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Water filters have become simpler to install and more convenient to maintain. Our tests of various filters--everything from carafes to systems for the entire house--found models suitable for removing many common contaminants. What's at stake might be more than just good taste.
A flood of new filters--everything from simple carafes to permanently mounted systems--can make removing impurities from your drinking water almost as easy as turning on the tap. Some models that connect to the plumbing are now easier to install. And across types, more filters now feature electronic indicators that signal when it's time for replacement.
Dangerous contaminants such as lead, chloroform, arsenic, nitrate, nitrite, radon, and E. coli bacteria are common in tap water. Bottled water, often advertised as a "pure" and "natural" alternative to tap water, is generally safe. But it's actually less regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency than municipal water supplies. Indeed, some bottled water is simply filtered tap water. Fortunately, our tests of water filters of various types found models suitable for removing many such contaminants.
One way to find out is to check your consumer confidence report, or CCR. The EPA requires utilities to provide a CCR to their customers every year. You may also find the CCR printed in your newspaper or posted on your local government website.
Our recent analysis of CCRs from the 13 largest U.S. cities revealed that few claimed to have no federal water-quality violations. Though none of the other water systems were consistently unhealthful, all had some samples containing significant quantities of contaminants. In New York City, for example, some samples had lead levels several times the federal limit.
Note that a CCR might indicate safe levels of a contaminant when your water actually has experienced potentially harmful spikes. Also, a CCR tells you about the water in your municipality, but not necessarily about what's coming out of your particular tap. Only testing your home supply can do that. Homeowners with a well on their property face even greater uncertainty, because such water isn't surveyed or reported on in CCRs. Call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) for the names of state-certified testing labs or for your local health authority, which might offer low-cost or free test kits, or check out www.epa.gov/safewater/labs. Ultimately, you might find that you don't need a water filter.
It's important to know what contaminants are in your water that so you can match the filter to the problem. Claims about contaminant removal vary from product to product, so read the fine print. Also, consider how much water you consume vs. how much effort and disruption to your daily routine you're willing to tolerate. Generally, the more contaminants you need to remove, the more complicated the filter, though there are trade-offs.
Fit the filter to your needs. If your family uses several gallons of water a day, for example, a single carafe-style filter would need constant refilling. And, read the fine print. Even within a specific type of filter, contaminant removal claims vary. So match the filter to the actual elements in your home's water supply. Pick a filter that is certified by the National Sanitation Foundation and designed to reduce the contaminants found. Then, check our Ratings to gauge the actual performance of each water filtration device.
Consider all the costs. All of the models we tested have filters that must be replaced periodically to function effectively. Our water filter Ratings take into account yearly filter replacement cost, which generally ranges from less than $20 to $400.
Consider the total cost. All but one model we tested have filters that require periodic replacement. While some replacements cost as little as $20, others may set you back as much as $400. Also, some systems require professional installation, which is an extra expense.
The better models we tested did an excellent job removing lead and chloroform without sacrificing cartridge life or flow rate. Others were slow and prone to clogging and have a short filter life. A carafe or two stored in the refrigerator might suffice for one or two people, but not for a family of four that consumes several gallons of water a day.
If you're looking for easy installation, these are a good choice for filtering drinking and cooking water. You simply unscrew the aerator from the threaded tip of the faucet and screw on the filter. Faucet-mounted filters let you switch between filtered and unfiltered water. On the downside, they slow water flow, and they don't fit on all faucets.
These filters screw onto the faucet after you remove the aerator. They let you filter large quantities of water without modifying the plumbing, and they're less likely to clog than carafe or faucet-mount filters. But they can clutter a countertop, and they don't fit all faucets.
Like countertop filters, these can filter lots of water. But instead of cluttering the counter, they rob space from the cabinet beneath the sink. They also require professional plumbing modifications, and drilling a hole for the dispenser through the sink or countertop.
These use household pressure to pass water through a semi-permeable membrane. They can remove a wide range of contaminants, including dissolved solids, and they are the only type certified to remove arsenic. But you must sanitize them with bleach periodically. Eventually the membrane must be replaced. They can also be extremely slow, rob cabinet space, and create 3 to 5 gallons of waste water for every gallon filtered.
These are an inexpensive way to remove sediment and rust and, with some models, chlorine. Long cartridge life is another plus. But most whole-house filters aren't designed to remove many other contaminants, including cysts, metals, and volatile organic compounds. They require plumbing changes, but not at the sink or faucet.
Water filters don't have a lot of bells, whistles, or features. Here are two water-filter features to consider.
Several under-sink and reverse-osmosis models use simple screw-on plumbing connections, rather than a saddle valve, which requires drilling into the cold-water supply line and might leak.
This convenience lets you know when it's time to change the replaceable filter.
A number of familiar appliance makers are in the water filter business, including Whirlpool, GE, and Kenmore. Use these profiles to compare water filters by brand.
The company's e-Spring countertop filters—which treat water with ultraviolet-light technology—are sold through Amway dealers. The countertop model is priced at about $600.
This company's countertop models use a dual-filtration system that includes an ion-exchange method in the water-filtration process. Its products are sold online and in plumbing-supply outlets.
This Clorox-owned brand dominates the pitcher category and also offers faucet-mounted models with electronic filling-change indicators. One new disposable faucet-mounted filter is designed for easy installation and removal and disposal when its useful life expires. Brita water filters are available in the same retailers and in the same price range as PUR products.
Its filters are sold through Culligan independent dealers nationwide and online. The company offers an extremely wide range of products. One line of its single-stage filters comes in different sizes, and you can chose a model based on household needs, uses, and size. The filters are also easy to snap on and off. The Aqua-Cleer line offers a multistage-filtration system that uses up to four filters at a time.
GE is the major brand in under-sink water filters, with cartridge and reverse-osmosis types available. Its carafe models offer a filter-change indicator with an electronic LED, sliding lid integrated into cover, self-leveling spout, and low-battery LED indicator. All brands are offering products with more-ergonomic handles. You'll find GE filters at Home Depot stores nationwide.
Kenmore offers dual-stage systems and a reverse-osmosis system. The Elite dual stage and its reverse-osmosis system come in a cabinet that sits on its base and does not need to be mounted, unlike most other brands' systems. The filters include a filter-life indicator.
Helen of Troy's PUR brand dominates the faucet-mounted market. The manufacturer offers a wide range of products with features such as a filter-life indicator. Its major introduction has been the Flavor Option faucet filter, which can add five fruit flavors to the filtered water with the push of a button. It's available at national chains such as Walmart, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Lowe's, Home Depot, and Sears and at hardware and plumbing-supply stores, drug stores, and online retailers
Whirlpool offers reverse-osmosis and dual-stage systems. Models include a replacement indicator. They are sold at Lowe's.