If you’re concerned about the quality of the water that comes out of your tap, you may have purchased a water filter. I use the Mavea water pitcher to filter my family’s drinking water, but I’ve never taken the time to investigate which contaminates are actually in my family’s water.

NSF International sent me these useful tips that help decipher the Consumer Confidence Reports that give information about drinking water, and I thought they were worth sharing. According to NSF, 54 percent of Americans who have or use a home water filter are not buying water filters that remove the specific contaminants in their water.

If you want to make sure that your filter is the right one for your drinking water, keep reading.

Drinking water safety tips

Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs) are annual reports mailed out by July 1st each year that summarize information regarding drinking water sources used (i.e., rivers, lakes, reservoirs, or aquifers). The reports identify detected contaminants found in the water, your municipality’s compliance to EPA drinking water regulations and educational information. They are a great tool to help identify what contaminants are present in your tap water supply and how these contaminants may affect health or the aesthetic (taste or odor) quality of water. A recent survey conducted by NSF International revealed that while most Americans (64 percent) know what a water quality report is, less than one-third (30 percent) read and understand what the report is telling them.

Below are some tips about how to read the report and can use this information to improve the quality of your drinking water.

Tip #1: Understand your water quality

If you have public water, your local CCR will provide a snapshot of your water quality. Most communities list the contaminants that were detected in the local water supply in table format, beginning with the name of the contaminant in the left hand column. The next column will list the amount of that contaminant that was detected, followed by a column labeled “MCL.” The number shown in this column is the maximum amount of this contaminant permitted to be in drinking water under law. On the far right the report will indicate if the community was in violation for that contaminant as well as indicate the likely source of that contaminant.

If you use private well water, you will not receive a CCR, as only homes that are connected to a public water supply receive this report. Private well owners are encouraged to have a sample of their well water tested annually by their county health department or a state accredited drinking water laboratory for bacteria and nitrates, as well as any other contaminant known to be of local concern.

Look at the contaminant guide

Both public water and well water sources of drinking water contain some naturally occurring contaminants. At low levels, most of these contaminants are not considered by the EPA to be harmful. Naturally occurring contaminants include radon, radium, and arsenic. In addition, people, animals, and industry can also add contaminants to our water supplies. Some of the more common contaminants that can be introduced into our water supplies include microorganisms, pesticides, and nitrates.

Review NSF International’s guide to read a list of many of the common contaminants that can be found in public and private drinking water supplies. In addition, we have also included several chemicals commonly used to treat drinking water supplies.

Tip #2: Determine which products can treat your concerns.

Whether you already have a filter or are looking to buy one, keep in mind that not all filters are equal. Filters use different technologies to treat unique water quality issues, so it is important to choose a filter with the technology that will treat your water’s needs. According to NSF’s 2013 Water Quality survey, 44 percent of Americans say that they do have and/or use a water filter or drinking water treatment system, although the majority (35 percent) simply use the filter that came with their home or refrigerator.

Below are five of the most common technologies used by home treatment systems and their potential uses:

  • Filter medias - may reduce chemicals, some metals, parasites and sediment. Many filters can also reduce aesthetic contaminants that affect the taste and odor of water, which NSF’s survey revealed is a top concern for many individuals, especially those over 65.
  • Cation exchange softener - help reduce hard water; some also reduce barium and radium.
  • Distillers - help reduce heavy metals, minerals, non-volatile chemicals.
  • Reverse osmosis - may reduce some metals, minerals, and parasites; post-filter may also reduce some chemicals.
  • Ultraviolet disinfection - help protect against bacteria and viruses.
Tip #3: Select the product style that best suits your needs.

Water treatment systems come in several product styles, ranging from whole house units to those that install at a single faucet location.

  • Pour Through - Water drips via gravity through a filter. Pros: no installation required, easy to use, can filter up to 2.5 gallons at a time. Cons: frequent filter changes need to refill container to maintain a supply of water.
  • Faucet Mount - Mounts on kitchen faucet and uses a diverter to direct water through filter. Pros: easy to install, filters all water from tap, no need to refill a container. Cons: frequent filter changes.
  • Counter-top Connected to Sink Faucet - Filter connects to existing sink faucet via a hose/tubing. Pros: easy to install, longer filter life, filters all water from the tap, no need to refill a container. Cons: uses up counter pace.
  • Plumbed-In to Separate Tap - Installs under a sink; filtered water is usually dispensed through an auxiliary faucet. Pros: longer filter life, filters large amounts of water. Cons: may require professional installation.
  • Point of Entry - Installs where the water line. Pros: treats all water entering the home, includes bathing, clothes washing, drinking and cooking water. Cons: may require professional installation.
Tip #4: Look for certification when purchasing.
Ultimately, no single product can protect a user against all potential contaminants, so make sure that the system you plan to purchase is certified to address your specific concerns. Certification by NSF to NSF/ANSI standards means that the product will be effective at reducing the contaminants being claimed by the manufacturer and that the materials used in the construction of the product have been determine by toxicologists to be safe for use with potable (drinking) water and to not leach harmful chemicals into drinking water.

Tip #5: Set reminders to change filters

Buying and properly installing water filters is only half of the equation. Maintaining your water filter and ensuring the system is working properly is equally important. Although NSF’s survey found that 3 of 4 Americans with a water filter replace or change their filter at the recommended interval, not all filters have an automatic reminder. If yours doesn’t, set calendar reminders to help you make sure to change your water filter based on the manufacturer’s instructions.

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Are you using the right water filter for your tap water?
We have tips on how to read the Consumer Confidence Report that summarizes your drinking water and choose the right water filter based on the report's findings.