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Putrid Well Water and How To Fix It

Glass of clean water.

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Last weekend we met a lovely couple who live in an earth-bermed home about a mile from our ranch. They built the house after they retired and did most of the work themselves. They hired subcontractors as needed and put in long, knuckle-busting hours of manual labor to save costs.

Their home is amazingly light, bright, and airy. Sun tubes brighten rooms without windows, and the walls are covered with the rich, earthy tones of a product called American Clay. The neutral color scheme—reflected on their walls and tile floor—tie everything together and provide a cozy, welcoming atmosphere.

Skylight with blue sky and clouds.

As they gave us a tour of their home, we took notes and a few photos to remember the pointers and helpful advice they were generously sharing.

“You can install your own plumbing in this county, but if someone else installs it for you, they have to be licensed by the state.”

“We changed the tile color in this room because of the way the sun hits the floor in the winter; a darker tile means it absorbs more heat.”

Speaking of heat, they installed a radiant floor heating system entirely powered by the sun. This solar heating system, also known as hydronic radiant floor heating, transfers heated water and glycol through a closed-loop system from solar panels to long loops of PEX tubing under the floor and then circulates it back up to the solar panels to be reheated.

That’s the simplified version, but I’ll go into more detail in another post. The important thing is that their home is toasty warm (with floors that feel great on bare feet!) even in the midst of a blizzard.

And there are no air ducts collecting dust, pollen, or spores to trigger allergies. Amazing!

They don’t really need window coverings for privacy since their earth-bermed home is in a remote location, but they made their own custom insulated window coverings to hold in the heat on extra chilly days when the sun is in hiding.

The window coverings are made with a product I can’t wait to get my hands on—Warm Window, a multilayered insulating fabric from The Warm Company.

We asked them how their well water tastes since we’ll be drilling into the same aquifer, about 500 feet below the surface.

That’s when things started to get disappointing.

First, they gave us a glass of water from the sink. It was delicious. Then they took us out to where the well water comes directly into their home before it enters a filtration system, and they opened the spigot to get a glass of water.

The yellow liquid fizzed when it hit the air.

“Don’t drink it! Just smell it.”

That was great advice but unnecessary since the rotten egg smell reached my nose before the glass was up to my lips. It smelled like sulfur. And I was shocked.

At my childhood home, the well water was a beautiful thing. It tasted great. It was crystal clear. And it was completely safe to use.

That wasn’t the case with this glass of yellow yuck that we were presented with. So we asked, “How do you fix putrid well water?”

They use a whole-house filtration system that removes the extra iron and softens the water.

What comes out of the tap is an entirely different beast than what comes out of the well. Their filtered drinking and household water is soft, sweet, and allows them to use less soap for washing (bonus for sustainable living!).

How can you tell if your well water is bad?

First, make sure that your groundwater is the problem. Check your water heater and any filtration systems you currently use. Do you have a water storage tank or cistern? Check those, too, for sources of bacteria, algae, mold, or other contaminants.

Well water that has an off color, fizzes when it comes out of the tap, or smells like sulfur, rotten eggs, or sewage should not be used for drinking or bathing until you’ve had it tested.

Other signs to look for are cloudy water; green, pink, or brown stains on faucets and in sinks; or a salty, metallic, or chemical taste.

Our house in town continually had pinkish-brown rings that would form wherever the tap water sat—like that little ring of water that stays right around the sink drain. We had the city come out to check it, and they said it is a type of iron bacteria. They also said it was safe to drink, but I’m glad we filter all our drinking water through a Berkey!

If your well water smells like rotten eggs, it may be caused by hydrogen sulfide gas (which can naturally occur from the breakdown of organic matter deep below the surface). You’ll want a whole-house system if hydrogen sulfide is present—no one wants to shower or wash their clothes in stinky water!

Call a local well service company to get your well water tested. You can also contact your state’s water quality division at the Department of Public Health and Environment to ask if they can test your water.

Oh, and remember this: don’t use chlorine bleach to clean the ring out of your sink if you have a septic system. You don’t want to kill off the helpful bacteria while you’re getting rid of the bad!

How do you fix smelly well water?

What kind of system do you need when your well water smells like rotten eggs or has an off color? There are quite a few options to choose from. I’ll go over just a few here to get you started.

A simple point-of-use countertop system, like Berkey filtration systems (which I love and use daily!), can remove the junk from your water and make it safe to drink.

But this only takes care of drinking water. What if your well water is so bad that you don’t even want to shower in it?

A whole house water filtration system, or point-of-entry system (POE)—like this one by Express Water—works to make all the water in your home safe to drink, wash dishes, and shower with. POE systems can even help reduce scale buildup in your water heater.

Express Water has an under-sink reverse osmosis system, too.

Pro+Aqua Elite makes a 3-stage whole-house well water filter—and it removes dissolved solids and heavy metals (like the iron in our water).

Bad well water can destroy a garden

Herb and vegetable garden box.

Although this couple has a lovely garden area to the south of their home, there weren’t any plants growing in it (and not just because we went in the winter). Hard water is alkaline, and their well water is so alkaline that they spent two years figuring out how to get acid-loving vegetables to grow before they learned the water was the problem.

Now, they acidify their garden water with a dose of white vinegar (they have a large reclaimed water tank for this) and easily grow an assortment of herbs.

We plan to use the vinegar trick if needed, but we’ll also be dosing our vegetable garden with healthy servings of compost tea to make sure our plants get the nutrients they need.

If you want to try this to acidify your water, start with one cup of white vinegar per gallon of water. If that's too much, try a half-cup of vinegar instead and gradually increase as needed. Use pH strips to check the balance before your pour the water on your plants.

Wrapping it all up

Smelly or discolored well water is a warning sign you should heed, but it doesn’t mean your water is useless. With proper testing and filtration, you can remove the foul odor and contaminants and turn your bad well water into safe, clean water for drinking and household use.

Want more off grid living tips? Check out our other topics, like gardening for stress relief or grocery shopping once a month!


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