Water, water everywhere… and so many ways to mess with it!
You’ve got your bottled water, alkaline water, structured water, deuterium-depleted water. It turns out the water can be pretty darn complicated—and contentious. People have strong opinions about what makes the healthiest, most hydrating water. I’m glad to see folks care so much about what they put in their body, but it can be overwhelming.
Today I’m starting with the basics: filtering your water, why you might want to, and how to choose the best water filter for your household. Let me know in the comments if there are other water-related topics you’d like me to cover in the future.
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Why Should You Filter Your Water?
The most basic reason to get a filter is that you don’t enjoy the taste or odor of your tap water. You don’t have to live with whatever funky water comes out of the tap. An inexpensive filter can completely change how your water tastes and smells.
Second, of course, is if you believe your tap water is contaminated. In the U.S., all municipal water is tested annually. Testing doesn’t necessarily guarantee safe water, though. Municipal testing won’t catch all impurities, nor contamination that occurs within your own home (leaching from lead pipes, for example).
The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for setting water safety standards. Currently the EPA has legal limits on more than 90 potential water contaminants.1 Some areas of the country log more violations than others. 2 3
In an interview last year, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler bragged that 92 percent of Americans drink have access to drinking water that meets all EPA standards.4 What about those other 8 percent?
Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough
Even if you’re in that lucky 92 percent, a bigger point for some folks—and for many of my readers, I know—is that they aren’t content with “acceptable” levels of certain chemicals in their water.
“Safe” drinking water can still contain compounds that you don’t want to voluntarily put in your body. These include chemical contaminants like lead and arsenic, and microbes that can cause water-borne illness.
Many people are also concerned about the chemicals added to water in the name of public health. Your tap water almost certainly contains chlorine or chloramine—a chlorine-ammonia compound—which is added in order to sanitize drinking water.5 6 Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Chemical disinfectants are the reason so many of us now enjoy tap water that doesn’t make us acutely ill. I get why you’d want to remove them before drinking, though, especially folks who are sensitive to chlorine.
Another source of contention is the fluoride that some water districts add to drinking water, purportedly to increase dental health. This is a huge hornet nest I’m not going to step in today. Suffice it to say that lots of people don’t want to ingest fluoridated water.
FYI, the Environmental Working Group offers more stringent drinking water standards you can reference if EPA standards are laxer than you’d like.7
How to Choose a Water Filter: Test Before You Invest
Different water filters offer different benefits. Before handing over your money, do a little bit of research into the water coming out of your tap. This will help you decide which filter technology you need.
First, go online and search for “[my water district] water quality report,” or contact your water provider and ask for a copy of recent consumer confidence reports.8 This will tell you what type of disinfectant your water district adds, as well as if they are in violation of any EPA regulations. You might want to email your local water quality division to ask if they rotate disinfectants throughout the year. The CDC also keeps a database of which water systems add fluoride.9
If you have a private well or cistern, you already know (hopefully!) that the onus is on you to have your water tested annually by a state-certified lab. The CDC recommends testing for pH levels, total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, as well as any known contaminants in your area.10 11 Your local health department can help determine what tests are advisable. If you collect rainwater, check out the CDC’s safety recommendations.12
Whether or not you have a well, it is wise to have your water tested if you are concerned about the pipes in your home, or if the taste or smell of your water noticeably changes. Make sure you use a certified lab.13
Once you have determined what, specifically, you want to remove from your water, you can select the proper filtration system.
The Differences Between Water Filtration Systems
As I said, all water filters are not created equal. Each technology has pros and cons. I’m going to cover the three most common.
Activated Carbon Filters
Activated carbon filters work by attracting and absorbing particles from water. There are two types of activated carbon filters: activated carbon blocks and granular activated carbon (GAC). They have similar pros and cons, but carbon blocks are generally more effective at removing impurities.
The most important thing to know about carbon filters is that they can vary considerably in terms of what they do and do not filter out of your water. When selecting a specific product, you must verify that it removes the specific contaminants you want.
- Good for removing large particles like silt and for improving the taste and odor of water
- Probably effective for removing chlorine and lead (check product claims)
- Tend to be affordable
- Don’t require power or heat
- Does not filter out essential minerals
- Does not filter viruses, minerals, or inorganic pollutants like arsenic and fluoride
- Filters may need frequent replacing
Water is forced through a semi-permeable membrane, which traps contaminants. In home reverse osmosis units, water is generally passed through a carbon filter first to remove large particulate that could clog the membrane.
- Generally considered the best all-around system for removing the greatest number/amount of contaminants
- Can remove fluoride, arsenic, and other compounds that activated carbon cannot
- Effective for certain pathogens14
- Membranes do not require frequent replacement
- Cannot remove chlorine, chloramine, or most volatile organic compounds
- Removes most minerals from water
- Water storage tanks can grow bacteria if not properly maintained
- Produces a lot of wastewater
- More expensive up front than carbon filtration systems
That looks like a lot of cons, but the superior filtration ability of reverse osmosis systems will outweigh all those cons for many people. Proponents of reverse osmosis will point out that you can collect wastewater, which is sanitary, and feed it into a graywater system or use it to wash your car. Most reverse osmosis systems simply drain it, though.
Work by boiling water, then collecting and condensing the steam. When the water vaporizes, impurities are left behind. The condensed water is largely free from contaminants.
- Effective at removing most impurities and killing bacteria and viruses
- Does not require replacement filters
- Cannot remove all pesticides or organic compounds
- Very slow compared to other systems (One popular model I looked at took 5.5 hours to make 1 gallon of distilled water!)
- Requires electricity (usually)
- Removes essential minerals
- Many people dislike the taste of distilled water
Depending on your needs, you might include additional steps that aren’t filtration per se, but they do purify your water: