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Running Afoul of Clean Water

What is that smell?

Okay, okay, maybe it’s not quite as bad as we all imagined when the heroes ended up in a garbage masher aboard the Imperial Death Star, while rescuing the princess.  However, it is hard to argue that any sort of odor is acceptable when we’re in the shower.  Water is supposed to be pristine and pure; it’s supposed to make us feel like we’re removing everything that has accumulated, not adding another layer.

Where do odors come from?

There are innumerable possibilities for the contaminants themselves.  Let’s start by looking at the potential sources.

The One-Tap Problem

If the odors seem to originate in a single fixture or outlet, that is pretty revealing.  Usually that quickly isolates the problem to the fixture itself or the water lines that supply that fixture.  You should conduct a couple of simple tests.

Draw a coffee mug of cold water from the suspect outlet.  Carry it away from the source and smell it.  Repeat with hot water from the same outlet.  If there is an odor at the source, but not from the isolated water, this points to a problem with the drain.  Drains can be disinfected and flushed easily, solving the problem.

Repairs might include replacing that fixture, or consulting a plumber to deal with the problematic line.

In Hot Water

If the hot water has a distinctive odor, but the cold water does not, this points to a problem with the water heater.  It could have built up some sulfur generating bacteria, especially if it is the type with a magnesium or aluminum rod inside as part of the heating equipment.

These anaerobic (do not require oxygen) bacteria interact with the sulfur and the magnesium (or aluminum) rod inside to make hydrogen sulfide gas.  That is what is responsible for that rotten egg smell.

The primary cause of this sort of problem is when the temperature of the heater is set too low and the bacteria can continue to live inside.  Most utilities recommend a minimum of 120° Fahrenheit (and sometimes even a little more) depending on the vicinity where it is installed.  

This odor problem can also occur when you have a water heater that is shut off periodically, such as at a summer cottage that you only visit a couple of months per year.  Turning it down low (or off) simply makes them comfortable, so turn it up (over 140º) for a few hours before you shut it off, so it will be sterile.  If it might be subject to freezing while you are away, drain the water tank after it has been sterilized, the same way you would drain your pipes for an extended absence.

All of my Water Stinks!

This can happen, too.  It almost always points to a problem with the source of your water.  It could be the municipal water supply, if you are hooked up, or it could be your cistern, or even your well.

There are a number of possible contaminants that can show up in your water supply.  Most common, of course, is chlorine which is used by almost all municipalities to limit bacterial growth, kill viruses, and protozoans.  It is not really a contaminant, since it is added deliberately; it serves a purpose, and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends chlorination to protect us from infestations or assaults, such as dysentery, cholera, typhoid, and other waterborne diseases.

Chlorine keeps the water clean and potable until it arrives at your house.  At that point, however, it has done its job.  It should be removed because it decreases the skin’s ability to retain moisture.  

That, in turn, leads to other problems like dry skin, itchiness, irritation, and common dandruff.  In addition, frequent exposure to chlorine can cause damaged, brittle hair, and premature hair color loss.  In the worst case scenario chronic exposures can actually precipitate the development of asthma in otherwise healthy individuals.

After chlorine, odor-producing bacteria that react with sulfur are by far the most common, but possible contaminants are unlimited.  You can have a musty, moldy, earthy, grassy, metallic, or fishy odor, which can be derived from decaying organic matter, runoff water, or surface drainage affecting your well water.  They’re not particularly harmful, but our sensitive noses don’t like them, especially in the shower.

More concerning are chemical smells like petroleum, where there might be a leaky fuel oil tank for a furnace. There could also be something seeping into an aquifer from an old oil drilling site.  Call your county inspector.

The Takeaway

A good quality shower filter can eliminate the toxic byproducts, like pesticides, herbicides, and E.coli.  Detoxifying chemicals and rendering dangerous metals harmless is an essential part of the job for us, but that doesn’t occur with a lot of different manufacturers that only offer chlorine reduction.

If you live in an area with less than perfect water (as most of us do), please feel free to look over our exceptional selection of high quality filtration products.  We’re more than happy to answer any questions you may have.  Just click here to go directly to our online contact form and we’ll get back to you within 24 hours!


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