Lab Water Tests vs At-Home Water Test Kits

Posted by
John Woodard on May 15, 2024

Whether you are checking contamination levels in a pool, spa, well, aquarium, or tap, water testing is a crucial task to perform to maintain your home’s health. There are a wide variety of water testing kits available, so finding the correct testing method for your home can be overwhelming and confusing. Both at-home water test kits and laboratory water tests provide results that can grant you peace of mind, but some test kits are more advantageous in certain conditions than others. In this article, you can learn about the necessity of water testing, what laboratory tests are, the types of at-home water test kits, and the pros and cons of each type of at-home test kit.

When does water need to be tested?

Multiple water applications require the water to be tested regularly to be able to make their water the healthiest possible for their home. Without knowledge of the contaminants in your water, you cannot know the best possible water treatment solution for you.

Well water testing

Homeowners who receive water from a well are the largest demographic that needs their water tested consistently. Well water should be tested annually or any time there appears to be a change in the water’s taste, appearance, or scent. These annual checks should test for coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, pH levels, and any other region-specific contaminant.

Learn more: Well water contamination and its symptoms | What is the best type of filtration for well water?

Aquarium water testing

Aquariums must also be tested regularly to regulate the pH, nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, and other contaminant levels. The regularity of these tests varies based on the stage the tank is at. For example, a tank at the beginning of the nitrogen cycle must be tested far more frequently than a well-established tank. Fish death and illness also play a role in the regularity of tests.

Learn more: How to cycle a fish tank

Pool water testing

Other common applications of water testing include pools and spas. The primary concern with water in these applications is the chlorine levels and pH of the water. These should be tested regularly to ensure that chlorine levels are optimal for eliminating bacteria and that the pH levels are not damaging the surfaces in a pool or spa.

Learn more: How to accurately test pool water

pool water test

How to get a lab water test

Laboratory water tests are more comprehensive and accurate than at-home water test kits, but they are also more expensive and time-consuming. They involve collecting water samples from your home and shipping them to a local laboratory for analysis. The Watercheck Test Kit provides everything you need to send your home’s water to a lab for analysis. Once collected, you can return the water samples to their laboratory using the instructions provided by the test kit. Their accredited laboratories will analyze and ship the results of the tests within 10 to 15 business days of receiving the samples. The customer must also cover the shipping costs to the laboratory. Because water is so heavy, the shipping cost of laboratory testing can be pricey. If you would like to have your water samples checked locally, the EPA has certified laboratories in each state, and you can find the most local to you on their certified laboratories page. Contact these facilities individually to learn about their water testing capabilities and timelines.

Laboratory water tests are necessary for those that want a comprehensive analysis of their water quality. New homeowners who receive water from a well can greatly benefit from a lab test showing the full chemistry of their water. If you need a compliance certificate for water quality, you may only receive one by submitting samples to an EPA-certified laboratory. In these instances, a state employee must collect the water samples and submit them for you.

Advantages of lab water testing

  • Provide the most thorough, accurate, and certifiable water quality analysis available
  • Can test for the widest array of contaminants
  • Can provide compliance certification if needed
  • Eliminate user error present with most at-home water test kits

Disadvantages of lab water testing

  • High initial, shipping, and analysis costs
  • Much slower turnaround time than at-home test kits

How to test water at home

At-home water test kits are less expensive and more convenient than laboratory testing. They can be used in instances where neither comprehensive testing nor near-perfect accuracy is required. The most common uses for at-home water test kits include well, pool, spa, and aquarium monitoring. There are three major types of at-home test kits: test stripsliquid test kits, and digital testing devices.

Learn more: How to test water at home with a water test kit

Types of home water test kits

At-home test kits are available in the form of strips, liquid test kits, and digital testing devices. They each offer their own advantages in certain applications based on their cost, convenience, and accuracy.

Water test strips

Test strips are the most common type of at-home water test kits. Some of these strips show various colors based on the level of contamination, while others connect to a device that reveals contaminant information. Test kits are available in configurations that can test multiple contaminants with one strip, while some only test for one specific contaminant. For example, the Pool Check 4-in-1 Test Strips visualize the levels of total chlorine, free chlorine, total alkalinity, and pH in one strip.

Test strips are generally cheaper than both liquid test kits and digital devices. However, they are typically less accurate than liquid and digital testing kits. Test strips show contamination levels by color-coding sections of each strip. The shade of the section correlating to a specific contaminant shows the severity of the contamination. Test strips are less precise than digital testing devices because they do not show specific contamination levels and rely on the user’s interpretation of the strips’ colors. The lighting of the testing area can also influence the user’s perception of the results, further diminishing the accuracy of the test. However, they can be useful in determining the presence of an elevated contaminant and inspire further, more rigorous testing to discover the specific severity of contamination.

Advantages of water test strips
  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to use
  • Provide fast results
Disadvantages of water test strips
  • Less accurate than other at-home kits
  • Rely on the user’s interpretation
  • Can be affected by lighting conditions

Liquid water test kits

Liquid water test kits, such as the General Hydroponics pH Test Kit, are slightly more difficult to use than test strips, but they still provide quick results. To use these kits, fill a vial with the recommended amount of water per the test kit’s instructions. Next, add the recommended number of drops of liquid testing solution to the vial. The liquid will quickly change color based on the contamination level of the sample. The darker the color of the liquid, the higher the pH or contamination level. Liquid test kits are most often used to test the chlorine levels and pH of pool water.

When used properly, liquid water test kits can provide very accurate results. However, these kits are easier to misuse than test strips or digital test kits. If too much testing solution is added to the water, the test results will be inaccurate. Likewise, if the vial is filled with too little water, the test will not provide the correct result. Like test strips, liquid test kits rely on the user’s interpretation of color to determine the contamination level. In certain lighting conditions, this can lead to misreading the test results.

Advantages of liquid water testing kits
  • Less expensive than digital test devices
  • Provide quick results
  • More precise than test strips
Disadvantages of liquid water testing kits
  • Easy to operate incorrectly
  • Rely on the user’s interpretation of results
  • Takes more time to test than test strips
  • More difficult testing than test strips
  • Can be affected by lighting conditions

liquid water test

Digital water meters

Digital water testing devices, such as the HM Digital TDS-3 Meter, are the most accurate type of at-home water testing kit. Some devices utilize test strips that plug into the machine to provide results, while others test by dipping the lower end of the device into the water. The major benefit of digital test kits is the precision of the test results. Not only do digital testing devices provide accurate results, but they also provide concrete numbers representing the contamination levels in the water.

One of the biggest disadvantages of digital water testing devices is their price. They are significantly more expensive than test strips and liquid test kits, and the devices are often specific to certain contaminants. One of the biggest advantages of these devices, however, is their ability to test for a wide variety of contaminants. Each device may test only one or a few different contaminants, but the spectrum of water testing devices can test for contaminants that strips and liquid test kits cannot, such as TDS (total dissolved solids), salinity, and ORP (oxidation-reduction potential).

Advantages of digital water testing devices
  • Accurate results
  • Objective, non-interpretive readings
  • Can test for contaminants other at-home kits cannot
Disadvantages of digital water testing devices
  • Much more expensive than strips and liquid test kits
  • Devices often target specific contaminants, not “all-in-one” like some test strips


If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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