How to Track Down Bad ‘Aesthetics’
Most strange tastes, smells and colors, characteristics that water experts call bad aesthetics, aren’t a health risk; they just bug you. These include water that corrodes or clogs pipes, stains sinks and drains or leaves rings of crud around the toilet bowl. There are few mysteries in a local water supply. The engineers at your water utility have seen it all before and can usually identify the problem if you describe the symptoms. They’ll often tell you possible solutions, too. Common problems include:
Chlorine smell or taste. If your water smells or tastes a bit like a swimming pool, you’re probably dealing with the disinfectant that the water utility uses to kill bacteria and other biological contaminants. If you let drinking water sit or pour it back and forth a few times, enough chlorine will dissipate into the air to improve the taste of the water. Or you can remove chlorine with simple filtration devices.
Hard water. You probably have hard water if minerals both build up around faucets and clog them; persistent soap scum shows up on shower tiles, tubs and wash basins; and soaps and detergents leave residues or don’t clean well. Hard water contains excessive dissolved calcium and magnesium, which form scale and inhibit the cleaning power of soaps and detergents. Although it won’t harm your health, hard water makes cleaning more difficult and requires more plumbing maintenance. Hardness is readily removed with a water softener that you connect to the main water line. Many companies (check “Water Softeners” online) will test the hardness level and sell you a softening system for $500 to $1,000 if you need one.
Stains. Brown or black stains on sinks, or a rusty or metallic taste usually signals excessive iron and/or manganese in the water. In this case, the water might even be reddish when run into a glass. Stains and bad odors can also be caused by dead leaves and other organic material. Many stains, colors and odors are easily removed by inexpensive whole-house filtration. But some, dissolved iron, for example, require more specialized equipment.
Cloudy. Hazy water is usually caused by fine sediments in suspension. Sometimes they can clog up appliances, like an ice maker. These are easily removed by inexpensive, whole-house filtration.
Fishy or musty smell or taste. These are usually caused by the naturally occurring algae and bacteria that grow in most surface water sources. It’s also easily handled by inexpensive filtration.
Rotten egg smell. The sulfur smell is hydrogen sulfide produced by bacteria that live in deep wells. If you closed your eyes, you could imagine you were in Yellowstone! This water is generally acidic and will corrode your plumbing system. The solution requires professional analysis and special equipment.
Most aesthetic contaminants can be eliminated at little expense. But before you spend a dime on solutions, contact your local water utility or public health department to get firsthand information about the contaminants and suitable control methods. If these experts are baffled or unsure, you might have to take a water sample to an environmental testing lab to identify the exact type and volume of contaminants. Your public health department can provide a list of certified testing labs.
Or you can hire a water-quality contractor to evaluate your water. (Search “Water Purification and Filter Equipment” or “Water Softening and Conditioning” online.) Testing for simple conditions like water hardness or acidity is inexpensive and sometimes free if the contractor hopes to sell you a conditioning system.
The key is to identify the scope and type of problem before focusing on a solution. With the confusing array of water treatment devices on the market, it’s easy to buy high-powered solutions to problems you don’t have!
Most filters for aesthetic water problems, such as this under-counter cartridge type, run the water through a fine screen to catch particles or through activated carbon, which eliminates impurities that affect taste and odor. Many “all-purpose” filters include both.