Sometimes we need someone to tell us the hard truth, and we can’t lie to you anymore. Your hot water smells horrible.
Showering at your house should not be a “blame the dog” moment, but that’s where we’re at. Soon, you’ll start to find that it’s not limited to your shower, and these stinky incidents are happening more frequently. While you’re doing the dishes. While you’re bathing the kids. While washing your hands, you keep asking yourself the same questions, “what is that smell?” and “how do I make it go away?” over and over.
As always, the Nick’s Plumbing Blog is here to tackle those questions and to help the homeowner uncover –and understand—the source of their smelly water issues, what damage they can cause, and how to keep your hot water from being offensive.
What is that “Rotten Egg” Smell?
That dreaded “rotten egg” odor that is isolated to your hot water supply is the result of a chemical reaction in your water heater. Naturally occurring ions in all water supplies called sulfates have a taste for stainless steel, as snacking on it allows them to transform into a gas known as hydrogen sulfide. As a gas most often found in sewers, septic tanks, volcanoes, and large oil and gasoline wells, one can imagine why it wouldn’t make a good house guest.
Hydrogen sulfide, better known as sewer gas, is a sulfur-based by-product of the bacteria that are actively trying to turn your water heater into a spaghetti strainer. If your water heater sits idle for more than a few hours at a time, the inactivity in the tank allows bacteria sufficient time to reproduce. This increased presence of hydrogen sulfide will find its way into your faucets, and either by smell or taste, you’ll know it’s there.
Why Does It Happen?
When a hot water tank sits idle for more than a few hours, the inactivity allows bacteria to reproduce in a calm, warm environment. These sub-microscopic critters can find their way into any opening, like the tiny cracks in your water heater’s tank lining. Once nestled into these tucked-away nooks and crannies, the bacteria can hide and reproduce unfettered, releasing their toxic aromas in your hot water tank. This increased presence of hydrogen sulfide will find its way into your faucets, and either by smell or taste, you’ll know it’s there.
At low concentrations, symptoms of sewer gas exposure can include:
- burning and watery eyes
At higher exposure levels, they can result in vomiting, loss of consciousness, or even death. However, the levels of hydrogen sulfide from a water heater are rarely severe enough to cause respiratory problems and probably won’t kill you, but it is vital to take note when your hot water starts to stink.
How Do I Get Rid of Smelly Hot Water?
The first step is to determine that the problem is only affecting the hot water lines of your plumbing system. Take some time to check both hot and cold taps for any sign of debris, discoloration, or odors. Ask the rest of your family to check the samples. Invite neighbors over for a water-sniffing party. Whatever it takes, be sure the source of the smell is, in fact, the hot water.
So, let’s say we’ve established that the offensive scent comes from your tank-type water heater. The first order of business would be to flush the water heater tank by draining it and allowing it to refill, run a complete heating cycle, and drain again.
Draining your water heater and performing a flush is a project any homeowner can do themselves and save money. All you need is a garden hose, an adjustable wrench, a YouTube search for videos on “how to flush a water heater,” and about an hour of your time. If the odor lingers after a flush, you can try adding a small amount of bleach –or white vinegar—into the water heater tank and repeat the flush process. This addition will also help to remove limescale from the tank and to flush out any sediment that remains.
Flushing My Water Heater Didn’t Help – What Do I Do Next?
Water heaters that are several years old and have never had regular maintenance service are at a disadvantage here. It doesn’t take many years for the hard water we have in Houston to create a dense layer of sediment in the bottom of our water heaters.
While investigating the cause of hot water that smells bad, the technician will check the condition of the water heater’s anode rod. Tank-type water heaters use a thin metallic rod called the sacrificial anode rod, usually made of magnesium that remains partially submerged in water. And as the name implies, this selfless magnesium rod exists only to protect your water heater from rust. By attracting and neutralizing the molecules that feed on metal, these corrosion agents ignore any metal inadvertently exposed by imperfections in the glass coating, choosing the anode rod as their preferred snack.
Regular inspection and replacement of the anode rod are crucial to regular annual plumbing maintenance. The typical lifespan of a magnesium anode rod is between 3 and 5 years, depending on hot water usage and where the water heater is located. Water heaters in attics or garages should have their anode rod checked out and replaced every two years. If you find your anode rod needs to be replaced more frequently, your plumbing technician may suggest replacing your magnesium anode with a powered anode rod.
A Powered Anode Rod Could be the Answer
Until recently, smelly hot water was something a homeowner just had to deal with if an anode rod change didn’t help. In 2012, a company called CorroProtect introduced the first electrically powered anode rod that eliminates sulfur smells in hot water in just a few hours. The powered anode is made of insoluble titanium, so it will not dissolve and add more debris to the bottom of the tank.
A continuous low-voltage current is applied to the water in the tank, which scatters the sulfate ions, not allowing them to reproduce. Unlike a magnesium anode that needs to be changed every 3 – 5 years, or an aluminum anode every 7 – 10 years, a powered anode rod will probably outlast your water heater tank.
Protect Your Water Quality and Your Home’s Plumbing with Nick’s!
Water damage caused by failing water heaters is the number one claim against homeowners’ insurance policies, and many of these claims are denied due to a lack of maintenance records. Keeping abreast of water heater maintenance will help prevent unexpected issues and expenses.
If you find yourself facing smelly hot water issues, Nick’s can help. Call us today and schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced plumbing techs, who’ll be happy to locate the source of your odors.