Water Quality Testing: The Complete Guide

glass of water with ice, an orange slice and black berries

Water is vital to our survival and is one of the most important resources in the world. It has many purposes, but the most essential of all is to keep us hydrated.

The human body is comprised of 60% water, and we can only survive three to four days without water. Water plays a crucial role in maintaining body temperature, lubricating the joints, and removing wastes. It cannot be stressed enough how important water is to our lives. The World Health Organization has even gone so far as to state that clean and safe drinking water is an essential human right.

Have you ever wondered if the water you are drinking is pure? One way to determine this is through special tests designed to analyze the quality of you water. In this article, we outline various water testing methods, some of which you can apply at home.

Why You Need Pure Water

man on top of a mounting on a hike drinking water from a bottle

The key reason why we need pure drinking water is to keep ourselves safe from health risks. Drinking clean water can help prevent various health issues, such as blood clots, heart disease, as well as mental and physical fatigue.

Consuming contaminated water can result in minimal physical impact to severe illness and even death. The effects vary with the type of contaminant and the age and overall well-being of the person. One can experience immediate reactions, such as nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea. Other effects can manifest long term and can lead to chronic health issues such as cancer, liver and kidney damage, nervous and immune system damage, and congenital disabilities.

Contaminants Found in Drinking Water

brown body of water waved forming a whirlpool

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes “contaminants” in the context of water as a “physical, chemical, biological, or radiological substance or matter in water.” The EPA also notes that water may contain a small amount of contaminants but not necessarily pose any health risk.

The contaminants in water are generally classified into four categories. The first type are physical contaminants that mainly affects the water’s physical appearance and other physical properties. Some examples of physical pollutants include sediments and organic materials that become suspended in the water.

The second type are chemical contaminants which come in the form of elements and compounds which can be organic or human-made. Some examples of chemical contaminants include nitrogen, bleach, salts, pesticides, and metals.

The third type are biological contaminants, which are organisms that live in the water. These are often microbes or microbiological organisms. Examples of these include bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and parasites.

The fourth type are radiological contaminants, which are chemical elements that have imbalanced protons and neutrons. These result in unstable atoms that can discharge ionizing radiation. Cesium, plutonium, and uranium are some examples of this type of contaminant.

Basic Criteria to Assess Water Purity

The EPA and the World Health Organization have created guidelines and standards for drinking-water quality. These guidelines set out the parameters of safe drinking water and identify the allowable amount of contaminants in drinking water.

However, these specifications are somewhat technical, and most people do not have all the tools necessary to accurately assess the level of contaminants in their drinking water.

three clear drinking glass with water inside placed on top of a wooden table

Fortunately, there are some simple ways to help you evaluate the purity of your water. First, drinking water must be clean and clear, and never cloudy. If you notice a strange tint, such as an orange or brown tint, do not attempt to drink the water. This can be a sign that there is a high amount of iron or manganese in the water. This occurrence can be caused by rusting pipes, or mining and excavation activities near the water supply.

You should also smell your water to make sure it does not have any unpleasant scent. Public water treatment facilities often add a certain amount of chlorine to kill bacteria. However, if the chlorine smell is so strong that it resembles water from a swimming pool, then your water may be chemically contaminated. In addition, high sulfur content can cause your water to smell faintly of rotten eggs.

If any of these negative qualities are present in your water, then you probably already known that the water is not safe for drinking. Of course, these methods are somewhat simplistic and do not guarantee that your water is pure. Some contaminants are not able to be identified immediately through sight, smell or taste. You will get a more accurate result if you test the purity of the water.

Methods to Test Water Purity

set of glass test tube arranged in rows

If you have a limited budget and wish to test your water for chemical contaminants, there are three types of testing methods you can use.

One method is to use water test strips, which are small, single-use strips. Using test strips will provide you with a basic sense of the concentration level of a particular chemical in your water.

Water test strips are generally used by dipping them into the water sample. You then compare the results of the test strip against a color chart that is included in the kit to identify the concentration of the chemical you are testing for. If you are testing to determine whether you have alkaline water, you can use pH strips.

Another method is to use color disc kits. This involves adding a packet of powder or liquid reagent to a water sample that is placed in a tube. The kit usually includes a viewing box where you place tube, and a color disc where you can match the resulting color from the water sample.

The last method is to use handheld digital devices. These are also known as digital metering tools, colorimeters, and photometers. Although these tools are more accurate than the first two methods, they are also more expensive.

The above-noted tools can be used to test for chemical contaminants that may be present in the water, such as fluoride, nitrate, iron, and manganese. For fluoride testing, it is recommended that the color disc kit be used as this provides a more accurate result than test strips. It is also recommended that you test for other chemical contaminants such as lead, barium, aluminum, ammonia, uranium, silver, and potassium.

That said, there are some chemical contaminants, such as arsenic, that are best tested professionally by a laboratory or regional health department. You will generally need to comply with specific criteria and protocols set by the agency who will conduct the examination.

Testing for biological contaminants generally involves much more than dipping a test strip in a water sample. Some of the methods that are involved in testing biological contaminants include filtrating, culturing, and incubating, all of which are somewhat complicated processes.

Testing for radiological contaminants is similarly complicated. Since multiple radioactive isotopes can be present in your water, it may not be practical or efficient to test for all of them. Screening tests identify alpha and beta particles and follow specific guidelines, which a professional is best positioned to assist with.


Clean and safe water quality is essential to you and your family’s health. Various testing tools are available to test water quality. If, based on these tests, you feel that there is something wrong with your water, it is best to submit a water sample to the appropriate water testing agencies and laboratories who can conduct more extensive tests.

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