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How to test and improve your tap water

Homeowners should be aware that not all tests will provide specific or accurate results. Some experts recommend using a free digital water test that assesses levels of hardness, chlorine, pH, iron, copper, alkalinity and more. (iStock)

Water filters, whether installed on a faucet or on a pitcher in your refrigerator, have been around for decades for healthier drinking water.

But not everyone uses them, and they don’t address the impact of hard water on your home and appliances. We asked several experts about what homeowners need to know about the quality of their water: Mary Gordon, vice president of InSite Builders & Remodeling in Bethesda; Tim Dunphy, a water expert with Leaf Home Water Solutions, a national water solutions supplier for homeowners; and Chuck Khiel, senior vice president with Fred Home Improvement in Bethesda. All answered via email, and their answers were edited for clarity.

What are the issues homeowners might find if they test their water quality?

Gordon: Generally, homeowners will not find any issues or harmful substances if they test their water quality. Most water in the U.S. is filtered at water treatment plants and water safety standards are mandated by the government. Water companies such as WSSC publish an annual Water Quality Report.

However, those living in rural areas who get their water from a well should test their water at least once a year. Well water does not always have access to water treatment plants.

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Dunphy: Hard water is one of the most common water quality issues discovered during testing. It can be found in homes with either city or well water. Another common issue in city water is disinfection chemicals (i.e., chlorine) and byproducts, which cause unpleasant tastes and smells, damaged hair and skin, and possible adverse health effects. Well water sees multiple challenges identified through water quality tests, such as the presence of iron, manganese or hydrogen sulfide, a naturally occurring element that makes your water smell like rotten eggs. "Sulfur water" is the common phrase for this and can cause problems such as stained fixtures, bitter taste in your water, corroded metal and dingy laundry. Water testing can also find more serious issues, like lead or arsenic contamination and PFAs, otherwise known as "forever chemicals."

Khiel: Severe issues would be if high levels of heavy metals, like lead and mercury, are detected in drinking water. These can cause major health issues, especially in children.

What are common issues caused by hard water?

Gordon: Hard water is caused by high levels of minerals such as magnesium and calcium.

Hard water can:

⋅ Decrease the lifespan of appliances and hot water heaters.

⋅ Produce residue or stains in tubs, showers, toilet bowls, drinking glasses, dishes and laundry.

⋅ Cause a mineral deposit build-up in shower fixtures, faucets, disposals and pipes.

⋅ Create unpleasant taste and odor in water and cause dry or itchy skin.

Is hard water bad for drinking water?

Dunphy: Hard water is acceptable to drink but does have a distinct mineral taste which many find unappealing, particularly at higher levels. It doesn't pose a danger to your health and can provide increased quantities of calcium and magnesium to your diet.

How do you test your water quality?

Gordon: The most accurate test for hard water is to send a sample to an accredited independent laboratory. The EPA website has a list of certified laboratories.

Dunphy: Homeowners should be aware that not all tests will provide specific or accurate results. We recommend using our free digital water test that assesses levels of hardness, chlorine, pH, iron, copper, alkalinity and more.

Khiel: There are many water test kits on the market. Most are fairly simple to use. Fill a clean container with tap water, insert a test strip into the container, let it dry, then compare it to the chart provided to see what it indicates.

Does a regular water filter — in the fridge or on a faucet — solve water quality issues?

Dunphy: Most simple refrigerator, pitcher or faucet filters rely on carbon as the primary filtration method. This will reduce some chemicals through absorption, but it will not address water problems such as hardness, metals, bacteria, viruses or ultrafine contaminants. These filters also only treat certain water sources in the home, leaving all other sources untreated such as showers, baths, sinks, appliances, etc.

Khiel: Installing a water filter in the refrigerator or on a faucet can certainly help with water quality issues; however, it depends on what is in the water. For example, in hard water situations, the iron and magnesium need to be removed to help the water quality. Typically, the faucet filters are not designed to do this. Understanding what is in the water will help determine what kind of filter, if any, would be needed.

What else can homeowners do to improve their water quality?

Gordon: Homeowners can improve their water quality through regular maintenance of hot water heaters, older pipes and other plumbing devices. Keep storm drains clear by regularly cleaning up leaves and other yard debris. Dispose properly of hazardous materials such as paint and chemicals. Investigate different types of water filter systems that vary in size and price points to find the system that is right for your home.

Dunphy: To improve water quality, homeowners can invest in a whole home water treatment system based on concerns and specific contaminants in their water supply identified via testing.

A combination water softener/carbon system or salt-free water conditioner/carbon system is typically recommended for homes supplied by city water. A well water-supplied home usually requires more sophisticated advanced filtration systems to address specific water challenges. It's also recommended to combine a UV disinfection system and a reverse osmosis under sink drinking water system to protect the home from bacteria and viruses.

The price range for water filtration solutions is based on location, home size and filtration needs. When professionally installed, complete whole-home city water systems can range from $2,000 to $5,000. Complete well systems can range from $3,500 to $10,000 professionally installed, depending on the complexity of the water challenges.

Khiel: Understanding what is in the water in the first step. Faucet filters can cost from $150 to $250. A whole house filtration system can cost thousands of dollars for labor and material.

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