Which Water Filter System Is Right For Your Home?

by Janelle Sorensen, Chief Communications Officer, Healthy Child Healthy World

Healthy Child Healthy World receives a lot of questions from people wondering which water filter they should buy. But, it's a tough question to answer because drinking water quality varies from place to place, depending on the condition of the source water from which it is drawn and the treatment it receives. It also matters what types of pipes lead up to your home, what kind of pipes and solder are used inside your home, and even what kind of faucets and fixtures you have installed.

Talk about confusing. Every individual faucet releases a distinct glass of water.

Here are 5 steps to help you navigate these muddy waters and find a clear solution for a filtering system.

Step 1: Assess.

If you don't know what's in your water, you don't know what needs filtering out.

  • If you rely on a public water utility, you can check the Consumer Confidence Report - which is an annual report that lists the chemicals they test for in your water, as well as how your water is treated. You can also visit the Environmental Working Group's Tap Water Database and enter your zip code to see what's been found in your water.
  • If you have a private well, it's up to you to figure out what contaminants might be lurking. Start by calling your local health department, as well as scoping out your neighborhood (look for any potential sources of contamination like pesticides or animal waste from farms, heavy metals and chemicals from mines, industrial effluent, landfills, etc).

Step 2: Test.

Decide if you can use a do-it-yourself kit or if you'll need to hire a professional to test your water. DIY testing kits that can be found at home improvement and hardware stores are adequate for identifying the presence of some of the most common contaminants. If you're testing for something more obscure or a wide range of contaminants, you may need a professional's help. Again, you can call your local public health or environmental quality offices for guidance or you can check with a state certified laboratory.

  • Private well owners should test their water at least annually. Some should test more often if there are significant potential changes in water quality (like the seasonal applications of pesticides and fertilizers).
  • Everyone should test for lead as it can be present in pipes, solder, and even fixtures. Until you test for lead, let your water run for a minute or two each morning to flush out the water that's been sitting in the pipes overnight (use that water for your houseplants).

Step 3: Choose.

Once you have your test results, you should first consider the exposure levels. For some contaminants, you may be exposed to much higher levels through everyday products than through water. If you're concerned about a specific chemical, you may be better off identifying larger exposure sources and focusing on them. If you feel filtration is necessary - look for filters labeled as meeting NSF/ANSI standard 53 and that are certified to remove the contaminant(s) of concern in your water. (Those that meet standard 53 treat water for health, not just for aesthetic qualities like taste or color). The EWG's Water Filter Buying Guide is a great tool for helping you find the right system for your needs.

There are pitchers, countertop models, under-sink filters, filters that attach directly to your tap, and even whole house models. You might even find that no filter works for your situation. That's what happened with my family. We tested and found that our water required reverse osmosis to remove the contaminants, but our home didn't have the water pressure necessary for reverse osmosis. We ended up buying several three and five gallon water bottles (BPA-free) that we fill using filtered water at stations you can find at co-ops and grocery stores.

In regards to the cost of filters, the more expensive filtration systems are sometimes actually cheaper in the long run than the less expensive ones. You have to take into consideration the life span of the filter. Smaller pitcher filters may only have a life span of a hundred gallons, while a larger system may last though several thousand gallons. So, per gallon of water you could be paying over 20 cents with a pitcher and only about 10 cents with a larger system.

Note: No filter removes 100% of contaminants. They can just get very close.

Step 4: Maintain.

Be sure to maintain your filter properly by following the manufacturer's directions to ensure effectiveness. If you allow contaminants to build up, a filter's efficacy decreases and it can actually make your water worse by releasing bacteria or chemicals back into your water.

Step 5: Re-assess.

Water quality can change over time. Keep an eye on your local news and health advisories to stay abreast of any conditions that could pose new risks. Here were just a few I found as I researched for this post:

  • Labor Day campers at Angeles National Forest left behind tens of thousands of pounds of trash and feces that could end up in the San Gabriel River which supplies 35% of LA's drinking water.
  • The Vermont Department of Public Health is offering free water testing kits to users of private wells that may have been contaminated by flood waters.
  • A boil water order has been issued for the Barcelona Water District in Westfield, New York.
  • After a pipeline was washed out by recent storms, Rutland City, Vermont's drinking water reservoir is counting down the days of its drinking water supply. Residents are urged to conserve and will be fined for watering lawns or washing down driveways.
  • Only 40 percent of Maine's private wells have been tested for arsenic, but scientists mapping arsenic levels in Maine say the toxin is showing up in more locations than previously suspected, with levels in some wells exceeding the federal safety standard by 10 times -- or more.

Also, remember to take simple steps to reduce your individual impacts on water quality. Do your part by never flushing unused medications or household hazardous waste down the toilet or sink. Check to see if your pharmacy accepts medications for disposal. Also, contact your local health department for information about proper disposal of pharmaceuticals and other materials that could potentially contaminate water, such as cleaning chemicals, pesticides, and automotive products. The safety of one of the most fundamental necessities to all life is in our hands.

Do you use a water filter? What kind?