Turning on your sink only to notice that your water is yellow, brown, red or otherwise discolored can be quite scary. In this situation, the first thing you’ll want to know is whether the water is safe for drinking, cooking or bathing. The answer to that question depends entirely on the specific issue that is causing your water to be discolored. In this article, we’ll explain the different issues that can lead to discolored water, what to do if your water is discolored and how to know if your water is or isn’t safe to drink.

Air Bubbles

There are often times when the cold water from your tap will look milky or cloudy. If you fill up a glass and let it sit for a few minutes, the water will normally clear up as its temperature slowly increases. The cloudy or milky color should start clearing up near the bottom of the glass and slowly work its way up until the whole glass is clear. If the milkiness does go away within a few minutes, you have no need to worry, as your water is completely safe to drink.

In this case, the milky color comes from thousands of tiny air bubbles that are trapped in the water and slowly rise to the surface. Air is much more soluble in colder temperatures, which means that this milkiness is more common in winter when the air and water are colder.

Air is also more soluble at high pressure. When water is pumped through the municipal distribution system, lots of air can sometimes get trapped and give your tap water a milky appearance. Air can also get into the system if there is a broken water line or main somewhere in the system. In these situations, your water will typically return to normal within a day or two.

If you have milky water coming out of only one sink, it often indicates that the aerator in the faucet is clogged with silt and sediment. If the water coming from all your sinks is constantly cloudy even in the warmer months, it usually means that the water pressure in your house is too high. In this case, you should have a plumber check your water pressure and inspect your plumbing. If the pressure is above 60 psi, you may need to have a pressure-reducing valve installed or your existing valve repaired or replaced.

High water pressure is an issue as it can lead to plumbing appliances, such as dishwashers and washing machines, wearing out more quickly. The higher the pressure is, the more water flows out of your fixtures at one time. This means more water is wasted, leading to your water bills being higher than is necessary.

Hard Water

Hard water contains a large amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium. Extremely hard water can often have a cloudy appearance and taste chalky or metallic. If the cloudiness doesn’t go away after a few minutes, hard water is the most likely culprit. In this case, the solution is to install a water softener.

A water softener will remove the cloudy appearance and make your water taste better. However, the biggest benefit of installing a water softener is that it will protect your pipes and plumbing appliances. Hard water always leaves behind lots of mineral deposits that can slowly clog your pipes and reduce both the water pressure and flow rate. Mineral deposits will also shorten the lifespan of your dishwasher, washing machine, water heater and even your coffee maker.

Sediment Buildup in the Pipes

A high concentration of other minerals can also make your water discolored. For instance, lots of dissolved iron in the water can give it a yellow or brown color, and high levels of manganese will also make the water look brown. These issues are most common when you first run your water after being away from home for a longer time. Tap water normally contains some iron and manganese, but you usually don’t notice it because the concentration is low, and they are dissolved and suspended in the water.

If you don’t use your plumbing for a prolonged period, the minerals will often start to settle down inside your pipes. Once you’re home and turn a faucet or shower on, the water flowing through the pipes can disturb all the mineral sediment, so the water temporarily looks yellow or brown. As you continue to use your plumbing, the sediment will get flushed out of the pipes, and your water should return to normal.

If a water main breaks and the city must shut off the water supply for some time, sediment can also begin to settle. Once the water is turned back on, it can again disturb the sediment and cause your water to temporarily be discolored.

While iron and manganese are safe, we still wouldn’t recommend drinking the water if it is yellow or brown until you are sure of the specific cause. If the water returns to its normal color within a day or so, you can be fairly certain it is safe to drink. If the discoloration remains, you may want to contact the municipal water department and have a plumber perform an inspection and test your water for contaminants.

Sediment Buildup in Your Water Heater Tank

If only your hot water is cloudy, it indicates that there is a large buildup of sediment inside your water heater tank and that you need to have the unit flushed. When water is heated, some of the minerals it contains precipitate so that they are no longer suspended and start to settle. This sediment buildup is why tank water heaters need to be flushed yearly or even every few months. If not, the sediment will hamper the performance of your water heater, so it heats more slowly and less effectively and uses more energy.

Rust and Corrosion

Rust and corrosion inside your pipes or your water heater tank can also cause your water to be discolored. If your hot water is a reddish or brownish color, it means that the steel water heater tank is rusting. Flushing can sometimes help to fix the issue, but you may also need to replace your water heater if there is extensive rust.

Corrosion is a serious issue if your home has galvanized steel water lines. Galvanized steel contains a zinc coating that makes it more resistant to rusting and corrosion. However, the zinc coating will still slowly corrode over time, leading to lots of zinc leaking into the water. High concentrations of zinc will usually give water a cloudy appearance and a metallic taste. If you notice this issue, you should immediately switch to using bottled water and have your pipes inspected. If you have galvanized pipes that are corroded, you will need to have your home repiped and all the old water lines replaced.

If there is a high enough concentration of zinc in the water that you can see and taste it, it is definitely not safe to drink. Although zinc is naturally present in water and safe at low levels, high levels can be harmful to your health. An even bigger concern is that the zinc coating on galvanized pipes also contains many impurities, such as copper, iron, cadmium and lead, all of which can be toxic at high levels.

If you’re experiencing issues with discolored water or any other plumbing problems, Plumbtree Plumbing & Rooter is here to help. We specialize in all residential water, sewer, drain and gas services, and our team is ready to take care of all your plumbing repair, maintenance and installation needs. For more information or to schedule a service call in San Jose and the Silicon Valley area, contact us today.

Josh Gibson

Hi, I’m Josh. I’ve been around plumbing my whole life. When I was 5-6 years old my family built a home where I did a lot of the sanding of copper pipe and definitely some playing in the mud. Plumbing is a major part of my family as I am a fourth-generation plumber. The skills I bring to the job are a good technical knowledge of plumbing and code requirements. I am often complimented on my hands-on problem-solving skills.
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