Most of us here in the US take our public drinking water supply for granted. If you turn on a faucet in your house, you’ll get clean, safe water to drink or cook with, right?

In most cases, yes—but not always.

Recent domestic crises like the public water supply contamination in Flint, Michigan have shown us that our drinking water supplies are not necessarily guaranteed to be clean and safe to consume. While the majority of US residents have access to clean drinking water, it’s important to be aware of potential contaminants and the precautions to take to keep yourself and your family healthy.

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If you’ve ever turned on your local news or visited your local paper’s website only to be confronted with a warning not to drink your tap water, you’ve been affected by a boil water advisory. Boil water advisories happen from time to time in municipal areas, and in most cases, they aren’t cause for panic.

But that doesn’t mean you should ignore them. Boiling water before using it can be an inconvenience, but putting yourself and your family at risk of illness and infection is far worse.

Keep reading to learn more about what causes boil water advisories and how to handle them.

What Does a Boil Water Notice Really Mean?

Water from broken water main flooding road

A boil water notice is issued when there is a problem with the water supply that makes the water unfit for consumption. There are a few common causes of unclean drinking water:

  • Loss of pressure in the municipal water system
  • Problem with the disinfection/sanitizing system
  • Flooding and/or power outages that impact the water distribution center

These three issues don’t necessarily make the water unclean immediately, but they do create opportunities for waterborne pathogens and bacteria to enter the water supply.

Loss of pressure

Most city or municipal water systems function via a network of pressurized pipes and valves. Raw, untreated water is pulled into the system from the ground or from a lake or river, and the water is treated to make it safe to drink. When there’s a dip in the pressure levels—usually caused by a broken water main or some other breach in the system—untreated water can enter the system.

This untreated water can be home to a host of bacteria, dirt, and pathogens, such as E. coli, salmonella, and Legionella (the cause of Legionnaire’s disease).

Malfunctioning sanitizing system

Filtering and cleaning raw water involves several steps. First, the water goes through a process called coagulation and flocculation. During these steps, technicians add aluminum- or iron-based chemicals to the water. The reaction that occurs causes the dirt and sediment to stick to the chemicals, creating a heavy slurry of material that falls to the bottom of the treatment tank.

The clear water at the top of the tank passes through a series of filters to remove dissolved contaminants, and then (in many, but not all, areas) the filtered water is disinfected, usually with chloramine or chlorine, ozone, or UV light.

When any part of this multistep process doesn’t work as it should, the water is not safe to drink or use for cooking.

Flooding or power outage

Significant flooding can contaminate groundwater and surface water sources with farm, industrial, and septic system runoff in levels that water treatment centers may not be prepared to handle. Power outages can temporarily shut down important parts of the water treatment process, which can lead to inadequate filtration and sanitization.

In either of these instances, the water being supplied by the treatment plant is not fit for consumption. Be particularly alert for boil water notices immediately following a major storm.

How to Respond to a Boil Water Notice

Close-up image of water boiling in a stainless steel pot

When a boil water advisory is issued for your area, take the following important precautions:

  • Do not drink tap water or use it to brush your teeth.
  • Don’t use tap water for anything involving a consumable product, including making ice, baby formula, and hot drinks; washing produce; or hand-washing dishes.

While the advisory is in effect, bottled water is a safe, convenient alternative, but you can also create clean water by boiling tap water. Here’s the right way to do it:

  • Boil a pot of tap water at a rolling boil for one minute. A rolling boil means that when you stir the water, the bubbles don’t go away.
  • Be sure the boiled water cools down before you use it.

When your local government lifts the boil water notice, you’ll need to take a few additional steps before returning to normal use:

  • Let each of your home’s faucets run cold water for about five minutes.
  • Toss the ice in your ice maker as well as the next three to five batches, and then disinfect the ice compartment before making more ice.
  • Replace disposable water filters in filtration pitchers, refrigerators, and supply lines.
  • If you have a whole-house water filtration or softening system, check your owner’s manual for details on how to flush the system and which, if any, components you’ll need to replace.

Although they’re quite rare, a “Do Not Use” order means that you cannot use tap water at all, including for bathing, washing hands, or doing laundry.

How to Maintain Clean Drinking Water

Close-up of a woman filling a glass from a water purifier faucet

Tap water can be a surprisingly polarizing topic of conversation. Where you live, the source of the water, and how your public water supply is treated all have a significant effect on the taste and appearance of the water that comes out of your faucet.

Some people love the taste of their area’s tap water; some won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. If your tap water tastes good to you, that’s fantastic! If you’re not a fan of your tap water, there are a variety of filtration options that can help improve the taste and smell.

Activated carbon filters

Carbon filters are a cost-effective, user-friendly way to improve the taste and odor of your tap water. These types of filters are most commonly available as pitchers and faucet attachments.

Keep in mind that carbon filters do not remove bacterial contaminants, so you should not use them in an attempt to create clean water during a boil water advisory. Carbon filters do a great job at removing chemicals used in the water treatment process that can make tap water taste and smell unpleasant.

Reverse osmosis filters

Reverse osmosis filtration systems are a great option if you’re concerned about the cleanliness of your tap water. The cost of a reverse osmosis system is higher than the cost of a carbon filter, but a reverse osmosis system filters more contaminants, including bacteria and other pathogens.

While a carbon filter pitcher filters water passively, a reverse osmosis system uses pressure to force water through a series of membranes and filters. The very fine filters combined with the use of pressure means that the water from a reverse osmosis system is clearer than water from other filtration systems and is free of common water contaminants.

Reverse osmosis units can be mounted underneath a sink—usually the kitchen sink—but if you want to use filtered water throughout your home, ask your plumber about a point-of-entry unit. These units are installed where the municipal water supply line enters your home.

Whole-house filtration systems do represent the highest financial investment of any water filtration option, but filtered water can help your appliances and plumbing fixtures last longer, especially if the quality of your public water supply isn’t great to begin with.

Note: You can always verify the safety of your municipal water supply by viewing the details included in your water service provider’s Consumer Confidence Report (CCR). The EPA stipulates that each water system send a CCR to its customers by July 1 of each year. If you didn’t receive one, contact your water service provider or visit the EPA’s website to search for a copy.

The Bottom Line

Close-up of a man washing his hands under a running faucet

Whether you’re in the midst of a boil water notice or are simply looking for ways to make your tap water taste better, clean drinking water is a must-have. Follow these steps to ensure that the water you use (and consume) is as clean and safe as possible:

  • Don’t ignore boil water advisories.
  • During active boil water advisories that affect your home, create clean water by bringing tap water to a rolling boil for at least one minute and then allowing it to cool fully before use.
  • Use boiled and cooled water or bottled water for cooking, drinking, and hand-washing dishes during a boil water advisory.
  • Flush out faucets and empty ice trays once the advisory is lifted.
  • Consider having a plumber install a water filtration system to provide you with clean, virtually tasteless water.
  • If you’re concerned about the quality of your home’s water supply, call a plumber for an assessment and a recommendation for how to improve it.

If you decide to install a reverse osmosis filtration system—even a small, under-sink unit—call a Best Pick plumber in your area to make sure the job is done correctly. All Best Pick companies are annually vetted for quality through our comprehensive customer survey process.

We also verify each company’s state-required licenses and insurance coverage as the company progresses through our yearly qualification process. When you work with a Best Pick plumber, you’ll be pleased with the outcome—we guarantee it.