Stinky Water

Dear NH,
In your article on saving money when heating water, you advise lowering the temperature of water heaters. This may be poor advice. While there may be a financial saving, there is a serious chance of increased corrosion (i.e. shorter unit life) and a definite chance of hydrogen sulphide generation in storage systems producing black water and noxious smells.
BR from Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

"Who ate the beans?" Stinky hydrogen sulfide gas, the notorious rotten egg that is the bane of many homeowners, can naturally occur in well water or can be caused by a variety of chemical reactions between bacteria, sulphates, and even with the magnesium "sacrificial" anode rod in a water heater tank. The sacrificial anode is designed to dissolve more easily than the metal parts of the tank, thus prolonging tank life. In some circumstances, the anode can actually cause odors and removing it will decrease or even eliminate the odor.

Though very high water temperatures can kill bacteria, it's a very dangerous solution. According to Larry Weingarten, author of The Water Heater Workbook, "Another trick that does not work is to temporarily turn up the heat (on the water heater) as high as it will go. These bacteria will quickly reappear unless the condition in the tank is made less hospitable to them. In addition, the scald risk is tremendous with 160 or 170 degree water."

Thus, the best and safest solution to odorous water is to pre-treat the water with a suitable combination of chemical treatment and filtration. Also, troublesome wells can be super-chlorinated to destroy bacterial contamination (though it is useful to ascertain the source of contamination).

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