Tap water
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Cottage Q&A: How to deal with sulphur-scented tap water

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This article was originally published in the Early Summer 2016 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Our water source is a well, and the water has a very strong rotten-egg sulphur smell. Can we fix this problem without installing expensive filters? We’d like to avoid that.

—Stinking Mad

We hear you. Whole-house water-filtration systems can cost more than $1,000 (and that’s on the low end). You’d probably rather spend that hard-earned cash on basically anything else.

“The most likely cause of a sulphur smell in water wells is from sulphate-reducing bacteria,” says Patrick Boyle of the Water Security Agency in Moose Jaw, Sask. “These bacteria chemically change natural sulphates in water to hydrogen sulphide, and they tend to flourish in water-distribution systems.” Since the levels of bacteria found in a well are typically low, drinking the water isn’t unsafe. It’s just gross.

You can disinfect your well with shock chlorination. This involves putting household bleach in the well (the amount depends on the dimensions of your well), circulating it through the plumbing system, and flushing it out after about a day. This could resolve the issue—but it may only be a temporary fix. And continually shocking your well isn’t a good long-term solution to this problem. “It’s not practical,” says Andrew Barton, the manager of the Safe Water Program for the Grey Bruce Health Unit in Owen Sound, Ont. “It takes time. And a lot of chlorine.”

If the smell is tolerable, you can install a point-of-use filter, such as a reverse osmosis filter, on a single kitchen tap. This would provide stench-free water for cooking and drinking. But if you’re not willing to shower or wash your clothes in egg water, you’ll need to go the way of whole-house treatment. Boyle suggests an activated carbon filter, a greensand filter, or an oxidation filtration system.

Test your water to help you decide on the best filtration system. Even if you don’t plan to install a filter, you should do this anyway, to check for E. coli and total coliforms. We said that drinking the water isn’t usually unsafe, but, in some cases, a sulphur odour can come from sewage contamination.

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