A person installs a replacement refrigerator water filter.

If you’ve ever replaced the water filter in your refrigerator, you know they don’t come cheap. Some cost as much as $60, which means that if you follow directions and change your filter every six months, that can really add up.

So it’s not surprising that some consumers try to find better-priced filters online, as they do with printer ink cartridges. The problem is that you have no way of knowing whether the multitude of cheaper alternatives actually work.

That’s because at least some of them are counterfeit water filters. They are sold online, some under the refrigerator’s brand name, but are actually fakes. Just last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized more than 100,000 counterfeit water filters entering the country. According to a recent industry-sponsored study, counterfeit filters can do more harm than good—contaminating the water that passes through them. 

As a result, Consumer Reports believes these counterfeits pose a potential health concern.

“You should follow manufacturers’ guidelines and, if at all possible, purchase filters from industry-verified sources,” says James Dickerson, CR’s chief scientific officer.

Consumer Reports set out to investigate whether consumers can get aftermarket filters that offer the same level of quality and protection at a lower price. We scoured Amazon for aftermarket filters and had significant trouble finding brands that are certified to international quality and safety standards. According to Amazon, the company now requires filters to meet a minimum standard (NSF/ANSI 42, which we explain below), but it's still working to secure compliance from all of its suppliers.

More on Refrigerators and Water Filters

The only aftermarket brand we could find with proper, verifiable certifications for its filters is Culligan, which sells its filters for about 20 percent less than those from refrigerator manufacturers.

We were able to find two of three key certifications held by Culligan filters, one for the reduction of chlorine and odors, as well as one for lead and volatile organic compounds. We could not find certifications for the reduction of parasites or trace pharmaceuticals. Still, these are the only filters we know of that come close to matching the high standards that most refrigerator-branded filters meet.

It’s worth noting here that most public drinking water is already safe, and also that many refrigerators will dispense water just fine without their water filter in place. That means that if you don’t care about filtered water, you don’t necessarily need to spend the money on replacement filters.

“Frigidaire and Electrolux are the only two brands where you need the filter installed for the water dispenser and ice maker to work,” says Joseph Pacella, who oversees refrigerator testing at CR. “But refrigerators from most brands, including GE, Whirlpool, and LG, don’t require you to use the filter.” 

How to Find an Affordable Filter Yourself

For those of you who want to use a filter but would like to find a more affordable one, we’ll walk you through the necessary steps to make sure the filters you’re considering are doing what you want them to do.

Fair warning: You’ll have to endure an alphabet soup of testing organizations and certification standards.

There are three standards that apply to refrigerator water filters, set by NSF International (which itself is accredited by the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI): NSF/ANSI 42, 53, and 401. Here’s how to make sense of them:

  • 42 covers material safety, which guarantees the physical components of the filter won’t leach contaminants such as arsenic into your water and ice. This is also the standard to look for if you want to remove chlorine, taste, and odors.
  • 53 covers a hodge-podge of health-related contaminants that includes everything from lead to parasites to asbestos.
  • 401 covers trace pharmaceuticals and chemicals, from ibuprofen to BPA to deet.

If your only task were to look for those certifications on a water filter you were considering, this would be a cinch. But it’s not.

There are three large testing organizations that certify filters to these standards and allow their manufacturers to label their filters and packaging with certification badges. Those organizations are the Water Quality Association (WQA), the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), and NSF itself.

Just because a filter has a badge—labeled, say, NSF in a blue circle—doesn’t mean it meets the certification in full. Purveyors of questionable aftermarket filters can slap a badge on their product by meeting a few basic requirements while skipping the ones you might really care about. And counterfeit filters will feature very realistic fake badges.

That leaves you in the position of having to check your chosen filter’s certification records to see which of the list of contaminants it actually removes. To find those records, you’ll need to search through each organization’s certification database (here are links to each: WQA, IAPMO, and NSF). Keep in mind these databases can be difficult to use. 

Filter Pricing

Of course, none of this would be necessary if manufacturer-made filters were less expensive. To take one example, for a $1,010 Frigidaire side-by-side, a six-month replacement filter costs $40.95. Assuming an expected lifespan of 12 years, you’re paying an extra 97 percent of the fridge's purchase price for the filters—almost doubling the cost of the appliance.

Consumer Reports reached out to four refrigerator manufacturers to ask about water filter pricing and did not get responses. They’re all members of the trade group the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM).

We asked AHAM, which commissioned the study mentioned above, why these filters cost as much as they do. The group’s vice president of communications and marketing, Jill Notini, says she cannot comment on why these filters cost what they do, but that they’re priced fairly.

“If you look at other types of faucet filters, or pitcher filters, you can look gallon for gallon and compare the cost of those filters with the cost of a replacement refrigerator water filter, and they're quite comparable gallon-for-gallon,” Notini says.

We did the math and compared pitcher and faucet filter costs from Brita and Pur to the costs of refrigerator filters from Samsung, LG, GE, and Whirlpool. It ends up being a toss-up.

Some fridge filters cost roughly the same per gallon (a Brita faucet filter costs 19 cents per gallon compared with 17 cents per gallon for a GE or Samsung filter), some fridge filters cost less (a Sub-Zero filter costs 7 cents per gallon), and some cost more (some Whirlpool and LG filters cost 25 cents per gallon).

At the end of the day, the refrigerator filter you need really depends on the water coming into your home. If it’s safe to drink, you’ll want to make sure any refrigerator filter you use at least passes NSF’s material safety and structural integrity tests under NSF/ANSI 42. Because if it doesn’t, it could be doing more harm than good.

That's why AHAM encourages consumers to buy filters from refrigerator manufacturers and their retail partners.

If you want a filter that removes chlorine and the weird taste sometimes associated with treated public water, make sure it also meets those specific reduction claims (for chlorine and taste) under NSF/ANSI 42. For a filter that removes lead and certain organic chemicals, you may want to go with a Culligan fridge filter (they range in price from about 8 cents to 13 cents per gallon).

And if you want a filter that is certified to remove pharmaceuticals as well, check the specs on your refrigerator manufacturer’s filters to see whether they have that certification.