Home water filters can be an investment in your health
The water supply in the United States is generally among the safest in the world, but the water quality in some areas is definitely more questionable than in others. If you find that you have to hold your nose every time you take a drink, a home water filter may be just the ticket to improving water clarity and taste. However, be aware that if your water is really bad, especially if it has high levels of lead, a water filter may not be able to completely remove all contaminants.
Home water filters remove sediment, chlorine and odors to improve water flavor, and many make drinking water purer by reducing or removing contaminants. Per gallon, water filters are usually cheaper than buying bottled water and more convenient than filling jugs at front-of-store dispensers. They're also much better for the environment than buying and disposing of plastic bottles.
There are two main types of water filters: point-of-use (POU) and point-of-entry (POE). Point-of-use water filters are the most common, they treat the water at the point of consumption, either through a pitcher or countertop unit with a filter, or via filters installed on the faucet or under the sink. Point-of-entry water filters treat all of the water in a house and are usually installed at some location just after the water enters your home; water softeners are also POE water treatment systems. We do not cover POE systems in this report, as they tend to be very dependent upon your home's construction -- you'll need to consult a licensed plumber for recommendations specific to your home and area.
Water filters versus water purifiers
It's important to know that not all water filters are necessarily water purifiers. Most water filters merely filter out larger particulates, remove chlorine, and aerate the water. These processes improve the taste and smell of water, but do not purify it. True water purifiers are mounted under the sink and can remove extremely small particles as well as small inorganics.
Water filtering options
- Water filter pitchers are the most basic type of POU system. They are filled from the tap, and the water is purified via a filter situated inside the pitcher -- usually made of carbon. It takes 10 to 30 minutes to filter the water. Pitchers are a good choice to filter small amounts of water exclusively for drinking, but they have to be refilled often if you drink a lot of water or have a large family.
- Countertop water filters attach to the faucet and filter water as you use it. They have their own spouts and a diverter valve so that you can switch easily between filtered water and tap water. The filter itself is the countertop part: when you turn on the water and divert it to the filter, it forces the water through a carbon block filter encased in a unit that sits beside the sink. Countertop water filters can easily be removed and moved around.
- Faucet-mounted water filters are attached to the faucet; so they jut out from the fixture, but they do not take up counter space. They also feature diverters that allow you to choose between filtered and tap water. The main drawback to these types of filter is that they can slow the flow rate of your water down to frustrating levels. However, they are usually easy to install and remove.
- Under-sink water filters usually have multi-stage filters to remove more and smaller particulates, as well as chemicals and inorganic compounds, than either of the above two types. They are permanently mounted and may require at least a basic level of do-it-yourself skill to install, since you usually have to drill a hole for the filter faucet. Some give you the option to switch between filtered and unfiltered water, some filter all the water that comes out of the tap.
- Reverse osmosis (RO) systems are also under-sink water filters, but they have ultra-permeable membranes to remove 90 to 99 percent of all contaminants, so they're considered true water purifiers, rather than just water filters. The downsides to RO are that it also removes beneficial chemicals from the water and that it creates waste water: a 3:1 ratio is common. This water is not truly "wasted" in that it goes back into the community water supply, but you still have to pay for the water you discard. There is also some disagreement as to whether it's less healthy to drink water with beneficial minerals like calcium and magnesium removed; some experts say that most Americans get enough minerals and nutrients in their everyday diet to make up for it. Some companies sell RO systems that include a process to add some of those beneficial minerals back in, but those usually add $50 or more to the price.
How we chose the best water filters
It can be difficult to determine the best water filters. Those that do very well in professional tests often get low ratings from actual users. Part of the problem is that water "taste" is highly subjective. The same filtered water that hundreds of people say is the best they've ever drank may cause an equal number to gag. That's not the water filter's fault, but those unhappy reviewers will bring down even a decent water filter's reviews to sub-dismal levels. There's also the issue, discussed above, of a water filter getting low reviews because it does not filter out contaminants that it was not designed to filter. We've taken a close look at the reasons why a water filter is low-rated; if there are legitimate complaints, such as ongoing durability or performance issues, we take them seriously. If it's because of taste issues (unless there are an overwhelming number of those comments) or because the consumer thought the water filter was supposed to do more than the manufacturer claimed, we discard those complaints.
In addition to user reviews, to find the best water filters we looked at expert tests conducted by ConsumerReports.org and the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, along with posted results from consumers who tested their own water both before and after installation of a water filter. Then, we went back to the owner reviews for real-world insight into how easy the water filter was to install, use, and replace the filters on, and how much it cost to maintain. The result of our research is our recommendations for the water filters that will improve the quality of your water, are easy to use and maintain, and that won't cost an arm and a leg in long-term ownership.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Water Filter Pitchers | Best Faucet Water Filters | Best Under-Sink Water Filters | Buying Guide | Our Sources