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Water Dispenser Cleaning Guide 2024

how to clean a water dispenser

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. At least they used to. In any case, it’s still relevant, and doubly so when it comes to preventing bacteria growth in your water dispenser. If you’re not sure how to clean your water dispenser, this guide is for you.

Even the best brands of water dispensers, over time, need to be cleaned thoroughly to prevent the risk of contamination by certain bacteria, toxins, and chemicals. With regular use your water dispenser eventually needs more than the occasional wipe down to keep serving clean, filtered water.

By taking the time to thoroughly clean the exterior and interior components of your water dispenser, you can greatly reduce the level of risk. Fortunately, many of today’s leading brands design their dispensers to the strictest standards of quality for health and safety. Codes established by the EPA as well as the US Department of energy work together to ensure the highest standard of drinking water from your dispenser [1].

Do Water Dispensers Need To Be Cleaned?

It’s somewhat ironic, but yes, a water dispenser needs to be cleaned if it is to operate at peak efficiency. Filters, storage tanks, and tubing can accumulate microscopic remains of filtered contaminants from your water, toxins, as well as bacteria.

This residue build-up, over time, can leach back into your filtered water through the tubes that deliver water to the spouts, as well as from inside the water reservoir or storage tank directly.

How Does A Water Dispenser Get Dirty?

Bacteria are microscopic organisms that live everywhere. They can literally be found in just about every kind of environment and ecosystem on earth, making them nearly impossible to escape.

Even before you unpack your new water dispenser, it may already have attracted these pesky, yet necessary microorganisms. As a 2014 abstract explains from the Iranian Journal of Public Health,

“Drinking water quality can be deteriorated by microbial and toxic chemicals during transport, storage and handling before using by the consumer [2].”

That being said, your water dispenser is full of the “koodies” as kids would say. The surface, tubes, exterior, interior and reservoirs all have bacteria. When you unwrap your water dispenser, put it on your countertop and plug it in, it begins accumulating bacteria lurking in your home. Just by handling your water dispenser, you are leaving bacteria behind.

Is Cleaning My Water Dispenser Really Necessary?

A study by scientists at Northwestern University in Boston tested the bacterial count in water coolers. Their testing revealed almost 4x the amount of bacterial organisms limited by the federal government [3].

As we said earlier, bacteria thrives in humid, moist conditions. Even after your water dispenser with the hot water tap shuts off overnight, it cools down. Inside, moisture creates the perfect breeding ground for bacteria to develop and grow.

Image of E. Coli / Fecal Coliform

4 Most Common Bacteria And Viruses Found In Water

While bacteria plays a crucial role in sustaining life as we know it, too much of the wrong kind of bacteria can be harmful for humans [4].

  • Coliform: naturally occurring viruses, their presence indicates the possibility of other harmful bacteria
  • E. Coli / Fecal Coliform: their presence in water indicates the presence of other harmful bacteria that can cause short term health effects (cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, etc). Individuals with weakened immune systems are particularly at risk
  • Enteroviruses: small intestinal viruses living inside people and animals which can lead to 62 non-polio viruses, including meningitis and gastroenteritis
  • Legionella: causes a type of pneumonia called Legionnaires disease

How Often Should I Clean My Water Dispenser?

We can find ways to reduce bacterial growth, but not eliminate them entirely. The US Dept of Energy advises consumers to clean a water dispenser every 6 weeks, or with every bottle change, whichever comes first [5].

Parts of A Water Dispenser

While every brand differs in design and engineering specs, there are a number of standard components for any water dispenser.
Storage Tank: Also referred to as a reservoir, some units have either 1 or 2 for storing water that has been refrigerated or heated before serving. The storage tank is usually high-grade stainless steel that resists corrosion and is less easily contaminated by bacteria.

Water Heater: A heating method that uses electricity and converts it into a form of radiant heat that heats the water in the storage tank. The heating system could be an electric heating element designed for high efficiency and low wattage. This applies specifically to dual dispensing units that offer cold and hot water, or cold, hot and room temperature.

Refrigeration System: Similar to the one in your refrigerator, but much smaller of course. Water is transferred from the bottle to the storage tank where its chilled afterwards. Once you activate the refrigeration system, it takes some time (20 – 30mn on premium brands) to cool the water down sufficiently before it can be served.

Spout / Spigot: Located on the front of your water dispenser, the spigot or spout is the dispensing point for your water. On most brands, manual push buttons allow you to select the desired spigot, with icons indicating hot, cold, and lukewarm.

Bottle Collar: Attaches to the mouth of any standard 5 gallon bottle of filtered water

Tubing: All water dispensers need tubes to channel water from the bottle to the reservoir and back to the spigot. A combination of piping and tubes pumps the water from the bottle as needed. Inside the narrow tubing and pipes of your water cooler is where moisture and bacteria can really fester, building over time.

Drip Tray: Usually made of quality plastic that is dishwasher safe, BPA-free, or stainless steel. In some dispensers, the drip tray can be removed for cleaning by hand.

Storage Cabinet: In bottom loading water coolers, a storage unit conceals the water bottle from view. To access the water bottle, you open the door on the front or side of the unit. Top loading water dispensers can also include a storage unit, with shelving or cup holders for keeping cold beverages, ice, etc.

Image of Avalon A1 Water cooler

How To Clean Your Water Dispenser

Whether it’s Brio, Avalon, Primo or Whirlpool, you can effectively clean your water dispenser by following these steps.

Part 1: Disassembly And Bottle Removal

  1. Read through the user manual that came with your product to avoid damaging your water dispenser inadvertently.
  2. Always unplug the unit from the outlet at least 5 minutes prior to cleaning.
  3. Locate the drain spigot or spout for the water storage tank or tanks. Dual dispensing units with hot and cold will typically have a drain spout for the hot water, but not the cold. Drain all the water from the reservoir.
  4. Detach the water bottle from the bottle collar and remove the applicator (if applicable).
  5. Open the lid of your water dispenser, or remove the back from the casing, which is usually attached to the frame by screws. This should allow you access to the water reservoir, as well as any filters that may be included with your dispenser. Refer to your product manual’s assembly instructions.

Part 2: Components And Cleaning Solution

  1. Prepare a cleaning solution of bleach and water using 3 teaspoons of water for every 1 gallon of water.
  2. Next, using a clean,lint-free cloth or sponge, gently wipe the bottle collar and inside of each reservoir.
  3. Continue to thoroughly wipe all components of the water dispenser, including the top of the dispenser, the lid, spigots, and grill.

Part 3: Tubes And Reservoirs

  1. Now you need to clean the tubes that deliver the water from the reservoir to the spigot. To do this, fill the reservoir with the bleach/water solution and drain 2-3 cups through the spigots.
  2. To clean the reservoirs thoroughly, fill each of them with the cleaning solution.
  3. Let stand for 10-15 minutes.
  4. Drain, rinse and flush thoroughly with fresh water. DO NOT serve or drink any water from your dispenser until you have flushed the tubes and reservoir thoroughly of any bleach residue.

Part 4: Drip Tray, Vents And Grill

  1. Remove the drip tray and place in your dishwasher, or wash with soap and water, according to your user manual directions.
  2. Clear any vents of dust and debris with the lint-free cloth or feather duster.
  3. Dust the refrigeration grill located on the back of your dispenser for dust accumulation. A handheld vacuum with an extension hose and crevice tool is also a good way to thoroughly remove any dust.


Replace your empty water bottle and re-attach to your dispenser. Flush the first 3 cups to get rid of any potential bleach residue.

Now you’re ready to enjoy clean, healthy, filtered water again. By cleaning your water dispenser on a regular routine, you’ll significantly reduce the level of bacteria in your water, and prevent harmful ones from growing.

Final Thoughts

Relatively speaking, the effort required to clean a 5 gallon capacity water dispenser is minimal. Cleaning your charcoal BBQ grill is a chore, but cleaning your water dispenser is an inconvenience at best. The benefits to your health, however? Priceless.

Keep disinfectant wipes handy and wipe down the exterior, buttons and spigots on your water dispenser during flu season to help reduce the spread of germs. Vinegar, baking soda, water, and some lemon is another alternative to bleach, and safer. You’ll still need to flush out your dispenser thoroughly before you begin serving water again.

Finally, keep lids and doors on your water dispenser closed to reduce the risk of harmful chemicals, toxins, or bacteria being drawn into the unit. Your HVAC system, fan, humidifier, or even an open window can send random microscopic particles and debris hurtling into the interior of your water cooler.


[1] National Recommended Water Quality Criteria – Aquatic Life Criteria Table (EPA)
[2] Assessment of Drinking Water Quality from Bottled Water Coolers. (NCBI)
[3] Water Coolers, Grime & Your Health (NewAir)
[4] Bacteria commonly found in drinking water creates conditions which enable other — potentially harmful — bacteria to thrive (
[5] Energy Efficient Products / Water Coolers (EnergyStar)