How to test and improve your tap water


Water filters, whether installed on a faucet or on a jug in your refrigerator, have been making drinking water healthier for decades.

But not everyone uses them, and they don’t address the effects of hard water on your home and appliances. We asked several experts what homeowners need to know about the quality of their water: Mary Gordon, vice president of InSite Builders & Remodeling in Bethesda; Tim Dunphy, a water expert at Leaf Home Water Solutions, a national provider of water solutions for homeowners; and Chuck Khiel, senior vice president at Fred Home Improvement in Bethesda. All replied via email and their replies have been edited for clarity.

What problems might homeowners encounter when testing their water quality?

Gordon: In general, homeowners will not find any problems or contaminants when testing their water quality. Most water in the US is filtered at water treatment plants, and water safety standards are mandated by the government. Water companies like WSSC publish a water quality report annually.

However, if you live in rural areas and get your water from a well, you should test your water at least once a year. Well water does not always have access to water treatment plants.

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Dunphy: Hard water is one of the most common water quality problems discovered during testing. It can be found in houses with city or well water. Another common problem in city water is disinfection chemicals (e.g., chlorine) and by-products that cause unpleasant tastes and odors, damaged hair and skin, and potential adverse health effects. Well water sees several challenges identified through water quality testing, such as the presence of iron, manganese, or hydrogen sulfide, a naturally occurring element that makes your water smell like rotten eggs. “Sulfur water” is the common term for this, and it can cause problems like stained faucets, a bitter taste in water, corroded metal, and dirty linen. Water testing can also reveal more serious problems, like lead or arsenic contamination and PFAs, also known as “Forever Chemicals.”

khiel: Serious problems would be if high concentrations of heavy metals such as lead and mercury are detected in drinking water. These can lead to significant health problems, especially in children.

What are common problems caused by hard water?

Gordon: Hard water is caused by high levels of minerals such as magnesium and calcium.

⋅ Shorten the life of appliances and water heaters.

⋅ Leave residue or stains in bathtubs, showers, toilet bowls, drinking glasses, dishes and laundry.

⋅ Causing mineral deposits in shower fixtures, faucets, drains and pipes.

⋅ Causing unpleasant tastes and odors in water and causing dry or itchy skin.

Is hard water bad for drinking?

Dunphy: Hard water is safe to drink, but has a pronounced mineral flavor that many find unappealing, especially at higher concentrations. It poses no threat to your health and may provide increased levels of calcium and magnesium in your diet.

How do you test your water quality?

Gordon: The most accurate hard water test is to send a sample to an accredited independent laboratory. The EPA website contains a list of certified laboratories.

Dunphy: Homeowners should be aware that not all tests provide specific or accurate results. We recommend using our free digital water test, which assesses hardness, chlorine, pH, iron, copper, alkalinity and more.

khiel: There are many water test kits on the market. Most are fairly easy to use. Fill a clean container with tap water, insert a test strip into the container, let it dry, and then compare it to the chart provided to see what it reads.

Does a regular water filter—in the fridge or on the faucet—solve water quality problems?

Dunphy: Most simple fridge, jug, or faucet filters rely on carbon as the primary filtration method. This reduces some chemicals through absorption, but does not address water issues such as hardness, metals, bacteria, viruses, or ultrafine contaminants. These filters also only treat certain sources of water in the home and leave all other sources such as showers, bathtubs, sinks, appliances, etc. untreated.

khiel: Installing a water filter in the refrigerator or on a faucet can certainly help with water quality issues; however, it depends on what’s in the water. For example, with hard water, iron and magnesium need to be removed to improve water quality. Typically, the faucet filters are not designed for this. Understanding what is in the water will help determine what type of filter, if any, is needed.

What else can homeowners do to improve their water quality?

Gordon: Homeowners can improve their water quality with regular maintenance of water heaters, older pipes, and other plumbing devices. Keep gullies clear by regularly removing leaves and other garden debris. Properly dispose of hazardous materials such as paint and chemicals. Research different types of water filtration systems, ranging in size and price, to find the system that’s right for your home.

Dunphy: To improve water quality, homeowners can invest in an entire home water treatment system based on concerns and specific contaminants in their water supply identified through testing.

A combination water softener/carbon system or salt-free water conditioner/carbon system is normally recommended for homes that are supplied with city water. A well-fed home typically requires more sophisticated, advanced filtration systems to address specific water issues. It is also recommended to combine a UV disinfection system and a reverse osmosis drinking water system under the sink to protect the house from bacteria and viruses.

The price range for water filtration solutions depends on location, household size and filtration needs. When professionally installed, complete whole-home municipal water systems can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000. Complete fountain systems can range from $3,500 to $10,000 professionally installed depending on the complexity of the water challenges.

khiel: The first step is to understand what is in the water. Faucet filters can cost anywhere from $150 to $250. An entire home filtration system can cost thousands of dollars in labor and materials.

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