How to Choose the Best Water Filter
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:
- Ultraviolet lamps emit UV rays that kill pathogens in the water.
- Activated alumina filters can remove lead and arsenic.
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) can neutralize chloramine.15 You can install vitamin C filters for showerheads, and you can also add 1000 mg of vitamin C (as in, the supplements you’d buy at any health food store) to your bath.16
How to Choose a Water Filter for Your Home
Water filters may be certified by NSF or the Water Quality Association (WQA).
Filters that have the WQA Gold Seal have been tested for quality assurance and to make sure the claims listed on the packaging are accurate.17 NSF has an extremely rigorous testing process that guarantees the ability of a product to remove specific contaminants.18
Before choosing a specific water filter, you can search the NSF website to see what certifications, if any, it has. If you have a specific contaminant concern, refer to the NSF Contaminant Reduction Claims Guide for compliant products.19
You don’t have to buy a certified product, of course, but do your due diligence. Ask the manufacturer for reports that verify the have conducted certified laboratory testing. Consider having your water tested before and after using the filter to verify that it’s working as intended.
Factors to Take Into Consideration
Your purpose: Are you just trying to improve taste and odor, or are you trying to remove specific substances?
Size: How many people are in your household? How much space do you have available in your kitchen?
Budget: How much can you afford to spend up front?
Types of Systems
Water pitchers are convenient. You can store them on the counter or in the fridge and choose the size you need. Pitchers will naturally have limited capacity but are easily refilled. Most pitchers will use some type of carbon filtration. Before purchasing a pitcher, check the product claims to see what it will remove.
Counter filters may have any of type of filtration. They usually take up considerable space, but ones with large tanks might be ideal for big families.
Under-the-sink filters are great because they don’t take up any room in your fridge or on the counter. These units generally have two or more steps in the filtration process. This lets you select a system that includes the combination of technologies you want. They do require installation.
Faucet filters attach directly to your kitchen faucet and filter the water as it flows through.
Whole-house filters are, as you’d expect, the most expensive option. If you have lead pipes or bacteria in your plumbing, your water can become re-contaminated between the filter and your drinking glass. There’s also the concern that by removing the chlorine as the water enters your home, you increase the chance that bacteria will grow in your home’s pipes.
The advantage of a whole-house system is that it also cleans the water you use to wash and bathe. A more cost-effective option is using both a kitchen water filter and a showerhead water filter. This won’t hit every water source in your house, but it will cover your main exposure. There are also filters you can hang from your bathtub water faucet if you are a bubble bath enthusiast.
The Bottom Line
All these systems “work.” Choosing a water filter comes down to what you need it to do.
The best all-around option is a multi-stage filter that includes an activated carbon filter and reverse osmosis. Some units also have one or more of the add-ons I listed above built in.
The major concern with reverse osmosis, as well as distillation, is that it removes desirable calcium, magnesium, and trace minerals from drinking water. For that reason, some people choose to remineralize their water after filtering. (The WHO wants you to, too.20) Some multi-stage filters include this step at the end. You can also run the filtered water through an alkalizing pitcher. This is too many steps for me. I’d rather just add a few drops of a trace mineral solution to my water.
Whatever system you choose, you must maintain it according to the manufacturer’s specifications. That means changing filters on schedule and disinfecting the system as indicated. Dirty filters and water tanks aren’t effective and can even be a source of contamination. Take care of it.
What about Berkeys?
I know if I don’t mention them, I’ll get a bunch of questions about Berkey water filters. They seem to be the darlings of the ancestral health community. Berkey uses a proprietary filtration system, which makes it hard to compare their systems to other products. They do provide their own laboratory testing results on their website, but they are not NSF certified. This isn’t a dealbreaker; it’s an expensive, arduous process. Still, other companies have opted for it. Furthermore, it’s not hard to find naysayers who raise questions about whether Berkey’s products live up to their claims. I’ll leave it up to you to do your own research here. At this point, I can’t unequivocally recommend them without seeing more data.
What about you? Are you passionate about your water filtration device? Are you perfectly happy to drink water right out of the tap? Let me know.
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