Home Water Testing Facts You Need To Know

updated: March 03, 2020

Water is the healthiest beverage on the planet. But if you drink it right from your tap without filtering it, you might be ingesting contaminants along with all that refreshing H2O.

Water quality testing in the lab.
Only tests could confirm quality of the water.

That’s why if you want to keep your family healthy, it’s important to regularly do water quality testing.

This is especially true if the taste, color, or odor of your water takes a turn for the worse. Another sign that of plummeting water quality is that your clothing suddenly starts staining for no apparent reason.

If you’re experiencing signs like these, you need to get your water tested ASAP, because the health of your family is at stake.

How Often to Do Water Testing

Water quality in the US can vary widely depending on where you live.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ruled that they don’t need to ensure the quality of privately owned water sources, such as wells on your property. So, if you own your water supply, you’re going to need to do your home water testing yourself.

Well owners should test their water at least annually. It should be done more frequently if:

Flood and repair are the reasons for the test.
  • Any changes in your water: Test immediately if there’s a change in the odor, taste, or appearance of your drinking water.
  • Well or plumbing updates: You should monitor your water right after putting in a well. Also, if you’ve just repaired or replaced any part of your plumbing system such as pipes, the pumps, or the well casing, run a test. Make sure you seal your well correctly because if it isn’t, it can get infected with bacteria and other contaminants.
  • Recent equipment installation: If you recently installed water treatment equipment, monitor your water quality at regular intervals to make sure your equipment is working the way it should.
  • Mechanical problems: If you’re experiencing a mechanical problem such as a broken well cap or a malfunction septic system, test immediately.
  • Flooding: Floodwaters can cause your water supply to be overrun with contaminants, so check your water quality right after this happens.
  • Illiness: Another reason for monitoring more frequently than yearly is if anyone living in your home has recurring incidences of gastrointestinal illness.

Contaminants for Which You Should Be Testing

You should be doing home water testing for things like nitrates, total dissolved solids, pH levels, sulfate, iron, manganese, and total coliform bacteria. The presence of coliform bacteria can be an indicator of worsening water quality. Fecal streptococcus is a disease-causing bacterium you don’t want in your water supply.

Iron is yellow or orange, may cause stains on laundry and fixtures, and leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. Manganese colors water black or purple and may stain fixtures.

Hard water is caused by calcium carbonate (salt). Nuisance bacteria are a common contaminant that aren’t always harmful but can release impurities into your water during their life cycles. Hydrogen sulfide is a byproduct of nuisance bacteria that’s not dangerous in the levels present in drinking water. It smells like rotten eggs.

Tesing for contaminants.

You should check for other contaminants if you suspect them. However, there are hundreds of possible culprits, and testing for every single one would be prohibitively expensive. What to test for depends on a whole host of factors. These are things such as if your well is located on your property, whether you live in a rural or urban area, or which state you live in.

Check with your local health department or the EPA to find out if any of these contaminants are a problem in your geographical region. If your test results indicate the presence of contaminants in your water supply, you’ll need a qualified expert to interpret the results for you.

If you don’t know what to test for, describe your concerns to a reputable local lab, and see what they suggest. To find one, contact your local water authority and see who they recommend.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

These are industrial and fuel-related toxic chemicals that could make you violently ill. Or, even worse, kill you. Some VOCs are more prevalent in some geographical areas than others. Contact your local health department to see which ones are a problem in your part of the country.

VOCs to ask about include benzene, carbon tetrachloride, toluene, trichloroethylene, and methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

Testing for nitrates.


Nitrates are naturally found in food. However, unacceptably high levels of nitrate in drinking water will make you sick. Nitrates in your water supply can come from animal waste, private septic systems, wastewater, polluted stormwater runoff, fertilizers, agricultural runoff, decaying plants, and flooded sewers.

If the nitrate level in your drinking water is higher than the EPA recommended standards, you’re going to need to find another water source. Alternatively, you can investigate ways to treat your water to improve its quality.

If you have infants in your home, you must test for nitrates. The most critical times to do this testing are in the early stages of a pregnancy, or right before bringing a baby home from the hospital.

Also, you’ll need to test periodically during the first six months of an infant’s life.

Water Quality Indicators

Water quality indicators are things found in the water that might indicate the presence of harmful contaminants. These indicators are easier to test for than the actual culprits. Generally, if one of these indicators are present, that means the likelihood is high that a specific coexisting contaminant is present as well. For example, turbidity, which is a lack of water clarity, usually is a sign that bacteria levels are high.

Quality indicators.

Another example are pH levels, which indicate how acidic or alkaline your water is. High pH levels might mean that your water is dissolving your pipes. This leeches out dangerous metals such as lead into the water you drink, which could negatively impact your family’s health. Harmful metals such as lead can leech out from soldered plumbing components. This is a dangerous neurotoxin that can cause all kinds of health problems.

Yet another example are coliform bacteria. These are microbes found in the digestive tracts of warm-blooded animals. You’ll also find them in soil, on plants, and in surface water. Typically, these microbes don’t make you sick. However, because bacteria that do cause disease are difficult to identify through testing, they check for “total coliforms” instead.

If the total coliform count is high, harmful germs like viruses, bacteria, and parasites might also be found in the water. Fecal coliform bacteria are a specific time of total coliform. The feces and digestive systems of humans and other warm-blooded creatures are full of innumerable fecal coliforms. It’s important not to confuse the test for the ubiquitous and usually inoffensive WQI E. coli with the test for the harmful germ E. coli O157:H7.

Fecal coliforms and E. coli usually won’t affect your health in a negative way. However, a positive test may mean that other harmful contaminants have found their way into your water system. They can cause a dizzying array of ailments such as hepatitis, dysentery, and diarrhea. Often, county health departments can test your water supply for you.

If they say they can’t do it, contact a state-certified laboratory to have it done. You can find one in your area by calling the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 or visiting the EPA’s website.

Professional Testing Companies

Professional water testing.

Most laboratories provide containers for water quality testing. If this is the case, use these containers to ensure high reliability of test results. Carefully follow any instructions you’re given for collecting, preserving, and handling the samples. Water that’s to be tested for coliform bacteria must be collected in a sterile container.

Some procedures require that water run from an outside tap for several minutes before the sample containers are filled.

Sometimes, they’ll send a trained technician to collect the sample. If they don’t, ask if they can, because you’ll obtain more dependable results than if you did the collecting yourself.

If you want to do home water testing yourself, you can buy kits online.

Keep Meticulous Records

Even if your water quality is consistently excellent, continue to do regular testing to establish an ongoing record of water quality.

You never know when you’ll need this paper trail. This documentary evidence might prove to be invaluable if problems crop up later, like if somebody’s actions compromise the quality of your water supply.

If You Get Water from a Public Source

Consumer Confidence Report.

If you pay a water bill, you’re getting your water from a public system. This means your water is already getting monitored and tested, and you won’t have to do any testing yourself.

These results must be reported to the appropriate state, federal, or tribal authorities to make sure that they meet the National Primary Drinking Water Standards. They need to notify you in writing if contaminants are present in your drinking supply that can make you sick or cause other kinds of problems. Most often, they’ll let you know this information in their Consumer Confidence Report. This is an yearly report that community water supply companies are mandated to provide.

Most often, you’ll receive it with July’s water bill. If you don’t receive this report and you want this information, contact your water company, and they’ll send you one.

Water Filtration Systems

There are pitcher and faucet filters on the market that can safely remove lead. However, if you buy one of these, make sure NSF International certifies it.

For more information on filters considered effective by this organization, check out their website. You can also call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791 and ask what they recommend.

The girl keeps the glass.


Having excellent water quality isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessity.

In this article, you learned what to test your water for, and how frequently to test. You can always buy a kit to do your at-home water testing yourself. But, make sure it’s a first-rate one so the results are reliable.

You owe it to yourself and your family to make sure your water supply is free from harmful contaminants. So, do whatever it takes to ensure a high-quality water supply for your loved ones.

Worsening water quality means worsening health, and nobody wants that!

Alfredo Martin joined the Clean Water Fund in 1987, when he began working as a field community organizer. He teaches environmental science at the University of California, Irvine. His passion is improving water quality in communities across the US.
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