Our biggest water-filter test found that you could pay $30 or less and get cleaner, better-tasting water. That's good news, considering there are some disturbing revelations on the water front.
Eight percent of public-water systems received health violations in 2008 that affected more than 23 million people. A violation doesn't necessarily mean immediate risk of exposure, since regulations are often based on long-term health effects. However, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded last October that "many of the nation's waters are not meeting water quality standards, and the threat to drinking water sources is growing." (See What's in your water?)
Not surprisingly, more water-filter manufacturers are touting their products' power to remove impurities, not just improve taste and appearance. We spiked water with lead and chloroform (a surrogate for organic compounds like atrazine and benzene and for bad taste) to test 38 carafe, faucet-mounted, countertop, undersink, and reverse-osmosis models. Many filters did the job, but some removed less of each contaminant than promised, and even the best can be overwhelmed by sudden surges in contaminants. That goes for the filters on refrigerators, too. Here are the details:
In our last test, carafes that filtered best also clogged most quickly. This time around, the top-rated Tersano Lotus and Clear2 O removed lead and chloroform effectively without sacrificing cartridge life or flow rate. The Culligan faucet-mount and Aquasana countertop filters, both CR Best Buys, also reduced contaminants without clogging. The Kinetico K-5 reverse-osmosis filter earned a near-perfect score, though it's very expensive and unlike most other filters, it removes fluoride.
The $415 Everpure undersink filter was outperformed by models costing half as much, because of its clogging and inferior flow rate. The $35 Crystal Quest was our most expensive faucet-mounted model but also the least effective by far. When you factor in the cost of replacement filters, the Zero Water Z-Pitcher is the priciest carafe to maintain, despite its low initial cost.
Many refrigerators now have water dispensers with built-in filtration. Though they're fine at improving taste, in past tests we've found some systems to be so-so at removing impurities. Plus replacement cartridges are costly. By installing an undersink filter to the refrigerator's water supply line, you can bypass the appliance's filter.