How to Choose a Simple Water Filter for Your Home
Though you can’t see them, hundreds of contaminants are likely suspended in your tap water.Posted Feb 16, 2017
Many of us see water as an emblem of good health. Yet the crystal clear liquid running from most of our taps is often full of unhealthy compounds.
Industrial chemicals like PFCs, pharmaceutical residues, heavy metals, and pesticides can all be found in water supplies around the globe. As with so many things in our polluted world, it’s up to us to protect ourselves and our families. Thankfully, safer water requires a relatively small investment in a good filter. Read on to find out what you need to know to make informed decisions and improve your water quality.
Know Your Water Supply
The most important thing to know when choosing a water filter for your home is what you’re trying to remove. There are three good ways to find out exactly what’s in your water:
Municipal Water Tests Conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG)
If you live in the US, try looking at the searchable database maintained by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Using results from over 20 million tests in over 47,000 American municipalities, the EWG reports that, “Water utilities nationwide detected more than 300 pollutants between 2004 and 2009. More than half of these chemicals are unregulated, legal in any amount. Despite this widespread contamination, the federal government invests few resources into protecting rivers, reservoirs, and groundwater from pollution in the first place.”
Testing found that a third of American water supplies contain lead and 75% contain chromium-6. Hundreds of millions of people are unwittingly consuming these dangerous compounds every day. Well water, like public water supplies, is also susceptible to contamination from urban and farm runoff and seepage from septic tanks and landfills.
Water Quality Reports Issued by Water Utilities
Most water suppliers and utilities in the U.S. (and some in Canada) issue a yearly water quality report. This will tell you some of the contaminants found in the supply, as well as which chemicals are used for disinfection. Of course, your water may pick up additional contaminants on the way to your faucet, so a home water test will provide more information (see below).
Home Water Tests
If you’d like to know the exact make-up of your water as it exits your tap, consider a home water test. You can use this to determine if your water contains harmful levels of bacteria, lead, pesticides, chlorine, nitrates, and nitrites. The test will also reveal your water’s pH and hardness. If your water source is a private well, you should test it twice a year, which you can do by sending it to a local lab or by conducting a simple home test. The home well test will test for all the same ingredients as the city water test, along with iron and copper.
Choosing a Water Filter
Once you know what’s in your water, consider which filters remove which ingredients. While most will vary depending on the make and manufacturer, there are some general guidelines to consider.
If you’ve been relying on a pitcher filter to clean your water, you may want to read the fine print. Pitcher filters typically reduce only a few contaminants (such as chlorine), plus the water sits in plastic for an extended period of time and may pick up chemicals from the pitcher itself! Though inexpensive, pitchers are effective mainly at improving the taste and odor of your water and will leave many contaminants of concern. Similarly, the simple filters in water-dispensing refrigerators, besides wasting electricity, remove a relatively small number of contaminants.
Some faucet-mount filters remove a decent number of contaminants. Again, be sure to read the fine print to see they’re removing what you want them to, as filter performance varies widely. Though faucet mount filters are inexpensive and easily replaced without special skills, if you look carefully at how long a filter lasts and replacement filter costs, you may find that a more effective filter – though initially somewhat more expensive – does not cost much more in the long run.
Countertop Water Filter
Countertop filters don’t take up space under your sink, and can either hook up to your faucet or be freestanding, gravity-fed filters. Neither requires a plumber to install. The advantage of a filter hooked up to your waterline is that you don’t have to refill a filter container constantly. But a gravity-fed filter is a smart investment because it can purify water in an emergency situation, even when there’s a problem with the water supply or the power goes out. In a power outage, municipal water supplies can’t maintain water pressure and well pumps will stop working without a backup energy source. (A personal or family Lifestraw are other options to consider keeping on hand for clean water in an emergency.)
Maintaining countertop filters is also easy and usually requires no special tools. For the Berkey Light water filter (pictured above), maintenance takes less than ten minutes and may only need to be done after several months or even years—depending on the amount of sediment in your water. Replacement filters cost about $100 and filter 3,000 gallons of water. The Berkey Light is also BPA free and portable, making it easy to take on camping trips or set on the deck in summertime.
An undersink filter makes sense when counter space is in short supply, and like the plumbed-in, countertop filter, an undersink filter does not require refilling. However, like the countertop model, the undersink filter may not work in an emergency situation.
While very effective at removing contaminants, reverse osmosis (RO) filters are also expensive and waste a good deal of water – 3 or more gallons for each gallon you get! And because they rely on electricity, they won’t filter water when the power goes out. Additionally, they remove beneficial minerals that some speculate can cause health issues when RO water is consumed long-term.
It’s something not many of us think of, but even our shower water may need filtering. The chlorine your supplier uses to disinfect water remains in the water that comes out of your shower. When you turn on your shower, that chlorine is sent into the air, and you breathe it in, along with absorbing it through your skin. Other compounds like chloramines and chloroform that often wind up in treated water can also become airborne. A simple shower filter can remove much of the chlorine. (Note: If your water supplier uses chloramines for disinfection, you’ll need to find a filter meant to remove that instead. Your annual water quality report should mention which disinfectant is used.)
While there isn’t much supporting research yet, some speculate these airborne compounds may affect our microbiomes, the trillions of microbes that live on and in us that help us stay healthy. It’s reasonable to assume that something added to water to kill microbes may also harm the beneficial bacteria on our skin and in our intestines. Using a shower filter to remove these potentially harmful substances comes with an added bonus: eliminating chlorine from your water should make your skin and hair feel softer, too.
Whole House Water Filter
Some people opt to filter all the water coming into their house in order to prevent chlorine and other contaminants from winding up in their air when they run unfiltered water, as when we wash dishes. Think of the steam rising from the dishwasher. Like your steamy-hot shower, that’s likely got chlorine and/or chloramines in it, and you’d probably rather not breathe that in.
Whole-house filters remove certain contaminants from water as it comes into the house, but they won’t take out as many contaminants as a drinking water filter, so it’s important to also have a quality drinking water filter. A quality whole house filter can also be quite expensive, but may be worth considering if you’re seeking to significantly lower your exposure to chlorine or chloramines.
What About Fluoride?
Added intentionally to most North American water supplies, fluoride is supposed to protect teeth from decay. Recent research, however, not only questions the efficacy of fluoride for cavity prevention, but points to additional effects of fluoride that are less desirable, such as reduced IQ and developmental neurotoxicity. Few other industrialized countries add fluoride, a known poison, to their water supplies in the name of better health.
Only special filters can remove fluoride from water. The Berkey Light offers a fluoride-removal option with the PF2 filter, which attaches onto the regular Berkey purification element. The PF2 is guaranteed to remove over 95% of fluoride from your water.
Reverse osmosis systems will also remove fluoride, but they have some distinct disadvantages, as detailed above.
Don’t Get Duped into Buying Bottled
Some worried consumers mistakenly believe they’re choosing safer water when they buy bottles instead of drinking from the tap. Besides the huge ecological cost of bottled water, much bottled water is actually municipal tap water – with exactly the same contaminants you’re aiming to avoid. The water then sits indefinitely in plastic, absorbing poorly understood compounds that may harm human health. A quality water filter is not only ecologically far less harmful, but also healthier.
Educate yourself about what’s in your water, and then take measures to make your next drink healthier for you and your family.
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Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.