Water filters: green buying guide
Adapted from the 2/2012 Consumer Reports magazine.
A flood of new filters--everything from simple carafes to permanently mounted systems--can make removing impurities from your drinking water almost as easy as turning on the tap. Some models that connect to the plumbing are now easier to install. And more filters now feature electronic indicators that signal when it's time for replacement.
More than just water that tastes good might be at stake. Dangerous contaminants such as lead, chloroform, arsenic, nitrate, nitrite, radon, and E. coli bacteria are common in tap water.
Bottled water, often advertised as a "pure" and "natural" alternative to tap water, is generally safe. But it's actually less regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) than municipal water supplies. Bottled-water makers aren't required to disclose where their water comes from, how it was treated, or what contaminants it might contain. Disclosure is purely voluntary (except in California). And the bottled stuff is subject to a less stringent safety standard than tap water.
In fact, purified tap water is the source of 49 percent of bottled water produced in the U.S., according to industry data. Many consumers could cut out the middleman (and produce far less plastic waste) by investing in a water filter and reusable water bottle to tote when they're on the go. Fortunately, Consumer Reports tests on dozens of the latest water filters found quite a few models suitable for removing many such contaminants. Watch video: Getting the Right Water Filter.
First find out what's in your water
One way to find out what type of filter you need is to check your Consumer Confidence Report, or CCR. The EPA requires utilities to provide a CCR to their customers every year. You may also find the CCR printed in your newspaper or posted on your local government website.
Consumer Reports reviewed CCRs from the 13 largest U.S. cities and found that few claimed to have no federal water-quality violations. Though none of the other water systems were consistently unhealthful, all had some samples containing significant quantities of contaminants. In New York City, for example, some samples had lead levels several times the federal limit.
Note that a CCR might indicate safe levels of a contaminant when your water actually has experienced potentially harmful spikes. Also, a CCR tells you about the water in your municipality, but not necessarily about what's coming out of your particular tap. Only testing your home supply can do that.
Even if the water coming out of the treatment plant is clean, contaminants could get into water after it leaves the facility. That’s because millions of miles of distribution pipe are nearing their end of life. And household plumbing remains a main cause of lead contamination in homes built before 1986.
Homeowners with a well on their property face even greater uncertainty, because such water isn't surveyed or reported on in CCRs.
To find the names of state-certified testing labs, call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791), or go to the EPA hotline that is online. Or you can contact your local health authority, which might offer low-cost or free test kits, or check out www.epa.gov/safewater/labs. Ultimately, you might find that you don't need a water filter.
It's important to know what contaminants are in your water that so you can match the filter to the problem. Claims about contaminant removal vary from product to product, so read the fine print.
Also, consider how much water you consume vs. how much effort and disruption to your daily routine you're willing to tolerate. Generally, the more contaminants you need to remove, the more complicated the filter, though there are trade-offs.
If you get one of the top-rated water filters recommended by Consumer Reports, you can get odor-free, clearer, better-tasting water, with fewer dangerous contaminants. Fortunately, there are a lot of good choices.
Not surprisingly, more water-filter manufacturers are touting their products' power to remove impurities, not just improve taste and appearance. In recent tests, Consumer Reports spiked water with lead and chloroform (a surrogate for organic compounds like atrazine and benzene, and for bad taste) to test five different types of filters: carafe, faucet-mounted, countertop, undersink, and reverse-osmosis models.
Many filters did the job, but some removed less of each contaminant than promised, and even the best can be overwhelmed by sudden surges in contaminants. Undersink and reverse-osmosis models outperformed faucet mounts and carafes, but required professional installation and can be quite expensive.
Be sure to consider the total cost when choosing a filter. Some have very expensive cartridge refills.
Also note: Many refrigerators now have water dispensers with built-in filtration. Though they're fine at improving taste, in past tests some systems were so-so at removing impurities. Plus replacement cartridges are costly. By installing a recommended undersink filter to the refrigerator's water supply line, you can bypass the appliance's filter and you may get cleaner, more economical results.
Among the carafes tested, the top-rated Lotus Tersano LWT-100 at $229 and the Best Buy Clear20 CWS100A at $15 both removed lead and chloroform effectively without sacrificing cartridge life or flow rate.
Two ZeroWater models were also recommended although they scored lower and their chloroform removal scores were not available. They are: ZeroWater ZD-013 (8-cup) at $35 and the ZP- 010 (10-cup) at $38.
Remember that you must replace the filters on carafe models, which is an added cost. If you’re thinking of a carafe type filter, you should know that manufacturers of carafes don’t have to disclose whether their products contain Bisphenol A, which some studies have linked to reproductive abnormalities and a heightened risk of breast and prostate cancers, diabetes, and heart disease.
All the carafes in our tests are BPA-free, according to their manufacturers. But manufacturers should be required to list the type of plastic used in their carafes and should not use polycarbonate, which leaches BPA.
The Culligan FM-15A at $15 and the Brita Base On Tap OPFF-100 at $19 both were judged Best Buys, but their flow rates were only fair, meaning it took longer for the water to flow through the filter.
The Culligan FM-25 at $20 and the Pur FM 3700B at $30 also did a good job and were recommended.
The Shaklee BestWater MTS2000 #82300 at $260 was a Best Buy among countertop models, and the Amway eSpring 10-0188 also was high-rated, but it is priced at about $600. It treats the water with ultra-violet light technology.
Four models were recommended among this type. They are: Multi-Pure MP750SB at $400 rated highest in the group; the Aqua-Pure by Cuno AP-DWS1000 at $565; the Ecowater EPS 1000 at $390; and the American Plumber WLCS-1000 at $251, which was judged only fair on flow rate.
Three models were judged Best Buys among this type. They are: the Whirlpool WHER25 (Lowe’s) at $146; the Kenmore Elite 38556 at $255; and the similar Kenmore 38156 at $153. The Kenmore’s both were judged only fair on flow rate, however.
Other recommended models in this group were more expensive. They are: the Kinetico K5 Drinking Water Station at $1800, which, unlike most other filters, removes fluoride; the Coway P-07QL at $640; the Ecowater ERO-375 at $675; and the Culligan Aqua-Cleer at $1,000.