water test

Why Does My Water Smell? The 6 Most Common Smells & Their Culprits.

Why does my water smell?

We often think of water as a pure substance because we use it to clean so many things: our dishes, our clothes, even our own bodies! But sometimes the water we use in our homes doesn’t seem very clean. It might have visible particles in it or smell bad. Odor can occur in household water drawn from city/municipal water sources or private wells. Sometimes a strange smell in water is harmless, but other times it can indicate the presence of lead or dangerous bacteria. Keep reading to troubleshoot the cause of your smelly water.

Does it smell like Rotten Eggs?
The characteristic rotten eggs smell is caused by a gas called hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide may occur naturally in groundwater, or it can also be produced by certain types of bacteria found in groundwater, the well, or the water distribution system. Don’t panic; sulfur bacteria are not harmful, but they do produce a slime that can promote the growth of other bacteria. Hydrogen sulfide in water can stain or corrode silverware, plumbing fixtures, and pipes.

The rotten egg smell is very distinct, but your sense of smell quickly becomes used to it, so the best time to check for the smell of hydrogen sulfide is right when you return home after being away for several hours.

Does it smell like Fish?
“Fishy” odor can be caused by naturally occurring organic compounds, metals such as barium or cadmium, chloramine, or algae blooms in the water. Barium occurs naturally in mineral ores and may seep into groundwater. Cadmium can enter the water supply through fertilizer contamination or industrial runoff. Chloramine is a compound of chlorine and ammonia commonly used as a disinfectant. These compounds are generally not harmful unless ingested in large amounts, but the resulting smell and taste can be very unpleasant. You may be able to reduce or remove the fishy odor caused by organic compounds and chloramines with an activated charcoal filter. Barium and cadmium levels are regulated by the EPA so your water provider is required to take steps to reduce the levels of these metals in your water supply.

Does it smell like Metal?
A metallic taste or smell is usually caused by trace metals such as iron, manganese, zinc, or copper that have leached into the water supply through old, rusty pipes made of iron, brass, copper, or galvanized steel. While these trace metals are generally not harmful, there is the possibility that the metallic smell is from lead in the water. There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, so if your water smells like metal, it is best to test it for lead right away.

Another possible source of metallic smell or taste is low pH. Water that has a lower pH, or soft water, is more acidic, which produces a sour taste that may seem metallic. Soft water is not dangerous but you may need to switch laundry, cleaning, and bathing routines and products to compensate. You can obtain a pH test kit and easily test the pH of your home’s water.

>Does it smell like wet dog?
Even if you love your furry friends, the smell of a wet dog is not something you want in your drinking water. The smell of an actual wet dog comes from volatile organic compounds produced by the bacteria and yeasts living on your pet that go into the air as water evaporates from their fur. Water that smells like wet dog can be caused by bacteria, organic compounds or certain metals in the water, similar to fishy-smelling water. (See above.) If your water comes from a municipal or community water system, it is regulated by the EPA and you likely have nothing to worry about. But if you have water from a private well that smells like wet dog, you should get your water tested for the presence of harmful bacteria.

Does it smell like chlorine?
Chlorine is a powerful disinfectant used to treat municipal water supplies, but no one wants to drink water that smells like chlorine or bleach. The smell of chlorine is detectable at levels less than the EPA-recommended health threshold of 4.0 mg/L, so chlorine smell is not an uncommon occurrence and not an automatic sign of danger. Overexposure to chlorine can cause health issues, however, so any overchlorination should be addressed quickly. The shower is the most common form of chlorine exposure because the gas is vaporized from the heated water and inhaled. You can test for chlorine at home using home test kits to determine whether you need to treat your water or request that your municipal water supplier address the issue. Treatment for drinking water can be as easy as refrigerating or boiling water, or you can install an activated carbon filter through the whole house or at point of use.

Does it smell like Dirt?
Some people enjoy the earthy smell of dirt after it rains, but few people want to smell that odor in their drinking water. The cause of the “after rain” smell is a compound called geosmin, which can also cause an earthy smell in drinking water. Geosmin is produced by a group of soil-dwelling bacteria called Actinobacteria, which release geosmin when they die. An earthy smell or gritty texture in water can also be caused by the presence of actual sediment in the water. Be sure to test every faucet in the house for the smell of dirt. If only a few taps give water with an earthy smell, there may be dirt or bacteria in the aerator. If the smell is coming from all taps, it may be a problem with your water source and you will need to contact your supplier.

Test your water to determine the source and cause of the smell.

Your nose may know if something is off about your water, but a water test kit can provide quantitative evidence about what is in your water. It is also important to identify the precise source of the smell in order to remedy the issue, so make sure you test both hot and cold water at multiple faucets and fixtures throughout your home. If you have questions about water testing, feel free to contact us any time!

21 comments

  1. My kitchen’s cold tap water suddenly smell like chlorine. The odor is so strong that we can’t drink it at all! The smell doesn’t occur in hot water from the same faucet, neither in other faucets of home. There was a water softener connected with my house water supply in the garage. I took it out of the water line but the odor is still in the kitchen’s cold tap water. I used the Water Test Kit to test the kitchen’s cold tap water, everything is normal except the lead level is suspiciously above the line. (There is no iron test pill inside the package, so I didn’t get the iron result) Any idea?

    1. Are you on well or city water? If you don’t have a chlorination system at your house, it seems like the chlorine might be coming from the city water supply. Have you neighbors had the same issue as you?

      Shoot us a message about the iron pill, they are small & sometimes thrown out by accident, we can get another one sent out to you to test your iron levels. But as for the chlorine smell I don’t think it would be related to iron.

    2. We are having the same problem from only one tap in the house. Why would this be. The tap is new, and the plumbing for that tap was changed slightly. Driving me crazy. Please advise.

  2. Evan Yang

    After I have had this smelling problem in the kitchen’s cold tap water for abut half year, I purchased the Test Kit and test the water again. The results are same as the first time: excepting the lead level is suspicious, and no iron test pill in the package, everything else are normal. We are on the city water, and I called the city water district, they said they didn’t hear any complain from our neighborhood.

  3. Call the water company and TELL THEM to come check the chlorine levels in your water. I had to do that before. When they came and checked, my levels were too high. He called someone and told them right away. The tube turned very purple, that’s all I remember. You pay for your water, so tell them to come check it.

  4. My water bottle that i refilled with well water smells like Windex now???anyone know what it is

    1. That’s a strange one! Do you mean maybe it smells like ammonia?

  5. I have a sewer smell coming from my shower drains. I have cleaned the drains, p trap is fine, roof vent is clear & I just replaced the hot water tank. Oddly though, when I shower the sewer smell is on my skin so that makes me think it’s the water. The smell did go away for a couple days after I got the new hot water tank.

    1. I’ve heard of this happening on septic tank systems before, where the gasses come back up out of the shower drain. Are you on well or city water?

  6. I am connected to my dads well and I also have a reservoir under my house, but it smells like dirt at the faucet in my kitchen and when I walk in my bathroom it smells like dirt?

    1. Have you tried using a TDS meter or our well water testing kit? TDS meter might help to see the level of dissolved solids in your water.

  7. My son says the sink water in his bathroom smells like cheese. It’s not in the other rooms of the house. We are on city water. The water leaves this smell on his hands. What do I do?

    1. Cheese is definitely a new one for us, could he be mistaking it for a rotten egg type smell? That would be likely linked to a sulfur issue most likely. Maybe you could get a few people to smell it and come up with a better description of what the smell is?

  8. My water has a minty smell from time to time. I’m on city water.

  9. My water is pumped in from a spring. Sometimes after a very heavy rain and the land has been wet for a while, my water will get an odd smell. Reminds me of a medicine smell. I used to think maybe it was due to it being pasture land. But it hasn’t been used for cows in 2 years and today I noticed the smell again…..and we have had a lot of rain all summer and fall. I don’t drink it when it has the odor. Just wondering what might be causing it? I think I’m going to have it tested this time. Ive used the kits before and they were negative. But never tested it when it had this smell. Any idea what might be causing it?

    1. Is the spring connected to a river or running water source? It almost sounds like run off from upstream that might be causing it during heavy rains. I’d recommend taking a look on Google Maps to see whats located up river and see if there might be other pasture land further upstream.

      Other than that you might want to have a more in depth lab test done, but it could be hard to know what to test for if you’re not sure what you’re looking for.

  10. Nicole Gerry

    Our trailer water smells like metal all through out. I am currently 5 weeks pregnant and hate showering in the nasty water. We have a well but is there anything we can do to get the water cleaner and smell better?

    1. Are you seeing rust stains in your shower, sinks or toilets? If so it sounds like it’s extra iron coming through your water. I had a house on well water and we ended up needing to add a special filter called an Iron Zapper to help remove excess iron. You could try our iron in water test located here: https://watertestingkits.com/product/iron-test-strips-tablets

  11. My city tap water tastes like a dirty dishrag smells. Of the smells mentioned, the closest is a dirty wet dog. The city says they arent having any known water problems. WHAT WATER TEST WOULD HELP. I dont actually have a SMELL but the taste is like the smell of a dirty rag.

    1. Judy, is it possible to sample your neighbors water to see if they are having the same issues? Also is it happening from all the taps in your house including the outside hose bibs?

  12. My sink water smells when I first turn it on. It has a sewer smell for about a minute, and then goes away. It is the only place in the home I have noticed the smell.

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