Improve Your Water Quality

We've got tips on testing and treatment techniques.


Clean, healthful water is essential to your well-being. If you are concerned about the quality of your water, have it tested. Your local health department or water utility maybe able to suggest a company who can do the testing in your area. Or contact your State Certification Officer for a list of certified water testing labs. You can also call firms that sell water treatment equipment. Remember, though, that not all impurties are hazardous to your health. Even water that tastes terrible may not be harmful.

Two filter systems. Depending on the findings of your water test, you could be looking at something as drastic as a new plumbing system or one of several types of filtering units. You'll find two general approaches to water purification:

  • Whole-house purification systems filter all the water entering your home, whether it's used for washing dishes, bathing, flushing toilets, or doing laundry. For most folks, such systems are not necessary, although it may make sense for people with extreme sensitivities to the impurities in the water.
  • Point-of-entry systems focus on water used for drinking, cooking, and bathing. This type of unit is generally the most economical. Water purification devices, which are attached at the point of use, filter out impurities and make tap water safe to drink.

Prices for water filtration equipment range from $20 for a tap-water-filtering pitcher to thousands of dollars for whole-house systems. Faucet-mounted filters and undercountersystems connected directly to your plumbing fall somewhere between those price extremes.

After you choose a whole house or point-of-use system, you'll still need to decide on a type of treatment. Your choices, roughly in order of increasing effectiveness (and cost) include filtration, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light, and distillation. (Many whole-house systems combine several of these treatment devices.)

Here's the scoop on these purification options:

1. Filtration relies on a physical barrier to block impurities. Filters may be composed of fabric, fiber, ceramic, or other screening materials. Be sure the material you choose blocks the impurities in your water. Labels generally specify what pollutants the product removes.

Activated charcoal, found in many faucet filters and water pitchers, reduces chlorine, pesticides, and organic chemicals and sweetens foul tastes and odors.

If you choose to use a filter system, remember that you may need to change the filters frequently. Fouled filters can harbor potentially dangerous organisms and pollutants, including some generally harmless bacteria normally carried in drinking water. Countertop systems start at about $50; undercounter systems range from $70 to $130. Shower-mounted filters cost about $70.

2. Reverse osmosis units, like the under-the-sink model shown here, use a special membrane that allows clean waterto pass, but not certain impurities. The Centers for Disease Control consider them the most effective way to treat residential water. However, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), reverse osmosis can waste 3-5 gallons of water to create 1 gallon of purified water. Choosing a reverse osmosis system with a high recovery rate reduces water waste: a 25 percent rating is considered efficient. Undersink units range in price from $350 to $600. Several manufacturers recently introduced pullout faucets that feature a filter as an integral part of the faucet handle; the units retail for about $450, with replacement cartridges from $22 to $27. (Photo courtesy Kinetico.)

3. Ultraviolet-light disinfection destroys bacteria and inactivates viruses. Because these systems cannot remove chemical pollutants or sediments, they are often part of whole-house systems that include filtration. Such combination systems start at about $45. Expect your electric bill to rise; these units are expensive to operate and require periodic bulb changes.

4. Distillation systems work by vaporizing water, then condensing it. The process removes dissolved solids such as salts, metals, and minerals. However, the process will not remove pollutants that condense then reconstitute with the water. These units are energy eaters and give off heat. Residential systems typically distill from 1/2 gallon to 10 gallons an hour and range from $1,100 to more than $5,000. One countertop model takes six hours to distill 1 gallon of water and costs about $200.

Finding a Dealer

The FTC cautions consumers to be wary of salespersons who claims your area water is contaminated or that their product is government-approved. The EPA registers products but does not test or approve them.

Choose a system bearing the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) seal of approval. NSF has a voluntary certification program. NSF does not rate or recommend particular brands but can provide useful information.

Before purchasing a water filtration system, determine what your long-term costs will run. All treatment systems require maintenance, and all filters need replacement. A more expensive system may actually cost less to operate if its maintenance and filters are less expensive than those of a lower-cost model.

For More Information

How do you find out about your own area's water quality? The nearest of the EPA's 10 offices, your state agencies, your county cooperative extension service, public health department, and local water supplier all have information. Most communities issue water-quality reports. If you pump your own wellwater, state and local health departments usually have standards and recommendations for the frequency of testing.

The EPA regulates Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for more than 80 contaminants and is developing regulations for levels of disinfection byproducts (DBPs). DBPs form when disinfectants, such as chlorine, react with organic matter in treated drinking water. Long-term exposure to some DBPs may have adverse health effects, including increased cancer risk.

For more information, call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline: 800/426-4791 or visit their Web site at EPA.gov/safewater. You can also contact the Water Quality Association at 630/505-0160.

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