Guide to Home Water Testing

No matter if you’re using a municipal water supply or a private well, you might have questions about its quality. Those questions could also lead to concerns about harmful bacteria or contaminants getting into your drinking water. Knowing your local water results, or those from a DIY testing kit can help you decide if you need to filter your water.

Water is a critical part of human survival, so it must be clean and safe to drink. Many opt for bottled water when they have concerns about the quality of their water. However, that’s not ideal for those who want to use cost effective eco-friendly options. Filtering your water is recommended for those who test their water and find unhealthy levels of contaminants.

In this guide, we’re outlining water testing for municipal water and private wells. You’ll also learn more about what to look for when testing your water, as well as if you should use a DIY home testing kit or send samples to a certified laboratory.

Public Municipal Water Systems vs. Private Well Testing

Because water is coming from different sources, they require various tests. Private well testing is the property owner’s responsibility because the government doesn’t regulate it. However, public municipal water systems must meet government guidelines. In this section, we’re digging a bit deeper into the differences between public municipal water systems and private well testing.

Public Municipal Water Systems

If you receive a monthly bill, that means you’re using a municipal water supply. That water undergoes monitoring and testing every day. The results from those reports go to federal, state, or tribal agencies. That way, they can determine if the water meets the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations

If test results indicate that the water contains contaminants, water companies must notify residents of this and any potential issues or illnesses that may result. The majority of residents throughout the country receive water from a municipal supply. 

Private Wells

Property owners who don’t receive a monthly water bill are using private wells for their water supply. It might be a well the property owner hired someone to drill or pre-exist on the property. In this case, it’s the property owner’s responsibility to test their water annually. That way, they know it’s safe for consumption or can determine any other present issues. Completing routine testing ensures the well doesn’t contain some of the most common contaminants.

Municipal Water Reports

Each resident should receive an annual water quality report referred to as a Consumer Confidence Report. If this report doesn’t arrive, it’s a good idea to contact the water company or whoever owns the property.

For example, if you’re a renter, contact your landlord regarding this report. You can also find your Consumer Confidence Report by visiting the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website.

Details from the EPA indicate that customers should receive these reports on July 1st every year. These reports tell customers what’s in their water, where it comes from, and the water’s quality. Municipal water supply customers should use this report to check for contaminants.

Consumers can also find the following information on the report:

    1. The drinking water’s source, including aquifers, lakes, and rivers
    2. If their local drinking water source is at risk for contamination
    3. A list of the regulated contaminants in the drinking water
    4. If there’s a contaminant violating the EPA’s health standard, the potential health effects
    5. Details regarding the water company’s actions for resorting drinking water to a safe condition
    6. Educational statements and information about contaminants and other concerns
    7. Contact information and additional resources

Those who have private well water systems won’t receive this report. Instead, they’ll receive a report from the lab where they test their water.

Always a good idea to test your home water anyway

Even if the water comes back clean after each test, it’s valuable for a property owner to continue testing routinely. That way, a consistent record of the property’s water quality is available. For example, as time passes, things like lead can leach into pipes. With this record, it’s possible to identify and address any future problems with the water. This record-keeping is particularly useful in cases where another party damages the water supply.

If your home connects to a public water supply and you notice issues, it’s likely due to your home’s plumbing. You might also be experiencing chemical substances getting into your water from a public pipe. No one knows if or when these things might happen. Therefore, regular testing can sort out what’s noticeable and identify what’s not.

For example, you might notice:

  • Strong chlorine odors and tastes: Public water supplies receive chlorine treatments to disinfect it and kill off bacteria. However, if the chlorine concentration is too high, it causes problems with your water.
  • Metallic tastes: If your water system has a high mineral content, then you’ll likely notice an iron or salt-like flavor.
  • Rotten egg smells: If your water smells like rotten eggs, that’s a sign that there’s decayed organic matter underground. As water passes through hydrogen sulfide gas, it picks up its odor.
  • Color in the water: There’s no denying that water should be crystal-clear. If you notice any color at all, then your water isn’t safe for consumption.
  • Bluish or greenish color: The presence of these colors might indicate that there are chemical compounds in your water. If the water looks foamy, muddy, or white, then it could be due to turbidity.

Having clear water doesn’t mean issues aren’t present. We’ve all seen clear water in streams and lakes, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe for consumption. That same reality is correct for your home’s drinking water. Many odorless and colorless contaminants could be in your water, including lead. There’s no way of telling if your water is safe just by looking at it when it comes from the tap.

When You Should Test Your Water

It’s a good idea to test water annually for nitrates, pH levels, total coliform bacteria, and total dissolved solids. This testing is critical if you install a new well or complete any repairs or replacements to the piping, pump, or well casing. Test your home’s water more often if you notice:

  • Changes in the water’s appearance, odor, or taste
  • If you have a well and notice issues like a broken cap, flood water damage, or sources of contamination
  • If there’s a history of bacterial contamination in your home’s water
  • That the septic tank is or has been malfunctioning recently 
  • There are members of the household suffering from recurrent gastrointestinal illnesses
  • Groundwater issues or other problems occurring in your area, like a chemical or fuel leak, for example

Test the water more often, too, if an infant or older adult lives in the home. Ideally, you should be testing during the early months of pregnancy, before bringing the baby home, and soon after the baby arrives home. The best time to test is after it rains during the spring or summer. 

If you’re completing construction work on your property or need to install new plumbing, those are both situations when water testing should occur. The disruption in the dirt or potential for hazardous materials entering your water supply is significantly higher when completing these projects on your property.

DIY Testing Kits

There are many brands of DIY testing kits from which you can choose. For example, consumers can choose to test and receive results at home or send them away for results from a certified testing lab. Home water testing kits are available at home improvement stores and online. DIY testing kits are convenient and easy to use, but the EPA doesn’t endorse them.

How They Work

Depending on the DIY test kit you choose, each has a different number of strips and test for different numbers of contaminants. For example, some tests for ten contaminants, have 125 testing strips, and don’t test for bacteria. Others test for over 100 contaminants and bacteria and have instructions on returning them to a lab.

There are also DIY testing kits that take less than one minute to receive results. After collecting water in the vial inside the kit, you add a tablet and shake it until it dissolves. Then, you add a testing strip into the solution and wait up to 60 seconds to receive the results.

Testing with A Certified Lab

Because it isn’t always easy to determine what DIY kits test for or their accuracy, testing with a certified lab is an excellent option. Each state has state certification programs and certified laboratories for water testing. Certified laboratories are also available to test Cryptosporidium samples, supporting the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule (LT2).

Cost

Costs for testing kits vary depending on how many and which types you’re buying. Those costs can quickly add up if you need several tests. That’s why it’s typically not recommended for those performing these tests at home to test for everything. 

Testing kit prices can also vary depending on if you want to send it away to a lab or receive immediate results. Purchasing a test that you send out to a lab could mean spending between $50 and $500 depending on the test’s comprehensiveness. If you want immediate results from a DIY kit, then the prices for those tests range between $10 and $150.

Are They Effective?

While DIY testing kits are easy to use and offer immediate results, they might not be as accurate as a laboratory test. That could be due to the effectiveness of the test itself, or if human errors occur. Or, if you choose an inexpensive kit, that might not yield the best results. The effectiveness of the test also depends on the water source that it’s testing. For example, if you pick up a well water kit and use it for municipal water, then you might not receive results for the contaminants you want to find. 

DIY testing kits are most effective when you follow the proper steps outlined in the product’s instructions.

For the best results:

  • Be sure the vial or collection bottle is clean and isn’t contaminated with anything that could jeopardize the results.
  • Make sure you’re not trying to conduct a water test using expired strips. If the strips are expired, then you can’t trust the test’s accuracy or effectiveness.
  • If you must complete a titration using chemicals, make sure that those chemicals aren’t expired. 

How to Complete a DIY Test

Each DIY test kit comes with instructions for how to complete them. However, it’s a good idea to have some general knowledge regarding how to do this ahead of time. Here are step-by-step guidelines for how to use a DIY testing kit.

  1. Determine what contaminants you’re testing for and ensure the DIY kit supports those results.
  2. Get a timer and make sure your hands are clean.
  3. Avoid opening the testing strips until you’re ready to use them.
  4. Turn on the cold water line from the faucet you use most often for drinking—like in your kitchen, for example.
  5. Run water from the faucet for 30 to 60 seconds to make sure you’re testing water at its source and not what’s sitting in your pipes.
  6. Use the collection tube or vial that comes with the kit to collect the water.
  7. Follow the test kit’s instructions regarding if you need to drop a tablet inside the water or if using testing strips at this stage is appropriate.
  8. Use the table provided by the EPA to determine if the contaminant levels in your drinking water are safe.

How to Conduct a Water Test Using a Lab

Conducting a water test using a lab is remarkably similar to testing with a DIY kit. Instead of following instructions for using testing strips, you’re collecting and sending water samples to the lab. Below are step-by-step instructions regarding how to do this:

  1. Go to a faucet where drinking water comes from most often in your home—like the kitchen faucet, for example.
  2. If you’re already using some type of filter remove the filtration device to get a baseline snapshot of your water without being filtered
  3. Remove the strainer from the faucet to prevent any bacteria, dirt, or other contaminants from it getting into the sample.
  4. Do not try to sterilize the faucet with a lighter or other heat source because it produces soot, contaminating the sample. 
  5. Run water from the faucet for 30 to 60 seconds to ensure you’re collecting water from the source, not what’s sitting in the pipes.
  6. Collect the water in the laboratory kit’s vial. Make sure you don’t touch the inside of the vial or its cap.
  7. Fill out any labeling or other collection information the laboratory testing kit requires.
  8. Place the vial and supporting documents into the return envelope and send it to the testing center.

How to Read Lab Results

Because contaminants that are harmful to us aren’t discernable by our senses, water testing is critical for ensuring it’s safe for consumption. Lab results from a certified laboratory give consumers a baseline for them to use when comparing future results.

What results will look like

The results indicate how much a contaminant is in water per milliliter. It might look something like this:

Coliform bacteria:

Results for the water’s pH might look like this:

How Long Does it Take to Receive Results 

While some laboratories return test results between three to five business days, it isn’t uncommon to take up to two weeks before results come back. If the laboratory is experiencing a backlog of testing samples, expect it to take between four and six weeks before receiving results.

What to look for

The laboratory will return analysis reports listing contaminants in your water and at what level. These analysis reports might look something like this:

Typically, these reports show results in concentration levels that include milligrams per liter. In water, that equates to about one part per million (ppm). Milligrams per liter measurements are common when labs are testing for metals and nitrates. If the lab is testing for pesticides and toxic substances, they use a smaller measurement unit. If the report shows results for radon, then you’ll see it as picocuries per liter.

Measuring for conductance, hardness, pH, and turbidity require units that are specific to the test. Like the example above, many of these reports also highlight problems and why these issues are occurring. Your water testing report may also contain water test parameters. Typically, these parameters divide into three categories:

  • Health risk parameters: These parameters outline the known health effects of contaminants and their acceptable levels. For example, if total coliform is present, that could cause diarrheal diseases.
  • General water quality indicators: These indicators indicate if there are harmful contaminants in the water. Examples include indicators setting acceptable limits for pH value, turbidity, and total dissolved solids (TDS).
  • Nuisance parameters: While these parameters don’t have any adverse health effects, they cause a nuisance due to staining or unpalatable quality. Examples include hardness, iron bacteria, and hydrogen sulfate. 

How This Will Determine if You Need a Filter

The information you read in lab results isn’t just to help you understand if contaminants are in your water and what they are. This information is also available to help you figure out how to resolve issues with your water. After determining what’s in your water and at what level, you might need a water filter that is able to remove those specific contaminants.

Your water’s lab results show you ways that your water needs treatment. For example, if contaminants have unhealthy levels, a water filter can reduce them by 99.9%. Let’s look at some examples of water issues and how a water filter can resolve them.

High Levels of Contaminants

If your water contains high levels of contaminants, then a reverse osmosis or home filter system is ideal. These systems remove arsenic, bacteria, lead, and various other pollutants. These systems also remove Cryptosporidium. Keep in mind that these systems can take up a significant amount of room, especially if you install them under your sink.

These water filtration systems also waste several gallons for each gallon of water it produces. Many of these systems also require additional plumbing, which is another added expense. Some find that reverse osmosis water filtration systems feature a high purchase price and costly annual maintenance.

Improving Taste or Odor

You might notice taste or odor issues without having to complete a water test. If this is the case, or if there are lower concentrations of contaminants in your water, carbon filtration might be your best option. However, if you choose a carbon filtration system, keep in mind that it might not remove all lead traces in your water.

Volatile Organic Compounds

If test results indicate that your water contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs), then you’ll benefit from a whole house water filter. Many of these systems filter out up to 99.6% of contaminants. You’ll also find that these systems are also useful for removing harmful pollutants. Examples of these pollutants include chloramine, chlorine, haloacetic acids, herbicides, PFOA, pesticides, and more.

Whole house filtration systems are also ideal for those who want to retain their water’s naturally-occurring minerals. Examples of these minerals include calcium, magnesium, and potassium. These naturally-occurring minerals help maintain the pH balance of your water. 

You can also opt to add UV lighting to whole-house systems to purify water. Adding UV lighting to these systems helps protect water supplies from up to 99% of harmful contaminants. Examples of these contaminants include bacteria, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, viruses, and other pathogens.

Conclusion

Before water testing can begin, you must understand how your home connects to its water supply. For example, does your water come from a municipal water supply or private well? If your water comes from a municipal water supply, then you’ll receive an annual report outlining its quality.

No matter your water source, it’s a good idea to test it annually. You can do so with a DIY testing kit or by sending samples to a laboratory. Once the lab results come in and identify any potential issues, then you can determine the best water filtration system for your household needs.

We hope this water testing guide helps you determine the quality of your water and if it makes sense to invest in a quality filtration system.

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