MSR’s Water Lab Goes the Distance

MSR’s Water Lab Goes the Distance

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As we walked up to the railing, the factory floor one level below us sprawled into our view. “There it is” said my host Martin Maisonpierre, the Communications Director for Cascade Designs. “Well, some of it at least. This is mostly MSR. Therm-a-Rest is mostly located in the building next door and we just opened a facility in Reno, Nevada.” We’re in Seattle between the stadiums and the airport—the industrial district.

Below us were dozens of factory workers building the gear we all rely on to keep us safe and comfortable (mostly) on our adventures. A walk down on the floor revealed some familiar sights. We walked through the assembly lines of the WhisperLite stove, a standard for backpackers for over 25 years. We also walked by where MSR was refining the assembly process of one of their newest products, the Guardian.

Available in January, the Guardian is a water pump, filter and purifier unlike anything else on the market. While hollow fiber has been around for a while, it’s been tricky to figure out how best to handle it, contain it and to get the most out of it in the easiest way. I got a little preview of the Guardian while floating down the milky Bella Coola River in British Columbia. When we stopped to explore some, the Guardian came out and put on an impressive show of taking the cloudy water of the river and turning it crystal clear. Granted, many filters on the market today could probably show very similar visual results. But the clever thing about the Guardian is the way it self-cleans. The intake hose is actually a double hose. One is the standard input drawing from the source while the other is pumping out water that was used to flush the hollow fiber. The filtered water comes out of the bottom of the pump. This is all fine and dandy in this single instance but the Guardian has been tested rigorously in Cascade Design’s water lab to show it can handle silted water over the long term too. Its durability will be put to the test by the Gear Institute this spring on a week-long hike down Paria Canyon, a place where every other water filter has gone to die. Also note this is a true water purifier, not just a filter. While most other filters remove bacteria, protozoa and particulate, the Guardian also physically removes viruses from the water at an unbelievable rate of 2.5L per minute, and has a lifespan of 10,000 liters. More details available at guardianpurifier.com.

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But not everyone needs that kind of protection, nor are they going to want to spend the $350 for it. MSR still makes their MiniWorks microfilters for around $90. These have a ceramic filter which is mixed, shaped, baked and assembled right here in their Seattle facility.

If the Guardian purifier is impressive in the field, the lab from whence it came is even more so. Cascade Designs has built a state-of-the-art facility that is creating products that are highly focused on three categories: military, recreational, and humanitarian. Funding comes in from all three as well, with the military often commissioning the lab with grants to research how to make water purifiers smaller, lighter and faster. Which is exactly what the recreationalist is looking for as well. Through this process, the company has been able to convert products originally developed for the military into something that consumers can use too.

On the humanitarian side of things, the lab receives grants and works with a number of organizations like PATH and the Gates Foundation. Cascade Designs launched MSR Global Health to further their efforts in creating technologies and products that can serve these humanitarian efforts, and help developing communities improve their health through clean water.

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MSR is currently doing this primarily through the creation of chlorine by extracting it from salt. When I asked about UV purification, lab manager Zac Gleason just shook his head. He said that while UV light can work great, there are too many variables, from water clarity to exposure time, keeping guaranteed success impossible to promise. But they’ll never write it off completely. If a new way to handle UV treatment, or any other technologies come along, they’ll run them through the lab as well.

In the meantime, we have the Guardian to look forward to. It looks like it is on the cutting edge of water purification technology, but we’ll know for sure soon enough.

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