Your Guide to the Best Water Filter For Your Budget

We break it down.

By Camille Styles

Several months ago, I watched the documentary The Devil We Know about the harmful effects of PFOA and PFOS on our health. These chemicals were first introduced in the U.S. via Teflon and they now show up in everything from carpets to rain jackets to dental floss.” . I tossed my nonstick pans the next day, but for me, one of the most eye-opening parts of the film was when they discovered that the substance is found in 6 million people’s water systems. The fact that harmful chemicals (and not just Teflon – millions of Americans are exposed to drinking water containing chemicals from pesticides and fertilizers) could be entering my family’s blood stream just by turning on the tap really hit me, and I was mobilized to do something about it.

And so began my long, exhaustive, and sometimes frustrating search to find out what type of water filtration system would be right for our family.

I say frustrating, because I previously knew nothing about water purification, so my process involved a full education in all the different types out there at a range of sizes, efficiency, and price points. I asked so many of my friends how they filtered their water at home, and still came up relatively empty; this is an area that confuses the vast majority of people. Even those who (like me) spend a lot of time reading and learning about healthy food, for some reason, the health of our drinking water hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention.

top image: sakara

super charge your water

image: kate zimmerman turpin

I’ve learned a lot about the different methods of at-home water filtration, and rather than sending you on your own exhaustive search, thought it might be helpful to break down the different types (and my recommendations) here. And if you’re curious about what system I installed at our house, I’m taking a multi-pronged approach… scroll on to find out.

Step 1: Check out the EWG’s Tap Water Database to find out which contaminants may be in your drinking water.

Step 2: Find the filter that’s right for you. A few factors to consider are:

  • Cost: filters vary greatly in price depending on the technology they use
  • Installation: filters can be countertop, mounted on faucet, mounted under sink, or mounted at the plumbing source for a whole home system.
  • Which contaminants you need removed: When you input your zip code into the EWG database, you’ll get a table showing which water filter types – activated carbon, reverse osmosis, and ion exchange – can reduce levels of contaminants specific to your water.

These are some of the most common options:

Most basic: Countertop pitcher filters

This is a simple option that works for people who don’t consume a huge amount of water every day. Just fill up the pitcher and keep it cool in the fridge. Most of these are activated carbon filters, which chemically bond with and remove contaminants as water flows through the filter. Some are certified only to remove chlorine and improve taste and odor. Others remove contaminants such as asbestos, lead, mercury and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. However, activated carbon does not remove common pollutants such as arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrate and perchlorate.

I started with this option (I had this one, which is pretty enough to put on the table) but decided that I wanted something that would more effectively remove the variety of contaminants that could be in our drinking water. It was also super slow, and I felt like every night at dinner time we were all waiting for the water to filter through before we could pour.

I also have several friends who bought a Berkey for their countertops and like them; you just have to be okay with the large amount of countertop real estate they take up.

For Drinking Water: Reverse Osmosis System

This is the most effective option for removing a high percentage of toxins including fluoride, hexavalent chromium, arsenic, nitrates/nitrites, copper, radium, and more. The filters work by pushing water through the reverse osmosis membrane using pressure. The contaminants remain on one side of the film while fresh water is pushed to the other side. It’s one of the few filters that can rid water of water-soluble contaminants like fluoride and chromium +6. If a home has a water softener, an RO system will also remove the salt from drinking water.

We installed the reverse osmosis system from Aquasana in the cabinet under our kitchen sink, and I’ve been really happy with the quality of our drinking water. This one also remineralizes the water to put back the healthy minerals lost in the reverse osmosis process like calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

Only thing to note is that the RO systems use a ton of water, so they shouldn’t be used for other water needs like toilets, showers, dishwashers, etc.

Whole House Filtration Systems

If your priority is clean water for every area of the house (bathing, laundry, cooking, appliances) and you’re willing to drop some cash to get it, a whole house filtration system is likely the one for you. I’m pulling the trigger on the OptimH2O Whole House Filter from Aquasana and having it installed with our renovation this spring/summer, and in addition to the health benefits of having clean water at every tap, I’m particularly excited about the effects that having purified water in your shower has on skin and hair.

This filter uses a multi-pronged approach with a sediment pre-filter that captures rust, sediment, and silt down to 1 micron and a carbon block that removes contaminants such as lead, cysts, PFOA/PFOS, and more. There are also options with this system to add on a salt-free water conditioner to prevent scale build-up and a UV filter for an extra layer of protection. Overall, it’s independently tested and certified to NSF standards to remove more than 99% of lead and cysts, 98% of PFOA/PFOS, and tackles chlorine, chloramines and more. Yes, it’s the more expensive option out of the bunch, but for me, this feels like an important investment for our family’s future health for years to come.