals to different degrees but it’s not the best answer for heavy metals. For instance, KDF 55 does a much better job at removing heavy metals, bacteria, and algae. That’s one of the reasons why we chose to add NSF-certified KDF 55 to our flagship UPSTREAM 4-Stage Whole Home Water Filter system in addition to catalytic carbon.
A catalytic carbon filter is not a replacement for a water softener or salt-free water conditioner but it can be helpful. While it isn’t good at adsorbing hard water minerals like calcium and magnesium, it is good at removing iron. Iron compounds the problem of hard water and requires you to use more salt to treat it.
We’ve already talked about many benefits of catalytic carbon filters. Here’s a few more reasons why they are sought after:
If you want the best tasting water from your faucet, there are many benefits of catalytic carbon filters. Their improved functionality over activated carbon water filtration systems means fewer foul-tasting chemicals will find their way to your glass.
If you’re ready to see the difference catalytic carbon can make, try our American-made UPSTREAM 4-Stage Whole Home Water Filter. With a 5-micron prefilter, a catalytic carbon stage, KDF 55 stage, and clarity-increasing special gravel stage, it protects every faucet in your home from a long list of impurities. It’s easy to install, uses no electricity, and only occupies 8 square inches of space.
Or, find the perfect water filter for you by taking our filter quiz!