Best water quality meters and test kits for drinking water

Sunday, October 25, 2020

How to choose the best water quality test kit 

Did you ever hear of a town called Flint in Michigan, USA?

It's famous for having perhaps the poorest drinking water quality in a first world country. You literally cannot drink the water as the city's pipe infrastructure is rooted which resulted in lead leaching from the pipes and eventually into its citizens directly.

There's no need to use a pH water meter in Flint because the water comes out rusty red and the locals have to make do with bottled water.

So much for water quality.

We state this to highlight that water quality is massively important - from keeping the human population healthy through to testing river pollution though to making kombucha or homebrew beer (pH levels are super important), there are a million reasons why brewers, scientists and swimming pool users need to check water:

  • Too much chlorine? 
  • A bad swimming experience? 
  • Is your water too hard?
  • Excess iron
  • You're getting calcium build up?
  • Suspect your house's old lead pipes are leaching?

If so, you are looking for a water quality tester, here's the range of things a good tester can account for:
  • bacteria presence
  • chlorine
  • copper
  • iron or lead
  • pH levels - alkalinity
  • pesticides
  • nitrate and nitrites
  • hardness or softness
  • salinity
  • dissolved oxygen

But at the end of the day, most users just want to know if the water is good for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. Especially if you are checking the water that has gone through a home filter.

water quality tester phHome testing kits and meters are great because you can get fairly instant results and you certainly do not have to send off samples to an expensive laboratory or testing company!

So what are the best water testers?

If you want to just check out the best of the best, here are our top five recommendations for pH testers:

  1. Hanna Instruments HI 98128
  2. Milwaukee MW102 PH and Temperature Meter (Amazon Best Seller)
  3. Oakton EcoTestr pH 2+ Pocket pH Meter
  4. Hach Pocket Pro + Ph meter
  5. Apera Instruments AI312 PH60F Premium pH Pocket Tester

Read on for a more in-depth discussion about how to choose the best water tester for personal use.

First up, here's some of the functions and features that you might want to consider when buying a meter.

  • You want the damn thing to be accurate. And frankly, you probably want laboratory results accurate because 'near enough' doesn't cut the mustard when we are talking about drinking water or swimming in it!
  • What kind of probe does it come with? Is it easy to calibrate and clean? Is it strong enough to withstand a little bit of a bump and are the probes cheap to replace (they can wear out over time and quite quickly if they are not properly cared for. A good kind of probe to keep an eye out for is a multi-sensor probe which usually allows for the measurement of standard parameters including pH, oxidation reduction potential (ORP), conductivity, dissolved oxygen, and of course, temperature.
  • Is the display waterproof? Sounds stupid to ask but you kind do want a waterproof tester because...water. Especially if you are using a smaller, handheld device that you could potentially drop in a bath or pool eh?
  • The device needs to be simple to set up, basically, you want it to be able to be turned on, calibrated and sampling without undue fuss such as pressing too many buttons.
  • Are you intending to use a 'simple' handheld meter? If so, do not be tempted to buy a cheap one. They will crap out pretty early on and will quite likely not give you results accurate to the degree you need. Spend a little more, to get a quality tester. 

Drinking water test kits

Water testing kits are different from digital testers or meter tools.

Say you want to test for the presence of bacteria in your water source. 

Say you're concerned that the water in the tank that's connected to your beach house, hen house or outhouse may have water that's given you an upset stomach due to the bacteria. 

A simple test will help you determine if there is contamination.

Basic kits will have a vial which you will carefully open up. 

You then carefully take a sample from the tank or tap, add it to the vial and wait a short while to see what happens. The kit is usually designed to change color if bacteria are present. 

The color will depend on the kind of kit you have. Once you have determined the presence of bacteria, you'll then need to take action to remedy the contamination. 

Other tests for the presence of lead or pesticides are usually undertaken by taking a specialised strip into a sample of the water to be tested. 

Back when we where kids on holiday, our Great Aunt would add a teaspoon of bleach to the old metal tank that was connected to our beach house. That sure killed the mosquito larvae that were often found swimming around in it...

The reality is the point of these kits is they are a screening test and not a comprehensive data set of results. If you get a negative result then you'll need to think about how to take proper remedial action and this may include further testing as a starting point to actually identify what bacteria is present.

So, what are the best kind of water kits to use?

Maybe this one:

What are the containment levels that are of use?

While most countries have different standards, the famous American agency, the EPA has the following guideline standards for these commonly tested areas:

Bacteria presence None
Lead Below 15 pp billion
Pesticides Below 3ppb (atrazine), Below 4ppb (simazine)
Nitrite < 1.0 pp million
Total Nitrate/Nitrite < 10.0 ppm
Water hardness 50 ppm or less
Total Chlorine Below 4 ppm
pH level 6.5 to 8.5

How to test water for pH level

Speaking scientifically, pH is the measurement of acidity or alkalinity of a solution, where the number of hydrogen ions is measured.

You basically want to test the pH level of water so you can drink it (such as for making beer), or to be sure that the level will not hurt your eyes and ears when swimming for example.

To use your meter for testing pH levels, you will need to calibrate your instrument. Essentially this means you take a known reading from a calibration solution, configure your device, drop the electrode in the sample solution and you are away.

One of the most popular pH meters on the market (and a huge seller on Amazon) is the
Milwaukee MW102. We're not kidding, beer brewers love it because it's reliable, durable and doesn't break the bank cost-wise.

Indeed, it's at the cheaper end of the mid-range pricing scale.

Newly legalized marijuana growers in California love it too (we're talking hydroponics here) ! Kombucha brewers can even use it!

The MW102 is portable and gives fast, accurate and reliable measurements whether you're in the classroom, laboratory or for general field use:.

Check out the price on Amazon:

How to test for dissolved oxygen in water

No one likes to jump the shark when it comes to testing for dissolved oxygen levels.

That's why people use the... Winkler Method.

The Winkler Method is checking for the amount of oxygen in the water as this can be a great indicator as to the health of the water. If your sample has a high oxygen content, then it's likely healthy water that can be drank and support life such as fish. Ponds and lakes that are not refreshed with water (or suffer from too much pesticide runoff) will suffer from low oxygen levels, become stagnant and not able to support aquatic life. 

Scientists can use these levels to determine how much biomass a lake or river can support, and the amount of decomposition that's occurring. 

While the Winkler method is quite a formal testing method which encompasses using titration, home users or enthusiastic amateurs can simply use field kits. 

The short description of the test is a sample is mixed with reagents (kind of like the Marquis reagent testing process). When the endpoint of the chemical reaction is reached, you can determine the result, again by judging the color result against the guide. 

The Apera Instruments PC60 Multi-parameter Tester simply tests pH, salinity and temperature in an accurate, quick and reliable manner: The multi-parameter probe is replaceable, and equipped with Apera's unique BPB (Brush-Resistant Platinum Black) sensor, ensuring an accurate and reliable EC measurement in a wide range.

Testing pool water with strips

While some hardware stores such as Home Depot may offer free instore testing of your pool's water, it can be a pain in the but to get there and you just now you are going to get sold the 'up sell' when they give you your results. If you have a pool testing kit, you can do your own testing at your own pace, when you want.

So what are you testing for when you check your pool or spa or 'hot tub' water?

If you are properly maintaining your pool, you are probably using chlorine to keep the bacteria at bay. Which follows then you need to check the chlorine levels are withing swimming range - especially if children will be using it. While a lot of chlorine will plenty of bugs, it will hurt a swimmer's eyes. 

So what is the test then?

There are two simple ways - and again it's by taking a liquid sample or by using a test strip. 

There's a handy way to test for seven key points of health check using a single test strip.

AquaChek strips are a quick and simple test. These strips tests for 7 important pool chemistries rather fast and those being:

  • Total water hardness
  • Chlorine
  • Bromine
  • Chlorine
  • pH level
  • Total alkalinity
  • Cyanuric acid

To use the strip, quickly dip it in your pool or spa water for one second and remove it immediately. The strip will react immediately to the water and any indicators of the tested substance will be quickly revealed. You conduct your analysis by matching the resulting colors to the color chart that is supplied with the kit.

AquaChek strips are tried and tested. Here are some reviews from users on Amazon:

" I do thank you for having a very good product and would highly recommend the strips since they have been pretty accurate so far. I work on about 50 pools a week so I am fairly knowledgeable on the subject."

"These are the only strips I use. They tell me everything I need to know about my above ground pool. The only thing they can't tell you is if you have algae or cloudiness, which... are both obvious to the naked eye."

"I was a skeptic after using the little chemical droplet tester my whole life but decided to give these a try anyway. They work great! Just to test the accuracy it ran a test strip them brought a water sample to my local pool supply for testing and their results matched the strip perfectly. No more messing around with color coded chemical bottles for me!"

If these test stips sound like they might help you check your pool health, easily and efficiently, then check out the price on Amazon:

digital pool water tester bestIf you don't wish to use strips, then a digital meter, such as the Safedip meter will serve you well.

The Safedip digital meter from Solaxx is designed to make measuring pool parameters easy.

It's simple to use. collect the water sample from the pool or spa using the onboard cup and press the Start button to take your measurement. The results will quickly be displayed on the large digital LCD display and easy push- buttons make the meter easy to read and easy to use. 

This pool meter measures pH, levels, the total amount of free chlorine, salt, TDS (total dissolved solids), ORP (Oxidation Reduction Potential) and temperature.

The best feature is that the LED indicator light illuminates if the pool or spa is safe to swim which takes a bit of brain work out of it, which is handy if you're keen to just jump in the pool!

best aquarium test kits

Checking water quality in fish tanks and aquariums

Like the people of Flint, your fish need clean water to drink and swim in too.

Given that pet fish can be extremely sensitive to chemical treatments being added to their water and even to temperature changes (tropical fish are famous for needing water within the right ranges) then as a pet owner, one really does need to ensure the quality of the aquarium water is just right.

Because no one likes a floater right?

So, when checking aquarium water, what should be tested for?

I think we can cover off the temperature pretty easily. As a responsible pet owner, you will already know the temperature that is ideal for your fish and you will simply use your thermometer or digital meter to take a reading to check. Some aquariums simply have a thermometer permanently placed inside the water so readings can be closely monitored.

Fish also need to breathe.

So, naturally, you’re going to want to ensure your aquarium has an oxygen pump at play. If you recall above we talked about testing lake water for dissolved oxygen as a higher rate demonstrated that the water was ideal for fish and biomass?

It’s the same thing for a pet fish’s aquarium!

When testing specifically for fish water quality, these are your typical checks using a test kit:

  • Nitrite
  • Nitrate
  • Ammonia
  • pH level

Fish excrete and then have to swim around in it. Over time this can build up making their water pretty disgusting so a health check on the water so you know to change it or to work out how well your filter is working is a good idea.

High nitrate levels will stress your fish and also provide a catalyst for algae growth (phosphates too) and everyone hates it when fish tanks get overgrown with green algae (and all over the gravel) as it doesn’t look good and is hard to actually see and enjoy your fish!

Many fish experts stated that if you detect ammonia in your water then you should immediately add 20 percent fresh water to reduce stress on your fish. Then gradually make adjustments to the water over time.

As aquariums ‘bed in’ over time, the pH level can change. Too much alkalinity is not good for fish so keeping an eye on that level is crucial for having healthy fish. Sudden changes in pH due to a new addition to an aquarium (e.g. plant material, food, new water) can stress fish so bear that in mind.

The good news is that there are plenty of test kits out there  for both freshwater and saltwater which allow you health check your water very simply, and just like testing most pool water, it is just a matter of taking a test strip and dipping it into the sample and then comparing the results to the color chart to determine the level of pH, nitrate or ammonia.

You can also measure salt or salinity with a refractometer or hydrometer.

This is one of the most popular test strip kits on Amazon:
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