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ASK THE INSPECTOR: Get water tested for contaminants

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QUESTION: I had a new water heater installed a while ago. I switched to electric from a previous gas water heater.

It's been three months and when I turn on any of my taps or the shower, when the water starts running warmer, air spouts out of the taps and the water starts smelling a bit like greasy oil, like the kind of smell when you go into a car repair garage. I've had the installer out and he could smell the greasy lube but couldn't find where it's coming from.

I have a well, and the only tap that provides me with clean, fresh water that doesn't smell is the tap directly from my well. It seems it has to be coming from the tank because the smell starts when the water starts running hotter.

A couple of weeks after installation, I had the installer come back and set the hot-water tank to a bit lower temperature because it was too hot for me. But I can't remember if the smell existed before he reset the temperature.

Have you come across anything like this in the past? Any idea what's causing the smell as well as some black water still coming out in my bathtub tap once in a while? I hope you can help me.

Thank you, Sophie Gaska.

ANSWER: When trying to diagnose a house problem, the first thing I ask clients is if anything has recently been added or changed in the home. Replacement of your water heater may have been a catalyst for the foul smell in your water, but may not be the actual cause. There are several possibilities, especially since you have a well supplying your water.

An odour or taste associated with a new water heater should disappear after a few full flushes of the tank. If there were residual chemicals or cleaners inside the new tank or on fittings that have been changed, they should have been washed through the system by now. Since your tank uses only electric elements to heat water, there should be lubricants or oils associated with its operation.

A more likely source of the smell is the well itself, or the pipes and fixtures attached to the water supply system. Water pumps, just like water heaters, have a limited life expectancy and require regular replacement. When bearings wear on a pump, there's a chance that this deterioration could create an odour similar to what you're experiencing.

So, the pump is the first place I'd look at for a cause, especially since you have excessive air exiting the showerhead. If the pump is noisy when activated, or if it runs for a long time before ending a cycle, it may be nearing the end of its life.

If the pump is newer or in good working order, the next place to look is the water supply. Many people treat well water with an iron filter or salt bath to help remove annoying and problematic minerals. These items require regular maintenance, and contamination of either component could be the root of the issue.

Most plumbers now use PEX water-supply piping, but components for soldering copper could temporarily leave a mild odour or taste in the water. Soldering flux may leave an oily residue after heating, but this normally will be flushed out quite quickly after the pipes are put back in service. Getting a plumber to check all the components, especially those changed by the installer, may find the problem.

If all of this checks out fine, then the next place to look is the water itself. If you're not treating your water, it may contain a fair amount or iron, calcium and other dissolved minerals that can build up inside a water heater. These minerals may create their own odours in the water, but you may have become accustomed to this and think that is the normal smell. The clean inside of the new water heater will not have these minerals, and the absence may allow you to smell other odours that were previously masked by them. That may be why you detect a "normal" smell to the water that comes directly from the well.

While it may be very difficult to find the source of your smelly water, even for an plumber experienced with well-water systems, further testing may alert you any serious issues with it other han simple annoyance. Check with local testing labs, mostly located in Winnipeg, to find out the proper method for water sampling. They will supply you with sterilized bottles and instructions for collection and drop-off at the labs. Chemical analysis of the samples may identify some contaminant in the water, which may lead you to the true culprit, or ease your mind if nothing is found.

Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the President of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors - Manitoba ( Questions can be e-mailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at (204) 291-5358 or check out his website at


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 F10

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