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Why Does My Water Smell Like Rotten Eggs?

Water that smells like rotten eggs coming out of a shower head

Whether you turned on the sink to do dishes or started the shower to get ready for your day, if your water smells like rotten eggs, you’re probably concerned. Many questions may be running through your head, including: Is this water still safe to use? Can I fix this myself, or do I need to contact a plumber?

There are a few different reasons why your water smells like rotten eggs and depending on the cause, the water may or may not be safe to use, and you may or may not be able to fix this problem yourself. Generally speaking, water smells like rotten eggs when there is sulfur bacteria present. Paying attention to when you notice the foul smell can help you determine what exactly is wrong and whether the water is safe to consume.

If the smell is constant when you are using water from your tap, it is probably an issue with hydrogen sulfide in your groundwater. This typically happens when homeowners get their water from a well or another still water supply. These types of water sources can become contaminated with organic debris, such as leaves and branches. Over time, sulfur bacteria in the water will begin to break down this plant matter and other material and will release hydrogen sulfide gas in the process. This hydrogen sulfide gas is what gives off that rotten egg smell.

If you’re dealing with water that constantly smells like rotten eggs, you’ll need to get in touch with a licensed plumber who can test your water source and then implement treatments. Additionally, you should not use your water until a professional has arrived, as your water source could be contaminated with something more serious than plant matter.

If your water only smells when you first turn it on, and then the odor slowly becomes less noticeable, this is likely a problem with your well water or there could be bacteria growing in your pipes. Unfortunately, removing sulfur bacteria from a well or pipes can be difficult. If this is the cause of your problem, your best bet is to contact a plumber. Also, because the smell can be caused by something harmful, try to avoid drinking your tap water until a professional has performed a diagnostic test and provided you with the results.

If your water only smells when you turn on the hot water, the problem is most likely going to be with your water heater. Many water heaters have a magnesium anode rod, and this specialized part has a very important job. The magnesium anode rod is a sacrificial component, meant to succumb to rust and corrosion before your water heater does, thereby extending the life of your water heater. If there is sulfur bacteria in your water which then comes in contact with the corroded magnesium anode rod, it will react and create hydrogen sulfide. If this is what’s going on in your situation, the quickest and most convenient way to address this problem is to have a plumber come to your home, as you may need to have your anode rod replaced and your water heater flushed. Some handy homeowners choose to do this job themselves.

No matter what you believe may be the root cause of your problem, the best way to troubleshoot the cause of a sulfurous smell is to contact a licensed specialist to inspect your plumbing. These professionals have the tools and the licenses required to access wells, open up your water heater and perform any other needed work to eliminate that rotten egg odor.

If you’re confident your problem is with your water heater and you are familiar with how these systems work, you can go about replacing your anode rod and cleaning your water heater yourself. Keep reading to learn how and also for more helpful information on cleaning a water heater and dealing with foul odors in well water.

a white water heater in a closet

How to Replace an Anode Rod

While replacing your anode rod and flushing out your water heater is an involved process, some homeowners may be willing to take the project on themselves. Before getting started, you’ll need to gather up some tools and materials. You’ll need a bucket, an impact socket, a replacement anode rode and potentially a helper or two. Additionally, to prevent this rotten egg smell from happening again, you may want to opt for a new aluminum anode rod as opposed to another magnesium anode rod.

Now, you can get started. Here are the steps involved:

  • Turn off your fuel supply. If you have a gas water heater, your gas line is probably located near the bottom of your water heater. For most models, you can turn off your fuel supply by rotating the valve clockwise. This valve should be perpendicular to the pipe. If you have an electric water heater, you’ll need to locate its corresponding breaker in the main service panel and turn it off.
  • Turn off your water supply. The cold water line is normally located near the top of the water heater on the right side of the unit. Turn the valve clockwise until it comes to a stop.
  • Drain some water from your tank. You should drain a couple of gallons of water from the water heater into your bucket. Be cautious not to drain too much of the water as the heavy weight of the water will help to keep your tank in place while you remove your anode rod.
  • Locate your anode rod. Typically, you can find the hex head for the anode rod on top of the water heater. However, with some tanks, you’ll need to remove the top lid in order to find it.
  • Remove your anode rod. You’ll need to loosen the hex head, and this will take some muscle. This is where you may need a helping hand to hold your water heater in place while you get the head loose. Be cautious not to twist your water heater, as this can damage pipes and fittings and lead to leaks.
  • Install a new anode rod. Use plumbers tape to wrap the joint thread of the new anode rod. You’ll need to wrap it about 5 or 6 times to allow for a strong seal. Then, insert the new anode rod and tighten it into place.

While replacing your anode rod may fix your problem in the long run, you still have to do something about the smelly water sitting in your water heater and any leftover bacteria clinging to the sides. So, your next step will be to clean out, or flush, your water heater.

How to Clean a Water Heater

Cleaning your water heater begins with some of the same steps as replacing your anode rod and requires many of the same tools. However, because you’ll need to drain all of the water out of your water heater, you will need to add a hose to your arsenal.

If you have just replaced your anode rod, you can skip to the second step. If you are performing regular maintenance on your water heater, start from the beginning.

Once you have all the tools (and helpers) you need, follow these steps:

  • Turn off your water heater’s fuel source and cold water source. You may want to wait a bit before continuing, as the water in your tank may be extremely hot. If you want to take extra precautions, you can wait for your water to cool overnight before proceeding to the next step.
  • Turn on the hot water in a faucet or shower. You’ll need to leave the water flowing throughout the entire flushing process to prevent a vacuum from forming in your water lines.
  • Connect a hose to your drain valve. Make sure the other end of the hose leads outside and that the water will flow into an area of your yard with good drainage away from your home’s foundation.
  • Turn on the drain valve. Using a flat head screwdriver, slowly turn on the valve, making sure there aren’t any leaks as you continue. Wait until all of the water has drained out of your tank. Keep in mind that this might take some time.
  • Flush the tank. Once all of the water has drained out of the tank, turn the cold water supply back on to flush out any of the remaining sediment in the bottom of your tank. Let the cold water run until you see clear water come out of the hose. To double-check that your water heater is clean, you can fill a clear glass with water from the water heater. Wait a few minutes and then check to see if any sediment has floated to the bottom of the glass. If it’s clear, you can continue on to the final step.
  • Turn your unit back on. Turn off your drain valve and disconnect the hose. Turn on your fuel source and shut off any faucets that you may have left on while clearing your water heater. Wait about 20 minutes and then turn on a hot water source to ensure that you’re getting hot water.

Cleaning your water heater is something that should be done about every six months. The longer you wait to get your water heater cleaned, the more sediment could be sitting at the bottom of your tank. Additionally, this build-up of sediment can lead to a multitude of problems, such as your water heater not getting hot enough. Fortunately, when you contact a plumber for water heater maintenance, cleaning your water heater is something that your specialist will do so you don’t have to worry about it.

If your water still has a smell to it, you can turn the temperature setting on your hot water heater to HIGH for two hours to kill any remaining bacteria. Afterward, clean out your water heater. It is recommended that you wait at least a few hours after your water heater is set to such a high temperature to flush the water out so you do not burn yourself.

If your water heater still has a smell to it, you’ll need to contact a professional. Your professional will either safely chlorinate your water heater or will be able to determine if your well water is the root cause of your smelly water.

A black faucet with water running

How to Get Rid of a Sulfur Smell in Well Water

Getting rid of sulfur-scented water from your well can be tricky, but can also help prevent other common plumbing problems. There are a few ways to address this problem and a licensed plumber is best equipped to perform a diagnosis and recommend a course of action.

Some of your options to get rid of the sulfur smell include:

  • Continuous chlorination and filtration
  • Continuous potassium permanganate with filtration
  • Oxidizing filters
  • Carbon filtration
  • Aeration
  • Ion exchange
  • Shock chlorination

Most of these techniques involve breaking up the hydrogen and sulfide molecules and turning them into something else. Shock chlorination kills the bacteria that creates hydrogen sulfide. The right option for you will depend on local laws and your particular situation. Because of this, contacting a specialist is always your best option.

ABC Can Get Your Water Back to Normal

Turning on your tap and having a foul-smelling odor is something no homeowner wants to experience. Additionally, trying to get to the bottom of the problem can be an overwhelming, time-consuming task. Instead of spending hours trying to determine the cause of these odors, or risking making common plumbing mistakes, contact ABC Home & Commercial Services. Our licensed professionals can test and improve the quality of your water so you won’t have to deal with a smelly situation.

Tom Riggs

Tom Riggs is the Division Manager for Mechanical Services, overseeing sales and operations for HVAC, Plumbing, Electrical, Appliance Repair and Water Quality for all ABC Austin branches. He joined ABC in 2014. Before ABC, he was an HVAC Service Technician, HVAC Comfort Advisor/Sales and Operations Manager. Tom attended Universal Technical Institute. He's an avid outdoorsman and enjoys country living with his wife and two sons.

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