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Please Stop Using TDS (or ppm) Testers To Evaluate Water Quality

Please Stop Using TDS (or ppm) Testers To Evaluate Water Quality

Eric Roy, Ph.D.  |  Scientific Founder

***Updated on July 15, 2019***

We get quite a few questions about TDS/ppm meters (like this one) and TDS measurements. While we love when people take steps to learn more about their water, some people (including journalists from reputable publications- Example #1 & Example #2) have used TDS/ppm meters to draw false conclusions about water quality, which incited fear in people already in the midst of a terrible water quality crisis. In this article, we answer the questions that we get asked the most about TDS measurements and TDS meters.

What is TDS? What Does A TDS/ppm Meter Measure? 

TDS stands for Total Dissolved Solids which is related to the total charged mineral content of water. TDS can be easily determined by measuring the conductivity of a water sample, which is exactly what inexpensive TDS probes do. TDS meters typically display the total amount of dissolved solids in parts per million or ppm. If you start with deionized water (which has a TDS of zero), and expose it to minerals that contain sodium, calcium, and magnesium ... the water's TDS or ppm rises. This is why there's no such thing as deionized water in nature. Depending on a region’s geology, natural TDS/ppm levels can vary across the US, and this variability has nothing to do with the water quality (except in extreme cases when the water is too salty to drink).

What Does a TDS/ppm Meter Not Measure?

Because TDS/ppm is an aggregate measure of charged compounds in water, uncharged things like motor oil, gasoline, many pharmaceuticals, and pesticides do not contribute to a TDS/ppm measurement. For example, the glass on the left in this article's header image contains deionized water with Malathion (an organophosphate pesticide) dissolved into it at 100 times higher concentration than allowed by the EPA for drinking water, and the TDS/ppm probe reads 000.

What About Lead, Arsenic or Chromium 6?

Even though these toxic metals are charged when dissolved in water, a TDS/ppm meter does not give meaningful information about their presence or concentration in water. There are two main reasons for this:  

  • A TDS/ppm meter is a nonselective measurement and cannot differentiate among different ions. A more sophisticated piece of equipment is needed to perform those types of measurements. The value of 184 that was measured using a TDS meter in a prominent Huffington Post Article was not the lead concentration… it was the water's natural TDS level (which is dominated by minerals like calcium, magnesium, and sodium).
  • A TDS tester is not sensitive enough to measure toxic levels of lead, chromium-6, or arsenic, even if they are present in a sample. This is because the reading displayed on an inexpensive TDS meter is in parts per million, while things like lead, chromium-6, and arsenic are toxic at part per billion concentrations (1000 times lower). Using a TDS meter to measure ppb lead concentrations in tap water is like trying to use a car’s odometer to measure a child's height…. It's the wrong tool. For example, the water sample shown on the right hand side of this article's header image has lead levels that are 100x the EPA limit, and the TDS reading teetered between 000 and 001.  

To reiterate: Meaningful lead and arsenic measurements cannot be made using a TDS/ppm meter (or any other handheld device). They must be measured by trained staff in analytical laboratories that use much more sophisticated scientific equipment.

Do Hydroviv Filters Lower TDS/ppm?

No. Hydroviv’s filters selectively filter harmful things from your water (like lead, chromium-6, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, petroleum products, disinfection byproducts), and things that make water taste and smell bad (chlorine, chloramine, sulfur). Hydroviv’s home water filtration systems don’t remove minerals like calcium and magnesium because there’s no reason to. In fact, we use some types of filtration media that actually add minerals to the water, so TDS/ppm levels in water filtered through a Hydroviv system are sometimes slightly higher than unfiltered water.

Should I Buy a TDS/ppm Meter To Test My Drinking Water For High TDS Levels?

No. There is absolutely no reason to drink low TDS/ppm or deionized water. If you are concerned about water quality, put the money toward the purchase of an effective drinking water filter that removes harmful contaminants from your water.

What If I Already Have a TDS/ppm Meter?

If you have a TDS/ppm meter (like this one), we recommend giving it to a curious child who has an interest in science! Use this opportunity to teach them about dissolved minerals by encouraging them to test different types of water (e.g. distilled, rain, river, lake) and try to explain their findings! Feel free to reach out to us at (info@hydroviv.com for educational ideas involving TDS meters). 

If you mail it to us, we’ll make sure it finds a good home in a school classroom, and we’ll send you a $20 coupon code to use on Hydroviv's website.

Other Great Articles That We Think You'll Enjoy:

How EPA Regulations For Lead Are Protecting Municipalities, Not Citizens
What Science Says About Fluoride In Tap Water
Tech Talk:  A Very Close Look at How Water Filters Work

Tech Talk: A Very Close Look at How Water Filters Work

Eric Roy, Ph.D.  |  Scientific Founder
It seems that there is some confusion about how water filtration works, and I think it is partially due to the use of the word “filter”.  In this article, we try to clear up to the confusion with a Scanning Electron Microscope!

The word "filter" conjures up images of things like coffee filters or other things that catch particles, but a better way to think about water filtration media is as a 3-dimensional material that water flows through, a structure that better resembles a sponge.  An even better way to think about filtration media within a system is as a stack of these individual sponge-like “stages”, where each stage removes a different contaminant, until it becomes saturated.  Much like how a soaked sponge cannot mop up any more water, a saturated water filter stage doesn't "soak up" any chemicals that it was designed to remove.  This is why it is critical that any water filter used in your home has enough capacity to filter out the chemicals that you are asking it to, and that you change the cartridges before they become saturated.

The concept of "saturating a filter" is best demonstrated using  Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) images of two different types of filtration media.   These images were collected as part of a product life cycle failure test, where we intentionally pushed the filtration system beyond its useful life.  
Water filtration media scanning electron microscopescanning electron microscope image of filtration media
The first set of images show two types of pristine filtration media before it has processed any water.  For Filtration Media Type I, the structure is 3 dimensional and  web-like, while Media Type II has a high surface area granular structure.  The two filtration media  have different microstructures because they perform different jobs in the purification system.
SEM Imgae of water filtration media
The second set of images shows SEM scans for the same two filtration media types, near the end of the cartridge's useful life.  For the Type I media, you can clearly see the particulate and colloidal contaminants trapped in the web-like structure, which is exactly how the stage is supposed to perform.  In the image of Type II Media, the previously sharp and angular looking media has formed a visible layer of contaminant "fuzz" that it has pulled from the water.   At this point in the filter's life cycle, the stages are approaching saturation, and it's time to get a new cartridge.
This final set of SEM images show what both media types look like once they've been used well beyond the useful lifetime.  If a filter cartridge is fully saturated like this, it provides absolutely no protection against target contaminants.  This is what happens when you don't replace your filter cartridge!

Pretty Neat Eh?

As always, feel free to leave water filter technology or water related questions/comments in the comments section, or send your thoughts to info@hydroviv.com.

​Have a great day!


Other Great Articles From Water Smarts Magazine:
Tap Water Chlorination:  The Good, The Bad, The Unknown
Fluoride in Municipal Tap Water:  What You Need To Know
​Disinfection Byproducts:  What You Need To Know