Imagine it’s a hot summer day. You return home after a nice jog and head straight to the kitchen to drink a refreshing glass of water, only to find out it smells like a swimming pool. And now your day is ruined.
If your tap water smells like chlorine, don’t panic—it’s a common concern among homeowners on a municipal water supply. Local authorities disinfect the water supply with chlorine regularly, and sometimes a chlorine smell can linger in your drinking water. If you’re a private well owner, there are situations where well water may emit a chlorine smell as well.
Chlorine is not harmful to you as long as it remains within a safe limit, but it can indeed be unappetizing.
Keep reading to learn why tap water sometimes smells like chlorine, how too much chlorine can harm your health, and how you can make your water smell fresh again.
Why Does Your Tap Water Smell Like Chlorine?
First, you should understand the difference between chlorine and bleach. Some of you might confuse the two and think they can be used interchangeably, but that’s not correct.
Bleach is an umbrella term for many disinfectant chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and sodium hypochlorite (NaClO), which contains chlorine, hence the similar smell. Private well systems use chlorine as a disinfectant, not bleach chemicals.
Even if you think your tap water smells like bleach, what you’re actually smelling in your tap water is a form of chlorine that forms two products: hypochlorous acid (HOCL) and hypochlorite ions (OCl–)—also collectively known as “free chlorine.”
Now let’s discuss how chlorine gets in your tap water and why the smell is so intense sometimes.
Reason 1: The EPA regulates local water treatment plants
The Environmental Protection Agency has set legal limits for over 90 harmful contaminants in water and regularly monitors the public water system. To prevent waterborne diseases (like cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery) and other health risks, water is treated according to the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR) and Surface Water Treatment Rules (SWTRs) before it is supplied to your home.
One such water treatment involves the injection of chlorine into the water to banish microbes like E.coli, cryptosporidium, giardia lamblia, and enteric viruses. Such contaminants originate from human and animal waste and are known to cause gastrointestinal diseases, such as diarrhea, vomiting, and stomachache.
Free chlorine attacks the cell membrane of such pathogenic molecules and removes them completely.
Adding chlorine to water is a relatively easy and affordable water treatment method. In cases of floods and heavy rains, this quick process can effectively remove microbial contamination in water due to surface runoff.
For homeowners on municipal water, sometimes tap water smells heavily of chlorine due to over-chlorination by water treatment plants. Also, if the water has to travel to far-off areas, local authorities add a slightly higher amount of chlorine to the water. So if you live near the plant, you will likely receive more than your share, intensifying the smell.
Legal limits set by the EPA
The EPA has set a legal limit of 4 mg/L, or 4 parts per million (PPM) of chlorine in water, and at that limit it’s absolutely safe to have trace amounts of chlorine in your drinking water. If you have a sensitive nose, you’ll start to smell chlorine from as low as 1 mg of chlorine in a liter of water.
The use of chloramine
The EPA has also regulated the use of chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, to disinfect water. Water treated with chloramine is less smelly than water treated with chlorine.
Chloramine has a lower oxidation potential (ability to react with pathogens) than chlorine and is a weaker disinfectant. However, this disinfectant can stay potent for a long period of time, unlike chlorine, which gets used up quickly. When water is supplied across long distances, chloramine is used to disinfect water all the way to the end of pipes.
The safe limit for chloramine in drinking water is the same as chlorine: 4 mg/L, or 4 PPM.
Both chlorine and chloramine have pros and cons, but as long as they’re within the safe limits, they’re safe to consume.
Reason 2: The municipality performs shock chlorination
During rainy seasons, heavy snow and rainfall can contaminate source water with local runoff. In such extreme contamination incidents, municipal water shock chlorination is often the only solution.
The amount of chlorine used by the treatment plant depends on the level of contamination. So, if, unfortunately, the water is heavily laden with toxins, a high amount of chlorine is injected, and you might receive water with an unusually intense chlorine smell.
The good news is that the chlorine smell from shock chlorination lasts only a few days.
Reason 3: Chlorine can form nasty compounds with organic matter
In some cases, chlorine reacts with organic matter in your well and plumbing pipes to form compounds that can produce a chemical-like odor. These compounds are collectively called trihalomethanes (THMs) and include chloroform and bromoform, which smell like bleach.
The smell can go away if you run your taps for a few minutes. In severe cases, you might need to clean out your pipes and consult an expert.
Reason 4: It’s your chlorine injection tank!
If you have a private well connected to a chlorine injection tank, there’s only one source of a chlorine smell in your tap water. Yes, you guessed it right. Chemical injection filters can sometimes malfunction and release a high dosage of chlorine in your water. In such a case, immediately disconnect the system from your well and fix the issue before connecting it again.
Harmful Effects of Too Much Chlorine in Well Water
Now to the most important question—how can chlorine and its by-products harm you?
The short answer is as long as chlorine doesn’t exceed the safe limits, it is safe to consume. Note that 4 mg/L is the safety threshold and the highest level of exposure recommended by the EPA. It’s better to have chlorine around the concentration of 2–3 mg/L to be on the safe side.
Chlorine and chloramine can damage your health
Drinking water with high amounts of chlorine for a long time can lead to serious health problems, including damage to your bladder, colon, and stomach, as well as certain types of cancer. Chloramine, on the other hand, can damage the lungs and kidneys.
Bathing with over-chlorinated water can cause irritation and dryness in the eyes, skin, and nasal passage. You might also inhale and absorb harmful by-products in the form of acidic fumes emerging from hot chlorine water and experience chest tightness and sore throat.
Chlorine can form disinfection by-products (DBS) that also include total tetrahalomethanes (TTHM) by reacting with organic compounds in pipes and fixtures. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, long-term exposure to DBS in drinking water can cause numerous health issues. It’s the duty of private water systems to keep an eye on the concentration of DBS and take prompt action to remove these toxins.
In addition, TTHMs are known to be carcinogenic and can be detrimental to the stomach, kidneys, and lungs. According to the EPA’s instruction, the safe limit for TTHA consumption is 80 mg/L as an annual average.
If you own aquatic pets, you must keep a close check on your chlorine levels in the aquarium, as it can severely harm them.
Chlorine can damage plant life
Chlorine is detrimental to plants and grass. So before watering your garden, make sure your water is fresh and free of chlorine. If you have houseplants, you may want to water them with filtered water.
Chlorine can damage your plumbing fixtures
Chlorine can react with organic matter, such as tannins, to form a slimy biofilm that can clog your shower heads, sinks, and other fixtures. This organic film can contaminate your water and release a foul smell throughout your system.
Chlorine and chloramine in high concentrations can be very harsh on plastic and rubber components in your plumbing system. Unless your pipes are made of chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC), chlorine can damage plastic pipes and form cracks and holes with time.
Plus, chlorine is damaging to copper. Exposure to high concentrations for a long period of time can accelerate corrosion and eat away the insides of copper pipes, releasing metallic ions and rusty compounds into your water.
Chlorine can damage your water softener
What’s more, even your filtration equipment is not entirely safe from the harm of chlorine water. High amounts of chlorine can oxidize the resin beads and require replacement of this component in your water softener more often than usual.
You can avoid this issue by installing a chlorine filtration system before your water softener.
How to Test for Chlorine in Water
As a well owner, you should always have some kind of water-testing kit at home to test for different contaminants in your drinking water. And if you’re on a municipal water supply and you think you have too much chlorine in your tap water, a water-testing kit is the first step to getting answers.
Chlorine testing kits are easily available to test for total chlorine, residual chlorine, and free chlorine in water. The easiest and cheapest way is to use test strips that change color when dipped in tap water. The new colors that appear on the strip are then matched with a standard color scale on the package. This method, although not perfectly accurate, will give you a rough idea of how much chlorine is in your water.
Other methods include a chemical called orthotolidine that changes color in the presence of chlorine, a DPD (diethyl-p-phenylenediamine) test which measures free and total chlorine in pool water, and a digital colorimeter.
If you’re not satisfied with at-home tests, you can always send a sample to an accredited laboratory and get your water tested for a plethora of harmful contaminants.
How to Remove Chlorine Smell from Drinking Water
You can follow a few quick methods to remove the funky smell from your drinking water. I’ll also discuss long-term solutions so you never have to smell chlorine again.
- One easy way to remove chlorine smell is to refrigerate your water in a pitcher before drinking it. The smell goes away as the water cools.
- Boiling tap water in a pan can also diminish the chlorine smell. You can use it directly to make any hot beverage or refrigerate it for a few hours to use for drinking or cooking.
- Another quick fix is to add a few drops of lemon to your water. It will not only reduce the chlorine smell but also make your drink more refreshing, with a pinch of vitamin C.
- Dechlorination tablets are another common way of removing the smell from your water. You can easily find these pills in any general store and pharmacy.
- Also, try reducing the temperature of water heaters, as hot water can give off a more pungent chlorine smell.
If you’re on city water, I suggest investing in a filtration system that takes care of chlorine odor for good. Here are a few of the most common and popular kinds of home filtration systems:
Granular activated carbon filter
Some carbon filters are best for removing excessive chlorine and chlorine by-products. For example, activated carbon filters are designed to remove 90–95% of chlorine along with other harmful contaminants.
A premium carbon filter is available within the price range of $50–$500. They are not heavy on the budget and perform the job perfectly.
A distillation system works by vaporizing water and condensing the clean water free of contaminants. It’s a highly efficient method for removing almost any impurity, including chlorine. But not everyone can afford it. Distillation systems can cost as much as $5,000.
Reverse osmosis filtration system (RO)
Reverse osmosis is yet another highly efficient method for removing all kinds of contaminants that develop a questionable taste in drinking water. RO uses a semipermeable membrane of a micron size of 0.0001, which can filter out many types of microbes, metals, and organic pollutants.
You can buy either a whole-house RO system or point-of-use system for your kitchen taps. RO filters will cost you anywhere from $300–$4,000, depending on the size and quality of the equipment.
Contact your local water authority
Nearly every US water provider uses shock chlorination on a regular basis to disinfect water. If you are located near water treatment facilities, you’ll face the trouble of water that smells like chlorine almost daily. In such cases, it’s best to contact your local authority and discuss a permanent solution to your problem.
Alternate Ways to Disinfect Your Private Wells
Private well owners often perform shock chlorination to disinfect water. According to the EPA, chlorine is the best disinfectant, but it can leave a smell and make your water unappealing.
How about you go for other disinfecting techniques that don’t involve injecting chemicals in your wells?
UV disinfection filters
For private well owners, an ultraviolet (UV) filter is a great option. UV filters are designed to neutralize bacteria, viruses, and other potentially dangerous microorganisms. A pre-filter must be installed before UV filters for it to function smoothly. UV filters will cost around $500–$1,500. If getting one for the whole house doesn’t suit your budget, you can get one for your kitchen tap only. A UV filter will save you from the hassle of disinfecting your well with gallons of chlorine.
Ozone disinfection filters
An ozone disinfectant filter readily oxidizes bacteria and viruses by rupturing their cellular structures. Ozone also removes metals and organic materials from drinking water. It’s a great alternative if you are tired of the unappealing stench and want no trace of chlorine in your water. Ozone disinfectant filters are available in both point-of-use and point-of-entry designs.
Premium quality ozone filters are available within the price range of $700–$3,000.
It’s normal to occasionally smell chlorine in your tap water. Public water systems will keep using chlorine to disinfect your water until a “non-smelly” and equally effective alternative is discovered. But the effects of chlorine and its by-products are far less detrimental than the waterborne diseases caused by bacteria and viruses lurking in untreated water.
Chlorine is completely safe to consume as long as it’s less than 4 mg/L. But you should test your water quality regularly for any changes, either by using at-home kits or taking a sample to a nearby laboratory, because too much chlorine can be dangerous.
The best solution to too much chlorine in tap water is to install a water filtration system, such as a carbon filter, distiller, or reverse osmosis filter to keep your chlorine levels low all the time.