If you haven't changed your refrigerator water filter in a few months, a year, or several years, you may be wondering when you should replace it. Maybe your water still tastes fine, so you're questioning if changing your fridge filter is even necessary. Just because your water tastes fresh, does not mean it is. Many contaminants are tasteless.
A family of four who use their water dispenser and ice machine often should get a new fridge water filter every six months; whereas, a couple without children may only need to replace it once a year. If you haven’t replaced your fridge filter in several years, you’re not drinking filtered water but something else entirely.
How a refrigerator water filter works
Most refrigerator filters are designed to remove bad tastes and odors using a combination of sediment and carbon filtration. Refrigerator filters contain a carbon block core wrapped in a material like polypropylene. Water flows mechanically through the outer material to remove debris and suspended solids. Other unwanted particles cling the surface of the carbon block.
Contaminants in water adhere to the carbon in a refrigerator filter through a process called adsorption. They don't soak into the surface (absorption) of the carbon but adhere to a spot within carbon's enormous surface area (adsorption).
What a refrigerator water filter removes
Water travels through miles of underground pipes before ever reaching your home or business. Along the way, it may collect lead from old pipes, agricultural runoff, and other harmful compounds.
Most fridge filters are designed to remove three major contaminants: lead, chlorine, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some are rated to remove cysts and chloramine as well.
Until the twentieth century, lead was considered harmless and useful in the production of paint, pottery, and plumbing pipes. 50% of solder used for plumbing prior to 1986 contained lead. Because water is a great solvent, it collects lead from old pipes and carries them to your faucet. A building constructed before The Safe Water Drinking Act probably has lead pipes and lead soldered copper and fixtures that could leach into your water.
Because lead is toxic, the EPA sets the maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water at zero. Ingesting lead leads to reproductive problems, premature birth, and brain, hearing, heart, and kidney damage. See a full list of the health effects of lead from the EPA.
Chlorine disinfects drinking water and has virtually eliminated waterborne diseases like typhoid and dysentery. But it also ruins the flavor of your water. Carbon fridge filters are great giving chlorine-treated drinking water a fresh taste.
Chloramines are a combination of chlorine and ammonia that municipalities use to reduce the formation of harmful disinfection by products such as trihalomethane. Few studies on the health effects of chloramines have been conducted, and the results of ones that have are unclear. Fridge filters with catalytic carbon remove chlorine and chloramines by separating the chlorine from the ammonia and converting the chlorine into chloride.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are harmful chemicals like herbicides, pesticides, or insecticides. Exposure to VOCs comes primarily from air pollution, paints, preservatives, but they can enter drinking water through agricultural runoff or industrial waste. Many VOCs are carcinogenic or cause liver, kidney, and reproductive problems.
Are refrigerator water filters necessary?
New refrigerator filters provide clean water, reduce contaminants, and prevent bacteria from getting in your water. However, the carbon has limited capacity. The longer you wait to change your filter, the worse your water gets.
Here's what happens if you don't change your refrigerator water filter:
Your filter clogs. It reaches a point where it will no longer filter because it’s packed with dirt and debris. You know it’s past time to change your filter when water stops flowing out.
Carbon reaches maximum capacity. Water continues to flow through the filter even if the surface area is full, but the water carries contaminants along with it. Imagine going to a mall at Christmas. After driving up and down rows of cars and finding no place to park, you get back on the road and head somewhere else. Similarly, when all the spaces in an old carbon filter are taken, particles accumulate or pass through the filter.
Your filter grows bacteria. A loaded carbon filter collects particles that living organisms feed off of and becomes a campground for bacteria.
Can old refrigerator water make you sick?
Refrigerator filters are intended to work on already micro-biologically safe water. City water has already been chemically treated for viruses and pathogens. But if you continue to use a filter past a year, your tap water could be enhanced with all of the contaminants previously blocked. An old filter becomes prime living quarters for living organisms that could enter your digestive tract or gastrointestinal tract and cause flu-like symptoms.
How often should you replace your refrigerator water filter?
Refrigerator filters should be replaced every 6 months. Never leave a filter in place longer than a year. The longer you use a carbon filter beyond its maximum capacity, the more harmful your water could become.
Are refrigerator water filters effective?
Refrigerator filters are effective at what they're designed to do. They are excellent at chlorine taste, odor, and sediment reduction. They will not soften water, remove iron, or prevent health hazards in untreated water. If your water comes from a well, then you're responsible for its safety and need more than a fridge filter to treat your water. Well water typically requires whole house water filtration, including some type of bacteria treatment.
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