Zephyrhills bottled water: behind the scenes at Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water bottling plant

9:45 AM, May 19, 2011   |    comments
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The waters at the Zephyrhills source are shown in this photo provided by Crystal Springs Preserve.

Zephyrhills, Florida -- You see it on maps, and at the supermarket. It's Zephyrhills. This tasty water's been bottled in the Bay area for more than 50 years. We take you behind the scenes.

Twist open a bottle. Sip. Think the water's cool and refreshing? You have no idea.

Go to the source and you'll see swirling water that is stunningly clear and crisp.

The first bottles of Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water came from these openings in the fertile Florida earth, feeding the Hillsborough River with cool, clear-as-crystal water at an enormous rate.

Bottling here began in 1960. But this place wasn't nearly so pristine. The springs were a swimmin' hole -- loved to the edge of destruction.

The Zephyrhills waterworks were bought out in the 1980's. New owner Nestle Waters and the Thomas family, which owns this land, surrounded the springs with a nature preserve and education center that Karen Pate manages.

"It is really, truly like being in a pocket of paradise," Pate said, looking out from a high boardwalk that overlooks the springs, with turtles sunning above the surface and grass gently waving below.

Inside the Crystal Springs Preserve there are 140 different small springs. Altogether, they pump out about 40 million gallons of water a day. Just one crack in the earth, easily visible from a wooden footbridge at the preserve, sends forth 11 and a half million gallons each day.

Almost every bit of Zephyrhills water is bottled from this original source in Pasco County.

The company says a small amount is sometimes taken from another source in northern Florida; the bottles are all labeled to indicate that. They say Zephyrhills is never bottled outside the Sunshine State.

An average of one to two percent of the total gushing flow at the Pasco County source finds its way into a stainless steel underground pipe.

After flowing through Florida's sand and stone bedrock for sometimes decades, picking up minute traces of fresh-flavoring minerals, each drop makes a final three-and-a-half mile trip to Zephyrhills' staggering, state-of-the-art bottling plant.

Gleaming machinery and winding rows of brightly-labeled bottles are everywhere. "It takes a lot to put water in a bottle at the end of the day," explains Jeff Smatsky, who manages the amazing equipment and 260 workers.

The incoming water is filtered and hit with UV light to purify it, then tested. And tested. And tested some more.

This facility has ten different production lines that run all day long. Each one is tested 200 times a day by scientists in the plant's microbiology lab. Wearing lab coats, they peer through microscopes and label sample after sample.

Plant managers say, on average, the water here's tested 60 times more often than the city water that flows into your house.

"Our families drink this water. My two-year old son drinks the water. So it's gotta be safe for our families, just like everybody else's," said Lance Tully, a natural resource specialist at the plant.

Now -- let's get that beautiful beverage into a bottle.

A plastic piece the size of your thumb -- looking something like a stubby test tube -- is blown up at a blinding rate. In an instant, it's a bottle.

It slides overhead along an elevated track, joined by thousands of others, and waits for a turn at one of ten whirling fillers.

Your eyes can't follow these massive spinning machines. Picture a squat stainless steel carnival carousel with water spouts in place of the poles and animals.

Something this big shouldn't be able to twirl this quickly. At full speed, 1,300 bottles are topped off and capped every minute.

Labels get snipped off big spools and stuck on. Along the way, lasers replace human eyes checking for any concerns like unfilled bottles or crooked caps.

"We measure ourselves at a high level of success -- at high standards," Smatsky, the plant manager, said. "And to repeat that over and over and over again, [which] we have to do each and every day -- every bottle, every minute -- is a challenge."

Capped bottles create a conga line.

Smoothly, they slide along stainless steel conveyors. Sometimes they move through narrow lanes, just a few bottles wide. In other places, the white caps create a sea of bottle tops -- all gliding further on along the line.

The bottles are seamlessly and automatically grouped into bunches the size of supermarket 24-packs. The conveyor carries each group down a tunnel of plexiglass and through a wrapping machine.

In one second, a plastic wrapper pre-printed with the blue, green, and white Zephyrhills logo sweeps up from below, pulled by mechanical arms, and surrounds the cluster of bottles. The wrapper shrinks tight, and the finished package flows out of the tunnel.

A few feet away, stacks of those 24-bottle packages get one last touch. They're arranged several layers high on top of a wooden shipping pallet. The pallet slides down rollers into a sort of gazebo built of orange metal.

A rotating head moves up and down inside the gazebo, wrapping the whole tower of packages in a thin plastic wrapper designed to hold all of the bottles together as they're sent to stores across Florida and a few other parts of the southeastern U.S.

An entire pallet of 1,500 bottles gets tightly cocooned in 60 seconds. It's ready for a ride out of the plant, off to the store, and eventually -- refreshingly -- right to your lips.

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Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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