If I am being honest, I drink a potentially unhealthy amount of seltzer, and so, over the years, I have looked into options to make that cheaper. The obvious solution presented in almost every guide for at-home seltzer is SodaStream. It’s cheaper than the store! But let’s be honest with ourselves: it’s a rip-off, and everyone knows it.
This is not new or novel information. We are all aware that SodaStream's exchange system, while definitely cheaper than buying seltzer from the store, is way more expensive than it needs to be by design. Anybody who has homebrewed and kegged and has seen how much a 5-pound tank of CO2 costs to refill is intimately familiar with this. A dinky little CO2 tank should not cost $15 bucks a refill, which is why I finally committed to modifying a soda machine, and I am never going back.
Some background: I have owned a kegerator and a heavily discounted SodaStream in the past. The kegerator was heavenly, but I stopped drinking, and I live in New York City and could not justify keeping an additional refrigerator in my house just for seltzer. I tearfully parted ways with it. That thing was great. I could make 5 gallons of ice-cold seltzer at a time, and it cost like 15 bucks to get that tank refilled once a year, tops. I hope that my kegerator is doing well. I miss you so much, dear friend.
A dinky little CO2 tank should not cost $15 bucks a refill, which is why I finally committed to modifying a soda machine, and I am never going back.
The SodaStream, on the other hand, was an anemic replacement and was eventually lost in the chaos of a move. It does a perfectly acceptable job of carbonating water, but it felt cheaply made, and I was annoyed by the cost of refills stung every single time I had to step into a Bed Bath & Beyond. Why am I giving them 45 bucks plus tax to refill three tanks? Why am I doing this to myself? It was an indignity, made worse by the variations in SodaStream's valve designs refilling outside of their ecosystem. SodaStream's copy about how much money I was saving from buying seltzer made it sting even worse. Stop bullshitting me, man — you guys know exactly what you are doing. And even if you decide to go outside of them directly with something like Soda Sense or Drinkmate’s exchange program, the deal remains just as bad.
So what is the best soda maker for home? Outside of a kegerator, the answer is pretty clear: any number of the various SodaStream competitors (I have heard good things about the build quality of Drinkmate, and the Philips GoZero looks charming) preferably bought secondhand, with a third-party adapter to take either (clean, food grade) paintball canisters or a big honking CO2 tank. The bigger tank is always the better deal if you can swing it. If you have existing SodaStream-style 60L tanks, you can also just refill your own tanks using a CO2 tank, although the variations in their valve design can make it a hassle. This is an old hack; plenty of people know this, and I am here to reiterate that it remains the god’s honest truth until some heroic company decides to make a machine that is not bogged down by any of this nonsense.
Having finally committed to my search, I decided to find the nicest, fanciest soda maker on the market. I missed my kegerator’s smooth, chrome metal tap and wanted something that did not have the childish, plastic Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper feel of pressing down on a SodaStream. What’s more, appliances like soda makers and waffle makers are single-use, which means that people will often buy them on a whim or sale or will receive them as a gift. They will often use them for a short time and then never again. Dig in a little bit on eBay, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace, and you will find tons of people with impulsive buying habits trying to offload soda makers. This is where I found Aarke.
As far as I can tell, Aarke is the fanciest soda maker that they have out there in this ecosystem. I will admit this part is a little frivolous. It doesn’t do a better job of carbonating water than a SodaStream. It just looks and feels professionally made, and since I was hunting for deals, I decided to go all out. I found a limited edition, sand-colored matte Carbonator III, beautifully powder coated and by far the most pretentious one I could find. I pulled the trigger. Was it missing a drip tray? Sure, but it was also lightly used, way less than half the cost of retail, and Aarke sells replacements for that.
So why mods? On a personal level, even if I am forced to engage with a product compatible with their ecosystem, I didn’t want anything SodaStream branded in my house, even the tanks, because I am petty, and my experience with the last machine left a bad taste in my mouth. What’s more, SodaStream-style tanks have a different thread than standard CO2 tanks, and the company has designed their newer valves to be a huge pain in the ass to refill outside of their ecosystem. I did not even want to have to engage with trying to make that work. I also want the flexibility to use either smaller food-grade paintball tanks or bigger CO2 tanks down the line.
Now, let’s discuss the mods. If you look up “SodaStream adapter,” you will find countless adapters on Amazon and eBay of varying quality. Some of them seem to do the job (I impulse bought a cheap one that did not), but I had heard good things about SodaMod as being reliably well-made and clean, so I went with them. The Aarke Carbonator III, in particular, is also tremendously easy to mod: like many of these devices, it has a big hole in the bottom where the tank goes, so you can do what multiple people have done and connect it directly to a 5-pound tank with a TR21-4 To CGA320 (in the Americas, Europe, and Asia) hose adapter from Amazon. Alternatively, you can skip a carbonator and do something like this or refill smaller tanks at home with a bigger tank. My countertops are granite, and I unfortunately rent and cannot drill through them, so I instead chose the less sexy option of using cleaned paintball canisters, at least until I can sit down and 3D print a platform to snake a hose through.
The results are... exactly the same! It’s fizzy water, man — what do you expect? It’s so simple it is almost unfair to call it a mod. The only complication I have found is that you need to adjust the middle part of the adapter with a little included Allen wrench until it sits flush with the top and does not leak gas, but once that happens, you are home-free.
And the cost? Turns out CO2 is dirt cheap when you don’t have to trade it in at a Bed Bath & Beyond and, frankly, liberating. Back when I brewed in my 20s, I used to go to a welding supply company, and you can still do that if they have what you need. I have seen many people debate this specific point online for more than a decade, including guys who work filling CO2, but generally speaking, it is recommended that you stick to beverage-grade CO2 for your refills. Homebrewing stores and beverage gas suppliers will refill your cylinder for nothing relative to the cost of SodaStream or their competitors, although keep in mind when planning your mod that a lot of larger gas suppliers often won’t fill up paintball-style tanks. Just another reason to go big or go home.
Again, none of this is new information. SodaStream hacks have been around for years. But what is frustrating is I constantly see online guides continue to recommend the SodaStream without addressing one of the elephants in the room: that it is a mediocre deal when sold as stock and that they are a middleman jacking up the price of CO2, which we are all painfully aware is not a rare gas. That anyone needs to resort to these elaborate hijinks and workarounds instead of being able to buy a home carbonator that does not kind of suck out of the box is a tremendous bummer!
I would wager a guess that there are real reasons why nobody just sells a good home carbonator, either some weird patent or legal regulation. Or, more likely, nobody wants to get into a crowded market with a product where the consumer has to go to a weird industrial gas company. It’s a situation somehow feels worse than a Nespresso machine because at least coffee is a thing that grows out of the ground and making a home espresso machine that pulls a shot as good as a La Marzocco can be tremendously difficult. We are talking about a gas that every animal on earth exhales.
I am here to tell you, to reiterate, that there are better ways to Seltzer Paradise. You can go whole hog and get a homebrew setup, you can have a weird raw cylinder with a hose hanging off the wall, or you can hack some powder-coated Williams-Sonoma gizmo to take a huge canister. But do not give in to SodaStream’s unmodified nonsense. Only pain lies that way, and you will pay for it over time.