Water Foul: 4 Things That Make Your Water Stink

An old man in suspenders holds his nose in disgust

There’s an old saying that for many things in life, when they are out of sight, they are out of mind. A similar truism can be applied to your water: as long as it doesn’t smell (or taste) bad, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about it. But what about when it does smell? Suddenly, you find yourself drinking, cooking with, and even bathing in an unpleasant odor with no idea what’s causing it or how to fix the problem. Luckily for you, we’ve put together a list of the most common causes of smelly water along with the best ways to eliminate them.

Metallic smells

There may be nothing worse than taking a big swig of water and getting a mouthful that tastes like a dirty penny. When water drains through the ground and into your well, it sometimes comes into contact with significant amounts of iron. The iron can dissolve into miniscule particles that contaminate your water and give it a metallic smell and taste. Even worse, then the dissolved particles, known as “ferrous iron”, come into contact with air; they react with the oxygen and leave unsightly orange and brown blemishes on your clothes, dishes, sinks and toilets.

What are you supposed to do when rusty stains start showing up in your home?  Some iron problems go away on their own, but it’s a good idea to get your water tested to find out just what you’re dealing with. While water softeners are unable to remove more than the tiniest concentrations of iron from your water, there are high-tech iron filtration systems available for people with major iron issues.


Water that smells like chlorine is, not surprisingly, caused by chlorine in the water.  Who would have known?  Municipalities have been using chlorine as a disinfectant for decades, but over the years bacteria have become increasingly resistant to its use. The amount of chlorine in the drinking water for many cities is now on par with the levels in your local public swimming pool, and the people who have to drink it would be forgiven for wanting to plug their nose first.  While the chlorine concentrations are not significant enough to cause health problems, it can dissolve in the water to form a weak acid and make your skin dry and itchy.

For those of you unwilling to move out of the city and get a non-chlorinated well, the simplest solution is using a carbon filter to remove chlorine, sand, and sediment from your drinking water.  Even better, a reverse osmosis system combines carbon filtration with a reverse osmosis membrane so fine it eliminates over 99.9% of all dissolved solids and other impurities, including chlorine resistant deadly bacteria.

Swampy smells

Some unfortunate homeowners have to deal with a marshy-vegetation smell in their water. If you’ve ever taken a whiff and wondered if there was something actually growing in your water, the answer may be “yes”.  Remember that dissolved ferrous iron we mentioned a minute ago? Sometimes the ferrous iron can evolve into an entirely different problem caused by iron bacteria. Iron bacteria oxidize the ferrous iron in your water and produce a rusty brown slime called ferric oxide as a byproduct. These microscopic organisms are a natural (but disgusting) part of the environment and are not considered dangerous to a person’s health, but that doesn’t mean you should accept them in your water.

Prevention is the preferred method of avoiding iron bacteria, and anyone drilling a new well should make sure the tools and materials being used are disinfected with a strong chlorine solution.  When the well is finished, it should be purged, shock chlorinated, and pumped prior to delivering water to your home.  If you have an older well that develops an iron bacteria problem, Water Doctors offers filtration systems specifically designed to target iron bacteria, hydrogen sulfide, and other pernicious problems.

Rotten eggs

Speaking of hydrogen sulfide, it just so happens to be the cause of the fourth common problem on our list: the infamous odor of rotten eggs. When organic material like plant vegetation and waste products are trapped in airless environments a boring chemical process can create the deadly gas hydrogen sulfide. The noxious fumes of hydrogen sulfide can be detected in your water at levels as low as .00047 parts per million.  Luckily, it’s not hazardous to your health until the concentration rises beyond 10 ppm.

Still, this isn’t the sort of thing you want to bathe in. If you notice that objectionable odor in your home, have your water tested as soon as possible. You may need a filtration system such as the Hydrogen Sulfide Oxidizer, which oxidizes the H2S to convert it into insoluble particles, the particles then bind to the internal resin and are harmlessly rinsed down the drain.

There plenty of things you should enjoy smelling. Water is not one of them. From now on when you notice objectionable odors upsetting your olfactory senses, you’ll be equipped with the information you need to keep the stink at bay. Then you can spend your time thinking about more important things.  Like whom the Vikings are starting at quarterback this week.


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