How to Test Water Quality and Why

Make sure you know exactly what might be hiding in your water with our guide to water testing. We cover the range of options available, how to test water quality, and exactly what you need to be testing for.

how to test water quality, water quality

Getting the perfect water filter system to protect your home depends on knowing exactly which harmful contaminants to remove. This is why you need to know how to test water quality. There are many different methods of water filtration, and each specializes in removing certain contaminants from water. If you know what chemicals lurk in your water then you can get the most effective water filter for dealing with them.

Luckily, testing your water to see what is in it has never been easier. There are various ways that you can do this, and in today’s post, we’ll discuss each of them.

How to Test Water Quality 

Know When to Test Your Drinking Water

Even when your drinking water seems to be crystal clear and odorless, you should not be too relaxed. Clear drinking water is not necessarily safe drinking water. Contaminants such as lead are colorless and odorless, which makes them particularly problematic. You can’t be entirely sure your water is safe to drink just by looking at it. But that doesn’t mean you have to rely on bottled water to stay safe… only that you should know a few things about water contamination and how best to avoid it.

Make it a habit to have your drinking water tested for contaminants and pollutants on a regular basis. You can test the pH levels of your water yourself quite easily using simple chemical test strips. Aside from the routine check, there are also clear signs that should alert you and if you notice any of these indications, stop from drinking and using the water immediately.

  • Water has a strong chlorine taste and smell. Chlorine presence indicates water treatment. You need treatment to disinfect the water and kill off any bacteria and other harmful microorganisms that may be present in the water. However, chlorine itself can form harmful by-products. You can find out more about chlorine and the problems it can cause here.
  • Water has a metallic taste. The salty or metallic taste of drinking water can be due to high mineral concentration in the water system. It can be iron, manganese, or any other type of mineral.
  • The water smells like a rotten egg. This is something that can really be noticeable and disturbing as the smell of rotten eggs is an indication that there is a decaying organic material underground. The unusual smell comes from the presence of hydrogen sulfide gas from the water when it passed through. Another possible cause of the rotten egg smell is the presence of bacteria, so either way, you need to have your water checked.
  • Water has a color. We all know that water should be crystal clear so if you notice that your drinking water has some color, it is no longer drinkable. Just so you know, if the water turns red, brown, or rusty, it is generally a sign of the presence of iron or manganese. If water has a greenish or bluish color, it may be an indication that there is copper in your water. If water is cloudy, white, or foamy, it may be due to turbidity which may be caused by a large number of individual particles invisible to the naked eye. Other reasons to know how to test water quality include the following:
    • Your family experiences recurring gastrointestinal problems
    • You or someone in your household is pregnant
    • Your water supply is next to a septic tank or the distance is questionable
    • You have a leaking gas tank near your water supply
    • There is livestock nearby or you have mixed some pesticides and other chemicals near your water supply
    • You live near a chemical plant, an oil or gas drilling company, a gas station, a mining operation, a landfill, a junkyard, or a heavily salted roadway

How Did The Clean Water Act Affect The Quality Of Water?

Water pollution has serious consequences. To protect the environment the dangerous effects of water pollution, in 1948 the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. After its amendment in 1972, it became popularly known as the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act established surface water standards and greatly improved the quality of much of the nation’s water, greatly reducing toxic pollutants and industrial discharge. The Great Lakes, along with many other bodies of water, have been completely revitalized since the Clean Water Act went into effect. and many more people have access to safe drinking water.

What Can Water Testing Uncover?

There are various things that water quality testing can uncover. There’s obviously the primary concern of harmful contaminants in water, but we can also identify the water hardness, and also the water’s pH. Water hardness results from a buildup of minerals like calcium and magnesium. This, in turn, causes limescale buildup that ruins pipes and appliances. Water with a low pH (below 7) is acidic. This is bad for our health and may also corrode pipes and fixtures. Other pollutants to test for include disease-causing bacteria such as occur in fecal coliform.

Most tests will highlight a range of harmful water contaminants and disease-causing organisms in a water sample. If you’re really not sure what you should be testing for then take a look at the table below. These guidelines are from the EPA guide to home water testing. They apply more to homes with private well water supplies but are still useful for everyone.

Condition or Activities Nearby What to Test For
Recurring gastro-intestinal illness Coliform bacteria
Lead in plumbing fixtures Lead, copper, pH
Radon in the air Radon
Soap doesn’t lather or limescale Hardness
Water softener needed to treat hard water Iron, manganese
Stained laundry/plumbing fixtures Copper, iron, manganese
Bad smell/taste Hydrogen sulfide, heavy metals
Water is colored/frothy/cloudy Detergents
Corroding pipes Lead, pH, corrosion
Water treatment equipment wears out quickly pH, corrosion
Agriculture nearby Pesticides, nitrates, coliform bacteria
Nearby mining operations pH, heavy metals
Nearby gas drilling Sodium, chloride, barium, strontium
Gasoline/fuel smell, or nearby gas station/fuel tanks Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Nearby junkyard/landfill/dump/factory/dry cleaners VOCs, Total Dissolved Solids (TDs), heavy metals, chloride, pH, sulfate
Salt taste/Nearby salted roads TDS, chloride, sodium

How to Test Water Quality: Tips and Tricks

Here are 3 ways you can find out the quality of your drinking water.

1. How Do You Find Out Water Quality Information For Your City’s Water?

Get a Water Quality Report

Law requires that your local water municipality tests the water regularly. This information is made public every year in the form of a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The CCR for your local area will tell you where your water comes from, and exactly what is in it. Best of all it’s free.

>>  Click here to find the CCR for your state or county <<

However, there are a couple of things to be aware of these reports. They give the result of water quality testing that might have been done a few months ago. Things can change over a short period of time, so take that into consideration. Also, they are the results of testing done at a central point (usually the water treatment plant). The water can become contaminated on its journey from the plant to your home. For a truly accurate read-out, the water needs to be tested at your home.

An alternative way of obtaining a water quality report like this would be to contact your local water company directly.

It should be noted that those with well water supplies aren’t supplied with these reports, and are required to maintain their water themselves. If you have a well water supply then tips 2 & 3 are more relevant.

2. How Can I Test For Pollution In Water?

Get a Home Water Test Kit

With a home water test kit, you can get instant results that measure the water at that moment. This method gives the most up to date, and therefore relevant results. A home water testing kit is relatively inexpensive and can be quite a powerful tool. A laboratory test will always be the highest standard of water test, but home kits can give a great indication of whether further testing is needed.

You can purchase drinking water quality test kits from superstores, home improvement stores, and even online. Using these kits, you can check if your drinking water has any bacteria, lead, nitrates, pesticides, chlorine, hardness, and pH.

There also some kits which test for less common contaminants such as iron, copper, sulfate, and sulfide. Some of the advantages of using a water testing kit are that they are fast (because you can immediately get the results), inexpensive, and simple to use. The kit usually comes with a package of test strips that contain reactants. Exposure of these strips to your drinking water will make them change their colors to indicate the presence of the said contaminants in your water.

However, please take note that these water testing kits may not be as accurate compared to lab tests. They may not be able to test for all harmful contaminants unless you have very high levels present in your drinking water.

Let’s take a look at the best home water test kits that measure contaminants, hardness, and also pH.

how to test water quality, water quality

First Alert WT1 Drinking Water Test Kit

Tests For:    Lead    Chlorine    Nitrates    Bacteria    Pesticides    Hardness    pH

If you’re wondering how to test water quality, this company makes it easy. The First Alert kit offers great value and a pretty comprehensive water test. Unlike most home water test kits, this one gives you a numerical ppm (parts per million) rating for each individual item. This kind of information is much more valuable than an overall water quality score. This makes it one of the most popular water testing kits around.

The kit will give you pretty much instant results. The bacteria test will take slightly longer, and possibly around 48 hours. The water quality tests are performed to EPA standards and require no lab work to get the results. This also doubles up as a water hardness kit.

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how to test water quality, water qualityWaterSafe Well Water Test Kit

Tests For:    Lead    Iron    Copper    Chlorine    Nitrates    Bacteria    Pesticides    Hardness    pH

This is a well water quality test kit ideal for testing the output of private wells. This means that it will detect heavy metals like copper, iron, and lead which are more common in well water supplies. It will actually detect 10 different contaminants in total, which is a pretty good return.

This kit gives numerical ppm results that can easily be compared to EPA guidelines for each contaminant. The recommended guidelines are included.

Well water should be tested yearly (at a minimum), so these drinking water test kits could save you a lot of money compared to hiring a local laboratory. However, they won’t be as accurate or as thorough.

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how to test water quality, water qualityHM Digital TDS Meter

Tests For:    Total Dissolved Solids

The downside of the water test kits that we previously mentioned is that they can only be used once. With an electronic TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) meter you are free to measure again and again.

However, there is a big difference in what the two types of testing kits measure. By measuring the amount of total dissolved solids you are not identifying exactly which contaminants are in your water. You are simply getting a value that represents the total amount of particles in the water. This means that it doesn’t distinguish between healthy minerals and harmful contaminants. For example, you may have hard water that is free of pollution but has high levels of minerals like calcium and magnesium. This water would give a high TDS meter reading.

These meters are great in the right circumstance though. If you have a reverse osmosis filter system, these are perfect for measuring how effective your unit is. RO systems remove all particles above a certain size from the water. This means the TDS reading will be very low from a healthy system. If the reading starts to increase then the filters are becoming less effective and it’s time to change them.

RO systems don’t usually have meters on them to warn when it is time to change the filters. Using one of these you can make sure that you always change the filters at the optimum time (when the overall water quality starts to decrease) to preserve drinking water quality. That way you can change them out while your water is still safe to drink.

Note: this won’t work for RO units that use remineralization filters that add calcium and magnesium minerals back to the water.

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 3. Get it Tested by a Laboratory

This is the most expensive method and the results may take a few days or even weeks to arrive. But, you can be assured that the figures are as accurate as possible. Use the link below to find the nearest EPA approved testing laboratory to you.

>> Find a Laboratory to Test Your Water <<

This report should contain important information regarding any contaminants that may be present in your water supply. This report should give you details and alert you if there are any health risks involved.

You should be able to describe your concerns and get professional recommendations based on their knowledge. They also have all the facts about the safety level of water in your area.

Send a water sample to a professional lab for more in-depth testing. These professionals can check your water for about a hundred different contaminants which include bacteria, toxic metals, heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds. It may take a few days before you can get the results, but it will be worth the wait.

Those with well water supplies (such as owners of private wells) don’t have the luxury of getting their tap water tested by the local water municipality. This option is the next best thing.

How Do I Test Water Turbidity?

Turbidity is the “cloudiness” of water. The cloudiness typically comes from particles suspended in the water. These particles could be algae, dirt, minerals, proteins, oils, or even bacteria. To measure how cloudy water is, we can use visual methods or mechanical turbidity meters to test it. But the best way to measure turbidity is with a nephelometer (turbidity meter). Turbidity meters are turbidity sensors that use a light source and photodetector to measure the presence of suspended particles in a water sample.

How to Test Water Quality FAQ

In this section, we will address some of the most common questions about how to test water quality, water sources, how often to test your water, toxins, price of the inspection, and more.

How Can I Tell if My Well Water Supply is Safe to Drink?

Well water is just as safe to drink if not safer than municipal water. With this said, regular testing is needed to make sure your supply stays clean and is good to consume. How can you tell if your well water supply is safe to drink? The answer is clear. Since contaminants can change in taste and appearance, the only way to know for sure is to have your water supply tested. While there are DIY kits available for an affordable price, you should know that these tests will not be as accurate as those conducted by a state certified laboratory. According to government authorities, you should have your water tested at least once a year for nitrates and bacteria. Test for other contaminants once every five to ten years. Some laboratories can take up to two weeks to return your test results.

How to Test Water Quality: Budgeting, Cost, and Efficiency

The cost of a water test varies depending on the number of tests you need to be done and the types that you request. Standard water tests can run anywhere between $25 to $400 or more. There are many reasons why your water could come back deemed unsafe to drink. Read on to learn more.

Do I Need to Be Present for My Home Water Quality Inspection?

We strongly recommend that you be present for your home water quality inspection. Are you a first-time septic owner? If so, make sure to ask a lot of questions along the way. Your inspector typically prefers that you follow him or her along with the operation. That way, they can inform you of the care and routine maintenance you need for your system. It helps ensure transparency on their end too. Do your research on the company before you pay for the operation and come with lots of questions. The inspector will need access to your house. If you have a shared well they may have to enter the neighbor’s house as well to examine the pump controls. Electricity and running water are needed.

How Long Does the Average Water Quality Inspection Take (E.G. Well and Sewer)

On average, a typical inspection runs between one and a half to two hours. The water runs for up to one hour as needed. However, the inspection could possibly take longer if they have to locate and dig up the septic covers. Inclement weather conditions may affect this. As we previously mentioned, each company will offer a different time scale for your results. You will not immediately receive your test results on the day of the inspection. It is more likely that you will receive them three to five days after the inspection occurs.

After the inspection concludes, the worker will take the results back to their office. Research is needed including locating your water system or well construction report, researching the code in place when it was constructed, and more. The water will also be analyzed in the company’s state-certified lab.

Do You Need to Pump Your Septic System Before the Inspection?

If you have a holding tank, yes you will need to have your septic tank pumped before the inspection. However, if you have an at-grade or conventional system with a drain field, you do not. You may be wondering why you need to pump your septic system. The answer is simple. After it has been pumped, it is easy to see if there are holes in the tank. Before a tank is pumped, the walls are coated in black slime, making it nearly impossible to find small cracks. You can’t test the functionality of the drain if it is completely full.

How to Find Out if Your Drinking Water is Safe: How to Test Water Quality

Turn on the local news and chances are, you’ll hear warnings about toxins and bacteria in your drinking water. How do you know how to test for water quality and find out if the water coming out of your sink is safe for consumption? Believe it or not, the answer is more simple than you might think. There is a wealth of information available to you if you know where to look.

First, check with your water company. The water bill you pay every month will lead you to figure out what your local water quality is like. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts out an annual consumer confidence report. This statement details any pollutants present within your water supply and all of the potential health risks that they pose.

The government requires customers to issue this report by July 1 every year. It usually comes with your bill. You can also sign up to get an alert with a downloadable PDF. Another option is to go directly to your water utility provider’s website. If you do some digging, you should be able to find the EPA’s report there as well. For those of you who do not know the name of your water agency, use the EPA’s clickable map to locate it.

Besides digging up your utility bill, you can also search through the Environmental Working Group’s National database. That’s right – they have an entire database just on drinking water. If you haven’t heard of the EWG before, they are a watchdog group that keeps a close eye on water quality reports. Here’s a heads up. Looking through the reports can be quite intimidating at first. There are a lot of numbers and the results are scary. The EWG brings attention to just how many chemicals there are in your water, particularly those that are near or above what they deem the “health limit” for safe drinking water (the EPA has not set legal limits on these particular contaminants yet). Since the Environmental Working Group uses the number zero as its baseline, water containing any of these chemicals is flagged down.

So what is the best way to accurately use the EWG water quality report? The answer is simple. Compare the healthy limit with the legal limit. Should you discover that these numbers are similar, you have a reason to worry. However, if the number is a very low part per billion for the contaminants, don’t sweat it.

Make sure you take advantage of the EPA’s Drinking Water Watch Program. Eighteen of the fifty states participate. What does this program entail? There is a searchable database of information on water quality violations, health hazards, and state actions to combat water pollution. The type of data discoverable varies between states. Once you have located your water quality data, it is time to go a step further. Another good thing to do is to look up the chemical concern in the EWG’s database. The Water Quality Association also puts out some good information on local water contaminants – it does represent companies that profit from water testing though, so beware!

When your water comes from a private well instead of a municipal supply, you have to do even more digging (no pun intended). The Environmental Protection Agency supplies a state guide to private drinking water supplies.

How To Test for Water Quality: What about DIY Water Testing?

You might be wondering if you can save money and do some DIY water testing.  To start your journey, contact the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline. They will link you with a reputable local water testing agency. Another option to consider is using the Water Quality Association’s search page to find a reputable testing company in your area.

How Do You Test For Hard Water in Your Home?

As you know by now, hard water is harsh on your skin and hair too. High levels of minerals like magnesium and calcium aren’t good for you. While it is virtually harmless to drink, it can cause some pretty serious damage to your home appliances and plumbing system. Did you know that replacing a boiler can cost up to $10,000? Take preemptive measures. Identify and remove hard water by installing a water softening system. Read on to learn how to test for hard water.

How to Test for Hard Water

Are you going to test for hard water? Get a clear plastic bottle with a lid and grab some liquid dish soap. Fill the plastic bottle with about ten ounces of water from your sink. Then, add about one teaspoon worth of dish soap. Shake up the water until the soap begins to foam. If the water and soap foam naturally, you probably do not have a problem with hard water. However, if the water does not foam and forms a milk film near the bottom of the bottle, hard water could be an issue for you. 

The second step to take after conducting this simple home test is to contact your local water utility provider and ask them for a hard water reading. Well supply owners, you can purchase a test kit online or from a local service provider. Remember that take-home test kits are not always the most accurate.

Now, it is time to check your water supply test results. Hard water is measured in grains per gallon (GPG) of dissolved minerals. Does your water measure higher than 4GPG? If so, your hard water levels are too high. At this point, you should purchase a water softener to reduce your hard water levels. These products can cost anywhere from $100 to $3,000 depending on the make, model, method of water softening, and water volume requirements of your household (e.g. whether you are using it for one room or your whole house). This requires professional installation.

The (Dirty) Truth about Tap Water

When given a choice between bottled and tap water, most of us would choose bottled water without hesitation. Why? We think it’s cleaner. But we know which one is better for the environment. Plastic can take up to one thousand years to fully break down. It’s not biodegradable. Despite how bad plastic is for the environment, people’s’ fear of drinking contaminated tap water trumps their desire to make eco-friendly choices. How can we change this and get the best of both possible worlds? Follow who regulates your water closely.

How is Water Regulated?

As we previously mentioned, municipal water supplies are regulated by several agencies each with different missions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the one that oversees the quality of your tap water. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the safety of bottled water sold domestically. Each of the fifty states is responsible for regulating packaged and sold water within their borders. While you may think that bottled water is safer to drink than tap, the federal government does not require it to be. In fact, we have seen that it is the opposite in many cases. Most tap water supplies go through an extensive disinfection process whereas bottled water does not have to. City water supplies test for the presence of bacteria and synthetic organic chemicals much more frequently than bottled water plants do. To give you an example, bottled water plants only have to test for coliform bacteria weekly whereas city tap water supplies conduct tests more than one hundred times in one month.

However, when it comes to limits on chemical pollution, they are nearly identical. One place where bottled water might be safer to drink is when it comes to lead. Since many homes have old pipe systems, the EPA has more lax restrictions on the presence of lead in tap water. So what is safer to drink – tap water or bottled water? After a four year study, the National Research Defense Council (NRDC) concluded in 1999 that there is no evidence to prove that bottled water is cleaner than your rap water. In that study, 1,000 bottles of water were tested. Twenty-two percent of the brands putting out bottled water had chemicals in it that were above state health limits. If you consume contaminants like this for a long time, there can be adverse health effects.

Overall, municipal tap water is pretty safe to drink. There are always exceptions to the rule though (e.g. places like Flint, Michigan). Some rural communities have a higher presence of runoff contamination in the water supply than others. Now that you know the provisions of drinking water law, you can easily check up on the annual quality reports for consumers or test your drinking water supply yourself. These reports point out exactly what health risks lurk and how to resolve contaminants. Those of you who want to take some extra precautions can purchase certified water filters from NSF International.

If you still choose to buy bottled water, make sure to check the label and cap first. Does the water say it is bottled from a municipal source or community water system? This means it is derived from tap water. If there isn’t any information on the bottle, you can contact the bottler in your state to ask where it was packaged and about the water source.

Can the Plastic from Bottled Water Pose a Health Risk?

Research says yes. Phthalates (aka chemicals) disrupt testosterone and other hormone production over time. Water stored for ten weeks in plastic containing phthalates showed that chemicals leaked out from the plastic cap and liner. There are no regulatory standards limiting the presence of these chemicals in either bottled water or tap water. However, the bottled water industry beat the FDA to the punch and gave an approved proposal to set the legal limit for these chemicals.

What are the 4 main indicators of water quality?

1. Physico-chemical indicators

For a start, there are physical and chemical properties that you should be aware of when considering the quality of water. These include, but are not limited to acidity (pH levels), temperature, salinity, and nutrients. Another factor that determines the physicochemical quality of water is, you guessed it, the abundance of chemicals. These include pesticides, herbicides, VOCs, and metallic remains. Physico-chemical indicators provide information on what is impacting the system. For example, is it an organic waste that affects dissolved oxygen, or is it some type of toxicant?

2. Biological indicators

Through biological indicators, we measure the health of the fauna and flora in the waterway. Commonly used biological indicators in freshwater include various measures of macroinvertebrate or fish diversity, benthic algal growth, and benthic oxygen demand. The only commonly used biological indicator in estuaries is chlorophyll-a, which is a measure of phytoplankton population density. Other indicators aren’t worth bothering with when talking about residential water.

3. Habitat indicators

Habitat indicators refer to the width, continuity, extent of shading, and species composition. On a more complex note, the extent of scouring and bank erosion and the presence of woody debris (fallen trees, etc) that provide important habitat for many species are also included in these indicators.

4. Flow indicators

Changes in water flow or the speed at which water can travel throughout the pipe are the main indicators of how fast you can receive your drinking or bathing water. Assessing the changes is therefore important. Changes to natural flow caused by humans are varied and include changes to peak flows, base flows, no flow periods, and seasonality of flows. To assess these different changes, a number of indicators are required. Unfortunately, nearly all of these indicators rely on the existence of good flow data for both current and pre-disturbance conditions. This type of data is often not available

Final Thoughts on How to Test Water Quality and Why

We hope that this article on how to test water quality has been of service to you. If you have any questions about anything we have covered then don’t hesitate to get in contact. We promise to reply promptly.

Here at Water Filter Answers we also have numerous guides to different water treatments, heaters, softeners, and pumps. Follow us on Facebook to stay up to date with all the latest news in the water filter world, as well as news regarding the environment. There’s a link in the top right corner of the page.

Hi I'm Jamie, teacher and owner/chief contributor at We strive to bring you the most informative water filter reviews in the most intuitive and user friendly way. Besides offering advice on the water filter to suit your needs, we also post topical articles on water pollution and the environment. Stay connected and follow us on, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and more!

  1. Thank you for this comprehensive guide to water testing. i am about to do some comparisons shopping for home kiyts and then maybe think about sending a sample to a lab.

  2. I’m grateful for your advice about having a water routine check and inspection. It really helped when you said that making it a habit is essential in determining if there are any contaminants and pollutants in our drinking water. I need to have ours be tested because one time I did notice a metallic taste on it.

  3. We are planning to build a new home soon and want to make sure that the water is healthy to drink. I appreciate your advice about having someone come to check out the house for any harmful minerals, colors, or smells. Having clean water to drink is certainly a necessity for us so we will take that suggestion to heart and have someone come out as soon as necessary.

  4. My First Alert test only showed hard water. Does that mean I don’t need a filter, just a softener? Filters in my humidifier turn brown.

  5. My husband and I wanted some tips on well water since we just moved into a house with a well, something we’ve never had before. I didn’t know water got its metallic taste from high mineral concentrations like iron or manganese. I want to make sure we’re drinking safe water, so I’ll hire a water well testing service to come out to the house to check our water, thanks to this post!

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