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Cheap Water Filters Buying Guide

To determine which water filters give you the best performance and features for the least amount of money, we first narrowed down what kind of water filter system a cautious spender should get. Whole-house water filters handle large quantities of water at once, don't need to be changed very often, and don't take over the kitchen sink or refrigerator.

Under-sink water filters are mounted under the sink (naturally), usually in a kitchen or bathroom. These two types of filters generally lie well beyond the Cheapism price range and require professional installation. As a result, we confined our search to inexpensive and easy-to-use pour-through water filters -- i.e., carafes and dispensers -- and faucet filters. These don't carry the added expense of installation and are generally the only options for students and renters, who can take the filter with them when they move.

To use a pour-through filter, simply fill the pitcher or dispenser. The water runs through an activated carbon filter into the container, which can be kept cold in the refrigerator. Wallet-friendly models with good reviews include the Brita Everyday Water Pitcher (starting at $25) and two dispensers, the ZeroWater ZD-018 (starting at $36) and Pur DS-1800Z (starting at $26). The Brita Ultramax (starting at $27), on the other hand, shows how cumbersome it can be to use and clean a dispenser. Ultimately our top choice is a faucet filter, the Culligan FM-15A (starting at $16), because it gives consumers the most gallons for their money and doesn't get in the way in the kitchen. You can skip the Pur FM-9400B (starting at $30) because of user comments about leaking faucets and the product breaking easily. (In fact, many Pur models get average reviews, so if you're looking for a faucet filter, you might want to look to another brand.)

What We Looked for in the Specs

Certified Contaminant Removal.

Before setting out to buy a water filter, be sure to determine the specific contaminants affecting your water and choose a system that tackles those particular impurities. If your home is serviced by the local water utility, you should receive a yearly consumer confidence report that lists the contaminants in your water supply. You can also request one from the company or search for it on the EPA website. If you get your water from a well, your local health department can tell you what contaminants are normally found in your area, as well as give you a list of certified labs that will test the water.

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Most filters remove the basics, such as chlorine and sediments, and improve odor and taste. The best cheap water filters also target contaminants with harmful health effects, such as lead and mercury. The ZeroWater ZD-018 comes with a TDS meter to measure total dissolved solids, including aluminum, lead, zinc, and nitrate. The filter promises to reliably deliver a reading of "000 PPM," or zero parts per million.

Many other manufacturers do testing on their own products, but a water filter that's certified by a third party such as NSF International or the Water Quality Association has been independently tested to common standards established by NSF and the American National Standards Institute. These sites have databases where you can find out more about which models filter which specific contaminants. All the products we recommend have been tested and certified to meet NSF/ANSI standards.

Cheap, Long-Lasting Filter Cartridges.

The cost of replacement filters and how often they need changing is a big consideration when choosing a water filter system. Most water filters for pitchers or faucets need replacement filters every 40 to 100 gallons of water, or every two to four months for the average family. Filters for the models we recommend range from about $5 to $15. It's often cheaper to buy a few at a time (look for coupons and other special offers on manufacturer websites). The Culligan FM-15A can get you up to 200 gallons of filtered water, one of the higher amounts we've seen, making it a better value in the long run than most pitchers or dispensers. It also handles twice as many gallons as the Pur FM-9400B faucet filter.

Many water filter systems have some kind of electronic indicator to let you know when it's time to change the filter, but cheaper models typically don't. Users often must make do with a sticker for marking the date on a calendar or on the dispenser. One cheap water filter pitcher with a digital indicator is the Mavea Elemaris XL (starting at $35), which measures filter replacement based on how long the filter has been used, how much you drink, and the hardness of your water. It also has a sleek design that comes in six colors, so you might be apt to set it out on the table rather than leave it hidden in the fridge.

Large Capacity.

Size is a weighty factor, so to speak, when choosing a pour-through water filter system. A pitcher or dispenser can hold as few as six cups or as many as four times that. To a certain extent, the capacity you need depends on the size of your family and the size of your refrigerator. For consumers filling up lots of glasses of water, it can get irritating to repeatedly fill up a small pitcher and wait for the water to filter through. This is why we favor larger dispensers, and why we like a good kitchen faucet filter most of all. It stays put, it's never "empty," and it doesn't take up space in the fridge. Still, a smaller carafe such as the Brita Everyday Water Pitcher, which holds 10 8-ounce glasses, is well worth buying to shoulder a lighter workload.

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