Best Water Filter System for the Home

best water filter system

An overview of the different types of water filter system for the home. These are activated carbon filtration, reverse osmosis, and ion exchange water softening. It will help you decide whether you need one of these systems and which of them is the best water filter system for the home. We look at this from the perspective of the health of the occupants and the health of the home itself.

But first, let’s get a common misconception out of the way.

A water softener is not a true water filter

A water softener is not actually a filter, other than in the sense it removes the calcium and magnesium that causes hard water and replaces it with sodium. Hard water is more of a threat to your plumbing system than your health. So we will get to water softeners later.

Do I need a water filtration system?

We use water for drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing, and irrigation. And it is delivered to us from the municipal water supply system, or a well, and finally by our home’s plumbing system.

Plentiful good, clean water is essential for our health. We all know that.  But is what comes out of our taps actually safe? As we will see, it all depends on what you mean by safe.

Municipal water

contaminated waterYour local water company is charged with clarifying and disinfecting the water it delivers. This means that it treats the water it gets from its water source, such as a river or aquifer. It does this by first running it through sand filters to remove large particles and achieve water clarity. It then uses chlorine and/or ultraviolet radiation to disinfect the water by killing pathogenic microorganisms that can actually make you sick.

They then deliver the water to your plumbing system with chlorine present in order to prevent reinfection of the water on its way to your faucet.

Is municipal water safe to drink?

The water that comes out of your taps is “officially safe” because the water utility and the government say so. But is it really?

Just because the water is “officially safe” does not mean that it is free of common water contaminants such as the by-products of water disinfectants, arsenic, nitrates, lead, and more. So what we are talking about here is water quality, not just the “official safety” of the water.

It is true that the water utility has to comply with state and federal regulations on water quality. But the federal government has not updated its water standards in recent years. And the standards that apply now do not reflect advances in water quality research.

Besides, many community water systems have been found in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA), which is the principal federal law governing drinking water. It was passed in 1974 and amended and reauthorized in 1986 and 1996. That’s a long time ago.

What’s in your water?

what's in your waterThe first step in deciding whether to invest in a water filtration system is to understand what is in your water. This is how you do it.

First, check it out yourself. If your water is cloudy or smells bad, it is likely contaminated and you need to do something about it.

Then, if you are on a municipal water system, you can go to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and find a report on local water quality.

Alternatively, if you Google your water district, you should find that they post an analysis of their water quality. Here, for example, is our own local Coachella Water District water quality report.

Well water quality

If you use well water, you should definitely get it tested. This is a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendation. 

You could use an all purpose home water test kit

But for the most reliable result you should contact an approved testing laboratory. The EPA approves these labs and you can find one here.

The cost of water testing varies

What do these water tests look for?

There are many things to test for and these include:

  • Potability: pH, iron, manganese, sodium, chloride, iron, manganese.
  • Coliform bacteria: these are harmful microorganisms.
  • Nitrates: high concentrations interfere with the ability of blood to carry oxygen.
  • Ions; ions of chloride, iron, sodium, sulfates, and manganese. These make water taste bad.
  • Sulfates: excessive sulfate can affect the digestive system.
  • Fluoride: this is good to have but excessive amounts of it can cause dental issues.
  • Total dissolved solids: in high amounts these make water taste bad.
  • Trihalomethanes (THMs): associated with cancer and poor reproductive outcomes
  • Other contaminants: arsenic, selenium, uranium, pesticides, mercury, nitrites.

Bottled water quality

While your local water company publishes water quality tests, most bottled water companies do not. They are not required to. So you mostly can’t be sure what is in bottled water. It might just be filtered tap water.

Besides, single use plastic water bottles can leach pollutants from the plastic into the water itself. And you should not reuse these plastic bottles, as they could become contaminated by bacteria. On top of that, everyone knows they are bad for the environment.

If you are already using bottled water, you have actually half way convinced yourself that you should have some kind of water filtration system. It is much better for you and for the environment to use a reusable stainless steel water bottle. with a built in water filter.

And over the long run, if you have a water filtration system at home,  you will save a bundle over the cost of buying bottled water.

So what kind of filtration system should you use? 

For water filtration, the choice comes down to either an activated carbon only system or a reverse osmosis/carbon combo system. Water softening addresses a different set of problems.

In selecting a particular system be aware that it may or may not be NSF rated or certified. NSF International is an independent organization that compiles and promulgates public health standards for products.NSF Label 

If a system is NSF rated it will appear on the label. You can check the NSF database online to see how it is rated. 

Let’s first take a look at these technologies.

Activated carbon

Activated carbon is also known as activated charcoal. This is carbon processed in such a way that it has minute pores that increase the surface area presented for the adsorption or capture of chemicals. The carbon bonds with contaminants in the water as it flows through the filter.

The source of activated carbon is carbonaceous material such as wood, bamboo, coal, and coconut husks. These materials are processed into carbon blocks or granulated carbon.

Activated carbon block

This type of carbon filter is formed under high pressure. It is more effective than the granulated carbon type of filter because it has a greater surface area of carbon presented to the water. Some of these filters are also effective in removing sediment from the water.

Granulated activated carbon

These contain fine grains of activated carbon. They are less expensive than the carbon block type and also less effective.

Activated carbon filters come in a wide range of sizes. At the low end, you have the Brita type pitcher filter. And at the high end, you have the whole house system. 

Reverse osmosis (RO) system

The US government funded the development of RO in the 1950s as a means of water desalination. The RO system forces water through a very fine semi-permeable membrane. This traps particles in the water that are larger than 0.0001 microns. 

In contrast with the carbon filter, which retains the contaminants it traps, the materials trapped by the RO membrane are flushed down the drain.  

RO removes many of the contaminants that an activated carbon filter cannot. The reason for this is that the pores in the RO membrane are much smaller than the carbon filter at 0.5 microns or more.

However, for best effect, it is paired with a carbon filter and sediment filter. Here is a good explainer video on installing an RO system:

You need to be aware that the RO system has some disadvantages:

  1. It is more expensive than the simple activated carbon system.
  2. It demineralizes the water. Some of the contaminants (such as calcium, iron and manganese) also have nutritional value. And some level of fluoride is helpful for the dental health of children. You can consult a dentist about a fluoride supplement.
  3. Its flushing action “wastes” 4 to 5 times the amount of water that it delivers. However, we prefer to think of this “waste” as simply part of the price of really good water.

Nonetheless, the “waste” factor does mean the RO system is best only used in the kitchen for producing water used for drinking and cooking. It is typically located in the cabinet below the kitchen sink and is plumbed separately from the dishwasher.

So how do activated carbon and RO systems compare

A carbon filter can deal with things like pesticides, chlorine, and mercury. But if you have harder core issues like bacteria and lead, you should look at a reverse osmosis system.

Here is a side by side comparison of the effectiveness of activated carbon filters vs the activated carbon filter plus RO combo. (Excellent job by h20doctors)

filter analysis

Before we get into picking a water filter, we’ll touch on water softeners.

Ion water softeners

Hard water is caused by excessive calcium and magnesium in the water. Water softeners work by replacing the calcium and magnesium with sodium via an ion exchange system.

Here’s a short explainer video:

Why would you want a water softener?

Hard water is bad for the health of your house. It causes mineral deposits or scale throughout your plumbing. The scale is made up of calcium and magnesium bicarbonate. While copper and PVC pipes do better, it is especially bad for iron pipes.

Here are the problems that come with hard water;

  • Scale deposits will shorten the life of water heaters, plumbing fixtures, dishwashers, and washing machines.
  • It can also leave hard to remove stains on tubs and sinks. 
  • It makes clothes washing less efficient and can cause white material to look gray.
  • It is not good for your skin and can make one’s hair dry.
  • You use more soap.

A water softener will cure these problems but at a cost in terms of price and maintenance. The cost of a water softening system ranges from around $600 to $1,500. And, on top of that, you have the cost of installation, and the cost to maintain the system. 

On the other hand, if you live in a hard water area, you have to weigh the costs versus the benefits. Over the long run, when you consider the damage hard water can do to your plumbing system and related appliances, this cost does seem quite modest.

Let’s review our water filtration options by looking at the best on Amazon

Activated charcoal systems


Aquagear Water Filter Pitcher

iSpring whole house water filter

iSpring 2-Stage Heavy Duty Whole House Water Filtration System

Reverse osmosis systems

APEC Reverse Osmosis system

APEC  Reverse Osmosis Drinking Water Filter System

APEC Top Tier Reverse Osmosis system

APEC Top Tier Reverse Osmosis Drinking Water Filter System

Water softener systems

Whirlpook Pro water softener

Whirlpool Pro Series – Softener/Whole Home Filter Hybrid

Whirlpool water softener

Whirlpool  Water Softener-NSF Certified


A basic water filtration system is definitely a good idea, if only to filter the water you put in a glass. In fact you may already have one built into your refrigerator.

The bottom line of it is that the activated carbon and reverse osmosis systems are good for your health. And a water softening system is especially good for the health of your house.

Water Filtration Systems for the Home

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