If there’s one contaminant that’s easy to detect in your well water, it’s sulfur. Not only does it come with that signature rotten egg smell, but if the levels are high enough, you may even be able to taste the sulfur in your water too.
Nobody wants to drink (or shower) in water that reeks of rotten eggs, but fortunately, there are ways that you can test for hydrogen sulfide in your water and get rid of it. Here’s what you need to know about how to get rid of sulfur in well water.
Table of Contents
What Does a “Rotten Egg Smell” Mean?
If your well water begins carrying a rotten egg stench, there are usually two main culprits: you’re dealing with sulfur bacteria or natural decay and chemical reactions.
Of the two, sulfur bacteria tends to be the more common cause when people start to smell rotten eggs – coliform bacteria, which may get inside your well water, feed off sulfur for energy and then release hydrogen sulfide as waste. The result is that rotten egg smell whenever you turn on the tap or try to take a shower.
The less common cause of the smell has to do with natural decay in soil. Some chemical reactions may release hydrogen sulfide naturally, get carried by groundwater, and end up in your well water.
How Does Sulfur Get Into Your Well Water?
Regardless of whether it is natural decay or sulfur bacteria that causes the smell, how does hydrogen sulfide end up in your water system? Most of the time, sulfur gets into the system through groundwater or rainwater or a build-up of sulfur bacteria in your hot water heater.
Sulfur in Hot Water Heaters
The warm environment in and around your water heater provides a great environment for sulfur bacteria to thrive in, and these bacteria can also accumulate if you don’t use your heater regularly.
However, hydrogen sulfide can also get produced if you have a magnesium rod in your water heater. With regular usage, soft water entering the heater can slowly break down the magnesium and produce hydrogen sulfide as a result.
Sulfur in Groundwater
A more common way that sulfur ends up in your well water is through rain or groundwater. Groundwater naturally passes through soil, rocks, and other organic matter – and it’s not unusual for it to pick elements along the way, including sulfur.
In small amounts, a little sulfur in your well water may not be an issue, but if you’re smelling or tasting it, that’s an indicator that the sulfur levels are too high.
Is Sulfur in Your Well Water Harmful?
Although hydrogen sulfide in your water isn’t an immediate emergency, it can come with a few harmful side effects the longer it goes untreated.
Dehydration and Diarrhea
If the levels are high enough, the sulfur in your water can have a laxative-like effect that leads to diarrhea and, in extreme cases, dehydration. While these symptoms can alleviate over time as your body adjusts to drinking more sulfur, many people prefer not to deal with them at all.
Growth of Iron Bacteria
Besides leading to a few health complications, another major reason to get rid of sulfur in your well water has to do with the growth of iron bacteria. These bacteria occur naturally, but high levels of hydrogen sulfide can encourage their growth in your water system.
These slimy organisms leave behind rust-like deposits that stick to the sides of your pipes and pumps, and if there’s enough of them, they can clog your system and affect how much well water gets produced. In extreme cases, iron bacteria can back up your entire system and leave you with hardly any well water.
Metal Corrosion and Stains
Sulfur in your well water can also corrode your system and damage any metal pipes and pumps. Sulfur naturally corrodes steel and iron, but if you’re using your water supply for laundry or washing dishes, it can also leave stains behind. You may notice black stains on your laundry or discoloration on your utensils.
Besides the health risks, the growth of iron bacteria, and the corrosion of your pipes, hydrogen sulfide also has an unpleasant smell that can make it hard to use your well water. The rotten egg stench can linger around your home, and it can discourage a lot of homeowners from using their well water for drinking or bathing.
How to Test for Hydrogen Sulfide in Well Water
The most obvious indicator that you’re dealing with sulfur in your well water is that rotten egg smell – but it’s not the only sign that your water could have high levels of hydrogen sulfide. If you’re noticing discoloration on your dishes, stains on your laundry, or even just frequent clogs, you may want to go ahead and test for sulfates in your water.
Many people end up purchasing a water testing kit – which usually tests for common contaminants, like iron, hydrogen sulfide, and manganese. You’ll just need to dip a testing strip into your water, and you should have the results within a few minutes.
If you do plan to test your water, it’s a good idea to get a sample from both your cold and hot water faucets. In some cases, only one of those supplies may have sulfur in them, which can help narrow down how the sulfide is getting in.
For instance, if the test indicates that your hot water sample has sulfur, but your cold water supply doesn’t, there’s a good chance the culprit may be your water heaters. If both samples test positive for sulfur, the problem is likely within your actual well system.
Still, some people may choose to pay a laboratory for water testing rather than purchasing their own testing kit – laboratory testing is less affordable, but the results tend to be more accurate, and it can give you a better idea of how much hydrogen sulfide is in your well water.
How to Get Rid of Sulfur in Your Well Water
Whether you’ve tested your well water through a laboratory or with your own testing kit, the next step is getting rid of the hydrogen sulfide that you do find. While there are multiple ways you can do this, these are the three most common ways to do so.
Chlorine Chemical Feed Pump
If you’re dealing with extremely high levels of sulfur (over 6 mg/l), then you may want to use chemical treatments. These chemical treatments rely on chlorine bleach and hydrogen peroxide, which reacts with the sulfur, and deoxidizes it. You’ll also see this same chemical treatment used with water that has high levels of manganese or iron.
Hydrogen peroxide and chlorine bleach don’t just get rid of the sulfur, but they should help rid your home of that unpleasant odor as well.
If you do plan to go with chemical treatments, you’ll need to purchase and install a chlorine chemical feed pump for your well system. The chemical feed pump automatically registers the amount of chlorine or hydrogen peroxide that your water needs and gets rid of the sulfur before it ever gets to your tap. Some chemical feed pumps may also allow you to set your own chlorine bleach levels if you prefer.
The chlorinated water from the pump gets stored in a tank and automatically refills itself with fresh well water every time the tank gets low.
Using Oxidizing Media Filters
Oxidizing media filters, also sometimes called aeration treatments or air injection treatments, is another way to rid your well water of sulfur (or high levels of iron). An oxidizing media filter may be the right choice if your sulfur levels are lower than 6 mg/l.
The oxidizing media filter does just what the name suggests: it oxidizes the hydrogen sulfide gas back into sulfur particles and then traps it in the media filter. The sulfur particles are insoluble and now incapable of making it past the filter and into your drinking water.
Keep in mind that oxidizing media filters may require a little more maintenance, including a potassium permanganate solution when it comes time for regeneration.
You can see some of the best well water filters here which have air injection oxidation technology.
Installing Activated Carbon Filters
For much smaller levels of sulfur (1 mg/l or less), you can install activated carbon filters to take care of the problem. The carbon filter traps the hydrogen sulfide gas and prevents it from making it all the way into your home.
The only issue with activated carbon filters is that they don’t always have the longest service life – at least compared to oxidizing media filters or chemical treatments. The carbon filter only works until the filter is saturated, so the more sulfur in your system, the shorter the lifespan of the filter is.
However, if there’s only a small amount of hydrogen sulfide, your carbon whole house water filter could potentially last for several months or years before you have to replace it.
Replace Your Water Heater Magnesium Rod
If the water heater is the issue (more specifically, the water heater’s magnesium rod), you may just need to replace the rod to prevent further build-up of sulfates. Just make sure your new rod is not magnesium so that it doesn’t end up reacting with your water and creating hydrogen sulfide as a byproduct.
Drilling a New Well
Although it’s often a last result, there may be some cases where the only way to truly get rid of the sulfur in your water supply is by drilling a new well in a new different formation. This may occur when there are extremely high levels of sulfur in the groundwater, and even chemical treatments can’t completely get rid of it.
Getting Rid of Sulfur in Well Water FAQs
Still have questions about how to get rid of sulfur in well water? Here’s everything else you should know.
What is the Best Way to Get Sulfur Out of Your Well Water?
Unfortunately, there’s no “best” method for getting sulfur out of your well water – it depends on your specific situation. If you’re dealing with extremely high levels of sulfates, you may opt for chemical treatments or even drilling a new well if the problem is severe enough.
However, for much smaller levels, oxidizing media filters or an activated carbon filter may take care of the problem.
Of course, you may also need to take into account if you’re dealing with other contaminants as well – media filters can also take care of high levels of iron while chemical treatments can handle iron and manganese.
How Often Should You Be Testing for Sulfur?
All too often, homeowners only test for sulfates when they smell that rotten egg stench, but there’s no reason to wait that long. Just because you don’t smell anything doesn’t mean you don’t have sulfur in your well water – it may just be a lower concentration.
Regardless of whether you smell it or not, it’s recommended that you test private wells and water heaters once a year for sulfur as well as other common contaminants.
What Signs Indicate Sulfur in Your Well Water?
Besides that signature rotten egg smell, here are some common signs that point to higher levels of sulfur in your well water:
- Corrosion in your water pipes or your water heater
- Black or dark-colored stains on your laundry after you run it through the washer
- Stains or discoloration on your dishes, especially copper and brass utensils
- An odd odor on your clothing after you’ve washed it
Detecting and getting rid of sulfur levels in your water can be tricky, especially if you don’t already have experience with the issue. Once you’ve tested the water, you may want to reach out to your local Department of Health and inquire about the best way to treat your private well.
Or, if you’re unable to tell where the sulfur is coming from, you can always book an inspection with a certified professional.