Drinking-Water Test Kits: Test Your Water at Home

We strongly recommend that you test the water coming into your home, using the kit that best suits your situation and budget. Here's everything you need to know about drinking-water test kits.

Water Test Kit Water Test Kit

Marty McFly and Filthy Water

There's a scene from the third film in the Back to the Future series where Marty McFly, played by the wonderful Michael J. Fox, travels back in time to 1885 and meets his great-great-grandparents. After offering to feed Marty dinner, they pour him a glass of brownish water that's filled with dirt, dust, and who-knows-what. Gross, huh?

It's a moment in the movie that really has nothing to do with the plot, but it gives modern-day viewers a glimpse into the poor quality of drinking water that used to be the norm for most people.

Thankfully, such extremely contaminated water is, at least for those who live in the United States, a thing of the past. And also time-travel movies.

But, It's Not 1885 Anymore. Do You Still Need to Test Your Water?

The short answer is yes.

The not-so-short answer is that, even in today's world of crystal-clear tap water, contaminants that are virtually impossible to detect by sight, taste, or smell can still sneak into the water supply.

That's why drinking-water test kits exist. And that's why we at WaterZen strongly recommend that you test the water coming into your home, using the kit that best suits your situation and budget.

In the unlikely event that your water looks cloudy, smells funny, tastes weird, or lights on fire (!), you probably don't need a drinking-water test kit to tell you that something's wrong. But, a kit is still helpful because it can pinpoint what substances are polluting your water and how much of them are swimming around in there.

After all, the health of you and your family is potentially at stake.

So, What's Your First Step?

The first question to answer on your quest to find the perfect drinking-water test kit is pretty easy: Who do you think will win the College Football Playoff this year?

Ha, just checking to see if you're reading. The real question is this: Does your water come from a public or private water system?

Let's Hear It for Public Water

Most Americans get their water from a public water authority that's responsible for collecting, filtering, treating, and monitoring their water to ensure that it meets the National Primary Drinking Water Standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

By law, those water providers are required to annually publish a Consumer Confidence Report and notify residents when contaminants get into the water that could cause illness or other undesirable issues.

A potential problem with this policy, however, is that water purity can vary between homes in the same water-system area, thus tempting providers to report the lowest possible contamination numbers. In other words, your home's water could be worse than the reported numbers for your area.

Another problem can occur if your water picks up contaminants inside the pipes of your home. Even if your water provider does an outstanding job of purifying its water supply, the water that comes out of your faucet may have picked up pollutants on the way in.

Again, we at WaterZen strongly recommend that you hold your water provider accountable and test your home's water on a regular basis.

Here's a handy chart provided by the EPA to help you know what contaminants to test for when specific issues pop up:

Condition, Issue, or Nearby Activity Recommended Test
Recurrent gastro-intestinal illness Coliform bacteria
Leaded household plumbing Lead (no, duh!), pH, copper
Radon in indoor air or radon-rich region Radon (no, duh again!)
Soaps don't lather, scaly residues Hardness
Stained laundry, plumbing fixtures Iron, copper, manganese
Abnormal taste or smell Hydrogen sulfide, corrosion, metals
Cloudy, frothy, or colored water Color, detergents
Corrosion of pipes and plumbing fixtures Corrosion (no, duh #3!), pH, lead
Rapid breakdown of water treatment equipment Corrosion, pH
Nearby intensive agriculture Nitrates, pesticides, coliform bacteria
Nearby coal or other mining operation Metals, pH, corrosion
Nearby gas-drilling operation Chloride, sodium, barium, strontium
Odor of gasoline or fuel oil and nearby gas station or buried fuel tanks Volatile organic compounds (VOC)
Nearby dump, junkyard, landfill, factory, or dry-cleaning operation VOC, total dissolved solids (TDS), pH, sulfate, chloride, metals
Salty taste and nearby seawater or heavily salted roadway Chloride, TDS, sodium (no, duh #4!)

When You Wish Upon a Well

If you get your drinking water from a private well instead of a public system, your main advantage is not having to pay a utility for your water. Also, you've probably had more of your wishes granted.Kidding, of course, about the wishes, but it's definitely nice not to have to pay that monthly water bill. However, the disadvantage is that you alone are responsible for testing your water and making sure that it's fit to drink and that it meets or beats the EPA's standards.Because well water is more susceptible to contamination than public water sources, the EPA recommends well-users test their water more often.How often? Here are the EPA's recommendations:

  • Test yearly for total coliform bacteria, nitrites, total dissolved solids (read more about TDS here), and pH levels, especially if your well is new or if you've replaced or repaired the pipes, pumps, or well casing.
  • Test for nitrates during the early months of a pregnancy, before bringing the baby home, and again during the baby's first six months.
  • If your well water tastes, smells, or looks abnormal, test for sulfate, chloride, iron, manganese, corrosion, and hardness. Test again three years later.
  • In the unlikely event you've had a chemical or fuel spill near your well, test your water for chemical contaminants, especially volatile organic compounds. Local experts should be able to tell you which specific pollutants might be present, so you don't need to test for everything.

Okay, What about Water Test Kits?

You've learned how important it is to test your water. You know what to test for when certain issues come up. And you know how often to test.Now, we're getting down to the nitty gritty: Which drinking-water test kits should you choose? (And do they test for actual nitty gritty in your water?)Broadly speaking, water test kits can be divided into three categories:

  • Category I: Test kits that give results at home
  • Category II: Test kits where water samples are tested by a private lab
  • Category III: Testing where water samples are tested by an accredited, state-certified lab or technician

(Note: these unofficial categories have been invented by WaterZen to help clarify the water-testing process. They're not used or endorsed by the EPA, CDC, or any other government agency or private corporation. Don't you just love legal disclaimers?) Again, these categories are pretty broadly-defined and there will be exceptions, but generally speaking:

  • Category I test kits are less expensive and allow you to collect a water sample, test it for a small number of contaminants, and read the results at home. The results are usually given in a general format, such as pass/fail or a value range, rather than a specific parts-per-million (PPM) or parts-per-billion (PPB) number.
  • Category II test kits are generally a little more expensive than category I kits, but they allow you to collect the water sample and send it to a private lab for more specific results on a larger number of contaminants.
  • Category III testing involves contacting an accredited, state-certified lab. They may have you collect and send them your water sample, or they may send a trained technician to collect your sample and even analyze it on the spot. Category III results are generally the most accurate and reliable.

You may want to start with a basic, economical Category I water test kit that tests for multiple contaminants and see if the results warrant more accurate testing from a lab. Or, if you're concerned enough, you can go straight for the Category III big guns.Another important thing to remember is that some water providers and state or county health departments offer free water testing. Some will even send someone to do it for you, so it's a good idea to find out before buying any water test kit.

What to Look for in Your Kit

When you're deciding which kit is best for you, here are a few factors to take into account:

  • Your water situation: Does your home or business have one of the issues listed in the table above with specific contaminants, or does your water seem fine but you still want to test it for general contamination?
  • The substances tested by the kit: Do you want to test for coliform bacteria or viruses or lead or pH or nitrates or some combination?
  • The specificity of the kit's results: For each tested substance, does it give you results in a pass/fail format, a value range, or a specific number (i.e., in PPM or PPB)?
  • The speed of the results: Do you want them in minutes, or are you willing to wait for a lab to send results back?
  • The accuracy of the results: Although accuracy varies among kits and it may be hard to confirm which tests are most accurate, the Category III kits will generally have more accurate results.
  • The cost of the kit: How much can you spend or want to spend?

Also, be careful not to confuse a drinking-water test kit with a water tester that measures total dissolved solids (TDS). While it's very helpful to know how many solid particles are in your water, TDS is the only thing that such water testers measure. (You can find out more by reading our article about TDS.)Water test kits, on the other hand, are generally more complex than TDS water testers and measure multiple specific contaminants.

After the Testing

If your water doesn't exactly pass the testing with flying colors (and it comes from a public source), there are steps you can take:

  • Contact your water provider and see what they can do to improve your water. Be assertive with them and demand some changes if they're unresponsive.
  • Install an NSF-certified under-sink filter or other type of water filter. (Read why we recommend under-sink filters over other kinds.)
  • Start using a water-delivery device.
  • If your water has a high amount of lead, read our article about what to do.
  • Unless you're in the middle of an emergency and unable to get water, we don't recommend drinking bottled water. It costs too much, results in a lot of plastic waste, and can contain more contaminants than regular tap water.
  • Replace your pipes and plumbing fixtures with new, lead-free pipes and fixtures. This is an extremely expensive and intensive option, but it is an option.

Our philosophy is that you and your family should enjoy the purest water possible and have peace of mind about what you're drinking. Plus, if Marty McFly jumps forward in time and shows up at your home, you can offer him a glass of clean, clear water without fear of embarrassment.

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