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How to Test Your Drinking Water


Why Should you Test your Water?


Clean drinking water is vital for good health. Most public city tap water is disinfected with chlorine and is subject to strict quality regulations. Though municipal tap water may not need to be tested as often as chemically untreated water, you should test if contaminants are suspected. It is important to know how to test your drinking water in order to ensure that you and your loved ones are protected from any waterborne illness. If your home is served by a public water system, the city must notify you when there are contaminants that could cause illness. Public water is regularly monitored and tested, and results are reported to government agencies which are responsible for making sure the water meets national quality standards. Once a year, the city will send out an annual water report with your water bill, which contains information on the water source, contaminants found, and possible health effects. If you obtain water from a public source, before testing, obtain a copy of this report, which can also be found on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website. Private water sources also need to be tested regularly to ensure purity, since they are not subject to the same quality standards as city water.

When to Test


Routine testing for private water supplies should be done every year for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids (TDS) and pH levels, and every three years for sulfate, chloride, iron, manganese, hardness and corrosion. Public water supplies should be tested when the presence of contaminants is suspected, or before purchasing a water filter. Here are some general factors that might warrant water testing:
  • If you or anyone in your household experiences frequent gastrointestinal illness, test for coliform bacteria
  • If you are expecting a new baby, you should test for nitrates in the early months of pregnancy, before bringing the baby home, and again during the first six months of the baby's life. It is best to do this during the spring or summer after a rainy period.
  • If you have had a recent chemical or fuel spill or a leak near your water supply, test for chemical contaminants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 
  • If your water is cloudy, frothy or colored, test for color, turbidity and detergents. Water that has a brown, orange or red discoloration may indicate the presence of rust in your pipes. Iron deposits from rust may cause hair discoloration or can be toxic to the body at high levels. Sometimes the presence of iron can indicate a co-existing problem with lead levels, and if there are small children in the house they may be at risk for lead poisoning. A blue or green tint may indicate corrosion in your pipes and a dark brown discoloration may indicate the presence of manganese.
  • If your water causes frequent staining of clothes or household fixtures, test for iron, manganate and copper.
  • If your water leaves scaly residues and soap scum, and decreases the lather of soaps and detergents, test for water hardness.
  • If your water has a bad odor or taste, like that of rotten eggs, test for hydrogen sulfide. A metallic taste may indicate the presence of minerals and you should test for pH, corrosion, copper, lead, iron, zinc, sodium chloride and TDS. A chemical or medicinal taste may indicate elevated levels of chlorine, which is not uncommon since chlorine is often used by municipal treatment plants to disinfect water supplies. Most water filters reduce chlorine singificantly.
  • If your household plumbing contains lead, test for lead, copper, cadmium, zinc and pH levels.
  • If your water supply equipment wears easily, test for corrosion and pH.

Home Kit Water Testing


Water test kits are available to test for one or more contaminants. These usually consist of individual test strips specific to each contaminant. Some kits come with a digital meter to provide more accurate results than one would typically get with test strips alone.


Lab Water Testing

Lab testing can cost anywhere from $15 to hundreds of dollars, so if you are familiar with how to test water on your own, a home drinking water test would save you money. However if you must resort to lab testing, call your state certification officer to get a list of  certified water testing laboratories in your state. The EPA website provides a list of phone numbers for each state's certification officer, and some of these have a link to online laboratory listings as well. Most labs provide their own sample collection containers. Use the ones provided and carefully follow the instructions for collecting, preserving and handling samples. Certain tests require that samples be taken under sterile conditions. Some labs may send a trained technician to collect samples for you, in order to ensure more reliable results.






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