If your coffee tastes bitter, your drinking water may be too alkaline. On the other hand, if you notice a metallic taste, your water might have an acidic pH. Because the pH of city water is regulated by the EPA, homeowners with well water are more likely to encounter pH problems. So the question is: How do you test the pH level of your water at home? Is a pH testing kit the only way to go about this? Well, not really.
Welcome to my guide—testing the pH of water without a kit 101!
Why Is pH Important for Water Quality?
The pH (or potential of hydrogen) of a water-based liquid determines how acidic or basic (alkaline) it is. Now, if you skipped all your chemistry classes, you’ll be scratching your head right now. But don’t worry, just keep reading.
The concentration of hydrogen ions determines the pH of water. If your tap water is acidic, it has a high concentration of hydrogen ions. On the contrary, a low concentration means your water is alkaline.
On a pH scale of 1 to 14, liquid with a pH below 7 is considered acidic, while that above 7 is considered alkaline or basic. Anything that lands on 7—the middle point—is neutral. One example of a neutral liquid is distilled water.
Now, how does this information help you?
The pH level of your drinking water says a lot about its quality. Water with an acidic pH tends to contain dissolved heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, copper, mercury, and cadmium, from the environment. Acidic well water will corrode your plumbing system, absorbing all the metallic compounds, which can severely damage your health. Metals in drinking water can damage the brain, kidneys, liver, lungs, and bones.
On the other hand, alkaline water is less likely to dissolve metallic ions but more likely to have copious amounts of minerals, such as calcium and magnesium. Heads up, alkaline water is also hard water, but it’s less likely to damage your organs compared to acidic water.
Minerals such as calcium and magnesium are already a part of the human body. So, slightly alkaline water can help you fulfill your daily mineral needs, though some experts argue that because the minerals are inorganic in water, they offer little to no benefit. Studies also suggest that alkaline water can improve one’s health by reducing the risk of developing cancer and regulating blood pressure and sugar levels. Nevertheless, anything in excess can harm the body.
What pH Range Is Safe for Drinking Water?
The EPA recommends that the pH levels of drinking water should lie within the range of 6.5–8.5. Any deviation from these numbers will cause a change in the taste and color of your water. The best practice is to test the pH of your water every six months so you can enjoy clean and healthy well water every day.
Water in its natural and pure form has a pH of 7, but with rising pollution and damaging human activities, clean groundwater is decreasingly available. Since water is a universal solvent, it can readily dissolve many minerals and compounds in polluted surface soil, nearby landfills, chemical runoff, and wastewater disposals. You’ll find more acidic water in the areas of Oregon, Colorado, and New York.
Signs Your Well Water Is Acidic
As the acidity in well water increases, you’ll notice a change in the color of your water. A bluish-green tint indicates the presence of copper, while a rust or orange color is the sign of ferrous and ferric oxide. The color may also appear on your laundry and porcelain fixtures.
You will notice that your plumbing system is corroding a little faster and rust is forming in your basins, shower, and faucets. The water will feel a tad slippery on your hands and face.
The most obvious change will be the taste of your drinking water. You will notice a sour and metallic taste in your beverages and foods.
Signs Your Well Water Is Basic
Your water may appear cloudy and mushy due to the presence of all those alkaline minerals. Moreover, you will notice a bitter taste in your water.
Alkaline water is responsible for building up the unsightly scale in your pipes, drains, shower heads, taps, and sinks. If left untreated, the massive buildup can block your plumbing system and drop the water pressure.
How to Test Your pH Level Without Strips
Testing your pH level at home using DIY methods is fun and safe. You can even involve your kids in the activity on a quiet Sunday evening. If you don’t have pH test strips or a pH kit available in your home, you can either make them or choose another method to test the pH of your drinking water.
Here are a few methods you can try at home anytime.
Digital pH tester
The most accurate way to test your pH level at home is to invest in a digital pH test meter, which is readily available online. The device will cost you less than $100.
This method is best for people who can’t perceive color correctly because a pH meter gives a numerical value on a display screen instead of showing colors. This method also reduces the risk of contamination, which could compromise the test. There’s little room for human error with a digital pH meter, and the test takes less than thirty seconds to yield results.
You must first calibrate the pH meter by following the instructions that come with the package. Every device comes with a separate set of instructions, so you must read the manual and follow it thoroughly. Typically, it will involve dipping in one or two liquids with established pH values.
Once calibrated, clean the glass probe with distilled water.
Now fill a clean cup with your tap water and dip your pH testing probe into the cup.
The pH meter will start displaying the numbers now. Let the device stabilize for a few seconds until the device lands on one numerical pH value, which is the exact pH of your well water.
A pH value below 7 is acidic, while values above 7 represent alkalinity.
Let me add an interesting fact here: Every number on a pH is ten times more or less than the following number. For example, pH 8 is ten times more basic, and pH 9 is 100 times more basic than the neutral pH. Similarly, the pH level of 14 is 10,000,000 times more alkaline than pH 7! The same goes for the acidic side of the pH scale.
The jump between the numbers is enormous.
Red cabbage method
In case you don’t have a pH testing kit or test strips available, you can always go for the red cabbage method that needs—yes, you guessed it right—a red cabbage.
Take a red cabbage and dice half of it into fine strips.
Boil two cups of distilled water in a pan. Now add your nicely sliced cabbage to the boiling water. Let the cabbage boil for 5–10 minutes until its purple color leaches out, then let the mixture rest in the pan.
Once cooled down, strain the mixture into a clean glass bowl. Congrats! You now have your pH indicator solution. Red Cabbage juice contains anthocyanin—a neutral pigment that changes color when mixed with an acid or base.
You can also achieve this by blending the sliced cabbage and half a cup of hot water in a blender. Use a coffee filter to separate cabbage juice from the blended mixture.
Fill half a plastic cup with a red cabbage juice indicator. Now slowly add tap water to the purple juice until it changes color. Alternatively, you can take a few tablespoons of water in a cup and add a few drops of red cabbage juice into it to observe the color change.
If your water is acidic, the solution will turn red or pink. And if it’s basic, the mixture will turn bluish-green and yellow. Neutral water will not change the color and will keep the solution in its original state, purple.
You can also check the color of your mixture against the anthocyanin indicator scale on this website.
Many other edible pH indicators are present in your kitchen, such as beetroot, blueberries, eggplant, cherries, plum, turmeric, onion, raspberries, grape juice, and tomatoes. You can even use petals of red roses, morning glory, tulip, and violet flowers to create a pH indicator.
How to Test pH Levels With Strips
Many types of ready-made pH strips are available on the market with different pH ranges and sensitivities.
You should remember that pH strips must be stored carefully in a cool and dry place. External factors, such as high heat and humidity, can render the strips useless. And you might not get an accurate result. Typically, the expiry date is displayed on the package, but their average life is three to six weeks.
Red cabbage pH strips
If you are a DIY enthusiast, you can always take your experiments a step further by making your own pH testing strips out of the red cabbage juice by following simple steps.
Take any filter paper, such as acid free art paper or coffee filter available at home. Cut out a few strips and dip them in your red cabbage juice.
Once fully soaked, take out the strips and let them dry in clean air.
Your strips are now ready to be used for testing. Use a dropper to put a few drops of your tap water onto the pH testing strips and observe the color change.
Litmus paper test
I’ll admit, using litmus paper to check the pH level of different liquids is the only fun thing I remember from my chemistry class.
You can get the universal litmus pH paper easily from any stationery or hardware shop for as low as $10. Using it is very easy, just follow these steps:
Take half a glass of tap water. Make sure your glass is clean.
Dip one strip in the water sample and take it out to check color against the litmus pH scale. Easy as that!
Litmus paper comes in red, blue and yellow colors. Red litmus paper turns blue in an alkaline environment. Whereas, blue litmus paper turns red in acidic water. Both retain their colors in neutral tap water.
If you’re using yellow litmus paper, it’ll turn red in acidic and blue in alkaline water. You can compare the resulting color with the standard colors on the litmus pH test scale.
pH test strips
You can easily find pH test strips at any convenience store. They are extremely easy to use and may take only five minutes of your time. This method is slightly more accurate than the litmus paper test but not more than a digital pH meter.
Take one pH test strip and dip it in half a cup of tap water sample for 2–3 seconds.
Take out your pH test strip and let it develop the color fully. This may take about 10–15 seconds.
Match the results with the pH color chart on the package bottle. The number associated with the matching color is the pH level of your well water.
The Most Effective Way to Test pH of Water
A pH testing device is the best way to precisely measure the pH level of your well water. It gives an exact numeral value up to two decimal places. This electronic device has nothing to do with the appearance of colors, which significantly reduces human error.
The rest of the methods are only useful for gaining a rough understanding of how high or low your water pH levels are. But this doesn’t mean you should never use these methods. Sometimes you only need a rough idea of the pH situation of your water so you can either call a professional for help or install specific filtration systems in your house.
How to Treat Acidic or Basic Well Water
Once you test your water, get an acidic or alkaline response, and have the results in your hands, you can install pH-regulating filtration systems to keep your well water at an optimum pH level.
Water neutralizing systems
If your well water has a low pH value, your best bet is an acid neutralizer. Many types of water neutralization systems are available on the market to suit your needs.
A typical acid neutralizer uses an alkaline material like calcite, calcite-blend, or soda ash to add an estimated 30–100 PPM of hardness, depending on your requirements. These point-of-entry systems contain a calcium and magnesium media bed that dissolves as acidic water flows through it. If you have a large household, you’d need a bigger neutralizer and vice versa.
Soda ash chemical injection systems are preferred when the water is way too acidic—say less than 5. Using a calcite neutralizer in such a case might increase the water hardness to the point that you might need a water softener to lower the pH.
Water ionizers raise the pH level of water by using the principles of electrolysis to separate acidic and alkaline components. This results in two streams of water, one with alkaline components and the other with acidic substances. You can get a countertop or under-the-counter water ionizer to maintain the pH of selected taps in your home. Investing in a whole-house water ionizer is an expensive route, but worthwhile.
Water distillation systems
Pure water distillers remove 99% of the contaminants in your water. It works on the principle of evaporating water and then condensing the pure water free of heavy metals and acidic compounds. Distillers are not common because of their high price.
There’s a close relationship between pH and the quality of water. Any deviation from the recommended pH values will translate into bad taste and unsightly color of your drinking water. Since pH of water is prone to change due to the soil quality in different areas, it’s essential to keep tabs on your pH levels.
Although you can perform many DIY techniques to get an idea of your pH levels, using a pH testing device, like a digital pH meter, is the best and the most effective way.
To tackle the acidic nature of well water, you should consider water neutralizers, ionizers, and distillers. Trust me, the investment will pay off in the long run.