The Best Water Filter
The best water filter for you depends on what's in your water — and what you want gone. Weird taste? Bad smell? Scary contaminants? We talked with filter designers and water experts to learn what's up with certifications, analyzed long-term costs, and splashed around a lot of water to find a sturdy filter that will live up to its claims.
We all kind of assume the water filter sitting in the fridge is doing its job and keeping our water clean. But do we really care if we let the filter expire? Or how much it’s actually cleaning? That’s the job of the public utilities! As we saw in Flint, Michigan, municipal water goes on quite a journey before it comes out the kitchen faucet, and the little pitcher in the fridge actually has a big job making sure our water is drinkable. (And that it’s tasty — in the water filter industry, that’s called “aesthetic effects.”)
The best water filters, like our favorites, the Mavea Elemaris XL pitcher and the PUR Ultimate faucet filter, are certified by a third party to remove most common pollutants, and are designed to make water safe — and satisfying — to drink.
How We Found the Best Water Filters
For this review, we focused only on carbon pitcher and faucet-mounted filters: They are effective, have low up-front costs, and require little to no installation. Carbon isn’t the only way to treat drinking water — there’s reverse osmosis, where water is pushed through a semipermeable membrane to catch contaminants, and there are whole household systems you build into your plumbing. But pitcher and faucet-mount filters are a good place to start.
We only looked at filters that are third-party certified to remove contaminants and improve taste.
A note about compounds Curious about why a certain compound should be filtered out? The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry has succinct “Tox Profiles” that break down why they’re not so great to drink.
A company can tout that its water filter roots out contaminants, but the average person doesn’t have a person in a lab coat handy to ensure that’s true. That’s where third-party labs come in: The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) have set water treatment standards, and agencies like the NSF and the Water Quality Association (WQA) test against those standards. A filter had to be certified for NSF-42 and NSF-53 standards by one of those agencies to make our cut.
NSF-42 certifies that a filter improves taste and odor, and reduces particulates and chlorine, the latter of which is often added to municipal water supplies as a disinfectant. We’re into not having microbes in our water, but could do without that pool taste and smell.
NSF-53 certifies the reduction of metals and chemicals that can affect your health. NSF-53 is a bit more complex — multiple compounds fall under this certification and they’re each certified separately (“NSF-certified to reduce copper and cadmium,” for example).
We didn’t require NSF-401, the most demanding certification. A filter only earns 401 status if it’s capable of filtering microbiological and pharmaceutical contaminants like bacteria, herbicides, and ibuprofen. Most people don’t have to worry about those things in their drinking water, which is why we didn’t mandate it — but we definitely took notice if a filter had it.
We selected each brand’s top models for hands-on testing.
Most brands have about a bajillion different models of their pitchers and faucet filters. With some brands, like Brita, the filters are exactly the same, but the pitcher is a different size, shape, or color, or it’s loaded with an auto-ordering WiFi beacon that lets Amazon know when your filter is ready to swap. With other brands, like PUR, fancier products have fancier filters: an extra layer of minerals to add an even crisper taste. We picked each brand’s flagship filter so we could compare the best against the best.
Taste and odor came first.
Water is supposed to be tasteless, right? Turns out it’s a little more complicated. Our saliva and our tongues’ taste receptors have various enzymes and minerals that combine with foods (and water) to affect how we perceive “taste” — it’s why some of us love cilantro and some of us think it tastes like soap.
Taste is subjective, and so is tastelessness. We kept this test basic: Did any filter make the water taste worse than our tap water? One pitcher did — and for reasons you wouldn’t expect.
The ZeroWater 10 Cup pitcher has a powerful filter that completely eliminates total dissolved solids (TDS). TDS are organic and inorganic substances, like potassium, sodium, and chloride. Getting rid of them should be a good thing, right?
Maybe not. TDS are the spices of the water world: Too many and they’re overpowering, but a little bit can actually enhance your water’s flavor. “In blind taste tests, stripped or ‘pure’ water doesn’t rank well,” says Arthur von Wiesenberger, a Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Expert and author of H2O: The Guide to Quality Bottled Water. “Most people think it tastes bland and prefer water with some minerals for added flavor.” Even The Specialty Coffee Association of America recommends 150 milligrams per liter of TDS to brew the perfect cup. (The difference between PUR’s Basic and Advanced Faucet Water Filters? Something called MineralClear, which is simply a promise of a tastier TDS profile.)
ZeroWater is so intent on the TDS removal that some of its pitchers come with a TDS reader — and there’s a holding spot in the lid for it.
“On the whole, TDS doesn’t indicate any health concerns,” explains David Loveday, the head of government affairs with the WQA. “It’s more taste and odor.” That said, the EPA advises against drinking water with a TDS reading of more than 500 mg/L (the average across the US is 350). Curious about yours? A TDS reader only costs about 15 bucks.
Then we looked at construction and design.
To be the best pitcher filter, we wanted one with long-lasting parts, that didn’t leak from its top reservoir, and didn’t feel flimsy or fragile. With the Brondell H20+, we could see that water was sneaking past the filter, no matter how tight it was in its compartment. In addition, a pool of water always seemed to stay in the top reservoir — when we poured a glass of water, both filtered and unfiltered water splashed out. We were similarly unimpressed with the Brita Grand; the filter part was never snug and tumbled out completely on more than one pour.
For faucet filters, we also checked for sturdiness and signs of leakage. Then we took into account how easy they were to install and if they’d get in our way when we’re doing a stack of dishes. The DuPont FM100 suffered from a few flaws: we liked its sturdy housing, but when we accidentally tapped or moved it, it leaked easily. The pressure from the filter was also really low.
And we took into consideration ongoing costs.
The up-front costs of a pitcher or faucet filter pale in comparison to the long-term costs of replacing those filters over and over and over: While faucet filters can remain effective for 100 to 200 gallons of water, most pitcher filters only last 40 gallons before they need to be replaced — and that’s only if you believe the marketing.
David Beeman, a water consultant and the developer of the Soma water filter, doesn’t. Companies test their filters with water that is already very clean, he says. In those ideal lab conditions, your faucet filter may have a lifetime of 100 gallons. In the real world, your water has a lot of variables and changes — lots of minerals or periodic spikes in chlorine/chloramine that force the filters to work harder. “I always downrate a filter by a minimum of 50 percent of what it claims,” he explains.
If the owner of a typical water pitcher filter drank the recommended 12 cups of water per day and diligently replaced their pitcher filter every 40 gallons, they’d be buying about seven replacement filters per year. That number goes up the more people you have in your household, and up even more if you follow Beeman’s advice and replace twice as often as recommended.
The ZeroWater pitcher is a standout here again. Because it has to work so hard to eliminate TDS, its filter has a shorter lifespan: only 20 gallons. Now factor in the $10 replacement filters. Yowch.
Filter Life (Gallons)
# of Filters*
*Calculated from the assumption of four people over the course of five years, with 0.75 gallon (12 cups) of filtered water consumed per person per day.
Our Picks for the Best Water Filters
You’ll notice we don’t recommend a pitcher filter over a faucet filter, or vice versa. We can see both sides of the coin: Faucet filters tend to give you better bang for your buck over time and the pressure from the sink gives you cold water faster than a gravity-fed pitcher. Also, the most advanced faucet-mounted filters tend to handle more contaminants than their pitcher counterparts.
On the flip side, faucet mounts can be clunky and sinks with hand-held or pull-out faucets can’t accommodate them. Plus, there’s a simplicity to pitchers that faucet mounts just can’t match. Which one is best for you is up to you.
First, the important stuff: The Mavea Elemaris is certified to remove more of the NSF-53 crud than most pitcher filters: cadmium, copper, mercury, atrazine, benzene, simazine, and tetrachloroethylene. They’re goners.
And when it comes to taste, we were pleased: It reduced the TDS level in our water from 172 to 148, which puts it right at the sweet spot. “I’ve found that if you do any baking, a TDS of 150 makes a far better product,” says Beeman. “It sweetens it. If you start making pancakes with 150 TDS water, you won’t go back. The flavor change is just that dramatic.” (This is also the same formula Beeman developed for Starbucks coffee).
The Elemaris also stands out for its thoughtful design. Water from the faucet pours through a spring-loaded cap that works like a doggy door. (Most pitcher filters use hinged caps on the top of the filter that have a tendency to flap around and fall off.) And most strikingly, it touts a feature all pitchers should have, but don’t: Everything stays in place when you pour. The lid doesn’t fall off; the filter doesn’t come crashing out. Only a lovely, controlled stream of water streaming smoothly to its destination.
Unlike most carbon-activated filters, Mavea’s filters don’t require any pre-soaking, so you don’t have to wait to get your water. The company has a nifty recycling program for them too. Since carbon alone can’t filter metals, the filters also have a plastic resin that acts like a magnet — it works, but it’s not-so-ecofriendly. To compensate, you can drop your used filters off at a store, or stock up a sack of six, request a pre-paid shipping label, and mail them off to their second life.
Surprised our top pick isn’t from a brand you recognize, like Brita or PUR?
We weren’t all that familiar with Mavea, either, before our testing starting — or so we thought. Mavea might be new to the US water filter market (it launched here in 2008), but it’s no stranger to the game. In fact, Mavea is actually the same company behind the original Brita filters. Brita GMBH, a German company, used to own the Brita brand in the US, but sold its US rights to the brand to Clorox Co. (yep, the bleach makers) back in 2000. At the same time, it signed a non-compete agreement promising the company wouldn’t sell water filters in the US until 2005.
When 2008 rolled around, it relaunched in the US under the brand Mavea, one-upping Brita with better-fitting filters that don’t require pre-soaking and a micromesh fabric to keep pesky charcoal bits from filtering through. (Clorox’s Brita brand had to improve its filters to keep up!) So, while you might not know Mavea by name, you’re more familiar with the company than you think.
We like that the Aquagear is certified to eliminate an impressive list of contaminants (it’s one of the only gravity-based pitcher filters with the NSF-401 distinction). Aquagear also has a lifetime guarantee and its filter lasts longer than most pitchers: 150 gallons. However, we weren’t blown away by its design.
In fact, we were nearly splashed away. When we poured water, the pitcher’s spout cover never could open. The little white plastic flap kept getting stuck and the water sprayed out like a busted downspout, not a thing meant to serve dinner guests. The Aquagear pitcher is more expensive than its competitors, and for $70, we expect not to get soaked.
The Aquasana PWFS main benefit is speed: Fill up a pitcher; mount it on the base; and it’ll suck your water down and through a ringer of filters in 55 seconds flat. It’s faster than any other system because it’s using a motor, not just gravity. But it’s a loud and bulky giant that has to sit on the counter near an outlet. For the entire 55 seconds the machine sounds like an air compressor — and that whine makes the minute feel loooooong. Also, when you’re not expecting it, the Aquasana makes loud industrial noises when it’s calibrating. Great.
But, if you’re after major contaminant removal, this guy’s got it: NSF-401, check! And we can imagine a world (maybe a house that’s already loud because it’s packed with a soccer team of 9-year-olds) where speed will trump silence.
Brita Grand Pitcher – One We Don’t Recommend
At first touch, the Brita Grand seemed great: It could fit lots of water and had a no-slip rubber-grip handle. But the initial intrigue faded quickly: A rubber stopper on the flip-up top already started coming unglued as soon as we touched it. The top of the filter itself also didn’t click tightly into the unit — anytime we weren’t super conservative with our pouring angle, the filter fell out. Once, the filter hit the lid, knocked it off, and spilled all of the water.
We also caught water circumventing the filter altogether — in fact, the Brita’s best quality (its sturdy clear plastic) made the issue all the more visible. The few dollar savings on the initial pitcher ($32 instead of $40 for the Mavea) aren’t worth it if you have to mind dam-breaking filter fallout. Brita might have the brand-name recognition, but it didn’t win this contest.
Of the five faucet filters we hand-tested, PUR was the only one that was NSF-401-certified. We also liked how easily the PUR was to install: It has “one-click” installation technology — all you have to do is hold down a couple buttons on the side of the unit, press it up to your faucet, let go, and the faucet mounts nice and tight.
There are a few negatives about the PUR. The first is its bulkiness: it’s downright giant. When we did dishes, the PUR was always in the way. Also, its “chrome” and “stainless steel” finishes are really just a metallic film over plastic. When we first took it out of the box, it looked pretty, but it felt cheap — and many reviewers complain that after some use, the housing of the PUR filter cracks or leaks water. We personally didn’t have any issues with leaks, but aren’t surprised that the featherweight plastic may not hold up over time.
PUR has addressed this by offering a metal adapter attachment for free to customers who have problems and offers a 30-day money-back satisfaction guarantee. It’s easy to install and filters out pretty much everything you’d want gone, so it’s worth a shot.
If we were judging on design alone, the FM-25 would take the top spot for faucet-mount filters. It’s made of real metal, and has a compact seriousness. It feels like an actual part of a sink, not like a shiny, plastic barnacle. The filter trigger is a metal pin: Pull it out and wait for the water to flow through. It takes longer to trigger than the plastic switches on the PUR or Brita, but it also feels like it’ll outlast them. Turn off the faucet and the filter defaults back to unfiltered water — a super-handy feature that’s unique among its competitors.
The FM-25 is also the cheapest: Its $7 filters last for an average of 200 gallons. That’s twice as long as the PUR or Brita faucet filters that run roughly $20 each. In other words, looking simply at cost, a family of four would pay about $1,200 less over 10 years for the Culligan than they would for a PUR Ultimate filter.
Again, though, the more contaminants a filter removes, the harder it has to work. What made the FM-25 miss top spot was the shorter list of NSF-53 contaminants it filters out. It only catches four: lead, atrazine, cysts, and/or turbidity. That’s part of the reason the filter lasts as long as it does: it just doesn’t have to work as hard. If all you want is good-tasting water and don’t mind the shorter list of targeted junk, we highly recommend it.
On the whole, the Brita Complete was also simple to install, and it is NSF 53-certified to filter out dozens of health-related contaminants. And, it’s a lot smaller. But there are a few reasons it couldn’t measure up to the PUR: It doesn’t have any NSF-401 certifications and it only carries a 90-day warranty, compared to PUR’s two years. At the same price for the complete faucet mount, and nearly the same price for replacement filters, why not get the more effective one? Plus, even though we aren’t particularly impressed by the finishes, the PUR has five color options to the Brita’s two.
Did You Know?
Water in the US is among the most rigorously regulated in the entire world. So what happened in Flint?
Your local water treatment plant tests for lead as a matter of course every day. “For Flint to have happened was gross negligence. An abomination,” Beeman says. Flint’s water supply was so corrosive (and so untreated) that it leached lead from the city’s pipes — scary stuff, and not likely to happen to you. Or is it? USA Today recently independently tested water throughout the US and found that more than 2,000 drinking water systems had excessive levels of lead content. So who do you believe?
Home plumbing systems built pre-1986 — before the Safe Drinking Water Act and back when lead was less tightly regulated in piping systems — are in higher danger of lead contamination, Beeman says. Corrosion in the pipes can result in lead in your home water supply. “That is exactly what happened in Flint,” says David Loveday of the WQA. The pipes there weren’t treated correctly with anti-corrosive materials, and neither was the water.
If you have reason to be worried about lead, many common water filters can be effective — all our faucet top picks are, as well as both our pitcher runners-up. “When in doubt,” Beeman says, “run your water through the filter two or three times. It’s all about contact time — the longer your water runs through the filter, the higher the chance the bad stuff will get filtered out.”
Do you use groundwater? The US Geological Survey monitors which states rely on groundwater the most. If yours does, it’s recommended you get your water tested by an EPA-certified lab, and use a filter as backup. If your water is in bad enough shape, a more advanced reverse-osmosis filter system may be necessary.
Groundwater is most likely to contain dangerous contaminants.
According to the National Groundwater Association, about 44 percent of the US population relies on groundwater for its drinking water supply — and that groundwater is at risk of pesticides, solvents, heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds that have seeped into the water table.
Your carbon filter might very well be burnt coconut shells.
The carbon material in your filter is oftentimes the burnt charcoal remains of a natural substance, like coconut shells. “Carbon looks like a big sponge if you look at it under a microscope,” says Beeman. And that’s exactly how it functions during water filtration: It absorbs organic materials.
When water passes through this carbon material — either by gravity (pitcher filters) or through water pressure (faucet filters) — pollutants are bound to the carbon, thereby keeping them away from your water. Carbon in and of itself is not effective at taking out volatile organic compounds and heavy metals like mercury and lead. To accomplish this, NSF-53 certified filters add a non-carbon layer to the filtering process: a plastic resin that works like a magnet.
Alkaline water is trendy, but it’s not much else.
When shopping for filters, you might come across “alkaline filters” or “ionized alkaline filters,” trendy machines that claim to decrease the acidity of your water — that is, increase its pH level — thereby giving your body more of a “pH balance.”
This is irrelevant, Beeman says. “Your body already regulates your pH levels, and it does quite a good job.” Talking up pH regulation is all about marketing, according to Beeman: In other words, a machine “changing pH level” in water sounds meaningful, but it isn’t.
The real benefit of alkalized water, Beeman says, is in its ORP: oxidation reduction potential. True alkalizers can turn your everyday water into an exceptional anti-oxidant. Many alkaline filters don’t actually alkalize the water, but it’s possible to test the ORP of water with an ORP meter. To note, the higher the negative number the better the alkalizer.
The Bottom Line
It’s easy to take water for granted — but it’s just as easy to use a filter and make sure your H2O is clean and tasty. Learn what contaminants are in your drinking water, and then find a filter with NSF certifications to make sure it will do the job it claims to do.
Read your municipal water quality report. You won’t know what you need to filter out of your water until you know what’s in it. Your municipal water service is required report on the most common contaminants in your water — just give them a call. The EPA also has a helpful online database with this information, or you can ask for a copy of your water utility’s annual report.
Look into a free lead test. If you’re worried about lead leaching from your pre-1986 pipes, see if your utility offers free lead tests. Some do!
Replace your filters on time (or even sooner). A filter works just like a sponge: Once it’s full, it’s useless. Though most filters have an anti-bacterial treatment, it’s only so long before that wet carbon is a breeding ground for grossness.