Water filter pitchers being tested in a Consumer Reports lab

You expect the water from your kitchen faucet to be clean and crisp, but there could be contaminants in it, some of which can be bad for your health. No wonder, then, that almost half of Americans who drink tap water at home say they filter or boil it first. That's according to Consumer Reports' 2019 Water Quality Survey, based on a nationally representative sample of 4,225 U.S. adults.

The biggest complaint people had about their drinking water was unpleasant tastes and smells. Our survey also revealed that aside from the water filters built into many refrigerators, pitcher-style water filters are the type most people use.

Water filter pitchers are certainly easy to use; just fill them at the tap and wait for the water to flow through the cartridge. They're also relatively inexpensive, typically less than $40. But how do you know whether a water filter pitcher is actually doing anything?

More on Water Filters

To address that question, CR tests pitchers specifically for how well they remove flavors and odors. We gather a panel of professional water tasters and give them water spiked with common compounds to make it smell and taste like various things: metal, compost, damp soil, a sewage treatment plant, and a swimming pool. Definitely not the sort of drinks you want on tap! Then our tasters score each pitcher based on how well it removes the flavors and odors against a baseline of pure spring water.

“There is quite a range in the pitchers’ abilities to remove off-putting flavors and odors, and some models from top brands are not as effective,” says Joan Muratore, CR’s engineer in charge of testing water filters. 

And if a manufacturer claims that its pitcher meets the standards set by NSF International for removing specific contaminants such as chlorine and lead, we test for each contaminant to verify the claim. 

To get the details on various pitchers, CR members can check our ratings. Here are five things you should know about water filter pitchers, including key findings from our 2019 Water Quality Survey and our lab tests.

1. Yes, Filters Can Make Water Taste and Smell Better

Compounds and chemicals, such as zinc, chlorine, and hydrogen sulfide, can make your water have a metallic flavor or smell like sewage. In our tests, we evaluate how well pitchers remove contaminants from water, and we create a combined rating for flavor and odor reduction. Our test results show that most do a good job with odors, but it's a different story with flavors; that's the factor that dragged down some pitcher ratings in this test. Only one pitcher earns an Excellent rating for flavor and odor reduction, and two garner a Very Good. 

2. Know What’s Actually in Your Tap Water

Even if taste and odor are the main reasons you want to use a water filter pitcher, it's a good idea to find out whether there are other contaminants in your municipality's water that need to be filtered out. Your local water supplier’s Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) will state the levels of contaminants—such as heavy metals, pesticides, and microbes—that are present.

The plumbing in your house or apartment could also affect your water quality. If it was built before lead-free pipes were mandated in 1986, you’ll want to check your water for lead that might be coming from the pipes. There's no safe level of lead exposure; even low levels can lead to health problems such as hypertension, decreased kidney function, and reproductive problems in adults, and learning disabilities, slowed growth, anemia, and hearing problems in children. Your state or local health department may offer free kits that test for a range of contaminants including lead. Or you can collect a sample and send it to a certified lab for testing, which can cost $20 to $100.

Although a majority of people have never had their water tested, according to our 2019 Water Quality Survey, more than 2 out of 10 who did have their water tested discovered it had unsafe levels of some contaminants.

3. All Water Filter Pitchers Are Not the Same

Once you know what you need to filter out, look for the certification mark on the pitcher packaging stating that it filters out those specific contaminants. No one filter does it all. Most pitchers remove contaminants that leave a bad taste like chlorine, zinc, and hydrogen sulfide. But few remove lead. In fact, only two pitchers in our ratings are advertised as doing so. If a pitcher does filter out lead—or other contaminants such as volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and hormones—the packaging should cite a separate certification mark for each. Note that if your water contains serious contaminants, a water pitcher filter may not be enough to mitigate the problem. You may need a more comprehensive filtration system.

4. The Cost of Replacement Filters Adds Up

Manufacturer instructions will tell you how often to change the filter; usually, it's every two months or 40 gallons—whichever comes first. You'll want to follow those guidelines because filters clogged with particulates and other contaminants simply stop working. Also, the activated charcoal in filters that traps flavors and odors has a finite capacity to absorb them before it stops functioning.

If you notice that water is flowing slowly, it’s likely that the filter is clogged and it's time to replace it. Some water filter pitchers have a filter-life indicator that tells you when it’s time to change it. Among the pitchers we tested, the filter cost per year was $30 to $90. You can compare costs using the Features & Specs tab in our ratings.

5. These Pitchers Can Take a While to Filter

Water filter pitchers generally look the same, so you might think they take about the same amount of time to filter water. Not so. In our tests, the two top-scoring pitchers varied wildly when it came to filtering time. One pitcher, a filter-as-you-pour model, filtered a quart of water in 1 minute, 15 seconds. The other pitcher took nearly 15 minutes. Its manufacturer claims the long filter time is due to proprietary technology that effectively removes 99 percent of lead. 

“Typically, pitchers that take longer to filter water do a better job, but new technologies mean even filter-as-you-pour models can be just as good at removing tastes and odors,” says Muratore.

The flow rate may not be a concern if you usually fill up your pitcher and put it in the fridge for later. But if you have a busy household that goes through lots of water every day, it’s definitely a factor to consider.

CR members can compare water filter pitchers, including their flow rates, in our ratings and read more about water filters in our buying guide.