Those of us who live and work in the United States (and other first-world, industrialized nations) typically don’t give much thought to our water supply. When we turn on the tap, clean water comes out. We don’t ration water, and for most people, the monthly water bill is one of their cheapest household expenses.

In reality, however, a great deal of work goes into ensuring the safety of our home water supply—and as we have recently witnessed in several major US metropolitan areas, sometimes even those systems fail.

Even if the water supplied by your city is perfectly clean, a lot can happen between the supply pipes in the street and the end of your kitchen faucet. And if your water comes from a well on your property, the cleanliness of your water is entirely up to you.

In recognition of National Water Quality Month, keep reading for an informational guide to your water supply and a list of easy tips to help maintain the quality of your drinking water.

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Where Does Your Water Come From?

fast-moving stream

That’s a good question, and the answer may vary slightly depending on where you live. In most parts of the US, household water needs are supplied by water taken from a mix of sources—usually reservoirs such as lakes, rivers, and springs; the underground water table; and rainfall—and then filtered and purified in water treatment plants.

If you’re part of the approximately 15 percent of Americans who live in rural areas or parts of the country without municipal water supplies, your water comes from a groundwater well that is either privately owned by you or part of a community cooperative.

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How Does Water Pollution Occur?

algae bloom in pond

There are many ways that our water supplies can become polluted and unsafe for consumption:

  • Chemical runoff, including pesticides, oils, and salts
  • Leaking or poorly maintained underground storage tanks, including septic systems
  • Landfills
  • Airborne pollutants

Pollutants can be difficult to remove from the water supply, and in moving bodies of water, such as rivers and streams, contaminants can eventually become diluted. This may sound like a good thing, but in some cases, this process of dilution can fool water quality tests. This is problematic since the pollutants are still present, just in lower concentrations.

If your home’s water supply comes from a groundwater well, contamination from buried storage tanks and poorly maintained landfills are the most likely sources of pollution. But surface water contamination can also impact your water quality, since water from lakes, rivers, and streams does eventually penetrate the groundwater table.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter whether you pay a water bill every month or not—water pollution impacts everyone.

How Do You Maintain Water Quality at Home?

First, let’s get a couple of basics out of the way.

  • If your home’s water supply comes from a municipal source, your tap water is most likely safe to drink. You should receive an annual water quality report, called a Consumer Confidence Report, that provides details about your water quality.
  • If your water is supplied by a groundwater well, you’ll need to have a professional perform water quality testing on an annual basis—more often if you notice a change in the water’s taste or appearance.

What else can you do to ensure your drinking water is safe? A lot, actually. Take a three-pronged approach to water safety:

  • Maintain your home’s plumbing, including well pumps
  • Pay attention to how you treat water around your house
  • Invest in water purification equipment if necessary

This may sound like a tall order, but for the most part, ensuring good-quality drinking water around your house comes down to awareness. Keep reading for more details.

Plumbing maintenance

white plumbing pipes in home

To be sure that your plumbing is in good shape and that the pipes aren’t compromising water quality, you first have to know what type of pipes you have. Here are the most common types of water pipes:

  • PVC (Polyvinyl chloride): Perhaps the most popular type of pipe on the market, PVC pipes are only suitable for cold water since hot water can eventually destroy the plastic.
  • CPVC (Chlorinated polyvinyl chloride): This type of plumbing pipe is similar to PVC, but it’s designed to supply both cold and hot water.
  • PEX (Cross-linked polyethylene): Easy to work with, reasonably priced, and suited for use with both hot and cold water supplies, PEX piping is becoming more common in residential plumbing.
  • Galvanized metal: If your home was built before the 1970s and has not undergone major renovations, any metal pipes in your home are likely galvanized iron or steel.
  • Copper: Easily identifiable, copper pipes are seldom found in newer homes because the material has become so expensive.

Of course, the main concern that most people have when it comes to their drinking water supply is the presence of lead. Hopefully this will ease your mind a bit: with the exception of older homes that have not been extensively renovated, residential water pipes made from lead are a fairly unusual find these days.

But there are a couple of caveats, unfortunately.

Lead supply pipes—the pipes that bring municipal water to your home from the large pipes buried in the street—do exist. Lead can also be found in soldering compound, which is the material that joins metal pipes together.

In fact, if your home has metal pipes that have not been replaced or upgraded since 1986, the solder used on your pipes almost certainly contains lead.

If you have concerns about the safety of your water pipes, contact a licensed plumber for an inspection. If you or your plumber find evidence of lead pipes or lead solder, you may need to consider repiping your home.

Yes, a total repiping job does involve significant expense, but if you have lead pipes or pipes that are likely to fail in other ways, complete replacement is the best investment you can make.

In the meantime, if lead contamination is the primary issue, there are things you can do to minimize lead in your drinking water.

Even if lead contamination isn’t a concern for you, an annual plumbing inspection is a good idea. Some plumbing leaks are difficult to detect, but they can cause costly damage in the long run. A professional plumber will point out any areas of concern—leaks, corrosion, and inefficient fixtures, among others—and recommend the best way to handle them.

Water use around the house

rainwater draining into residential storm drain

The potential for water pollution doesn’t stop at your local wastewater treatment plant. How you use water in and around your house matters—and it affects your entire community, not just your immediate family.

Follow these simple guidelines to keep your water supply as clean and healthy as possible:

  • Use eco-friendly soaps and cleaning solutions. Your local big-box store most likely carries an array of soaps and cleaning solutions that are free of harmful synthetic chemicals. Avoid triclosan—an ingredient in antibacterial products—at all costs.
  • Choose botanical, environmentally friendly options for pest control and lawn treatment. Synthetic pesticides are a common source of water pollution. Ask your exterminator and/or lawn treatment company to use eco-friendly products whenever possible.
  • Don’t send expired or unwanted pharmaceuticals down any drain. Dissolved pharmaceuticals pollute the water supply. Contact your city or county government office to see if there is a designated drug collection program in your area.
  • Remember that storm drains are for rainwater only. You may have a drain at the curb of your home, but you should never use it to dispose of cleaning solutions, motor oil, or any other objects or substances.

Even small tasks like showering or washing your hands have an impact on the quality of your local water supply. Read ingredient lists before purchasing soaps and household cleaning supplies, and think twice about what you put down the drain or wash off into your yard.

Water purification

whole-house water filtration system

Water filtration pitchers are a popular kitchen accessory, but if your tap water is safe to drink, are they really necessary?

Regardless of whether your drinking water comes from the municipal supply or from a groundwater well, as long as the annual quality tests come back clean, most sources agree that your tap water is safe to drink without additional filtration.

If, however, you or anyone in your household has a compromised immune system or simply doesn’t like the way your tap water tastes or smells, a filter is a good idea.

If you decide to filter or purify your home water supply, you have two primary options: a point-of-use filter or a whole-house filter.

Examples of point-of-use filters include:

  • Filtration pitchers
  • Faucet-mounted filters
  • Under-sink filtration systems
  • In-door or in-unit refrigerator filters

Examples of whole-house filters include:

  • Whole-house water softeners
  • Whole-house water filters
  • Whole-house UV water disinfection units

In most cases, point-of-use filters can be installed or set up quickly and easily. Because whole-house filters are typically installed close to your home’s main water shutoff valve, hiring a plumber will make the installation go more smoothly.

Before making a purchase, consult your most recent water quality report to determine which contaminants you want to filter. Taking the time to do this small amount of research will ensure that you get the correct filter for your needs.

The most common filter types are activated carbon and reverse osmosis.

Here’s what activated carbon filters reduce or remove:

  • Large particles of dirt and sediment
  • Chlorine
  • Elements such as mercury, zinc, and copper

Here’s what reverse osmosis filters reduce or remove:

  • Chlorine
  • Lead
  • Fluoride
  • A variety of elements and other substances, including sodium, calcium, and potassium

A brief online search will reveal plenty of disagreement about which filter type is best, so you’ll need to do some comparison shopping and choose the one that meets your water quality goals (and your budget).

The Bottom Line

In most homes in the US, the water that comes out of the tap is safe to drink. But there are many communities where the safety of the drinking water is still up in the air.

As with anything that impacts your health and safety, it’s important to do your due diligence. Review your annual water quality report. Filter your drinking water if you feel it’s necessary. And above all, consult a professional plumber to investigate any problems you notice and to advise you on the safety of your home’s water pipes.

Maintaining water quality at home isn’t necessarily difficult to do, but it does require some legwork on your end. Clean, safe, and tasty drinking water is well worth it.