Water is synonymous with purity, yet it can contain hundreds of dissolved substances from disinfectants to heavy metals. Not every contaminant is a health concern — some, like minerals, are even good for you. But others can give your drinking water a bad taste and make you wonder if it’s safe to drink.
So, let’s examine the most common reasons for water that tastes bad and what you can do about it — the solutions are surprisingly simple.
- Impurities in the water, such as iron, lead, and other minerals
- Excess chlorine used to treat municipal water supplies
- Buildup of bacteria in plumbing systems or storage tanks
- Corrosion of pipes containing older metals like lead or copper
- Contamination from road salt, industrial waste, or agricultural runoff.
- Taste-altering chemicals added to water for health reasons, such as fluoride and chlorine.
- High levels of sulfates in well water systems.
- Unpleasant odors that change the flavor of the water.
- Low pH levels can create a bitter flavor in the water.
Top Reasons Why Water Tastes Bad – Both Well and Tap Water
Where Do the Contaminants in Tap Water Come From? Most substances in both city and well water are naturally occurring. Found everywhere in the environment, they seep into our surface and underground drinking water supplies whenever it rains or snows.
Others, like chlorine and fluoride, are added to the water supply in the interest of public health. And hundreds more come from the metals and chemical compounds we use in industry and agriculture, many of which can make water taste bad and affect your health.
#1 Should I Stop Drinking Bad Tasting Water?
Any sudden change in your tap water quality is a cause for concern, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. But a persistent bad taste or odor is likely the result of harmless contaminants. Keep reading — we’ll help you get to the bottom of it.
#2 Why Does Your Tap Water Taste Like Chemicals?
Public water supplies have one or more chemical disinfectants added to kill bacteria, so a chemical aftertaste isn’t unusual. Disinfectants keep you safe but, depending on your proximity to the treatment plant and the level of chlorine, the taste and smell can be unbearable. It’s one of the most common complaints about city water.
In well water, the most common cause of chemical tastes is traces of chemicals, such as pesticides, herbicides, industrial solvents and other volatile organic compounds used in nearby farms and factories.
#3 Why Does Your Drinking Water Have a Sweet Taste?
Water’s unique flavor is the result of total dissolved solids (TDS)— the concentration of diffused substances in water. Most of them are so-called hard minerals, primarily calcium and magnesium, high concentrations of which can give tap water a sweet taste.
Minerals are found in most rock and soil, so hard water isn’t unusual or bad for your health. But they form limescale deposits in your water pipes, appliances and hot water heater, so as incoming water flows through your plumbing system, it picks up even more of a cloying taste.
#4 Why Does Your Tap Water Have a Salty Taste?
The same dissolved minerals that give water a sweet taste can also make it taste salty if the predominant mineral is chloride or sulfate. Common well water contaminants, high levels in city water are uncommon. Water can also smell or taste salty if you have a private well near the coast.
#5 Why Does Your Water Smell and Taste Like Rotten Eggs?
Rare in a municipal drinking water system, hydrogen sulfide gas, or sulfur, is the most common cause of rotten egg smell in private wells. While not considered a dangerous substance, high concentrations affect how your water tastes.
Researchers know that most of what we perceive as flavor is actually an olfactory experience. So, if your tap water smells like rotten eggs, chances are it will taste like it, too.
#6 Why Does Your Tap Water Have an Earthy Flavor?
Earthy tasting well water is tough to troubleshoot because it can have several causes. The first is organic matter. Well screens remove most sediment, but even small bits of organic debris from dead plants to living microbes can give water a swampy taste and odor. Silty soil near your well is a common culprit.
Iron bacteria, microorganisms that feed on iron in well water, may also be to blame. They leave behind a musty-smelling orange slime that coats bathroom and plumbing fixtures. Other bacteria can also contribute to an earthy flavor, especially if they’ve colonized your plumbing system.
#7 Why Does Your Water Have a Sour Flavor?
Most tap water has a fairly neutral pH ranging between 6-8.5, but some water is more acidic. Lemon juice, for comparison, averages 2-3. So, the more the pH drops, the more likely it is that water will have a sour flavor.
Acidic water alone isn’t dangerous to drink, but it’s corrosive to metal. Not only is it harmful to your plumbing system, but it can cause lead and copper water pipes to deteriorate, releasing metal ions that can be toxic.
#8 Why Does Your Drinking Water Have a Metallic Taste?
Not surprisingly, water that tastes metallic may contain metals. If you’re sensitive to metallic flavors, you may taste copper at low levels. Copper plumbing alone could be responsible for a metallic taste if your tap water is acidic.
Iron and manganese are also common in well water. And if rust accumulates in your pipes and water heater, there’s no escaping the metallic smell and flavor. The good news is that most metallic tastes aren’t harmful to your health.
#9 Why Does Your Water Have a Bitter Taste?
If tap water tastes bitter, it’s probably acidic. The bitter edge is usually a combination of metal ions from zinc or copper pipes plus a high concentration of iron or manganese, two minerals frequently found in wells.
#10 Contaminants You Can’t Taste in Drinking Water
When water smells or tastes bad, it’s natural to think it’s unsafe. But did you know that the most dangerous contaminants in water have no flavor?
Lead, arsenic, bacteria, mercury, trihalomethanes, most bacteria, and forever chemicals like PFOA are tasteless colorless and odorless. Associated with a wider range of health problems from cancer to developmental disabilities, the only way to know if they’re in your water is to have it tested.
Should I Test Bad Tasting Water?
The Environmental Protection Agency regulates the levels of more than 90 common contaminants in the water supply, including most that make tap water taste bad. If you drink city water, most of the testing has been done for you. Just ask your water system authorities for a copy of your annual consumer confidence report — it lists contaminant levels and breaks down your water chemistry, including its pH.
Contamination, however, can occur after water leaves the treatment facility. So, some people choose to test their city water for lead, iron, copper and other substances that can come from their plumbing. If you know exactly what’s in your water supply, you’re better equipped to manage it. There’s no substitute for having your water tested.
If you drink well water, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend testing your water annually for pH, nitrates and coliform bacteria plus contaminants of concern in your geographical area. Most water contamination comes from within your watershed. So, if your water has a metallic taste and you live near an iron ore mine, it makes sense to check your well for iron.
If you have bad-tasting water but you can’t identify the probable cause, invest in comprehensive testing — the peace of mind alone is worth the cost, and it’s cheaper than switching to bottled water.
We recommend SimpleLab’s Tap Score test kit. Available online, it’s easy to order and straightforward to use. Choose from single tests or panels that test either city or well water for the most common contaminants. You’ll have the results in a few weeks, including a report from their water experts with filtration solutions.
How to Get Rid of Unpleasant Tastes and Smells in Drinking Water
The simplest way to get rid of an unpleasant taste in tap water is with a water filter. Let’s look at your options.
#1 Sediment Filters
Sediment filters sift out large particles of dirt, rust, silt and other organic matter. If any of these substances are the cause of bad tastes or smells, it may be all you need.
See our recommended Water filtration systems for home well water
#2 Carbon Filters
Available in whole-house and undersink filtration systems as well as faucet filters and filtration pitchers, carbon filters reduce a wide range of chemical contaminants through adsorption, including 90-percent or more of chlorine, plus:
- Lead and more
Made for use with treated water, carbon filters don’t eliminate microorganisms, iron, hard minerals or sulfur.
#3 Reverse Osmosis System
A reverse osmosis system can eliminate up to 99.9-percent of waterborne contaminants from your drinking water, including heavy metals, bacteria and most dissolved solids. Undersink filters that treat drinking and cooking water, most RO systems include sediment and carbon prefilters to remove chlorine, rust and other substances that can damage a reverse osmosis membrane.
Properly maintained, a reverse osmosis system can render water virtually pure. But the reverse osmosis process alone can’t reliably remove iron, manganese and the hydrogen sulfide that causes rotten egg odor.
#4 Water Softeners
Water softeners are whole-house filters that remove hard minerals from water. Some are also equipped with a special resin that can handle up to 3 parts per million of iron and sulfur.
By controlling limescale, water softeners can not only improve the flavor of water that tastes sweet or bitter, but they can also prevent damage to your appliances and water heaters. Salt-free, or TAC water conditioners, that control limescale without removing minerals may not eliminate unpleasant flavors.
#5 Oxidizing Filters
Whole-house oxidizing filters use air, chlorine or other chemicals to oxidize and filter iron and manganese. Depending on the type, some also remove hydrogen sulfide and the associated rotten egg smell.
Air oxidation filters are among the most popular because they don’t rely on chlorine, itself a source of bad smells. But chlorine filters are more effective if you have high concentrations of these contaminants. If you need a chlorine filter, you can install a carbon post-filter to remove the taste and smell.
#6 pH-Neutralizing Filters
If acidic water is the cause of unpleasant tastes in your tap water, a quick fix is an alkalizing filter. It adds minerals, like calcium, to your water to raise the pH.
If you have alkaline water that tastes sweet or bitter, you can lower the pH with a filter that injects a weak acid solution into the water coming into your home.
#7 Water Distillers
Home distillers remove many of the chemical contaminants that make tap water smell and taste bad. They work by condensing steam as it boils from a water-filled reservoir.
They also eliminate most heavy metals and fluoride, but their capacity is limited. You can only make a few gallons per day at most with a distiller, but it’s among the most effective and least expensive water treatment options.
Choosing the Best Quality Water Filter
Water quality is both a safety and an aesthetic issue — your health is a greater priority than how your water smells or tastes. But regardless of why you need a water filter, it’s only worth the price if it does what it promises to do. Not all products are created equal.
The Water Quality Association urges consumers to shop carefully. We recommend buying products certified by the National Sanitation Foundation. Independently tested, an NSF-certified filter is guaranteed to perform as advertised and not contain toxic substances that could leach into your water. It’s the best way to ensure that you, as a consumer, are getting what you paid for.
Don’t just stop drinking bad-tasting water — take charge of the water treatment process and tame unpleasant tastes and smells with a home filtration system.