What's making my tap water smell weird?
October 7, 2012 8:23 AM   Subscribe

What could be the cause of this distressing chemical smell in my tap water?

Yesterday I noticed that my water (both in bathroom and kitchen sink, and the toilet) has turned sort of yellowish and is giving off a strong chemical smell. It definitely doesn't smell like chlorine. Googling keeps turning up sulfur as a possibility but I don't think that's it, I don't really know what rotten eggs smell like but I'm pretty sure it's not this. It smells chemical, maybe like paint or glue or something solvent-y. Of note, the onset of this smell coincided with some weird gurgling and noise with running the sink and flushing the toilet.

There's construction happening next door, so my suspicion is it's somehow related to that, but I don't know enough about plumbing to figure out how their activities would be affecting my apartment. They are in the stage now where the building is done and they are working inside, presumably getting the plumbing set up, and painting and gluing things with gross chemicals. I saw a bucket of tile adhesive sitting outside yesterday.

The other thing, though, is that it recently got colder and this water stuff started happening the same day I turned my heater back on. My electricity has been wacky since I started using the heater again too. I can't see how this would be related to the water thing, but it is weird that it all happened at the same time, unless the building next door is affecting both my electricity and my water. Anyway, it crossed my mind that maybe the change in my water could be somehow due to the temperature change but I don't know how. I thought temperature-related water changes were more organic stuff, like algae blooms or muddy/murky stuff.

So, any ideas as to what the hell might be going on? I know I should call my landlord/ water company but I have a really hectic week going on right now and I was planning to just buy a couple gallons of water and postpone dealing with this for a day or two and see if it just resolves on its own. (I have NOT been using my water for anything since this started.) I'm mostly just throwing this out there to see if it sounds familiar to anyone, since googling didn't get me any answers. In particular I want to know how likely it is that this is related to the construction and if so how, so maybe I can speak directly to them about it. Any ideas?
posted by GastrocNemesis to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Call the city and ask if they've been doing hydrant flushing. That's usually done once a year and can make the water yellow for a few days.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:26 AM on October 7, 2012

You haven't mentioned where you live, but your municipality should have a way to report your sudden decrease in water quality and conduct an investigation.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:28 AM on October 7, 2012

Run all your taps for two minutes to flush out anything in the lines. Then test again. If the smell and colour are still off, contact your city water works. I'm assuming you're on city water. Well water would be an entirely different matter.
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 8:46 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Letting air into water lines will stir up the system and knock loose precipitate (in addition to causing the gurgling noise you describe). Buying a couple gallons of water and letting things go for a while is probably a good approach, but only if you still run the water enough to flush out the system.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:03 AM on October 7, 2012

I think it probably is related to the building next door, and is probably just what you thought it was, the glues and solvents of a new plumbing system.

You don't say how tall the building is, but if it's taller than a couple of stories, the pressure in the supply pipes is not sufficient for water to reach the upper stories and must be augmented, usually by a pump.

If they turned on such a pump system to test it, say, and then turned it off, all the water in the pipes would suddenly exert a back pressure at the supply pipes potentially much greater than the supply pressure, and a lot of backflow would occur-- and as with the drain in your sink, when that water flowed back into the system it would suck air along with it which you experienced as gurgling in your supply as you used the water that had gone back into the supply from the building.

There are backflow limiters which are supposed to prevent this kind of thing, but they could be missing, defective, or insufficient in this new building.

Save a big sample of this water in bottles and contact your water department.
posted by jamjam at 9:34 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

There also could be a connection to the onset of cold weather.

There is a big danger in new and unoccupied construction that water in pipes will freeze and break the pipes.

So I would guess that the builders might have deliberately defeated the backflow prevention system to let the water in the pipes to go back into the system in order to keep those pipes from freezing.

In that case, this probably won't be an ongoing problem.
posted by jamjam at 9:51 AM on October 7, 2012

I would report this to the city. It's not a big deal to you but the construction company (or someone else) potentially just poisoned a whole bunch of people.
posted by natteringnabob at 10:15 AM on October 7, 2012

I work for a small city and we really, really want to know when this kind of thing is happening. There can be big fines for the water provider if the system gets contaminated and even bigger fines if the new construction didn't install a backflow preventer or circumvented it. You just don't do that kind of thing and chances are if they are doing that then they are cutting other corners. Look on your water bill and there will be a number to call if you have any questions or problems, give them a call. Any complaints you make will be kept anonymous (usually by law) and you may be helping prevent some shoddy construction next door to you. Takes some samples in old soda bottles or something (label and date them also) to give to your water company. Drinking water contimination is no joke and clean water is probably responsible for about 90% of good health.
posted by bartonlong at 12:28 PM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd be pretty concerned about the wacky electricity too! Call your landlord in case the builders are screwing something up.
posted by fshgrl at 3:03 PM on October 7, 2012

Yeah, call the city/water company. I just had something like this a couple of weeks ago and they called me back saying that a car had crashed into a fire hydrant a few blocks away and so the coloration and smell was due to silt in the pipes being knocked around. They told me to wait a few hours until the faucet ran clear, and if the hot water remained bad perhaps to think about flushing the hot-water heater.
posted by rhizome at 3:53 PM on October 7, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks guys this is all really helpful. Unfortunately the electricity problem is worse so I'm posting from my phone! I did call my landlord and the electrician is coming tomorrow. He thinks it's a 'neutral wire' somewhere that's causing all my electronics to run at partial power. It really sucks. Anyway he seems to think there's no way it's related to the construction but whatever. Anyway thanks for the advice about collecting the water. I will. I filled a 20 oz bottle because I don't have a bigger one- how much do I need to save?

So here's the other thing that makes no sense. I had the bathroom light on (and it's dim because of the electricity fail) and then I went to run the bath faucets- when I turn them on it gurgled and made this really loud sound before the water came out and at the same time the lights went off and flickered back on, then off. When I tried to turn them back on the lights were flickering like crazy when I had the water running. What the fuck does that mean???
posted by GastrocNemesis at 5:30 PM on October 7, 2012

Response by poster: Edit. The landlord (not the electrician) thinks the electricity problem is not related to the construction. He didn't think the plumbing was either though. I think he's wrong. Who knows.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 5:33 PM on October 7, 2012

Response by poster: Oh and jamjam you are correct, the building is 4 floors and mine is 2 so your explanation makes sense. These guys have been assholes and breaking other rules during this entire nightmare of construction so it would not surprise me if they are cutting corners.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 5:35 PM on October 7, 2012

The symptoms you describe — funny chemical taste, gurgling noises — also sound like what happens when a well-drilling company uses fracking. The fracking liquid (as well as other liquids, contaminants, and gases) can seep through the ground into the water table and end up coming out of faucets. However, that would affect everyone connected to the water supply, meaning all of your neighbors or all of your city, so there would be articles in the newspaper, etc. about the situation. Have you talked to any of your neighbors? Phoned a friend in another neighborhood?
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:10 PM on October 7, 2012

Given your updates I would probably call the building inspector or whoever handles permits for your area and give them a heads-up. And yeah, landlords rarely hire decent help.
posted by rhizome at 6:24 PM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I live in a big city. Neighbor a block away is not having issues.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 6:35 PM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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