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What can Cause Tap Water to Smell Bad?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A number of factors can cause tap water to smell bad, including concentrations of metal from the pipes used to deliver it, organisms living in the water, chemicals used to remove organisms living in the water, and environmental contaminants. As a general rule, tap water which smells bad is probably safe to drink if it comes from a municipal treatment plant, as the water is tested on a regular basis. If the tap water smells extremely unpleasant or comes from a well, have the department of public health test it for potentially harmful contamination. If you notice a sudden change in the scent, taste, or appearance of your tap water, notify your municipal water source immediately, as it may be an indicator of a serious problem.

In many cities, municipal tap water simply tastes bad because of the treatment process used, the pipes it travels through, and the source of the water. Running the water for a few seconds may dissipate the taste, or you can filter the tap water through a pitcher or tap filtration system to alter the taste. City water is tested on a regular basis and test results are available: if you are curious about what is in your water, you can ask the water company for recent test results. In some areas, the city may recommend that you filter water, especially if you live in an older home with questionable pipes.

Two common sources of bad taste are sulfur and chlorine. Sulfur can be naturally occurring in many areas, and sometimes peaks during certain times of the year. Sulfur accounts for the rotten egg smell that tap water can acquire, along with a bitter taste. Chlorine comes from chlorination, the most universally used water purification method. Sometimes excess amounts are used, or you end up with a high concentration of chlorine in your pipes: run the water for a few moments, and the smell and taste should go away.

Another common source of odd smells and tastes in tap water is metals from the pipes used to carry your tap water. Copper, iron, and lead have all been found in tap water, and lend unique smells and tastes. Usually copper and iron appear in low concentrations and will not be harmful, although they can discolor your water. Rusty brown water is a result of high amounts of iron, and can indicate that your pipes may need to be replaced. Lead is a more serious concern, because it can have negative impacts on human health in even small amounts; if you suspect that your water contains lead due to contaminated pipes, get it tested immediately and refrain from drinking it.

Algae blooms in your water source can also cause an odd smell. Although water treatment removes the algae and other organisms, smell and odor compounds may linger which cause the water to taste or smell “off” to your nose. You can usually eliminate these compounds by filtering the tap water, but they are not usually harmful.

Finally, seepage can cause tap water to smell bad, and can also be seriously harmful. Seepage occurs when environmental contaminants get into the water supply. Sewage does not usually seep into to tap water, since sewer lines should always be laid below water lines, but other environmental contaminants such as PCBs, mercury, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals held in the soil can enter the water supply. If you live in an area with a high concentration of these contaminants, follow the advice of government officials when it comes to water safety to prevent serious illness.

HomeQuestionsAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon999305 — On Dec 02, 2017

N, California tap water gives a terrible smell. Turbidity is fine. But, urinate in the toilet and the smell is really bad. Recently new water lines were laid on our street and an adjacent road. I am not blaming the water lines unless there is leaching, which I highly doubt since I watched them install. Another issue is the water does not seem to satiate or feel like I have re-hydrated. Is alum being added at the water filtration plant? What else is in the water that we are not being told? I like the community I live in but the water is a problem now and it was not just two years ago.

By anon995372 — On Apr 23, 2016

Your recommendations of filtering the water, or letting it stand, etc, etc. shouldn't have to be done because people pay a water bill and they are entitled to pure, good tasting and smelling water.

By anon989395 — On Mar 04, 2015

Attention Post 37 whose water smells like wet dog, we're having the exact same problem.

Our water smells fine at first. It even smells fine if left alone in a glass. As soon as we take a sip, however, about two minutes later the water and cup reek of a wet dog / dog breath smell. Doesn't matter if we just brushed our teeth either. Never experienced this before. I wonder if it's a lack of chlorine in our community well water that's allowing rapid bacterial growth from bacteria imparted from our mouths. We're going to install a good under the sink filter to see if it helps.

By anon952345 — On May 20, 2014

Water smells like the fertilizer I smell in the air during plowing season in Mexico just south of San Diego. Also, I smelled it in the air when southern winds blew up through San Diego.

By anon931859 — On Feb 10, 2014

I feel like the wet dog smell has to be the water mixing with the chemicals from dishes cleaned in the dishwasher. I have an external water filter and put the water in a glass jar to store in the refrigerator. The water doesn't smell until I pour it into the glass. I'm going to start handwashing to check this theory.

By anon924462 — On Jan 04, 2014

Seepage? Into pressurized water lines? That doesn't make sense to me. The water in the ground is going to be under much less pressure than the water in the pipe, so if there is any hole or leak in the pipe, water will flow out, not in.

By anon351863 — On Oct 17, 2013

@"orangish-pinkish stain behind on my dish rack." That is the result of hard water. It will cause plastics to develop this discoloration if allowed to dry on the surface.

By anon338264 — On Jun 12, 2013

I noticed everyone asks or help but nobody posts any comments that solve the problem. I am going to buy a filter to add to the tap water faucet and let you guys know how it works. -- Maria

By anon328221 — On Apr 02, 2013

I live in the country, surrounded by farms. We have well water. Our problem recently started with an unusual smell and taste, and it leaves an icky film in my hair! I worry if fertilizers and such from the farms could contaminate our water? We've had quite a few problems in the last year, including the well running dry, sand in our water, and this same problem last year.

We really don't have the hundreds of dollars they want us to pay to get the water tested! What could be the problem?

By anon302419 — On Nov 09, 2012

The city water to my home was shut off for a day in the summertime. Since then, I have noticed it smells strongly of mold. It also tastes like mold. I contacted the water department and was told it was due to an overabundance of pollen.

It is now about four months later and I am having the same issue. It seems to come and go, but when I smell it, it is coming from all faucets, and my clothes from the washer end up smelling like mold. It tastes so bad it is undrinkable to me. Anyone know what causes this?

By anon282394 — On Jul 29, 2012

I live in the city and our water smells like dirt or something, but the water is clear with no dirt or anything in it.

By anon219056 — On Oct 01, 2011

Our tap water smells like pond water. We live in riverside ca. I smelt it like a week ago and didn't say anything. Then my Mom said said something about the water. I told her yeah! It smells like pond water and tastes like it too. Anyway we have been getting a upset stomach after we drink it. Anyone else having stomach problems?

By anon144673 — On Jan 20, 2011

All of these issues are causes for an investigation by TCEQ - Texas Commission on Environmental Quality 512-239-4691. Ask for your Regional Office and then ask for the Public Drinking Water Section in reference to a compliant about your water source.

Please do get the name/s of the person/s you speak to and direct phone number so that you can follow up. There are many dangers in drinking water. Please speak out!

By anon144670 — On Jan 20, 2011

I live in an apartment too, and my drinking water has smelled like fish but more so where I work. The water fountains smell like fish. i spoke to an employee at TCEQ and he informed me that it could be sulfur or the water source, that by the time the water got to me is had no disinfectant residual. He said I need to run my faucet and see if the smell goes away if not call the complex and make a compliant. Some good that did.

By anon133710 — On Dec 11, 2010

Our landlord recently straight lined the water directly from his well, bypassing the filtration systems. The odor is unbearable. It smells like sewage. When I shampoo my hair, bath or get this water on clothing it smells like sewage.

I tried boiling it before using it and it still makes everything, including my dishes smell like sewage. This is extremely embarrassing as I can even smell the odor in my hair and clothing, so I know other people can smell it on me also. Is there any way to get the odor out of my water and is this water safe?

By anon124120 — On Nov 04, 2010

my tap water smells like sewage! what to do?

By anon119918 — On Oct 19, 2010

I see posts about "smelly dog" water from well-water, but we have smelly dog water and are on city water. Any ideas? My wife noticed it awhile ago, but tonight i had a cup of juice with ice and, because the ice was made from faucet water, each time i stuck my nose in the cup to drink i nearly vomited! The smell is awful. What can i do? What am i up against?

By anon117268 — On Oct 09, 2010

My hot water taps stink of a petroleum smell. My stomach flips and I fee sick. We found the tank was hooped. It had an orange floating part, green and white material in it.

When removing the grey plastic pipe from the hot water tank, all this black greasy material came out of the hot water pipe. It stunk of petroleum, confirming smell when I shower. Often my skin and hair will get sticky but water appears clear. Landlord will test water soon but in the meantime I am afraid to use hot water.

If I try running it through pipes I feel sick as if it is a gas, and my asthma gets bad then.

Have you seen this before? What is happening? Is this dangerous? I am scared. I have been bathing and using this polluted water for one year. Thanks. --Orca

By anon110101 — On Sep 10, 2010

What do you do if you think a snake has died in your well? The water smells like something dead and the cover to the well was off and a snake skin was in the hole? If we sanitize with bleach will it be okay?

By anon100288 — On Jul 29, 2010

Our water is giving off a strange smell and it's not sewer gas smell either. We turned the water off to house for six months. We moved in and a month later this faint smell starts in the master bath when the shower is running. Then it moved to the master sink and commode when it is flushed. It is now very strong! It has now moved to the rest of the faucets in the house.

It only smells when water is running and goes away after a time. We woke up this morning and before letting any water go down drain, we ran water into a five gal bucket without letting it go down the drain. It had the smell so we know it's not the drain. We are on city water and do not have a water softener. It is the cold and hot water.

Our neighbors are not having this problem. The smell started out like an acetone smell, then mostly went to a petroleum product smell, like the way gasoline smells now that they started putting ethanol in it. Depending on who smells it, it has also been described as a sour clothes type smell or a earthy-organic smell. The plumber said he'd never run across anything like this. Please help!

By anon98369 — On Jul 22, 2010

What could possibly make my well water smell like cat urine? It's awful. We use a Pur water filter and that is no help.

By anon96405 — On Jul 15, 2010

My kitchen tap produces water with a bad taste and there is a smell of fish around the sink but upstairs the water tastes fine and no smell, so I wonder if the inlet pipes can be cleaned out of any sediment, since it seems like maybe something is settling in the lower pipes.

By anon79119 — On Apr 21, 2010

Same problem here. Well water leaves wet dog smell. I am installing sediment and taste filter myself. Had it tested and nothing harmful here.

By anon74711 — On Apr 03, 2010

I don't know but my water smells kind of like a wet dog. and when it dries, over time leaves an orangish-pinkish stain behind on my dish rack. is that bad?

By sevenseas — On Mar 14, 2010

People who use water from their own well can have "smelly" water. On my recent farm visit the strong smell of rotten eggs when water was turned on was unmistakable.

I was told that the culprit is sulfur, which can be alleviated by the use of an aerator and possibly filter.

By anon67702 — On Feb 26, 2010

I have a filter for tap water, however I can't filter shower, or bathroom water. After brushing my teeth the smell stays in my mouth. After showering, the smell of wet boy socks stays on me, even after using my Versace shampoo! Section-8 affordable housing may explain why!

By anon59772 — On Jan 10, 2010

the water main outside our house broke and was replaced three days ago - since then we have noticed that the water smells like permanent marker. Does anyone know why?

By anon57064 — On Dec 19, 2009

when i use tap water to make ice, it has that rotten dead rat smell to it. I almost puke after i finish drinking my soda to notice the smell. Believe me it's not my breath -- it's the water. --probinsyano

By doncom55 — On Nov 05, 2009

your water smells like rotten eggs? what you need to do is to aerate your water. A cheap way to do it is to take a aquarium pump ($20 - $30), put it in the well casing and bring the air line down as close as you can from the water. The air will make the smell go away in no time.

Or you can go in a plumbing shop and pay about $300 for a line aerator. it worked for me with an aquarium pump.

By anon46774 — On Sep 28, 2009

I have a whole house water filter system and our water still smells so bad you can't drink it. I've noticed when the water is exposed to air for a period of time or it is boiled, the smell is gone. What could be the problem and why did the "expensive" water treatment system not work? Thanks

By anon44091 — On Sep 04, 2009


I'm not an expert, but have well water and have had a similar problem. I would check to see if the protective foundation around your well head has been compromised. Also, it could be bacterial growth. This could be fixed with a UV light unit from a hardware store. Either way, your best answer if to have a lab (contact your local health department if you have a well) test your water. This is usually very affordable (ours was only $45 in 2009 and we live outside the greater D.C. area)

By anon41401 — On Aug 14, 2009

Help! My well water smells like fish!! It doesn't taste like fish but when we do the dishes in the dish washer they are unbearable. We can't even eat with the dishes at points. we've been using plastic plates and silverware. i really need some answers with what it could be and what i can do to stop this problem. please help

By anon40119 — On Aug 06, 2009

I have a house filter treatment system, but recently i went on vacation and when i got back my tap water smelled like rotten eggs. Is there anything i can add to the water to remove the smell from the water heater?

By stevene — On Jul 25, 2008

so what is the answer: why does water smell like fish?

By Hus123321 — On Jan 17, 2008

My tap water smells like fish, anyone have any ideas?? I live in a condo complex and no one else seems to have a problem!! Harmful??

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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