Whether we drink from a plastic bottle or a kitchen faucet, we expect clean, crisp water. But headlines about toxic lead and chlorine remind us that our water supply doesn’t always flow fresh from cascading mountain waterfalls. Do we really know how safe our drinking water is?
A study on water contaminants by Consumer Reports and The Guardian detected measurable levels of lead in almost every test sample from community water systems supplying more than 19 million people. Lead is a heavy metal that leaches from corroding water lines and home plumbing fixtures. It’s unsafe at any level. Chlorine is used to kill germs in water systems, but disinfection byproducts can also pose a health threat. Chlorine is tied to higher incidences of cancer, especially in rural and low-income areas.
Water filter pitchers aren’t a magic fix, but many can reduce lead, chlorine, and unpleasant tastes or smells.
Pitchers are the second-most preferred type of water filter after those built into refrigerators. And they’re relatively inexpensive, typically less than $40, and easy to use. Just fill them at the tap and wait for the water to flow through the cartridge.
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CR tests pitchers specifically for how well they remove flavors and odors. We gather a panel of professional water tasters and give them water spiked with common compounds to make it smell and taste like various things: metal, compost, damp soil, a sewage treatment plant, and a swimming pool. Definitely not the sort of drinks you want on tap! Then our tasters score each pitcher based on how well it removes the flavors and odors against a baseline of pure spring water.
“There is quite a range in the pitchers’ abilities to remove off-putting flavors and odors, and some models are not that effective,” says Richard Handel, the project leader who oversees CR’s testing of water filters.
And if a manufacturer claims its pitcher meets standards set by NSF International for removing specific contaminants, such as chlorine and lead, we check. In our tests, all models effectively remove chlorine and four models remove lead.
But there are other factors to consider, such as cost, flavor, odor, and whether water flows easily through the pitcher without clogging.
For more, see our water filter buying guide. To get the details on how various pitchers performed in our tests, CR members can check our water filter ratings. Here are five things you should know about water filter pitchers.
1. Yes, Filters Can Make Water Taste and Smell Better
Compounds and chemicals such as zinc, chlorine, and hydrogen sulfide can make your water have a metallic flavor or smell like sewage. In our tests, we evaluate how well pitchers remove contaminants from water, and we create a combined rating for flavor and odor reduction. Our tests have found that most models are quite effective with flavor and odor reduction. One pitcher, the Pur below, earns an Excellent rating, and six register as Very Good. However, two low-rated pitchers disappoint in flavor and smell performance, only rating Fair.
2. Know What’s Actually in Your Tap Water
Even if taste and odor are your main reasons for using a water filter pitcher, it’s a good idea to research other potential contaminants in your municipality’s water. Your local water supplier’s Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) will state the levels of contaminants—such as heavy metals, pesticides, and microbes—that are present.
The plumbing in your house or apartment could also affect your water quality. If it was built before lead-free pipes were mandated in 1986, you’ll want to check your water for lead that might be seeping from the pipes. There’s no safe level of lead exposure. Even low levels can cause health problems such as hypertension, decreased kidney function, reproductive problems in adults, learning disabilities, slowed growth, anemia, and hearing problems in children. Your state or local health department may offer free kits that test for a range of contaminants, including lead. Or you can collect a sample and send it to a certified lab for testing, which can cost $20 to $100.
3. All Water Filter Pitchers Are Different
No filter does it all. Some pitchers remove bad-tasting contaminants like chlorine, zinc, and hydrogen sulfide. Others remove lead. If a pitcher does filter out lead—or other contaminants such as volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and hormones—the packaging should cite a separate certification mark for each. If your water contains serious contaminants, a water pitcher filter might not be enough to mitigate the problem. You might need a more comprehensive filtration system.
4. The Cost of Replacement Filters Adds Up
Manufacturer instructions will tell you how often to change the filter. Usually, it’s every two months or 40 gallons, whichever comes first. You’ll want to follow those guidelines because filters clogged with particulates simply stop working. Also, the activated charcoal in filters that traps flavors and odors has a finite capacity to absorb them before it stops functioning. Five pitchers in our tests rate Excellent for clogging (meaning they typically don’t clog) while two models fail miserably with clogging issues.
If you notice water flowing slowly from your pitcher, it’s likely that the filter is clogged and it’s time to replace it. Some water filter pitchers have a filter-life indicator that tells you when it’s time for a replacement. Among pitchers in our tests, the filter cost per year ranges from $27 for one with the best clog score to $150 for a pitcher with the worst clog score. That’s an easy call. You can compare costs using the Features & Specs tab in our ratings.
5. These Pitchers Can Take a While to Filter
You might think all pitchers filter water at the same rate. Not so. In our tests, the two top-scoring pitchers varied considerably when it came to filtering time. One pitcher, a filter-as-you-pour model, filtered a quart of water in 1 minute, 15 seconds. The other pitcher took nearly 15 minutes. Its manufacturer claims the long filter time is due to proprietary technology that effectively removes 99 percent of lead.
The flow rate may not be a concern if you usually fill up your pitcher and store it in the fridge for later. But if your busy household goes through lots of water every day, it’s definitely a factor to consider. This Brita earns top marks in our tests for flow rate and clogging:
CR members can compare water filter pitchers, including their flow rates, in our water filter ratings and read more about all the options in our water filter buying guide.
What’s in Your Water?
Do you have bad-tasting water? Consumer Reports experts Perry Santanachote and James Dickerson explain how to find out about water testing and the best filtration systems.
As a kid in Delaware, I lived a few blocks from Bob Marley, who once said, "It is better to live on the house top than to live in a house full of confusion." At CR, I'm psyched to help readers navigate this cluttered, hyper-commercialized world we live in. I've covered luxury real estate, interior design, and culture—reporting on everything from smart home technology to racial hypocrisy at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate. Since the pandemic started, I cherish simplicity, covering accessible topics like decorating, cooking, and cleaning. Give me a smoothie blender over a mansion any day. Blenders are slightly easier to clean.