How To Test Your Water Quality at Home in 5 Steps

Understanding how to test the water quality in your home is important for keeping you and your family healthy and safe. We share five steps for how to do it, a list of signs that could indicate your water is contaminated and tips on how to handle positive results.

Edited By : Amy Edel
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Someone filling a glass with tap water.

Testing Your Water Quality

Testing the drinking water in your home can uncover tangible evidence of potential contaminants that can impact your health. A variety of at-home water testing kits are available to consumers. Some may test for only one type of contaminant. Some may require you to send your water samples to scientific labs to test for a broad spectrum of factors.

Infographic of how to test household water for contaminants.

These five steps can help guide you through the process of testing your water quality at home. Whichever method you choose, be sure to follow the instructions to achieve the best results.

1. Know Your Water Source

If you’re concerned about possible water contamination and are interested in home testing kits, it’s important to know the source of your home’s water supply. Knowing the source will help you determine which test type is right for your specific needs.

The key difference people should identify is if their water comes from a public utility or a private well. Responsibilities for water safety vary depending on the source.

  • Private well owners are fully responsible for the safety of their water supply and are encouraged to test their water annually.
  • Municipal water systems must adhere to the minimum legal limits the Environmental Protection Agency has set for more than 90 contaminants.

The EPA and individual states oversee public water supplies that provide drinking water to 90% of Americans. The EPA estimates private wells supply drinking water to more than 23 million U.S. households.

Based on the difference in regulations, private well water should be tested with a more comprehensive water testing kit than is needed for a public water supply. A testing kit focused on a smaller number of contaminants works for community water systems because they are already required to release an annual report called a Consumer Confidence Report, or CCR, detailing any contaminants identified in the local water supply.

2. Figure Out the Best Method for Your Home

The number of water testing kits available on the market can feel overwhelming. The quantity and type of contaminants each test measures also varies.

Some provide results quickly in your home while others must be mailed off to certified laboratories for extensive testing for more accurate results. Your budget and desired precision level of results will help you identify which of these options is right for you.

  • Test Strips: Typically the most budget-friendly option, test strips produce quick results. Depending on the brand you purchase, they may test for only one specific contaminant, such as lead, or for up to 20 different contaminants.

    Dip test strips into water samples to reveal a line or color code that signifies the presence of contaminants. The resulting color may indicate the presence of a chemical contaminant or an estimated concentration range of the contaminants in your water. Some critics note that there is often a limited amount of time to match the colors on your test strip to the contaminant chart included in your kit, leading to inconclusive results.

  • Color Disk Powder Kits: Similar to a test strip but more expensive, powder kits instruct you to add drops of your water sample to a small jar or test tube containing a powder reagent. After shaking the sealed jar or tube, you compare the liquid’s color to the color-coded contaminant circle chart that comes with the kit. These kits are considered slightly more accurate than test strips because they provide a clearer reading of the concentration of a given contaminant.
  • Laboratory Testing: The most accurate and thorough way to test your water is to obtain a kit from an EPA- or state-certified laboratory. Although it’s the most expensive and time-consuming method, many lab test kits are able to more precisely measure contaminant concentrations. Some can test for more than 200 different types of contaminants.

Let your concerns about your local drinking water determine which type of kit best suits your needs. Note that most of these kits are intended for one-time use.

3. Test for Specific Contaminants

Knowing which contaminants to test for will help you determine which type of test to purchase. But how do you know what chemicals or biological contaminants might be in your drinking water?

If your water comes from a public water system, you may be able to find more information in your water supplier’s CCR or within the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database. Both can provide a glimpse into contaminants that may have recently been identified in your water.

Graphic that lists what could be found in household water.

Awareness of public incidents of mass contamination and the specific chemicals and compounds that may be involved can help offer clues about potential contaminants. One example of a toxic chemical spill that may have impacted private drinking wells is the 2023 train derailment in Ohio. This rail accident released more than 1 million gallons of dangerous chemicals into local waterways and groundwater.

When your water supply is not included in a CCR or the Tap Water Database, the color and smell of your water can also indicate the presence of potential water contaminants. Lead contamination from pipe corrosion is common, and was a primary cause of extensive health issues during the Flint water crisis. The water’s metallic taste was one of the first signs for Flint residents that their water was contaminated.

4. Follow Directions to Ensure Accuracy

Read the instructions that come with your water testing kit completely before beginning your test to increase the likelihood of accurate results. Wash your hands before beginning the test and have a timer ready for monitoring your test results.

5. Consult EPA and State Guidelines

The EPA created legal standards for the United States, known as the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, that dictate acceptable contamination levels of more than 90 different potential contaminants. They offer a baseline for public water utility customers to understand the regulations applicable to their water source and a standard for private well owners to compare their test findings.

For example, if drinking water contains concentrations of lead that exceed 15 parts per billion in more than 10% of the consumer taps sampled, the public water system is required to immediately take action to control further corrosion of lead-based pipes.

The Safe Drinking Water Act enables states to establish their own regulations for water quality control in their jurisdictions. The state-level guidelines are often more strict than the EPA, as they use the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations as the minimum for creating their own standards.

Water Quality FAQ

Because of the potential serious health risks of a number of contaminants, understanding how to test your water quality and achieve accurate results is critical. These frequently asked questions address several additional key points.

How Often Should You Test Water Quality?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that well water be tested once a year. With a lack of regulations around private well water safety, water from this type of source should be measured for coliform bacteria, dissolved solids, nitrates and pH levels. You should also test well water if there have been any issues with or changes to your well and/or the land surrounding it.

Graphic explaining how often to test water at home and why more tests could be needed.

Community water systems test the drinking water supply consistently, depending on the size of the population they serve, the types of possible contaminants and the type of original water source for their supply. Guidelines established in the Safe Drinking Water Act determine the timeline for testing.

At-home water quality testing is optional and can be done annually for water sourced from a public utility. If changes in the water’s color, smell or taste occur, you should consider testing. Watch for communications from your water company about contamination concerns in your area to determine if testing at your home is needed.

Why Does Water Quality Matter?

Water quality is important because people rely on water in many ways for daily life — from drinking to brushing teeth and washing dishes. Contaminants in the water supply can cause a variety of health issues, both short term like gastrointestinal illness and long term like cancer.

For example, soldiers and their families who lived and worked at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, between 1953 and 1987 were exposed to contaminated water. Of the approximately 1 million people potentially exposed during that time, many developed severe illnesses, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and reproductive issues.

Physical symptoms of contamination can help determine what could be in your water. The chart below lists some common water contaminants and the signs of their presence.

Signs and Effects of Common Water Contaminants

Water ProblemPotential ContaminantPotential Health Impact
Blue or green waterCopperAnemia and liver damage
Brown or black stains on laundry or porcelain fixturesIron or manganeseIron: Diarrhea, dizziness, headache, liver damage, nausea, vomiting Manganese: Issues with attention, memory and motor skills
Frothy or cloudy waterExcess mineral particulates or sewageMinerals: Kidney stones Sewage: Infection from multiple viruses, bacteria and parasites
Metallic tasteCopper, iron, lead, manganese or zincCopper: Anemia and liver damage Iron: Diarrhea, dizziness, headache, liver damage, nausea, vomiting Lead: Cardiovascular issues, kidney damage, reproductive issues, neurotoxicity Manganese: Issues with attention, memory and motor skills Zinc: Anemia, intestinal issues, nausea, vomiting
Oily layer on still waterGrease or oilDiarrhea and vomiting
Orange or reddish brown water IronDiarrhea, dizziness, headache, liver damage, nausea, vomiting
Rusting of silverwareIronDiarrhea, dizziness, headache, liver damage, nausea, vomiting
Smell of bleachExcessive amount of chlorineIntestinal issues
Smell of fishBarium or cadmiumBarium: Change in blood pressure, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, facial numbness, vomiting Cadmium: Kidney disease
Smell of rotten eggs from waterHydrogen sulfideDehydration and diarrhea
Smell or taste of chemicalsPesticides or volatile or semi-volatile organic compounds (VOCs)Dizziness, drowsiness, headache, liver damage
Smell of turpentine from waterMethyl tertiary-butyl ether or other organic compoundsDizziness, headache, nausea, nervous system issues, throat irritation
White spots on dishware or white crust around sink fixturesCalcium or magnesiumCalcium: Constipation, kidney stones, nausea, vomiting Magnesium: Diarrhea
Yellow waterChromium-6, copper, iron, lead or manganeseChromium-6: Cancer Copper: Anemia and liver damage Iron: Diarrhea, dizziness, headache, liver damage, nausea, vomiting Lead: Cardiovascular issues, kidney damage, reproductive issues Manganese: Issues with attention, memory and motor skills

It’s important to note that many contaminants, such as arsenic and nitrates, cannot be identified with your five senses. Often contaminated municipal water systems feature more than one type of dangerous chemical or biological contaminant.

Are At-home Water Testing Kit Results Reliable?

The accuracy and reliability of at-home water testing kits may vary depending on the manufacturer. While some kits have earned endorsements from EPA-certified labs, the majority of kits on the market are calibrated to meet EPA testing standards. Overall, mail-in laboratory tests of water quality produce the most accurate and detailed results.

What Should You Do About Bad Water Quality?

If your results confirm that one or more contaminants are present in your water supply, don’t panic. Many water filters are available that can remove specific contaminants. There are a wide variety of home water filters, so it’s important to confirm the extent of a filter’s effectiveness.

Infographic explaining how to handle poor water quality.

Water contamination can be a silent environmental threat or it can reveal itself through unusual appearance, odors or taste. Testing your water can empower you to seek out answers. Use the water testing tips and healthy water tips in this visual guide to help.

Please seek the advice of a qualified professional before making decisions about your health or finances.
Last Modified: May 23, 2023

8 Cited Research Articles adheres to the highest ethical standards for content production and references only credible sources of information, including government reports, interviews with experts, highly regarded nonprofit organizations, peer-reviewed journals, court records and academic organizations. You can learn more about our dedication to relevance, accuracy and transparency by reading our editorial policy.

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