How water looks, tastes and smells

Many people determine the quality of the water they consume by how it smells, tastes or looks. Although these are important criteria, they are primarily aesthetic properties of the water. A glass of water may not look, smell or taste good, but it could still be suitable to drink from a health standpoint. If you are concerned about your water—you really need to have it tested.

Yet, we know that you will still want to use the way water looks, smells and tastes to help determine what type of treatment is necessary to improve the quality of your water. The following guidelines will help you make some educated guesses about any problems with your water and what the most likely cause of those problems might be. You can confirm your guesses when your water is actually tested.

To perform this experiment, all you need is a clear container to take a water sample and then use your senses of sight, smell and taste.

The Way Water Looks

  • Water is clear when first drawn from the raw water tap then becomes yellow or reddish in appearance, but clears upon standing for 24 hours. Dissolved iron present.
  • Water is yellow or reddish when first drawn from the raw water tap but clears upon standing for 24 hours. Undissolved iron present.
  • Yellow or brownish cast to water even after softening and/or filtering and does not clear up after standing for 24 hours. Tannin (humic acid) in water. Comes from water passing through coal veins, peaty soils and decaying vegetation.
  • Black cast to water that clears upon standing for 24 hours. Dissolved manganese present.
  • Milky water. Excessive air in the water caused by the well pump sucking air (excessive drawdown) or a malfunctioning pressure tank. Also, can be caused by high amounts of bicarbonate precipitates resulting from an increase in pH.
  • Blackening, tarnishing, or pitting of metal sinks, utensils, pipes, etc. High amounts of salt (chlorides and sulfates) or hydrogen sulfide gas.
  • Green stains on sinks and other porcelain bathroom fixtures. Blue green cast to water. Acidic water (pH below 6.8) reacting with brass and copper pipes and fittings.
  • Suspended matter in water. Caused by riled up water in a surface supply or sand pumping from a well.
  • Soap curds and lime scum in wash basins and bathtubs. Whitish scale deposits in tea kettle and on the ends of plumbing fixtures (faucet, shower head, etc.). Hard Water caused by calcium and magnesium salts in the raw water supply.
  • Stained aluminum cookware. High dissolved mineral content and high alkalinity in the raw water.

The Way Water Smells

  • Chlorine smell. Normal chlorination of public or private well sources.
  • Fishy, musty or earthy smell. Generally harmless organic matter. Commonly associated with surface water supplies.
  • Rotten egg odor from the raw water tap or directly from the well. Dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas in the raw water.
  • Rotten egg odor only from the hot water tap. Sulfates present in the raw water reacting with the magnesium anode which causes hydrogen sulfide gas. Can be corrected by removing the anode or replacing it with an aluminum anode.
  • Detergent odor and water foams when drawn. Also septic odor. Leakage from a sewer system is entering the water supply.

The Way Water Tastes

  • Metallic taste. High concentration of manganese, or possibly other metals.

(Source: NDSU Extension Service, AE-1045, June 1992)

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