Plus, how to get a free water test kit. 

By Katie Holdefehr
Updated September 24, 2018
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When's the last time you checked your family's water supply using a water test kit? If the answer is "never" or a decade ago, don't worry, you're not alone—most of us don't put much thought into our household's water, even though we drink several glasses of it every single day.

Living in New York City—a city that often prides itself on the quality of its tap water delivered from large upstate reservoirs—I never worried about my apartment's water quality. In fact, I didn't even use a basic water filter. But with the news about the Flint, Michigan water crisis continuing to make national headlines this summer, my water habits made me pause. Because even if the source and treatment of your water supply is trusted, there's still one missing factor: the pipes the water runs through in your home. While homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, it wasn't until 2014 that new regulations changed the legal limit for "lead-free" pipes from 8 percent lead down to just .25 percent lead.

Luckily, testing water for lead and other contaminants isn't difficult, and it doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, I was able to order a free water test kit (including pre-paid postage). Curious about your own home's water quality? Here are five times you should always test your water, easy ways to test it, and the best water filter on the market.

Dougal Waters/Getty Images

When to Test Your Water

  1. Before there's a new baby in the household. The EPA recommends getting your water tested for nitrate in the early months of pregnancy, or before bringing a baby home, and again during the first six months of the infant's life. The best time to test: in the spring or summer, after a period of rain.
  2. Any time your water has a change in taste, odor, or color. At least every three years, test for sulfate, chloride, iron, manganese, hardness, and corrosion.
  3. After construction or work on your plumbing. After a big renovation or work on your home's pipes, it's a good idea to test your water.
  4. Any time there is a chemical or fuel leak in the area. Local experts can help guide you to the right test for your specific situation.
  5. When there's recurrent gastro-intestinal illness in your household. If your family has been inexplicably sick, it's smart to test for coliform bacteria in your water.

Still not sure? You don't have to wait for one of these situations to arise to get your water tested, and doing so can help provide some peace of mind.

PurTest

How to Test Your Water

Oftentimes, government organizations can provide free water test kits (learn more on the EPA website or call 800-426-4791 to find a state-certified water testing lab).

To get my free test kit in NYC, I simply ordered one using this online form. A couple weeks later, my kit arrived, including two large plastic bottles for collecting water samples. After filling both bottles with tap water from my kitchen faucet, I mailed the samples to the lab using the provided pre-paid postage. I was glad that the entire process was free, but after my first test kit was lost in the mail and had to be resent, the entire process from requesting the kit to getting my results took more than a month. 

Don't want to wait? Amazon Prime to the rescue! To try another method, I also ordered this PurTest Home Drinking Water Test Kit ($25; amazon.com). With this DIY kit, I had to do all of the testing at home—which made me feel like I was back in high school chemistry class—but it let me get the results immediately rather than waiting for a letter in the mail. The kit is pretty comprehensive, testing for lead, bacteria, pesticide, iron, hardness, pH, nitrate, nitrite, total chlorine, copper, and alkalinity. Different contaminants required different tests, which typically involved filling a small vial with water and dunking in a test strip.

How to Read the Results

For the results of the free government test, I received a letter from NYC's Department of Environmental Protection. The results: There was zero lead found in the drinking water samples. Even though my tap water was officially lead-free (phew!), they also sent over some water safety recommendations, including running the tap for 30 seconds, especially after it has been sitting in the pipes overnight. They also suggested cleaning the faucet screen, or aerator, once per month (adding this tip to the list of places I often forget to clean). 

To read the results of the PurTest, I matched up each test strip with the guide provided. Again, my water tested lead-free and safe on the 10 other contaminants as well. The entire process (mostly reading and carefully re-reading the instructions) took about 20 minutes, and at the end, I could rest assured that my water was safe. 

Pur

Find the Best Water Filter

Even though my tap water was deemed contaminant-free, the whole process got me thinking that it was (finally!) time to invest in a water filter for my apartment. After doing some research, one stood out both for ease of use, its impressive filtering abilities, and its NSF International certification: the PUR Advanced Faucet Filtration System ($35, pur.com). The filter attached right to my faucet—and I didn't even need to pull out my tool kit to install it.

It may seem small, but this filter is mighty: It reduces over 70 contaminants, including 99 percent of lead, 96 percent of mercury, and 92 percent of pesticides. Plus, the new horizontal design takes up less sink space (an appreciated feature in a small apartment kitchen), and comes in three finishes to match your hardware. This faucet system won't work on a detachable kitchen faucet, but there's also a pitcher filter option ($25, pur.com) you can store in the fridge to keep your water clean and crisp. 

Not only am I reassured that my tap water is clean and safe, but with my brand new filters, it's never tasted better. I never would have guessed how much this tiny change would affect my daily routine, but I think I've found the secret to kicking the expensive and wasteful water bottle habit. Try it, and who knows? You may even rethink your LaCroix addiction.