Wondering exactly what your drinking water contains, and how safe it really is? Whether you have your own well or you get your water from a municipal supplier, you could be drinking dangerous levels of chemicals, heavy metals, microorganisms, and more.
In this guide, we’ve outlined the 7 steps you need to take to test your drinking water quality at home.
Table of Contents
- 🚰 1. Identify Your Water Source
- 🧪 2. Choose a Method of Testing
- 📋 3. Consider Your Purpose for Testing
- 🧫 4. Pinpoint Your Problem Contaminants
- ✅ 5. Stick to the EPA’s Recommendations
- 🔎 6. Accurately Test Your Water
- ↩️ 7. Test Again If Needed
- 📖 Why Test Your Water Quality?
- 🧠 How to Test your Water Quality: FAQs
- 📑 How to test your water: Final thoughts
🚰 1. Identify Your Water Source
First thing’s first, identify the type of water you’re testing.
If you want to test your city drinking water, a basic drinking water test kit that detects impurities like chlorine and lead might be all you need.
If your water comes from a well, you’ll need a water testing kit that tests for common well water impurities, like nitrate, bacteria, iron, and sulfur. Contact your local health department if you’re not sure what your local well water supply contains.
🧪 2. Choose a Method of Testing
Once you know what type of water you’re testing, you need to consider a testing method.
There are two primary methods of testing your drinking water:
- Water test kits
- Professional laboratory testing
Test kits are the fastest method of testing. A test kit contains test strips and a color wheel or chart.
You simply take a water sample from your faucet and dip the test strip into the water. The test strip will change color, and you can compare this color to the color wheel. This will give you a range for each contaminant that you’re testing for in PPM (parts per million).
Note: if you want to test for bacteria, you can add a few drops of water to a special kit containing powder. When you shake the container, the water will change color.
Certified Lab Testing
Getting your water tested by a certified laboratory is a slower testing method, taking several days to several weeks – but it delivers the most accurate results.
A laboratory test can be used to detect one particular contaminant of concern or several common impurities together. A lab test report will usually tell you not only exactly what your water contains, but how the quantities of these contaminants compare to their individual public health regulations.
To get your water tested by a lab, you’ll need to take one or several water samples and send them off to the laboratory. You’ll receive your results via email, post or access via online portal within three weeks.
💯 Compare the Best Home Water Test Kits
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Or Read Our In-Depth Reviews: The Best Water Testing Kits in 2022
📋 3. Consider Your Purpose for Testing
Your purpose for testing your water may affect the type of test you decide to use.
For instance, if you’re planning a hiking or camping trip and you want a quick, convenient way to test your water while you’re out and about, testing kits are a good option.
If you’re facing an emergency, such as an earthquake, a chemical spill, or flooding in your local area, you’ll probably be keen to get the most accurate results, so a laboratory test will be the most suitable choice.
Finally, if you just want an indication of what your water contains, a DIY test will do the job – but if you want an in-depth analysis of your water quality, lab testing is your answer.
🧫 4. Pinpoint Your Problem Contaminants
Now you know which water source you’re testing, why you’re testing it, and your preferred testing method, you can pinpoint the impurities you want to test for.
Certain tests might provide more useful results than others, depending on what your water contains. For instance, if you get well water from an area where agricultural runoff is likely, you’ll benefit from testing for pesticides or fertilizer, but probably not for common public water impurities like chlorine.
Well Water Impurities to Test For
Some of the common contaminants to test for in well water are:
- Coliform bacteria
- Nitrites and nitrates
- Agricultural chemicals
City Water Impurities to Test For
Some of the common impurities to test for in city water are:
You can see that there’s a crossover between the two lists, but city water is much more likely to contain chlorine and fluoride than well water, which is more likely to contain coliform bacteria and iron.
Before choosing a water test kit, make a list of the contaminants that you’re most concerned about in your community water supply. If you get your water from a public supplier, you can look at the listed contaminants in your consumer confidence report for inspiration.
✅ 5. Stick to the EPA’s Recommendations
There are no EPA standards for home water testing kits, but the EPA does offer guidelines to well owners for testing their water. The EPA also requires local municipalities to provide their own test results for public drinking water systems.
Before you test your water, take a look at the EPA’s National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. Keep this link at hand when you conduct your water tests. You’ll be able to compare the contaminants in your water to the EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Levels, so you can easily see whether your water’s impurities are above acceptable levels – and the health risks of drinking these impurities.
🔎 6. Accurately Test Your Water
Now it’s time to test your water – and it’s important to be as accurate as possible.
You have less concern about accuracy if you’re using a laboratory for your test. You’ll just need to take water samples and send them off to the laboratory.
If you’re using test strips, it’s your responsibility to make sure you obtain accurate results.
Our best tips to increase the accuracy of a testing kit are:
- Read and follow the instructions carefully.
- Wash your hands before you get started.
- Wait until you’re ready before opening the test strips.
- Time the process with a timer.
- Take a cold water sample, not hot.
If your kit tests for dangerous contaminants, and one contaminant is detected in high levels, we strongly recommend following up with a professional water testing from a laboratory.
↩️ 7. Test Again If Needed
There may be occasions where you need to test your water again. For instance, if you detect bacteria in your well, you should stop drinking your water while you shock chlorinate your well, then test again to check that the bacteria has been eradicated before you use it once more.
You might also want to re-test your water after you install a treatment system to remove harmful impurities from your water. Testing your water upstream and downstream of the system will help you determine whether it’s a reliable, effective solution to your water quality problems.
📖 Why Test Your Water Quality?
If you own a well, your water won’t be tested and cleaned on your behalf. Private well owners should get their water tested for potential contaminants, including nitrates, TDS, total coliform bacteria, pH, and other contaminants of local concern, at least once a year.
Testing is needed for obvious reasons: to make sure there are no dangerous levels of impurities in your own water.
You probably think you don’t need to test your water quality if you get your water from a public water system. Your local authority makes sure that your public water supply is clean and safe to drink, after all. Plus, you can look at your consumer confidence report to check what your water contains.
However, the issue with water quality reports is that they only indicate the level of contaminants in water at the time of treatment.
These reports can’t take into account the journey your water has to go on to reach your home, through underground pipes and plumbing systems that don’t get replaced in years.
It’s during this journey that water can pick up additional contaminants at potentially harmful levels, including lead and microorganisms like bacteria. The only way to really know whether these contaminants are present in your water is to test your water quality.
Not only that, but water quality reports don’t take into account the day-to-day fluctuation of your water quality. They’re simply a snapshot representation of the quality of your public water supply on a single day.
🧠 How to Test your Water Quality: FAQs
How does drinking water become contaminated?
Drinking water can be contaminated at any stage of the water treatment process, including before and after.
The very first time your water will come into contact with contaminants is when it exists naturally in a river, stream or reservoir. Here, water may be contaminated by environmental pollutants, animals, sediment like soil and other organic material, and surface runoff, which may add nitrogen, bleach, salts, pesticides, herbicides, metals and toxins to the water.
Water is then taken into a treatment plant, where the majority of these contaminants will be reduced, but not fully removed. During the treatment process, chemical contaminants like chlorine are added to water as a disinfectant. Once it’s been treated for drinking, water travels through metal pipes underground, which often contain metals that leach into water.
When should you test your water?
You should test your water at any point if you want to know exactly what it contains. If you’re a well owner, the CDC recommends conducting a water test annually for bacteria, nitrates, TDS, pH levels, and any other chemicals or impurities you’re concerned about.
How do I remove contaminants from my tap water?
There are several ways to remove contaminants from your tap water, and the best methods involve using a water filter. Read our definitive guide on water filtration systems to find out which type of system is best for your needs.
📑 How to test your water: Final thoughts
Testing your water quality, no matter which method you choose, can help you to determine which contaminants you want to remove using a water filtration system. Knowing how to test your water quality will enable you to choose the best method of testing – and ultimately, the best method of treatment – for your water.