How to Test Water at Home with a Water Test Kit

The quality of the water we drink and use daily impacts our health. Polling shows 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 give accurate results. Armed with that info, you can choose the best water filter for your needs.

Water testing kits come in a few varieties. You’ll find some testing kits combine methods, including both strips and powders—depending on which contaminant you’re screening for.

1. Identify which water sources to test

City water test kit
drinking water test

*Amazon.com price as of 10/14/2021 at 11:20 a.m. (MT). Read full disclaimer.

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 and overall pH, but it doesn't test for pesticides.

2. 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.

Light Bulb
Test strips work on the go

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 in your emergency kit just in case a natural disaster limits your access to clean drinking water.

Water quality test strips

Test strips like those in the Health Metric kit are the most common method of testing water quality because they’re affordable and easy to use. Although instructions may vary slightly from kit to kit, here's what typically happens:

  1. Fill a test container with a water sample, dip a test strip in, swirl the container, and wait a few minutes with the test strip resting in the water sample.
  2. Take the strip out of the water and 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, but they give a range that can pinpoint concerns.

Powder kits for bacteria testing

Bacteria testing kits

*Amazon.com price as of 10/14/2021 at 11:20 a.m. (MT). Read full disclaimer.

Instead of strips, these water testing kits have you add a few drops of water to a container with powder, shake it, and then 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. For example, the Varify Complete Water Test Kit tells you if a water sample contains E. coli.

3. 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.

Well water test kit
WaterSafe Well Water Test

*Amazon.com price as of 10/14/2021 at 11:20 a.m. (MT). Read full disclaimer.

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

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.

4. 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
Tap-water-quality database

You don't 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.

5. Ensure the accuracy of your results

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, follow these tips today:

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.

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 ones recommended below and then plan on following up with professional testing through a lab if the results are concerning.

Compare home water quality testing kits

Product
Price
Number of contaminants tested
Iron level testing
Pesticide testing
Bacteria testing
Best for tap water testing
Drinking water test

Health Metric Drinking Water Testing Kit

9
Icon No  Light

No

Icon No  Light

No

Icon No  LightNo
Best for well water testing
WaterSafe Well Water Test

Watersafe Well Water Test Kit

10
Icon Yes  Light

Yes

Icon Yes  Light

Yes

Icon No  LightNo
Best for bacteria testing
Varify Complete Water Test Kit
17
Icon Yes  Light

Yes

Icon No  Light

No

Icon Yes  LightYes

*Amazon.com price as of 10/14/2021 at 11:20 a.m. (MT). Read full disclaimer.

Water quality testing FAQ

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. Make sure you don’t open the test strips accidentally or expose them to other substances on your hands.

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.

Sources

  1. Justin McCarthy, Gallup, “Americans’ Concerns about Water Pollution Edge Up,” March 17, 2016. Accessed October 14, 2021. 

Disclaimer

Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on Amazon at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product. Safewise.com utilizes paid Amazon links.

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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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