Understanding pH in Your Drinking Water

There are a few essential things to understand when ensuring the best-quality drinking water in your home, one of which is your water’s pH value.

You may have seen the term “pH” printed on the labels of various types or brands of bottled water at the grocery store (think alkaline water). Or perhaps you maintain an aquarium at home and are required to test its pH level regularly to keep your fish happy and healthy. In either case, you probably don’t know why pH is important, let alone the best pH level for your drinking water at home.

If that’s the case, this article will give you a deeper understanding of pH in drinking water, exploring crucial topics like:

  • the importance of pH in drinking water
  • the best pH level for drinking water
  • how to increase or lower pH in drinking water
  • how to test your drinking water for pH
  • the health effects of high and low pH in drinking water
  • and much more

For starters, let’s define the pH in drinking water.

What is pH in drinking water?

In a nutshell, the pH (potential of hydrogen) of your drinking water is a measure of its hydrogen ion concentration. A substance (in this case, water) with a high number of hydrogen ions is acidic and has a lower pH. Conversely, a solution with an increased number of hydroxide ions is basic (or alkaline) and has a high pH value. Essentially, pH tells whether a substance is acidic, neutral, or alkaline.

So, what does pH mean for drinking water?

The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, indicating the hydrogen ions (H+) and hydroxide ions (OH-) concentrations in a solution. Pure water has a pH of seven, meaning it contains equal amounts of these ion concentrations and is neither acidic nor basic. A solution with a pH of less than seven is considered acidic, and anything above a pH of seven is deemed to be basic or alkaline.

The further away from neutral a substance is, the stronger it is in either the acidic or basic direction. That means since hydrochloric acid, battery acid, lemon juice, and vinegar all have extremely low pH values (zero or close to zero), they are strongly acidic.

At the other end of the scale are alkaline substances, such as bleach, oven cleaners, baking soda, and ammonia. Basic substances have a pH higher than seven, with higher numbers being increasingly alkaline. In general, a very high or very low pH can make the water unusable for specific applications.

What is the ideal pH for my drinking water?

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not regulate pH in drinking water (mainly because they consider its impact aesthetic than harmful), the agency recommends that municipal water suppliers keep their water supply at a pH of 6.5 to 8.5 on a scale that ranges from 0 to 14 – which is also a useful guide for private well owners.

In a perfect world, the pH of drinking water would be sitting at seven. But due to the various factors affecting pH in water, this is usually not the case – hence probably why the EPA suggests a range of pH values instead of a single digit.

Variables Influencing Drinking Water pH Levels

Several variables affect pH, some natural, and some due to human activity. Let’s discuss a few of them:

  • Bedrock and soil composition: One of the most common variables influencing drinking water pH levels is the bedrock and soil composition through which the water moves, both in its bed and groundwater. The water found in regions with glaciated areas is usually more acidic (lower pH) than areas with limestone bedrock.
  • Plant growth and organic matter: Another factor influencing drinking water pH levels is plant growth and organic matter within a water body. When the organic material decomposes, carbon dioxide is released. The carbon dioxide combines with the water to form carbonic acid. Although carbonic acid is weak, large amounts of it can throw off the pH.
  • Acid precipitation: Any form of rainfall with a pH level of less than five is known as acid rain. This precipitation comes from water’s reaction with nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and other acidic compounds, lowering its already slightly acidic pH. These emissions usually come from mining, smelting operations, or fossil fuel combustion (coal burning and automobiles). Excessively high CO2 levels can further decrease the pH of rainwater.
  • Point-source pollution: Point-source pollution is also a typical pH influencer. This type of pollution can increase or decrease water pH, depending on the chemicals involved. These chemicals can come from wastewater discharge, agricultural runoff, or industrial runoff. Mining operations (mostly coal) can also produce acid runoff and acidic groundwater seepage if the surrounding soil is poorly buffered.
  • Air pollution: Dust and other small airborne contaminants can change the pH level for the same reasons as rocks and soil. Fine particles may contain chemical or organic compounds that, when dissolved in water, can transform into mild acids or compounds with alkaline properties.
  • Water suppliers’ pH control: Some (if not all) water suppliers adjust the pH level of potable water to prevent outcomes like corrosion of supply lines. Wastewater treatment facilities are also required to adjust the pH levels of wastewater that are outside acceptable limits. That’s because the wastewater is usually discharged into streams or estuaries. Some municipalities use sodium hydroxide (NaOH, often used in drinking water treatment) or a similar chemical (one that generates OH- ions) as part of water treatment that could result in higher pH after the reverse osmosis process. The RO membranes will exclude the sodium ions but not the hydroxide ions. The hydroxide ions will increase the pH but not the alkalinity. High alkalinity in the source (feed) water to the reverse osmosis system can cause scaling on the membrane because calcium carbonate (the primary cause of alkalinity in water) precipitates on the membranes.

Common Water pH Levels

Different types and sources of water have varying pH levels, mostly due to the factors explained above. Here’s a table showing the standard water pH levels, as seen on Healthline:

Water Type pH Level
Tap water Varies; typically, about 7.5
Distilled reverse osmosis water 5 to 7
Common bottled waters 6.5 to 7.5
Bottled waters labeled as alkaline 8 to 9
Ocean water About 8
Acid rain 5 to 5.5

 

How does pH affect your drinking water quality and household plumbing?

Like some of the substances we mentioned earlier, your home’s drinking water has its place on the pH scale. Again, drinking water should ideally be pure, balanced, and distilled, having a pH of seven. But more often than not, this is not the case.

As water passes through vegetation, soil, and bedrock, it picks up elements of whatever it encounters. These newly introduced elements and minerals may make the water unbalanced as it reaches the source that supplies your home, whether it is from a public water supply or a private well.

When water pH goes too far in the acidic or basic direction, you’ll likely see some physical evidence of it.

Effects of Low pH in the household

Acidic water often contains heavy metals, such as iron, manganese, lead, copper, and zinc. You don’t want to ingest too much of these metals because of the damage they can do to your health. (We’ll discuss this in more detail in a bit.)

Acidic water is corrosive and can cause a slew of damage in the household. Acidic water is often considered “hungry.” That’s because it eats away at your plumbing while it travels to your faucets, leaving your copper pipes and plumbing fixtures thin and prone to pinhole leaks. As acidic water travels, it brings along the metallic strips leached from your pipes.

Once the water flow stops or the water evaporates, it deposits the materials, leaving blue-green or rust stains on your plumbing fixtures, faucets, drains, and bathtubs, and sinks. Unfortunately, the problem multiplies for homes with galvanized steel or cast-iron pipes and “sensitive” surfaces.

Acidic water may also taste metallic, somewhat like the water coming out of the water hose when you were a kid.

Effects of High pH in the household

Conversely, water with a high pH level is often high in calcium. It is known to carry loads of minerals and impurities, constantly offloading them as it travels through plumbing. This often leads to scale buildup on and inside your pipes and water-using appliances, restricting the water’s flow into your home and said devices.

The hard-water-like buildup associated with alkaline water can create more extensive problems for your home’s plumbing and water-using appliances. It will leave whitish scaly deposits on your dishes, utensils, tubs, and appliances and can clog your pipes. Over time, your pipes may lose pressure, devices (like electric water heaters) may become less efficient and start to burn out, and showerheads can become clogged with scaley residue. Beyond that, high pH levels can give the water a bitter taste, especially when you make your morning coffee. It can also make it hard to get a lather out of soaps and detergents.

The Health Risks Associated with Water pH

The human body does a dang good job of balancing its pH level. So, when you drink slightly acidic water, it loses its acidity when it comes in contact with the saliva in your mouth and the acids in your stomach. Our stomachs are highly acidic with a pH value of 2, so slightly acidic water won’t impact your stomach’s pH or negatively affect your short-term health.

The primary health concern when it comes to the pH of drinking water is consuming heavy metals. Acidic water can dissolve some of the copper and lead from the plumbing lines, which usually wind up in your drinking glass.

While we need adequate amounts of copper in our diet, long-term exposure to high copper levels can cause serious health effects, including liver or kidney damage. Even short-term exposure can cause stomach problems, like nausea and vomiting.

Lead is also a significant problem with acidic water. High levels of lead in drinking water is a primary concern for children and adults. Lead is a highly toxic metal that, when consumed, places both children and adults at risk for health problems, such as cancer, stroke, kidney disease, memory problems, high blood pressure, etc. It is more toxic for children as their growing bodies absorb the metal contaminant quicker.

While contaminants like iron, zinc, and manganese are classified as secondary contaminants, elevated levels of these pollutants in the body can cause various health issues, including nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps, kidney disease, liver disease, and nervous system problems.

Furthermore, the body’s acidity can result from several factors, including the water we drink. Too much acidity in the body can result in extra stress on your internal organs and is linked to reduced bone density. It may also affect the liver or heart. In extreme cases, acidosis may occur, leading to health problems ranging from headaches and fatigue to shortness of breath and rapid heart rate.

What’s worse is that water with a high acidity level likely hasn’t gone through proper filtration measures. It may still contain pollutants like pesticides and chemicals that pose health risks and make the water unsafe to drink. Nevertheless, this can also result from outdated pipes, and corroded water systems or those made of older materials, like lead and copper.

Regular drinking water with a high acidity level will also likely carry an odor. It might even not taste as clean as water that has been filtered adequately and is safe to drink.

Signs Your Drinking Water’s pH May Be Unbalanced

If you suspect that your drinking water’s pH is off, there are several signs you can look out for. These signs can either indicate that your water has a low pH or a high pH.

Signs of a low pH

  • Leaks in your home’s plumbing
  • The water has a metallic taste
  • The water feels slippery
  • Corrosion and leaching in pipes and appliances
  • Red or rust-colored staining with galvanized steel or cast-iron pipes
  • Blue-green staining with copper plumbing
  • Metal toxicity

Signs of a high pH

  • Reduced water flow due to clogged pipes
  • Scale buildup on fixtures and shower doors
  • Scale accumulation at the bottom of water heater tanks
  • Bitter taste

It helps to know the specific signs of high or low pH levels in your home’s water. While the warnings on the lists above can hint towards low or high pH levels in your drinking water, it’s still important to test your water’s pH level to know for sure.

You can conduct a simple DIY water test by purchasing a water test kit. Water test kits will give you an estimate of whether your water is acidic or alkaline. Even better, they are widely available online and in some stores, such as health food stores and pet supply stores.

If you decide to test your water, we sell water test kits that check for over 75 water contaminants in water. The standard Watercheck test kit from the National Testing Laboratories, Ltd. is perfect for homeowners whose drinking water comes from a public source or a private well. This water testing package contains everything you need to identify irregularities in your drinking water. It will test your water for 75 or more common contaminants, including:

  • Physical characteristics (including Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), hardness, turbidity, and pH)
  • Inorganic chemicals (including nitrates and fluoride)
  • Heavy metals (including iron, arsenic, uranium, and mercury)
  • Bacteria (the presence or absence of Total Coliform and E. Coli)
  • Trihalomethanes (THMs)
  • VOCs (including TCE, MTBE, and PCE)

We also offer the Watercheck Pesticide test kit, which tests for 20 additional pesticides, herbicides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in water. It also comes from the National Testing Laboratories, Ltd., one of the industry’s most recognized laboratories.

Another excellent option for testing your water is to send a water sample from your tap to a certified local laboratory for testing. This method is ideal for homeowners who want to gain more detailed insight into the water they rely upon for drinking, cooking, bathing, laundry, and more.

Laboratory tests are usually the most comprehensive (meaning they will help you discover more abnormalities in your water). However, they typically cost more than home water test kits and take longer to produce the results (about 5 to 10 days, or even longer, depending on the lab).

Apart from testing your water at home or leaving it to the pros, you can request a copy of the latest annual water quality report from your local water provider. This document typically includes vital information about water quality in your area. But first and foremost, you must know how to understand it.

Essentially, a water quality report highlights what contaminants, if any, may be present in your drinking water and how they may affect your health. It also includes a list of all the regulated pollutants detected in your water over the prior calendar year, pH, and other physical characteristics of the water flowing into your home from a municipality.

Why do we test our drinking water for pH?

Since pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline your water is, it’s only right that you find out which side of the scale your water lands on. That way, you can determine the best method to “balance out” your water’s pH and ultimately fix specific problems associated with high or low pH.

Also, keep in mind that the EPA does not regulate pH in water – although they recommend a pH between 6.5 and 8.5 for drinking water. Still, even if water providers follow this guideline, the water’s pH can change as it passes through the main water line to your home.

Another crucial reason to test your water’s pH is that some water systems require a specific pH to work effectively. For example, our well-water systems preferably require a pH range from 6.5 to 8.5. Water with a pH value outside that range can either be too acidic or too alkaline and not ideal for the systems.

How to Test for pH in Drinking Water at Home

Municipal water suppliers typically do a fantastic job of keeping their water at an average pH of around 7.5, so there’s usually no need to test your water at home. But if you notice any of the signs above indicating that your drinking water has a high or low pH, you might want to take steps on your own.

It is relatively easy and inexpensive to test your water’s pH at home. All you need is a home test kit that can test for pH in water or a digital pH meter. There are other methods available, like cabbage juice (as weird as it sounds). Still, home test kits and digital pH meters are usually the two most common and reliable.

Both methods allow you to test the water for acidity with speed and reliability. However, digital meters are typically faster and more accurate. The test strips measure pH on a scale of 0 to 14, where seven is neutral. Lower numbers are increasingly acidic, while higher values are increasingly basic (or alkaline).

To measure pH using a water test strip, follow the steps below:

  • To start, fill a container with the water you wish to test. Ensure the testing container is free of foreign contaminants that may throw off the test results.
  • Tear off a pH strip from the back.
  • Dip the strip into the water for a few seconds. The time required depends on the brand of strips you are using, so read the instructions carefully.
  • Remove the strip from the water after the appropriate amount of time has elapsed.
  • Compare the strip’s color to the pH color chart provided. Acids are usually represented with warmer colors (red, orange, etc.). In comparison, bases or alkaline are shown with cooler colors (blue, green, etc.).

A digital meter is the most precise way to test your water for pH. That’s probably because testing with a meter reduces the chance of human error. Plus, because people see colors differently, they may not choose the correct color displayed on the test strip.

A digital pH meter also removes the possibility of using outdated test strips. Furthermore, a pH meter does not rely on color changes. Instead, it measures the total amount of hydrogen ions in water by dipping a glass electrode into the water. It then displays the numerical pH value.

If your water sits within the EPA recommended range of 6.5 to 8.5, there’s no need to take action. Otherwise, consider the treatment methods below. But please note that test strips provide a rough estimate of your water’s pH, and the actual pH can still vary from what the test strips show. Also, test strips serve as an initial screen tool. They provide information on things like water pH and hardness. Still, they don’t offer a clear picture of the level of contamination.

Are there any home treatments for pH in drinking water?

Water pH is like water temperature. If you have hot water, you add cold water to bring the hot water to room temperature, and vice versa. Balancing pH works in the same sense.

Typically, there are three main types of devices used for pH adjustment:

1. Neutralizing Filters

A neutralizing filter is useful for acidic (low pH) water. It is a simple are point-of-entry treatment device that adds a neutralizing material to raise the pH of water.

An acid-neutralizing filter uses calcite or ground limestone (calcium carbonate) for normal pH correction. It also includes a mixture of magnesium oxide and calcite if the pH is very low. During the neutralizing process, the untreated water flows through the filter filled with calcium carbonate or a synthetic magnesium oxide medium. This material then dissolves in the water and raises its pH level. But since the water absorbs these minerals when it passes through the filter, the alkalinity and hardness will increase.

Luckily, hardness is easily treated with a water softener. Water softeners like our SS1 salt-based softener are very effective against hard water and its devastating effects. However, bear in mind that salt-free and salt-based softeners work differently, so you must know the difference between both types.

2. Soda Ash/Sodium Hydroxide Injection

This method also raises the pH of acidic water (low pH). Soda ash (sodium carbonate) and sodium hydroxide solution can be injected into the water to neutralize its pH. Unlike neutralizing filters, they do not cause hardness problems in treated water.

Injection systems are usually installed where the water enters your home. A corrosion-resistant chemical feed pump injects the soda ash or sodium hydroxide solution into the water to raise its pH. If your water comes from a private well, the mixture should be fed directly into the well to protect the well casing and pump from corrosion.

If the water needs to be disinfected and neutralized, it can be dual-treated within the injection system. Dual treatment is possible by adding a chlorine solution along with the neutralizing chemical. Injection systems can treat water with a pH as low as four.

3. Acid Injection

The acid injection method treats water with a high pH by lowering its pH value to around seven. The acid injection method eliminates the water’s soda taste and can improve chlorination effectiveness. This method reduces the potential for pipe corrosion as water with a pH above nine can corrode metals such as copper, zinc, brass, iron, and aluminum.

An acid injection system is also a point-of-entry system. Like the soda ash method, a chemical feed pump made from corrosion-resistant materials injects an acetic acid solution into the high pH water. Alum and citric acid can also be used, but they are relatively more expensive. Weak hydrochloric or sulfuric acid solutions also lower the pH, but these are more hazardous and require special handling.

Final Thoughts

Knowing the pH value of your drinking water is essential. Water that is too acidic or alkaline can damage pipes and appliances and is usually unsafe to drink. Drinking water naturally varies between about 6.5 and 8.5 on the pH scale, which is considered normal. But water that is too far outside this range may not be healthy.

If you suspect your home’s water is too acidic or alkaline, you can test your water at home. The best way to achieve this is to use a water pH test, a digital pH meter, or any other method that suits you. You can also send a sample to a certified local laboratory or request a copy of your annual water quality report from your local water provider. If your test results show that your water pH is way off, find a suitable pH treatment system as soon as possible.

Reach out to our experts at Springwell Water for guidance. Our water quality experts will assess your water treatment needs and guide you towards the best treatment system for your household. Contact Springwell Water today!