Water Filter Buying Guide

Water Filter Buying Guide

So many things require filtering these days—politics, social media, and, quite possibly, your water. The Flint, Mich., water crisis was a tragic reminder that we take water quality for granted. We assume our drinking water is safe. And so did the residents of Flint, where insufficient chlorine treatments triggered a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak and lead pipe corrosion seeped into drinking water.

Recently, a joint Consumer Reports-Guardian US news organization investigation of the nation’s tap water revealed that 118 of 120 tested locations across the U.S. had detectable amounts of lead, arsenic, or PFAS above CR’s recommended maximum levels. PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—synthetic compounds known as "forever chemicals") are linked to major health problems. Those sampled water systems serviced more than 19 million people.

One way to get rid of contaminants in water is by filtering your water. Water filters not only protect against harmful contaminants but also can improve the taste. The biggest drinking water complaints relate to taste and smell, so we test flavor and odor reduction in both our pitcher water filter ratings and under-sink water filter ratings. Our ratings also include countertop, faucet-mounted, and reverse osmosis water filters from previous testing.

In addition to refrigerator water filters, the most popular are pitcher-style filters—the kind you fill from the tap and keep in your fridge. They’re easy to use, require no installation, and take up little space. They are also relatively economical: Most cost less than $40. 

Under-sink filters are more expensive, ranging from $100 to $430. They hide discreetly under cabinet and filter a higher volume of water at a greater flow rate. They may require custom plumbing, or sink or countertop alterations for the water dispenser. But if convenience is important to you, under-sink filters are a good option.

How CR Tests Water Filters

We test water filter pitchers by timing how long it takes the pitcher to finish filtering 1 quart of water at multiple intervals until we’ve gone through up to 40 gallons of water, the typical life of this type of water filter. We also measure whether a filter’s flow rate slows down (gets clogged) over the course of the cartridge’s capacity and, if so, by how much.

If a manufacturer claims a pitcher meets NSF/ANSI standards for removing specific contaminants, such as chlorine and lead, we verify each claim. NSF International and the American National Standards Institute develop filtration standards.

We also check claims of flavor and odor reduction by spiking water with commonly found compounds that can make water smell and taste like a sewage treatment plant, damp soil, metal, and a swimming pool. A trained panel of professional tasters evaluates how successful the filters are at removing these flavors and odors.

An Excellent rating means that most people wouldn’t be able to discern a palatable difference between the filtered water and pure spring water. A score of Fair or Poor means you will probably be able to tell the difference.

We test under-sink filters by measuring how effectively they remove flavor and odor taints from a CR-created "control water" sample. Then we examine how close that control water compares with regular filtered water. We determine the flow rate by the time it takes to filter 1 quart of water, and clogging reflects whether and how the filter’s flow rate slowed over the course of a cartridge’s lifespan. We also verify under-sink filter claims of lead and chlorine removal.

What's in Your Water?

The Environmental Protection Agency requires community water suppliers to provide a Consumer Confidence Report to customers every July. A CCR states the levels of contaminants detected in the water and how they compare with the EPA’s drinking water standards. If you rent an apartment, contact your building manager or local water company for a copy.

Community water systems providing water to 100,000 or more people must post the reports online. If you’re on well water, you won’t have a CCR because the EPA doesn’t regulate private wells. In that case, check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for information on testing and treatment.

The water quality report tells you about the water in your municipality, but if your home was built before lead-free pipes were mandated in 1986, a test is the best way to assess the quality of the water coming out of your faucets at home. There’s no safe level of lead exposure, according to the EPA.

In the CR-Guardian study, almost every test sample had measurable levels of PFAS, which are linked to cancer, learning delays in children, and thyroid disease. More than 35 percent exceeded the maximum safety threshold specified by CR scientists and other health experts.

PFAS, found in hundreds of household products, are a growing concern. At least 2,337 communities in 49 states have drinking water contaminated with PFAS, according to a January analysis by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. Thus far, the EPA hasn’t set an enforceable legal limit for PFAS in drinking water.

Your state or local health department might offer free water test kits, and test kits are sold at home improvement stores. The EPA recommends sending samples to a certified lab for analysis. Your local water authority can offer a list of labs. Or you can check the EPA’s list or call the agency’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791. For more on testing your water, see our interactive guide.

Fit the Filter to Your Needs

What a filter removes from water varies. Our water pitcher tests found that all models effectively remove chlorine and four models remove lead. All under-sink filters in CR’s ratings meet the strict standard of lead and chlorine removal. 

Once you know what’s in your tap water, choose a filter that best suits your needs. Look at the pitcher’s packaging for its contaminant removal certifications, if any. Third-party labs that certify products to NSF standards include the CSA Group, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and the Water Quality Group (WQA), so you may see those certification seals, too.

All pitchers have filters that must be replaced periodically to function effectively. Check the specs in the full view of our ratings to compare the costs of replacing filters for one year. For example, it ranges from $27 to $150 for the pitchers we test; you’ll also see which models have a filter-life indicator, a handy feature that tells you when it’s time to change the filter.

Use our water filter ratings to find the right water filter system for you. If you’re looking for a water filter pitcher, you’ll find big differences in contaminant removal, flow rate, and clogging among the models.

Filtering Your Choices

Water filter pitchers are one of the most widely used choices, but there are other filtration systems available for the home. Factor in your budget, your water consumption, maintenance, and, most important, the contaminants found in your water before purchasing a new filter.

Water Filter Pitcher

Water Filter Pitcher

The best model we tested did a stellar job of removing chlorine without sacrificing cartridge life or flow rate. Some others are slow, are prone to clogging, or have a short filter life. A small pitcher stored in the refrigerator might suffice for one or two people, but a large size may be more convenient for a family that consumes several gallons of water a day.

Price of tested filters: $17 to $85.

Water Filter Pitchers Ratings
Faucet-Mounted Water Filter

Faucet-Mounted Water Filter

If you’re looking for easy installation, these are a good choice for filtering drinking and cooking water. 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 down water flow and don’t fit on all faucets, including those with a pullout sprayer.

Faucet-Mounted Water Filters Ratings
Countertop Water Filter

Countertop Water Filter

These filters are also easy to install: Just remove the faucet aerator, then screw the filter onto the faucet. This allows you to filter large quantities of water without modifying your plumbing. Countertop filters are less likely to clog than pitcher filters or faucet-mount filters. But they can clutter a countertop, and they don’t fit all faucets.

Countertop Water Filters Ratings

Under-Sink Water Filter

Under-Sink Water Filter

Like countertop filters, these can filter lots of water. Instead of cluttering the counter, they rob space from the cabinet beneath the sink. They may also require professional plumbing modifications and drilling a hole through the sink or countertop for the dispenser.

Under-Sink Water Filters Ratings
Reverse Osmosis Water Filter

Reverse Osmosis Water Filter

Using standard household water pressure, water is forced through a semipermeable membrane, then through filters. Reverse osmosis filters can remove a wide range of contaminants, including dissolved solids. They can be extremely slow, rob cabinet space, and typically create 3 to 5 gallons of wastewater for every gallon filtered. You must sanitize them with bleach periodically, and the membrane and filters must be replaced, per manufacturer’s recommendation.

Reverse Osmosis Water Filters Ratings
Refrigerator Water Filter

Refrigerator Water Filter

Water-and-ice dispensers are common on bottom-freezer and side-by-side refrigerators. The water line typically runs through a built-in filter. Most filters can be easily replaced by simply pushing and twisting. A replacement filter costs about $50 or more, and you’ll need to change it every six months or so. Depending on the particular filter, fridge filters can reduce many of the same contaminants as a countertop or undercounter filter. 

Consumer Reports is not currently testing refrigerator water filters

Countertop Water Filters Ratings

Water Filter Brands

The company’s e-Spring countertop filters—which treat water with ultraviolet light technology—are sold through Amway dealers. The countertop model is priced around $1,000.

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 at plumbing supply outlets.

The Clorox-owned brand dominates the pitcher category and also offers faucet-mounted models with electronic filter-change indicators. One disposable faucet-mounted filter is designed for easy installation and removal when its useful life expires. Brita water filters are sold at national chains such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Sears, Target, and Walmart, and at hardware and plumbing supply stores, drugstores, and online retailers.

Its filters are sold through Culligan independent dealers nationwide and online. The company offers a wide range of products. One line of its single-stage filters comes in different sizes, and you can choose a model based on household needs, uses, and size. The Aqua-Cleer line offers a multistage-filtration system that uses up to four filters at a time.

GE is the major brand in undersink water filters, with cartridge and reverse osmosis types available. Its carafe models offer a filter-change indicator with an electronic LED, a sliding lid integrated into the cover, a self-leveling spout, and a low-battery LED indicator. 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 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. It also offers filter pitchers. Pur is available at national chains such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Sears, Target, and Walmart, and at hardware and plumbing supply stores, drugstores, and online retailers.

Soma filters are sustainably made from 60 percent plant-based and renewable materials for a lower carbon footprint. The brand claims to filter out chlorine, mercury, zinc, cadmium, copper, and other unwanted tastes and odors through activated coconut shell carbon and charcoal.

Whirlpool offers reverse osmosis and dual-stage systems; the systems have filter-replacement indicators. They are sold at Lowe’s.

This brand includes filter pitchers, dispensers, and water bottles/filters. They use a multistage-filtration process and are sold at most big-box stores.