The Shape of Water

This is the most basic fact of life: Water is essential to it. But what’s not so cut-and-dried is the safety of the water that flows from our taps. To gain clarity, we did some research and checked in with experts at Pentair Everpure, worldwide leaders in water filtration. Here’s what we learned.
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ONCE UPON A TIME, we confidently went straight to the tap for drinking water. That was then. For the most alarming and unfortunate of reasons, Flint, Michigan shattered that naïveté. But lead isn’t the only concern. Folks in runoff states know full well about the dangers of nitrates from agricultural practices. Then there are bacterial outbreaks that occur with relative frequency. Boil notices. Warnings for the very young and the elderly. Now pharmaceuticals in water systems are giving us the jitters.

At the Pentair plant, the center tank (above) holds Birm, a medium used to reduce iron and manganese. Andrew Kuhn samples water to check for the removal of various chemicals and metals.

It’s downright frightening. But how alarmed should we be? And what can we do to ensure the health of our family? It all boils down to this: There are reasons to be concerned, but no need to panic. The best news of all? Now more than ever, there are ways to gain peace of mind about the quality of water that flows into your home.


OUR PANEL OF product and technology experts at Pentair agrees on one thing: In the United States, our water systems are generally safe. “We want to emphasize this point,” says Phil Rolchigo, chief technology officer at Pentair, “in the United States, we’re fortunate to have really good quality water that’s delivered from our municipalities to our homes. But there are isolated instances where there are upsets, so having filtration systems in the home can help guard against those.”

Water quality issues occur, for instance, because of our country’s aging infrastructure. And they bubble up because of extremes in weather that cause flooding or drought. The region where you live impacts water quality, and also the source of your water: city, rural, or, least regulated of all, a private well.

It pays to take a proactive approach. You can keep tabs on your local water systems by reading water quality reports that city municipalities are required to share. Check your water bill for the annual or quarterly rundown, or go to your water agency’s website. You can also visit online databases from a trusted watchdog agency that “reads” them for you and summarizes the results, such as the detailed and interactive one found at the Environmental Working Group’s site, Plug in your zip code and up pops a detailed water-quality report. But monitoring those that monitor your water safety only gets you so far.


Water pitcher filters and built-in fridge filters are typically carbon activated and will remove many pollutants. But they aren’t effective against bacteria and all toxins, and the small units demand frequent filter changes. Shop for those that are NSF-certified to block the most contaminants.


Teresa Tomlin installs the top endcap on a filter cartridge at Pentair’s Hanover Park, IL facility. The company has 130 locations in 34 countries, employing 10,000 people.

“The challenge that most people have is that last 100 feet between where the municipalities’ accountability ends and personal responsibility begins,” says Rolchigo. “What happens between the street and our houses can be one of the biggest culprits in possibly re-contaminating our water supplies.”

This is especially true in homes built prior to the mid-‘80s, when lead was legally used in plumbing fixtures. Up until the 1930s, water pipes were primarily made from lead. Copper pipes were commonly used after that, but the solder that connects them contains elevated lead levels. You can do a quick check by seeing if a magnet adheres to the pipes or connectors. In the 1950s and 1960s, galvanized waterlines were used in new home construction. Although still considered safe, highly acidic water can cause corrosion that flushes heavy metals, especially lead and cadmium, through to your faucets.


KNOWLEDGE IS POWER—and peace of mind. If you have concerns about your water, get it tested by a certified, independent lab. (See sidebar for common contaminants to test for.) A do-it yourself testing kit from the hardware store is a less expensive option, but also a less reliable one. And keep in mind that, in the case of contaminants, your nose doesn’t always know—and neither do your taste buds. “From a contaminate standpoint, there’s rarely a taste or an odor or any telltale sign that something is in your water that will make you sick,” says an industry expert. “So having an understanding of what your inlet water quality is and having it tested is often the only way that you would detect that you have a problem.”

The tests can guide you to the best filtration system solution. “There is no silver-bullet system that can be installed in all applications and all water supplies,” says Michael Glodowski, Pentair product manager. “There’s a lot of variance in contaminants. Find out what’s in your water, then customize your equipment to deliver the most cost-effective solution for your home.”


AS WITH SO MANY decisions, determining the best filtration system for your home boils down to dollars and sense. Homeowners have a choice between point-of-entry types, designed to treat water in the entire house, or point-of-use systems installed on individual faucets. Filtering the water to your whole house will require a larger investment upfront, but may pay off depending on your needs. “If you think about water usage in your whole household,” says the industry expert, “so little of it is actually used for consumption—whether that be cooking, or drinking, or even washing dishes. So to treat everything that goes through your house as if it were drinking water may be overkill.”

For instance, it may be worth it to you to invest in a whole-house filtration system if your water comes to you raw from a well, or if you’re concerned about reducing chlorine throughout the home. (Chlorine is used by water municipalities in varying levels to kill disease-causing pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, and protozoans.) Wholehouse systems also remove mineral deposits that can jam up appliances and build up on faucets. For some, a wholehouse filtration system represents the ultimate luxury: You have clean water at any faucet that also does wonders for your laundry, and your hair and skin.

Point-of-use drinking water systems, whether installed under the kitchen sink or in your bathroom, are a cost efficient way to target contaminants and are designed to “polish” the water for better taste and clarity. These compact systems have seen technological advances in recent years, led by the folks at Pentair Everpure, who have translated their experience in creating top-of-the-line commercial systems for restaurants and coffee shops into smart, sustainable residential solutions.

“It’s an interesting challenge because you need to put a fair amount of sophisticated technology into a really small footprint,” says Rolchigo. “It’s got to be able to work over a wide variety of potential fluctuations of water quality. We have decades of experience developing proprietary, sophisticated technologies that could do everything from remove any kind of potential biological pathogen all the way through to different organic contaminants and inorganic contaminants like lead and other metals.”


YOU’LL ALSO FACE the choice between reverse osmosis and traditional carbon filtration systems. Reverse osmosis (RO) has long been considered top-of-the-line—it was a technology developed by the military to turn brackish or saline water into drinkable water. RO systems filter water through a membrane, which reduces a significant number of contaminants, but also forces out fluoride and minerals naturally found in water. Membrane filtration creates water a drip at a time, so the system requires a storage tank to be placed under the sink, and a separate faucet to be installed on the counter to access the drinking water.

By virtue of that process, RO units create wastewater—it takes water to make this water. Though that’s becoming less of an issue. “We’ve had some really interesting improvements in design and technology with reverse osmosis over just the past couple of years,” says our expert. “Where, historically, with a reverse osmosis membrane for every one gallon of water that you receive as treated you’ll waste approximately four gallons of water. We’ve actually come up with membranes through design and innovation that get closer to a one-toone ratio.”

A close up of Birm.

GOOD TO KNOW: Any system you rely on should be certified by NSF International ( or the WQA (Water Quality Association; Pentair Everpure filters are double-certified by these independent organizations.

In this lab, Don Boehm mans a microscope used for counting fluorescent microspheres that simulate cyst bacteria in drinking water
A detailed look at activated carbon used to filter water.

A real game-changer for homeowners looking for affordable, compact, commercial-grade filters is Pentair Everpure’s point-of-use traditional filters. The proprietary design features accordion-like, activated-carboncoated filter membranes that have five times more filtering surface than carbon-block filtration systems—and scrub your water of many of the contaminants that RO systems do, while retaining fluoride and mineral content. Water is filtered on demand, eliminating the need for a tank or separate faucet to deliver clear, tasty water. The filters tuck inside a heavy-duty aluminum cartridge lined with foodgrade polymer. Its easy setup saves you money on professional installation–or skilled DIYers may also be up to the task—and the long-lasting filters can be easily replaced.


IF YOU NEED ONE more reason to improve your tap water, let this one wash over you: Reliably safe, greattasting water will lessen your thirst for bottled water. And that’s healthy for the planet. Single-use plastics are clogging our landfills and oceans, and bottling and shipping water drains our energy resources and produces pollutants. “There are enormous energy costs in transporting that water from where it’s bottled to consumer homes,” says Rolchigo. “And by and large, a lot of those companies take tap water, treat it, process it, and then put it in a bottle. Why not do that in your house so that you can get the same or better quality, great-tasting water with a significantly smaller environmental impact?” Naturally, we’ll raise a glass to that.


Many contaminants cannot be smelled, tasted, or seen. But these can:

  • A rotten-egg or sulfur smell or taste suggests hydrogen sulfide. Sulfates can also cause the water to taste salty. Investigate further to pinpoint the source, such as bacteria growing in drains, water heaters, wells, or pipes. 
  • Musty, earthy odors and tastes may signal dissolved solids caused by decaying organic matter in the plumbing or even in the source water itself. 
  • If you’ve had a dip in a pool you know the smell and taste of chlorine. If you can detect in your drinking water, test it for safe levels.
  • Metallic smells and tastes may be a sign of mercury, lead, copper, arsenic, or iron in the water. These chemicals may come from the pipes.



1 ARSENIC A toxic, naturally-occurring substance this is also used in industrial processes. Environmental contamination may result from improper waste disposal, or through ground water.

2 CHLORINE AND CHLORAMINE Powerful cleaners added to the water by municipal water systems to control microbes. Chlorine is an irritant that can be absorbed through ingestion as well as through your skin while bathing. Chloramine is a secondary disinfectant that includes ammonia.

3 COPPER A metallic element that is essential to human health. Too little is unhealthy; too much can lead to copper poisoning that can cause gastro issues and muscle pain. Acute copper poisoning can lead to anemia, liver poisoning, and kidney failure.

4 FLUORIDE A compound added to water supplies since the ’40s to prevent tooth decay. We now know too much fl uoride can cause tooth discoloration and, over time, harms the body’s endocrine system.

5 CYSTS, BACTERIA, VIRUSES Waterborne microbes that can cause gastrological issues. This is a growing problem due to climate change. They can be tough to detect and clean, and can be especially dangerous for children and those who are immunocompromised.

6 LEAD A toxic metal that can damage health even at low doses. Corrosion of household plumbing systems and erosion of natural deposits are major sources.

7 NITRATES A common toxin, especially in agricultural areas, caused by fertilizer and animal and septic waste runoff.

8 MERCURY A liquid metal found in natural deposits, industrial discharge, and landfill and crop runoff. Being exposed to high levels of mercury over time can cause kidney damage.

9 PHARMACEUTICALS Synthetic chemicals that are found in prescription, therapeutic and veterinary medication that enter the water stream from poorly controlled manufacturing facilities and improper disposal. This is an emerging contaminant so health effects are largely unknown.

10 RADIUM/URANIUM Naturally-occurring radioactive substances that can leach into wells and ground water sources and are known to cause cancer and liver damage over time.

11 ALUMINUM An abundant metal in the environment that we’re exposed to through water treatment methods, preservatives in our food, multiple products, and even the air. Too much exposure has been linked to neurological issues, but that is controversial.

12 CADMIUM A result of deterioration of galvanized plumbing, along with industrial waste or surface water contamination by fertilizers. Acute exposure causes nausea, diarrhea, muscle cramps, and sensory disturbance. Long-term exposure can lead to kidney, liver, bone and blood damage.