One year on vacation, my family went to a cabin in the Smokey Mountains. To me, this is a great vacation – hiking, family meals, time to read or watch movies or play games, and completely get away from the distractions of life. But there was a problem – rotten eggs. No, our eggs didn’t go bad. The smell of rotten eggs – sulfur – filled the cabin every time someone turned on hot water to cook or shower. It was so strong that my wife fled outside to escape the smell and ensuing nausea.
The smell is offensive, but it’s not really harmful, so while it was a little annoying on vacation, we didn’t worry too much about it. But if the water in your home always has this smell of sulfur, that’s a different story. We can do our best to stay clear of rotten eggs themselves, it’s hard to avoid the smell when it’s surging through your water pipes. It’s far from pleasing, but it is a simple reaction of minerals and elements present in the water and the water heater. However, it’s important to know where it comes from and how to fix it once it becomes a problem.
What Causes Smelly Water?
We’ve all known about the terrible gaseous side effects of sulfur when it’s left to its own devices. That rotten egg smell can often infiltrate a water source and it spreads quickly. This is the most common cause of stinky water, and the product of the reaction between anaerobic bacteria that naturally exist in water with the magnesium and aluminum sacrificial anodes that are byproducts of most water heaters. This reaction produces hydrogen sulfide gas. If you were paying attention, sulfide is a part of that compound, and sulfide means sulfur, and sulfur means rotten eggs.
The Big Fix
In most cases, the long-term fix for this stinky situation is replacing the standard magnesium or aluminum anode rods in the water heater system with an aluminum zinc alloy one. The zinc is important to offset the pure aluminum. This doesn’t always work on softened water because the softening can speed up the rate that the anode rod is consumed, which results in the little bit of aluminum in the zinc alloy anode to be used more. In a situation where softened water still produces the smell, we’d recommend a powered anode rod, which create electrical reactions inside the water while it corrodes. Their main function is to protect the water heater from creating that rotten egg smell as it does the work it’s supposed to.
Another solution is an activated carbon water filter. When hydrogen sulfide is present at low levels, the chemical is absorbed into the carbon particles, reducing the smell of sulfur. If you notice the smell starting to return, it’s time to change the filter.
While it’s harmless, the smell gives off the unpleasing impression that something very dirty is going on. Understanding that it’s the result of a simple and preventative elemental reaction and how to stop it will make the difference when it happens to you.