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How to Clean a Water Filter: 6 Simple Steps

Our step-by-step guide on how to clean water filters and make maintenance easy.

Like any piece of technology, a water filter has a limited lifespan before it begins to deteriorate. However, you can make sure they last as long as possible by maintaining them properly. An unclean filter will eventually also mean unclean water.

If you have never cleaned a filter before, you might not be sure how to do it. Even if you have, it is worth taking a few minutes to make sure you know how to clean a sediment filter properly.

In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about how to clean your water filter. This includes how a water filter works, how often to clean it, and methods to clean different types of filters.

Key Takeaways

  • Properly maintaining water filters helps them last longer and provide clean water.
  • Different types of water filters require specific cleaning methods, such as reverse osmosis filters and activated carbon filters.
  • Cleaning your water filter regularly prevents harmful microbes, toxins, and hard water build-up.
  • Follow your filter’s manufacturer recommendations for cleaning frequency, but generally, filters should be cleaned every three months.

How Do Water Filters Work?

There are many types of water purifiers, from industrial-scale reverse osmosis machines to residential pitchers. Whatever the type, size, material, or function, all water filters serve the same purpose. They remove impurities from your water so it is healthier to drink and kinder to your plumbing.

Most water filters work by channeling the water through a mesh, one that only water molecules can pass. Other molecules, including contaminants or even minerals such as salt, will be unable to pass this barrier.

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The amount of maintenance required — and technique — will depend on the type of filter you use. Some, such as UV purifiers and distillers, don’t use filters, so maintenance will involve servicing the entire unit when necessary. How to clean a refrigerator water filter will differ from how to clean an under-sink filter, for example.

With smaller purifiers, especially carbon filters, collected substances have nowhere to go. In time, the residue will accumulate on the filter itself (1). In this case, the filter will absorb some of the contaminants it is intended to get rid of. As a result, the filter’s efficiency will begin to deteriorate until it stops working altogether.

Other purifiers, including some reverse osmosis machines, automatically dispose of the waste that is left behind. Even so, these purifiers will still need sanitizing to clear away any build-up inside the unit.

Cleaning can be problematic if you have a whole-house water filtration system installed. These systems are much larger and more complex, so it is best to go with professional installation and maintenance. A plumber will know how to clean a whole house water filter without damaging it.

Why Should You Clean Your Water Filters?

Just as your toothbrush needs to be replaced every few months to remain effective and prevent bacteria from building up, so does a water filter. As their job is to keep your water fresh and free from contaminants, the cleaner they are, the better they work. Thorough cleaning will allow you to reuse water filters that might otherwise be useless.

Here are some examples of what can happen if you don’t regularly perform maintenance on your water filter:

1. Microbes Make Their Way Into Your Water

One reason to filter is to remove pathogens from your water. Municipal water is treated before it reaches your home, but many people feel that extra filtration is necessary.

If you neglect your water filter, you increase the risk of these pathogens finding their way into your water (2).

2. Harder Water

The difference between hard and soft water is in their mineral content. Hard water contains higher levels of calcium and magnesium, while soft water has higher levels of sodium.

Hard water can be healthier to drink, but it is harmful to your plumbing, appliances, and even skin. Soft water is preferred in homes because it is kinder to your body, clothes, and pipes.

If you use a water filter to soften your water, it will eventually lose its effectiveness without proper maintenance. Calcium and magnesium will accumulate on the filter, rendering it useless.

3. Toxins Break Through

Not all filters are effective against harmful toxins, so it’s important to choose the right one. Look for filters that protect your water from heavy metals and other poisons — such as lead, mercury, fluoride, and chlorine.

These chemicals can be very detrimental to your health. The heavy metals we listed are all considered neurotoxins, and chlorine has been linked to many illnesses (3).

Each time your filter is used, part of its effective lifespan is spent. Eventually, it will be unable to isolate these harmful molecules, and they will remain in your water.

4. Toxins Remain

Less serious but still important, not changing your filters will affect how your water tastes. Hard water is said to have a more earthy or metallic taste, whereas soft water has a hint of salt to it. Chlorine can alter both the taste and odor of your drinking water (4).

Using a filter to improve the taste of your drinking water is a good enough reason to have one, even without taking the health benefits into account. Minerals and toxins will eventually break through your filter and affect how your water tastes.

How to Clean a Water Filter

Now that you know why you should clean your water filter, it’s time to get your hands dirty. These methods require little effort and are cost-effective solutions to maintaining your filtration system.

We won’t be looking at how to clean a water filter pitcher, as these are intended to be replaced regularly. As carbon filters and reverse osmosis systems are the most widespread types, we will focus on them.

Reverse Osmosis Filters

Reverse osmosis systems operate on two levels. The first is the reverse osmosis membrane filter, which is where most of the system’s efficiency lies. The second is in the pre-filters, which are most commonly made from, or incorporate activated carbon.

Before you get started, wash your hands or wear clean rubber or medical gloves. Also, shut off the water supply to the filtration system before servicing it.

  1. Drain: First, the water needs draining from the filtration system and tank. Close the faucet attached to the system, too.
  2. Detach: Remove both the pre-filter and reverse osmosis membrane from the system. You might need a wrench to open its casing.
  3. Clean: Use chemical cleaners to sanitize your system. Your filter manufacturer should provide a recommendation of which one to use. If you don’t know which one to choose, you can use two or three tablespoons of unscented bleach instead.
  4. Remove build-up: You can do this by adding your cleaning solution directly into your pre-filter housing. Then, you can fully open the bypass faucet and let the water run to rinse the system.
  5. Wash the membrane: Wash or wipe the membrane with your chosen solution. If you prefer, you can use dishwashing liquid for this instead. Take care to rinse it well to remove all traces of the chemical product.
  6. Reassemble: Once everything has been cleaned and rinsed, you can reassemble your system and restart it.

We recommend that you flush your system and clean or replace the membrane at least once every year.

Activated Carbon/Charcoal Filters

Cleaning carbon filters is similar to cleaning reverse osmosis ones, but you need to be more careful with them. You will be working with chemicals, so only do this in a well-ventilated area and make sure you know how to clean a carbon water filter before starting.

Wear gloves and follow the instructions of the cleaning chemicals to the letter. It’s best to cover your skin and wear goggles or a mask.

  1. Prep: Fill a bucket with a half-gallon of clean water at room temperature.
  2. Add muriatic acid: Slowly add two cups of muriatic acid, stirring it consistently and continuously. Use a plastic stirrer for this.
  3. Rinse the filter: If your filter has obvious build-up or debris on it, rinse it with a hose. Once it looks clear, place it inside the solution and let it sink.
  4. Wait: The filter will need to stay in this solution for at least five days to remove all contaminants. Ensure the solution stays at room temperature during this period.
  5. Resoak: Once the wait is over, soak your filter in clean water for five minutes.
  6. Rinse and reinstall: Rinse the filter with a hose. Once it’s clean, reinstall it.

If you don’t want to wait, you can simply rinse your carbon filters instead. However, this won’t completely remove toxins or build-up from them.


It’s important to slowly add the acid to the water. If you add drops of water to the acid instead, it could create toxic fumes or even explosions. Be careful.


How Often Should I Clean My Water Filter?

The recommended replacement time for water filters varies considerably, with an average of every six months. This depends on the volume and quality of water passing through your filter.

If your water is hard or sediment-heavy, or you use a lot of it, consider cleaning your filter every month. Some experts recommend changing your filters every two weeks, but this is with industrial water usage.

If you taste, see, or smell a difference in your water, it probably means your filters need maintenance. Be sure to follow the specific maintenance instructions.

Is Cleaning Filters Better Than Replacing?

It is inevitable that you will eventually have to replace your water filter, especially if it is an activated carbon filter, which has a limited lifespan.

Cleaning isn’t better than replacing your filters but it can extend their usefulness. Regular maintenance will improve their effectiveness and efficiency. You might be able to reuse water filter cartridges and buy fewer replacements if you take proper care of each filter.

How Can I Dispose of Old Water Filters?

If cleaning your filters has run its course and you have to replace the entire thing, you may be concerned about the environmental impact. Some manufacturers offer a system that allows you to return used filters to them to be recycled (5).

If your filter manufacturer doesn’t provide this option, you will need to dispose of your filters as you would any other household waste. Your filter’s material might be recyclable via other means.

How Long Do Water Filters Last?

Home-installed water filters last around six to 12 months, while those installed in a commercial setting last about four to six months.

Why Do Water Filters Turn Brown?

When your water filters turn brown, it’s usually because of the sediments and minerals stuck to their surface. Brown water filters are no longer efficient, and you should replace them.

What Happens If You Drink Water from a Dirty Filter?

An aged water filter could be a breeding ground for biofilm. In addition to bacteria, the filter will have a buildup of all the impurities removed from the water while it is being filtered.

This is a risk for a wide variety of waterborne diseases, some of which include but is not limited to the following: Norovirus, Escherichia coli Infection, Cyclosporiasis, Shigellosis, and Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome.

How Often Should I Clean My Water Filter?

You should clean your water filter at least once every three months. You might have to do it more often if water pressure or quality decreases. Regular upkeep is necessary for every model and brand of water filter available today.

Because they are responsible for the laborious task of water purification, filter cartridges are the single most crucial component that makes up a water filtration system.

How Do I Know When to Replace My Water Filter?

There are some signs to check for to tell when to change your water filter. If the water has taken on an unpleasant smell or flavor, or if you notice an odor coming from the water, it is probably time to replace the water filter.

There is also the possibility that the water pressure will gradually decrease over time, indicating that you will need a new one.

You can always use the visual indication included on filters with clear containers. This indicator will show you when the filter is clogged and needs replacing. Always make sure that you verify the manufacturer’s specifications for water usage to ensure that you have not exceeded them.

Which Water Filter Is Best for Drinking Water?

For drinking water, you want to use a reverse osmosis filter. It is the most efficient and longer-lasting one.

In Summary

It is important to clean your water filters so they can do the same for your drinking water. Although cleaning carbon filters can be complicated, it is worthwhile if you want to save money on replacements while prolonging the life of each filter.

With both carbon filters and reverse osmosis membranes, don’t forget to also clean your filtration unit. Wipe it down or rinse its components, so it looks clean and fresh. Cleaning the case of a water filter with vinegar is possible, but you shouldn’t use it on the water filter cartridge itself.

If you take care of your water filter, it will be able to do a better job of taking care of you and your home’s plumbing.

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About the Author

Peter Gray

Peter has been a homeowner for 35+ years and has always done his own repair and improvement tasks. As a retired plumber, Peter now spends his time teaching others how they can fix leaks, replace faucets, and make home improvements on a budget.