Guide to Choosing a Home Tap Water Filter

So you need a water filter for your home or apartment and are trying to decide which device is best for you.

You’ve come to the right place.

After all, water is a universal solvent that can contain lots of impurities and if you don’t have an effective filter to produce clean water at home then you’re setting yourself up for potential health risks.

Not to mention that the average american uses around 88 gallons of water per day, so water is of extreme importance!

In this guide, we are going to go over the different types of water filters for homes, which one makes sense in each situation, and how you can go about reviewing the top models to make your selection.

Ultimately, we want you to be able to navigate all of our review lists which outline the top models for each type of filter so you can narrow down your choice to the best size and type of water filter that will suit your home’s water filtration needs perfectly. 

1. Collect Water Quality Information & Test

Before you start looking for a water filter or a type of water filter it’s important to have an understanding of what types of impurities your water contains. 

The biggest problem consumers make is selecting a water filter which is not able to remove the types of contaminants they have in their water. This leaves them with ineffective filtration and money down the drain.

There are 3 ways to go about investigating your water quality:

1. Get a Water Lab Test Done or DIY Kit 

Getting some type of testing done is the best way to find out what’s in your water. Without direct water testing you can get an estimate of what might be in your water but why not get the scientific results directly from your water at home for the most accurate data.

We recommend testing as the first option to find out what type of filtration technology would be best for your home filter. 

We created a detailed guide on the best water testing kits for your home tap water here where you can purchase a quality mail in lab kit or DIY kit to get results.

Also, be sure to check out our home water testing guide for both city and well water sources for more detailed information. 

2. Research Your Local Water Utility to Find Water Reports

This is something you should be doing anyway from time to time when the local water utility is required to send out their annual consumer confidence report (CCR). 

You can find your local water utilities CCR at the EPA website here

Take a look at your consumer confidence report to see what contaminants it shows, if any, where your water comes from, and how it is being treated.

Another good resource where you can enter in your zip code to find out the contaminant levels in your local water supply is the EWR tap water database

You should see a page that looks like this when entering your zip code:

water treatment chart

You can then scroll down and take a look at the contaminants detected that are above EWG’s standards like this:

types of contaminants

Lastly, on that page it will show the types of filtration technology which are effective for the specific contaminants:

water filter comparison

This will help guide you in determining what contaminants may be in your water supply and what type of filter technology would best remove them.

Keep in mind that the EWG’s reports show water quality expectations that are well above the government guidelines and which are more than ideal. 

It’s not totally necessary that the contaminant levels meet EWG’s guidelines but it would be ideal if they did. This resource simply gives you a general baseline of what contaminants may be an issue.

3. Determine if You Also Have a Hard Water Problem

Hard water can cause problems with your plumbing, fixtures, efficiency of appliances, and leave spotty scale on your dishes.

When determining what water filtration device is best for your home it’s also a good idea to check to see if you also need a water softener to eliminate hard water problems. This is because there are combination softener and filter units that may be more cost effective to purchase instead of having a separate softener and filter.


Signs of Hard Water:

  • You have buildup around your faucets
  • Your scrubbing off soap scum from your shower
  • Your skin may be extra dry and itchy after showering
  • Your water glasses are cloudy and other dishes have scale on them
  • Your laundry isn’t getting clean or you have residue after washing your hands

US Map of Water Hardness: 

us water hardness map

You can see from the map that the hardest water is in the southwest and midwest of the US.

Water hardness is measured in GPG (grains per gallon) or PPM (part per million) and typically when your water reaches into the 3.5 to 15 GPG range it is considered moderately to extremely hard and may need treatment. 

Around 3.5 gpg is moderately hard and from 7-15 gpg is hard to extremely hard and you will definitely need treatment.

Another good resource is to enter your zip code into this hardness map here

Tests to Determine Your Water Hardness: 

After looking at any potential signs of water hardness in your home and checking out the US water map to determine what range your hardness may fall in it’s going to be best to do a simple water hardness test to get a more accurate answer.

You can find an easy to do hard water test here on Amazon.

So, we went over the 3 main data points you need to gather before purchasing your ideal filter or filter and softener system:

  1. Get a water lab test done to determine contaminants in your water
  2. Research your local water utilities reports for contaminant information
  3. Determine if you have hard water and at what level your water hardness falls

This information and test data will help you determine what exactly you need to treat in your home water supply.

Once you’ve determined the contaminants you’re dealing with and if you also have a hard water issue we can then review the types of filters and what they remove so you can accurately match them together. 

2. Compare Different Types of Filtration Technologies & What They Remove

Let’s briefly review the different filter types and show you what contaminants they remove so that you can match the correct technology to your water contaminant test data.

Activated Carbon

Activated carbon is the most popular kind of filter. These filters use adsorption to soak up impurities in your water as it passes through the granular or block of carbon.

The level of effectiveness varies significantly between different products so it’s important to check the certification claims and company data to see what it can remove.

Some filters only reduce chlorine and improve taste and odor. Others can reduce contaminants such as asbestos, lead, mercury and volatile organic compounds.

It’s important to note that activated carbon does not remove common inorganic pollutants such as arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrate, and perchlorate.

Contaminants Activated Carbon Can Remove:

  • Taste and Odor
  • Chlorine
  • VOCs (volatile organic compounds)
  • Asbestos 
  • Lead 
  • Mercury 
  • PFOS
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Phosphate
  • Chloride
  • Pesticides
  • Herbicides
  • Lithium
  • Disinfection byproducts (THMs, HAAs)

Activated Carbon Does Not Remove:

  • Arsenic 
  • Fluoride
  • Nitrate
  • Perchlorate
  • Radionuclides
  • Most microbiological contaminants (bacteria, cysts, viruses, protozoa)
  • Iron, copper, heavy metals
  • Healthy minerals (calcium, potassium, magnesium)
  • Manganese
  • Hexavalent chromium

Overall, activated carbon based filters are great for general water filtration if you need to remove tastes, odors, chlorine, VOCs, disinfection byproducts, and more. If the results from your water testing show contaminants under the removal section or your water test is pretty clean and you just want some extra filtration then activated carbon is a great option.

While reverse osmosis removes more contaminants than activated carbon it is also not nearly as efficient which is why most homeowners stick with an activated carbon based system for the whole house and then if they have more harmful contaminants in their water they need to remove for drinking they install an RO unit under the sink.

You can see some of our activated carbon home units here:

Reverse Osmosis

Reverse osmosis based filters are another top option for water filtration in your home. They are generally the most effective in removing the largest amount of contaminants but they are also the least efficient wasting a lot of water and taking a long time to filter your water.

They use a semi-permeable membrane where water passes through and where particles smaller than water molecules are filtered out. See our reverse osmosis guide here for more information.

Generally, RO systems also contain a carbon and sediment filter in the system as well making them very comprehensive in the number of contaminants they remove. 

Also, keep in mind the RO systems usually remove healthy minerals like calcium and magnesium from your water supply so ideally it’s best to find a unit that adds them back in.


Contaminants Reverse Osmosis Can Remove:

  • Arsenic 
  • Fluoride
  • Hexavalent Chromium 
  • Nitrate 
  • Perchlorate
  • PFAS
  • Lead
  • Copper
  • Most microbiological contaminants (bacteria, viruses, protozoa)
  • Magnesium & calcium
  • Barium
  • Cyanide
  • Radium

Contaminants Reverse Osmosis May Not Remove:

  • Pesticides
  • Herbicides
  • Fungicides
  • Hydrogen Sulfide
  • Some organic compounds
  • Chlorine (may remove some but not all)
  • Manganese 
  • Vanadium
  • Chlorate

Overall, you can see that reverse osmosis filters out a lot of contaminants that activated carbon doesn’t like bacteria, viruses, protozoa, arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrate, perchlorate, and more.

Keep in mind though that RO systems waste more water and are less efficient in their filtering speed than an activated carbon system. 

If your water testing report shows some of the contaminants that RO removes then it would be smart to get an RO system at least for your drinking water under the sink while also considering installing a whole house carbon unit for general water filtration in your home to remove chlorine and disinfection byproducts.

You can see our RO units here:

Ion Exchange & Softening

Water softening units usually come in two different types. There are classic ion exchange salt-based systems which come with a salt tank that needs to be refilled periodically and salt-less systems that use a process that changes the chemical structure of hardness causing minerals to remove scale.

Both of these types of systems work effectively but if you have extremely hard water it’s usually best to go with the traditional salt-based tank system for more effective ion exchange softening.

Ion Exchange Resin Beads

What Ion Exchange Softening Reduces:

  • Water hardness causing minerals (calclium, magnesium)
  • Nitrate 
  • Fluoride
  • Sulfate 
  • Arsenic

What Ion Exchange Does Not Reduce:

  • Most contaminants

Overall, water softeners are best for people who have tested their water hardness and determined that they need softer water because it’s causing issues in their home appliances and leaving residue.

Water softeners are a different type of unit than water filters and they don’t remove contaminants that filters do. 

The best option if you have both contaminants and hard water is to look at a combination water filter and softener system which would help with both or consider installing both a filter and a softener.

You can see our Ion Exchange Water Softeners Here.

UV Filtration

UV water filters are one of the most effective filter types for bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. 

These are a great add on option if you are getting a carbon filter and also want to add the additional protection for microbiological contaminants that they don’t remove.

Contaminants UV Filters Remove:

  • Microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, protozoa)

Contaminants UV Filters Don’t Remove:

  • Most other contaminants besides bacteria, viruses, and protozoa

UV filters need to be combined with activated carbon or reverse osmosis for effective filtration of a wide variety of contaminants. 

You can see our UV filters here.


Combination Filter & Softeners

If you have both water contaminants and hard water then considering a filter and softener combo unit is a wise choice. This will help you save money and space in your home by hitting 2 birds with one stone.

Usually, filter and softener combination systems are made for the whole house and they contain a series of activated carbon and sediment filters alongside a water softening unit.

Contaminants Removed by Combo Systems:

  • All the contaminants listed under activated carbon filtration
  • Hard water causing minerals

Contaminants Not Removed by Combo Systems:

  • Contaminants listed under activated carbon non-removal section
Aquasana Rhino

3. Match Your Needed Contaminant Removal to The Correct Filtration Technologies

The next step in choosing the correct filter unit(s) for your home is to use your water quality data and match it to the filter types above to determine which unit or combination you need to effectively filter your water to remove impurities.

For example, if your water test showed that your water was pretty clean and just has some issues with taste, odor, chlorine, and a few other contaminants then installing an activated carbon unit will do the job. 

If your water test showed that you had some of the contaminants that only reverse osmosis removes then maybe it makes sense to consider installing an RO unit under your sink for drinking water.

If you have hard water and it’s causing issues then you will need to either get a combination unit or a separate water softener for your home.

There are many different variations of products you can install to make sure your water is effectively filtered and pure. Make sure to also look at the specific product claims and the contaminants they claim to remove on the labels to be sure they match up.

4. Determine the Right Unit Type & Size 

The type of filter you choose depends a lot on where you live and how much room you have in your living space.

For example, if you live in a medium to large size home and want the most comprehensive setup then installing both a whole house filter and softener system plus a reverse osmosis unit for drinking water in your kitchen is a great solution.

On the other hand, if you live in a small apartment where the landlord doesn’t allow drilling holes in the sink then a good water filter pitcher for your drinking water may be an ideal solution.

Let’s go over a few scenarios below and outline the different styles of filters so you can determine what the best setup for your living situation would be.

Medium to Large Sized Family Home

Water Quality: 

  • Located in Houston, Texas with very hard water
  • Test data shows too much arsenic, radium, chlorine, and disinfection byproducts 

Water Filter Solution:

  • Whole house filter and softener combo unit
  • Undersink reverse osmosis unit for drinking water

Small 1-2 Bedroom Apartment

Water Quality:

  • Located in San Diego, CA with moderately hard water
  • Test data shows larger than ideal levels of disinfection byproducts, chlorine, and a few other chemicals
  • Resident is not noticing major issues with scale and doesn’t have their own washing machine

Water Filter Solution:

  • Water Filter Pitcher for Drinking Water
  • Or Undersink filter 
  • Or Faucet water filter
  • Shower head filter to remove chlorine if wanted
small home

You can see from these scenarios that it really depends on the size of your home and your level of concern with the water quality when selecting what style of filter is best for your home.

If you have a smaller unit then a whole house system is going to be out of the picture and you will need to research our top water filter pitchers, undersink filters, faucet filters, and showerhead filters to find the right solution.

If you have a larger home then your options open up quite a bit because a whole home filter would then be a good option and be more efficient than installing numerous shower filters or faucet filters.

What’s The Ideal Setup for a Home?

You may be thinking, “I have a home, budget isn’t a major issue for me, and I just want the best setup to get the cleanest water possible, what should I get?”

In this scenario, we think that if you also have a hard water problem then your best bet is to get a whole house filter and softener combination system with a UV filter attached as well as installing an undersink RO filter for your drinking water.

Simply put, this is the most comprehensive filtration setup on the market. You’re getting a point of entry whole house unit that filters and softens all the water entering your home as well as taking care of additional contaminants in your drinking water. 

Just make sure that the RO system is a high quality one that adds back in healthy minerals so you are still getting a good amount of calcium and magnesium in your water.

What if You Have a Private Well?

If you get your water from a private well instead of from the local water utility then you will have a different scenario.

This is because groundwater makeup is usually much different than treated city water. 

Treated city water is more prone to chlorine, disinfection byproducts, and other chemicals from treatment while well water usually contains more hardness causing minerals, iron, lead, or hydrogen sulfide.


The positive of well water is that in general it’s usually purer water than city water because it is naturally filtered through sediment in the ground. 

Your best bet is to first get a well water test done to determine what impurities you’re dealing with in your water.

After you get your test results you can then determine what specific type of filter you may need. 

There’s a chance with a well you may need a specific filter for iron & manganese or just a water softener. It will depend on your test data.

Concluding Thoughts

We hope this guide has helped you understand the exact process you can take to choose the best filter setup for your home situation.

Once you do some research and get some test data be sure to go through our review articles for the types of filters you need to purchase.

We are constantly updating these product guides to highlight the product specifics, contaminant removal, company reputability, and more so that you get the best products on the market that solve your home water problem.