How to Test Water at Home with a Water Test Kit

The quality of the water we drink and use daily is essential to well-being and health. Polling indicates 61% of Americans worry “a great deal” about polluted drinking water.1 Whether you’re concerned about contaminants or chemicals in your well water or the overall pH of your city water, at-home water testing kits can give you an accurate range of results.

Water testing kits come in a couple varieties, and the one that’s right for you will depend on a few factors. You’ll find some testing kits combine methods, including both strips and color disks depending on which contaminant you’re screening for.

Types of Water Testing Kits

Before you dive into at-home water testing headfirst, we’ll walk you through the steps of choosing the right water testing kit. Each of the following considerations plays an important role in whether you’ll get definitive answers about the quality of your water from an at-home testing kit.

Water Quality Test Strips

Test strips are the most common method of testing water quality because they’re affordable and easy to use.

Fill a test container with a water sample, dip a test strip in, swirl the container, and wait a few minutes. Then you’ll compare the color changes on the test strip to a color chart included in the kit. Test strips can indicate the type of contaminant and its ppm (parts per million, a.k.a. its level of concentration in your water). Test strips aren't as precise as other methods, they give a range that can pinpoint concerns.

Color Disk Kits

Instead of strips, these water testing kits have you add a few drops of water to a container with powder, shake it, and then place it in a viewing box. Rotating the color disk provided, you’ll compare colors with the container until you find a match. These kits are reported to have better accuracy than test strips for certain types of contaminants such as bacteria.

How to Test Water at Home

  1. Identify a water source
  2. Choose a testing method
  3. Decide which contaminants to test
  4. Calibrate testing to EPA standards
  5. Ensure accuracy of results

Identify Which Water Sources You Want to Test

Health Metric Drinking Water Test Kit

The kind of testing kit you want depends on the water source you’re testing. If you’re interested in testing your city’s drinking water, a basic kit that covers common contaminants like lead and chlorine will get the job done. If you have well water, you’ll need a water quality testing kit that’s more comprehensive and includes screening for pesticides.

This drinking water quality test from Health Metric has reliable, easy-to-use test strips for nine common contaminants.

Pro Heading
Pros
Pro Bullet Includes total alkalinity/pH meter testing
Pro Bullet Tests for toxic contaminants like copper
Con Heading
Cons
Con Bullet Doesn’t include pesticide testing

Choose a Water Quality Testing Method 

Most water quality test kits are intended for one-time use. You should also consider whether you plan to follow up an initial home test with testing that uses a professional lab. Because most test strips give a range of results rather than a specific number, the increased accuracy of color disk kits might be worth the cost.

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Pro Tip

If you camp or hike a lot, throw a few test strips in with your gear alongside your portable water filter so you can ensure potable water on the go. Extra test strips are also great to have around in case of natural disasters or other emergencies that might limit access to clean drinking water.

Decide Which Contaminants to Test For

What your kit tests for is a critical measure of how useful the results will be to you. Different water sources are more likely to have certain kinds of contaminants. For instance, well water is frequently used in rural areas where runoff from nearby fields could affect levels of pesticides or fertilizer toxins in the drinking water.

WaterSafe Well Water Test Kit

Which common contaminants should a water quality kit test?

Look for kits that, at a bare minimum, provide information about the following:

  • Bacteria
  • Lead
  • Nitrates
  • Nitrites
  • Chlorine
Pro Heading
Pros
Pro Bullet Tests for 10 different contaminants
Pro Bullet Includes testing for pesticides
Con Heading
Cons
Con Bullet More expensive price

Additionally, finding out more about the pH levels in your water (acidity versus alkalinity) and general hardness can be useful to counter quality issues like taste or smell.

Many homeowners enjoy having their own well water, but it can be susceptible to toxins in the watershed. A comprehensive water testing kit like WaterSafe is worth the additional cost to ease concerns about contaminants.

Calibrate Test to EPA Standards

While the EPA doesn’t endorse specific home water testing kits, it does provide guidelines for how often to test your drinking water and a list of risk factors that could lead to contamination. If you have city water, your municipality often has to provide testing results publicly every year to prove the safety of your drinking water. For those with well water, the EPA has easy-to-use contaminant tables so you can check your results against acceptable standards for safe drinking water.

Notepad

Don’t feel like you have to scour the internet to find your city’s water testing results. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a handy tap water database of water quality test results that’s searchable by ZIP code. It provides a list of water systems serving your area, how many contaminants are above acceptable levels, and the health risks associated with exposure to those contaminants.

Ensure the Accuracy of Your Results

First Alert WT1 Drinking Water Test Kit

While testing strips are easy to use and read, getting accurate results is a little more than meets the eye. If you want to maximize the effectiveness of your water quality testing kit, here are a few tips to follow.

Water Quality Testing Tips

  1. Read the directions.
  2. Don’t open testing strips until you’re ready.
  3. Wash your hands first.
  4. Keep a timer nearby.
  5. Use cold water.
  6. Pour carefully.
Pro Heading
Pros
Pro Bullet
Pro Bullet Pesticide testing included
Pro Bullet Inexpensive cost
Con Heading
Cons
Con Bullet No test for copper or iron

It’s also worthwhile to plan on getting a second opinion, especially if your water testing kit turns up any glaringly high levels. You can start with a basic, inexpensive kit like the one recommended below and then plan on following up with professional testing through a lab if the results are concerning.

This budget kit from First Alert covers all the basics, including pesticides. Its limited contaminant testing is versatile enough to give you a good baseline on both well water and city drinking water.

Recommended Home Water Quality Testing Kits

Best forBest for Drinking Water TestingBest for Well Water TestingBudget Pick
Testing kitHealth Metric Drinking Water Testing Kit WaterSafe Well Water Test Kit First Alert WT1 Drinking Water Test Kit
What it looks likedrinking water testWaterSafe Well Water TestFirst Alert Drinking Water Test
List Price
$26.95
$29.94
$19.99
Number of Contaminants Tested 9108
Calibrates to EPA Standards
Icon Yes  Light

Yes

Icon Yes  Light

Yes

Icon Yes  Light

Yes

Tests for Both Lead and Copper
Icon Yes  Light

Yes

Icon Yes  Light

Yes

Icon No  Light

No

Tests Iron Levels
Icon No  Light

No

Icon Yes  Light

Yes

Icon No  Light

No

Pesticide Testing
Icon No  Light

No

Icon Yes  Light

Yes

Icon Yes  Light

Yes

Data effective 9/5/2019. Offers and availability subject to change.

FAQs about Testing Water Quality

Most at-home tests don’t require mailing samples to a lab and can provide results within 10 minutes. The exception is some of the more complicated tests like those for bacteria, which may require maintaining a certain temperature and up to 48 hours to develop fully.

 Results from at-home water quality testing kits can be reliable if you follow the instructions carefully. Making sure you don’t open the test strips accidentally or expose them to other substances on your hands will help. You should also be careful to use cold water that has run for several minutes and time your tests closely. If you follow the instructions, most at-home water quality tests fall within the range of professional testing results.

If the results from your at-home drinking water test kit are concerning, you should confirm them with professional testing to pinpoint the problem. Whether it’s aging pipes or toxins in the watershed, investing in a water filter to ensure safe drinking water for your family is a crucial first step. Check out our recommendations for the best water filters to see which solution may work best for you.

Kaz Weida
Written by
Kaz Weida
Kaz is a journalist who covers home security, parenting, and community and child safety. Her work and product testing in the security and safety field spans the past four years. You can find Kaz in HuffPost, SheKnows, Lifehack, and much more. Her degree in education and her background as a teacher and a parent make her uniquely suited to offer practical advice on creating safe environments for your family.

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