How the SteriPEN Works

Water filtration plant
If you don't have a water filtration plant handy, you'll need to kill the germs in your drinking water yourself.

Traveling the world in search of exotic destinations offers opportunities to experience bounties of diverse culture. It also offers you a chance to bring back with you a serious case of traveler's diarrhea (TD) or even worse, dysentery. That's because many countries don't have clean water for drinking and cooking.

If you travel to developing countries, you may have been warned by someone not to drink the water. Sounds easy enough, but few realize how much of what they consume comes in contact with water. With anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of all travelers becoming affected each year, TD can hit at anytime during or after your trip [source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control]. Escherichia coli (also known as E. Coli) is the main culprit. A bacterial enteropathogen, E. Coli can make you very sick and can even cause death in extreme cases. What's more, bacteria in developing countries affect 210 million children each year and claim the lives of 38,000 of them [source: Newswise]. Viral bacteria are a viable threat recognized by the World Health Organization(WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).


Now that you're terrified to drink the water outside of your home, there is a solution. A device called the SteriPEN is a gadget designed to sterilize water, making it safe to drink and cook with. Resembling a large bottle of nasal spray, SteriPEN is a compact device which uses ultraviolet light to sterilize water and make it safe for drinking. So how do these travel gadgets work, and how do you choose the most appropriate SteriPEN for your needs?

In the next section, we'll look into the mechanics of how this amazing travel gadget works.


Mechanics of the SteriPEN

If you break down the SteriPEN's name, you basically have the concept in a nutshell. The SteriPEN has the physical appearance of a pen and it sterilizes water. That's pretty straightforward, right? But what's amazing is how the SteriPEN rids water of those pathogens we learned about earlier. The key is ultraviolet light.

Ultraviolet light is energy-rich, electromagnetic energy naturally emitted from the sun. And while it can also have many adverse affects (this is why we wear sunscreen), when introduced to contaminated water, it destroys the ability for bacteria and viruses to reproduce. Once the DNA or RNA in virus or bacteria absorbs the UV light, it can no longer reproduce, effectively killing the organism and making it harmless to the human body.


The mechanics of the SteriPen are simple: It has a long, clear wand that lights up similar to a neon or fluorescent tube light. The wand on the end of the SteriPEN's body allows the UV light to transmit into the water. Each SteriPEN model works the same way. The small mechanical body produces the UV light and the wand captures and disperses it throughout the water. Each SteriPEN has a cleaning cycle and times vary depending on the model.

It's important to understand that while UV light sterilizes water; it doesn't remove bad odors or tastes as chemicals or carbon filtration would. The best possible solution for water purification would be a combination of sediment and particle removal followed by carbon filtration and then UV light sterilization. This gadget won't rid your water of any funky smells or coloration. You can use chemicals and carbon filters for that. But the SteriPEN will kill the bacteria that give you travelers diarrhea such as E. Coli so you won't get sick while you travel.

Now that you understand the mechanics of the SteriPEN, let's move on to some of the features and get into how to use it.


Using the SteriPEN

There are five different SteriPEN gadgets to choose from and each serves the same purpose, though they're designed for different situations. Whether you choose the Classic, Adventurer, Traveler, Protector or Journey, you have to decide which model fits your needs.

Once you've decided which of these works best for you, using the SteriPEN is a breeze. To use a SteriPEN, you simply insert the wand section into the cup or bottle of water you wish to purify for the set amount of time and voila, you'll have sterile water. In some cases, adapters are available to make this task easier. For instance, the Journey and Classic are designed to be mounted onto a standard water bottle. In addition, silicone bottle toppers are available that can turn differently sized bottle into a standard-sized water bottle opening. You can then insert the SteriPEN Classic or Journey into the silicone topper for a tight seal.


The most effective way to sterilize water is to use some sort of particle or sediment filter in conjunction with a carbon filter before UV filtering. Of course, the folks who designed the SteriPEN knew this, too. That's why they offer a pre-filter that's designed to remove particles as small as four microns in size.

For those of you who travel abroad and stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and don't plan on wandering off the beaten path, the SteriPEN Classic or Journey might be a better choice for you. These units are designed to work easily with water bottles. For those of you who travel to far away lands in search of hair-raising adventure, you might wish to pack the SteriPEN Adventurer, Traveler or Protector. These units are smaller, and besides, you probably don't have room in your backpack for standard-sized water bottles like a traveler walking through the streets of Mexico City or Paris. Whatever the case, UV sterilization with a SteriPEN can greatly reduce your chances catching a viral infection when you should be enjoying your travel away from home.

For more information on travel gadgets and related topics, please browse through the next section.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • (May 23, 2009)
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. "Researchers discover significant efficacy of travelers' diarrhea vaccine." Newswise Medical News. June 10, 2008. (May 24, 2009)
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control. "Disease listing, Traveler's Diarrhea." (May 23, 2009)
  • World Health Organization. "Managing water in the home: accelerated health gains from improved water supply." (May 23, 2009)