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How to Test Your Home’s Water Quality (2024 Updated Guide)

It’s natural to be concerned about your water quality at home–even if you are part of a well-maintained municipal water treatment system, problematic elements have a knack for finding their way into the water due to water’s nature as a solvent. Not only can undesirable elements still get into otherwise well-treated city water, but there are things put there in the filtration and treatment processes that are best removed right before you drink the water, such as chlorine and chloramine. These are useful disinfectants for keeping water safe, but they don’t taste good and can be irritating to the skin and body. Before you start planning a home filtration system, however, you need to inform yourself about what is in your water. In this guide, we will cover some of the dos and don’ts when testing for common waterborne contaminants.

Overview of Common Water Quality Issues

Water can be problematic in nearly as many ways as there are problematic substances on the planet. As the “universal solvent,” water is great at taking on trace amounts of nearly everything it comes into contact with. One of the most common problems people have with their water is water hardness, or an abundance of dissolved mineral content in water, which usually consists mainly of calcium and magnesium, with trace amounts of other minerals, such as selenium. Some water hardness is good, as the minerals flavor the water and are necessary for ongoing animal life in some measure. However, too much hardness causes mineral buildup in pipes and ugly limescale deposits on water fixtures and faucets.

Another common problem, though one seen far more often in well water than in city water, is microbiological contamination. Parasites, protozoa, cysts, bacteria, and viruses generally all thrive in water, as it is a wonderful medium for living things, constituting–as it does–one of the most basic chemical elements of all living things. Such parasites and other microbial threats get into water through human and animal waste, primarily and can be deadly.

Other water problems run the gamut from human-made synthetics like microplastics and PFAS, which are used in non-stick coatings on pans, inside popcorn bags, on windbreakers, and so on, to volatile organic compounds like chloroform, which is often produced when chlorine is treated water interacts with organic matter in water. Gasoline additives, solvents, glues, and paints also often end up washed down the drain, and all those chemicals have to end up somewhere.

Understanding Water Quality Parameters

There are a few metrics to consider when filtering water. One acronym you will often see is “TDS,” which stands for “total dissolved solids.” TDS readers are cheap and readily available online. They measure the charge in water and can give you an instant readout of how much dissolved solid material is in a given glass. This only tells you that there are dissolved solids; however, it does not tell you what type and nature they are. 

For a complete breakdown of the chemical contents of your water, you would need to send a sample to a laboratory for full testing. Other home testing options include pH strips, which measure the relative acidity vs alkalinity of water. H2O with more dissolved mineral content is more basic or more “alkaline,” while water with less is more acidic. Ideally, drinking water should be somewhere in between and tend towards the alkaline side, as mineral content makes water taste better.

Drinking water
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Physical Parameters

You want your drinking water to be physically cleaned of impurities, but that doesn’t mean that you want it stripped of everything aside from hydrogen and oxygen. This is why relying only on a TDS reading can also be misleading, as not all dissolved solids in water are negative–indeed, we want some dissolved solids in our water in the form of necessary life-sustaining minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, selenium, and so on. Many consumers mistakenly believe that 0 TDS is the goal, but according to Allfilters, the goal is actually somewhere in the 50-150 ppm (parts per million) of TDS. Water that has been completely stripped of all dissolved chemicals, or “de-ionized water,” is actually not safe to drink and can lead to malnourishment and a lack of essential nutrients and minerals. Look for a system that will reduce water hardness, sediment, and TDS, but not one that will strip them out completely, as completely sterile and chargeless water is not good for drinking–it is ideal, however, for seawater fish tanks and spot-free car washes.

Chemical Parameters

If you are on city water, there is a very good chance that your water contains chlorine and/or chloramines, as these are the most commonly used disinfectants employed by municipal water treatment facilities. Other chemicals in your water may include volatile organic compounds such as chloroform, which is often created by chlorine interacting with organic material in water. Solvents, glues, fuel additives, and other industrial chemicals also find their way into water supplies, and trace amounts can remain even in treated water. Look for activated carbon or catalytic carbon filters to tackle chemical contaminants in water.

Biological Parameters

The trickiest and potentially most dangerous sorts of contaminants come in the form of living things. Microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa, parasites, and helminths can all pose grave health risks to humans and animals and generally enter waterways through contact with fecal matter. Those on city water don’t have as much to worry about here (though occasionally, things like giardia or cryptosporidium do break into treated water lines), but folks on well water do. If you are on a small private well, it is important to test your water regularly and consider a sterilization system such as a home chlorination system or an ultraviolet light filter.

Why Test Your Water?

Water conditions change all the time, so even if your water was great last year, it’s not a bad idea to check it again. Water conditions are, well, “fluid,” and prone to change because of geological, atmospheric, manufacturing, or other factors. Taking the time to mail off a sample of your water occasionally can save you a lot in home repairs, medical bills, and general stress.

When to Test Your Water

You should test your water if you notice any ill effects or tastes from or in your water if any recent seismic, geological, or industrial activity has disrupted local waterways, if you have undergone a significant health change or crisis, or if you have any other reason to suspect that your water quality may have been compromised. Test early, as the cumulative effects of contaminants will worsen any problems over time.

Water testing
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Types of Water Tests

You can test your water at home with simple pH strips to get a general sense of your water hardness, or you can buy a small centrifuge and get complete chemical testing that way, though such machines are pricey. For most folks, finding a nearby lab that will test water samples sent in by mail makes the most sense. Such tests are generally around $100.

At-Home Testing Kits

Home testing kits can be found online, or at various drugstore and department stores, and are usually pH strips, able to determine the relative acidity or alkalinity of your water. You can also find home bacterial tests, that can let you know if there are common bacteria like E. Coli or coliform bacteria in your water.

Laboratory Testing

For thorough testing, there is no substitute for an actual series of laboratory tests. Home testing may give you a basic idea of what is going on in your water, but without serious chemical analysis by certified professionals, you will only have a general idea, but not a pinpointed guide to the contaminants you are facing.

Step-by-Step Guide to Testing Your Water Quality

First, find out as much as you can about your water quality from tests that have already been done. If you are on city water, simply Google your city’s most recent federally mandated government water quality report. If you are on well water, ask your neighbors, HOA, or local government if the well is supervised or regularly tested. After gathering whatever information is currently available, you can now decide whether home tests will suffice or if you need to spring for professional testing.

Common Water Quality Issues and Solutions

The most common water quality issues for people on city water are elevated water hardness, chlorine and other disinfectant levels, and trace amounts of heavy metals or other contaminants. For those on well water, the problems are more likely to be microbial in nature. In the former case, a simple two-stage sediment and carbon filter system will often suffice, though something more robust like a reverse osmosis system may be called for. For well water, you may need a home chlorination system or an ultraviolet light filter.

How to Maintain Good Water Quality

The best ways to maintain good water quality are to stay informed about local water conditions, install and maintain a water softener and/or home water filtration system (including regular filter changes), and be willing to change your system and setup as circumstances and external conditions change. Water quality is not static but dynamic, so you have to be willing to shift with it.


When it comes to water filtration, your most valuable resource is knowledge. You can’t improve the quality of the water you drink and bathe in unless–and until–you know exactly what is in it. Make use of the resources available around you already, educate yourself on common contaminants, and keep ahead of developing troubles with regular water testing. Everyone in the household will benefit as a result.