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What’s wrong with my water? A three-sense guide to sorting out something amiss.


We probably all have a general sense of what water should look, smell, taste, and feel like, but sometimes it’s not always obvious when there’s something wrong with your water.

Self-Diagnosing Problem Water

While some contaminants are better at hiding than others, there are a few telltale signs that something is causing a problem with your water.

  • Odor: If something smells suspicious, it probably is. Common pause-giving smells you might come across in tap water include:
    • The Pool Smell: Easily identifiable from our associations with swimming pools, high chlorine levels in water are usually to blame for this olfactory affront.
    • Something’s Fishy: This you-know-it-when-you-smell-it water scent (also often associated with rotten eggs) is perhaps the most unpleasant one, and is typically the nose-wrinkling result of dissolved sulfur not so subtly stowing away in your water supply.
    • A Little Too Natural: We all want our water to be fresh from the source, but sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. If water smells earthy, grassy, musty, or moldy, there’s a good chance bacteria could be to blame.
    • Anything but Nothing: A good rule of thumb is that if water smells like anything – organic, chemical, or otherwise – it’s time to call in a Culligan Man to test it and ensure it’s safe to drink.
  • Taste: Not unlike the smell situation, you want water to taste like water. If it doesn’t, it’s likely you’ve got a problem – how big or small can sometimes be determined by what exactly you taste.
    • The Metal Head: If you’ve ever come across the singular tinge of iron in water, it’s likely you’ll remember it. Other causes for metallic tastes can include dissolved mercury, lead, copper, manganese, zinc, or arsenic.
    • Essence of Ocean: There’s a reason we react negatively to consuming salt water, so if your water has that beachy tang, it’s a possibility there may be certain kinds of bacteria and/or sulfates affecting the supply.
  • Appearance: We also have certain expectations of our water’s visual quality. You should be able to see through it, for instance.
    • Cloudy with a Chance of Contamination: This particular visual distraction also masquerades under the guise of turbidity. Essentially, any time your water is cloudier than you expect, and/or lingers after water is allowed to settle, that’s a sign of problem water.
    • Off-Color: This may be a bit harder to tell, but if water has any sort of hue to it, you’ll want to get a water test. You might also notice colors left behind by water in the form of rust-colored stains around drains and fixtures.

The way water looks, tastes, and smells is often a product of location and geography. To read more about the qualities of water near where you live, explore our state-by-state problemwater resources.

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