DIY Smelly Water Heater Solutions: Save Money and Say Goodbye to Odors!

Discover the ultimate guide to effortlessly eliminate unpleasant odors from your smelly water heater!

Are you tired of dealing with the irritating odors emanating from your stinky hot water? Wondering about the causes behind this issue and if it can be fixed or prevented? Are you contemplating whether to call a plumber or take matters into your own hands?

Fear not!

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In this guide, we will address the smelly water heater problem head-on.

We will explore the root causes of the odors, provide effective solutions to fix and prevent them, and discuss whether a plumber’s assistance is necessary. We’ll also determine if the smell originates from the water heater alone or if it’s related to your plumbing system.

How to Fix a Smelly Water Heater: Things to Consider

Brief Overview of the Issue

Having a smelly water heater can be a frustrating and unpleasant experience for homeowners. The issue typically manifests as foul odors emanating from the hot water, making it unappealing and sometimes even unusable. Common odors associated with a smelly water heater include a rotten egg or sulfur-like odor, a metallic, rusty, or a musty odor.

To ensure that the odor is indeed coming from the water heater and not elsewhere, conduct a quick and straightforward test. Follow these steps:

  1. Open the cold water tap: Begin by turning on the cold water tap in your home. Take a moment to sniff the water. If there is no unpleasant odor, it indicates that the source of the smell is not in the cold water plumbing system.
  2. Smell sulfur with hot water: Now, turn on the hot water tap and carefully take a sniff. If you detect a sulfur-like smell, it’s a strong indication that the issue lies within the water heater. In such cases, read on for an explanation of the problem and a step-by-step guide on how to fix it.

By conducting this simple test, you can confidently confirm whether the smelly water heater is the culprit and proceed with the appropriate measures to resolve the problem.

Importance of Addressing the Problem

The importance of addressing this problem cannot be overstated. Here are a few reasons why it’s crucial to take action:

  1. Water quality: The odors coming from your heater can indicate potential issues with water quality. Unpleasant smells often result from the presence of bacteria, sediment, or other contaminants in the water. By addressing the problem, you can improve the overall quality and safety of your water supply.
  2. Health and well-being: Foul odors from the water heater can make it unappealing to use hot water for various purposes, such as bathing, cooking, or cleaning. It can negatively impact your daily routines and compromise your comfort and hygiene.
  3. Elimination of odors: Smelly water can permeate throughout your home, causing an unpleasant and persistent odor that can be challenging to eliminate.
  4. Longevity of the water heater: Neglecting a smelly water heater can lead to further damage and reduce the lifespan of the appliance. For instance, sediment buildup can cause corrosion, decreased efficiency, and even potential leaks. By promptly addressing the issue, you can extend the lifespan of your water heater and avoid costly repairs or premature replacement.
  5. Cost savings: A smelly water heater may prompt homeowners to unnecessarily increase the temperature setting to try and eliminate the odors. This can result in higher energy bills.

What Is the Cause of a Smelly Hot Water Problem?

Smelly water heater problems in homes are mainly found in tank-type models, especially when the water is supplied from a well. The most recognizable odor is a rotten egg or sulfur smell.

The cause of a smelly hot water problem can vary, but some common factors include:

  1. Bacterial growth: Certain types of bacteria can thrive in warm water environments, especially when the water heater has been inactive for a few days, allowing water to sit stagnant in the tank. The presence of bacteria can also be a result of sediment buildup or inadequate disinfection of the water heater.
  2. Sediment accumulation: Over time, sediment, such as minerals and debris, can settle at the bottom of the water heater tank. When the water heats up, the sediment can release unpleasant odors, impacting the quality of the hot water.
  3. Corroded or depleted anode rod: The anode rod is a sacrificial component that helps prevent corrosion inside the water heater tank. As the anode rod deteriorates over time, it creates an ideal environment for bacteria to grow. The bacteria utilize sulfates as an energy source and convert them into hydrogen sulfide gas, resulting in the unpleasant rotten egg smell.
  4. Poor water quality: If the water supply has a high mineral content or contains certain impurities, it can result in unpleasant smells when heated. The water heater can amplify these odors and distribute them throughout the hot water supply.
  5. Low chlorine levels: In regions where the municipal water supply has low chlorine levels, or if there is an increased amount of sulfates, such as in older iron piping, the smelly water problem can occur.

Some may suggest removing the anode rod as a solution to eliminate the smell, but this is not recommended. The anode rod serves the purpose of protecting the metal water tank from corrosion, a process known as cathode protection. Removing the anode rod would expose the tank to aggressive water action, potentially leading to corrosion and damage. The anode rod is crucial for extending the lifespan of the water heater.

It’s important to note that hydrogen sulfide gas and the sulfur smell can also originate from sources other than the water heater, such as groundwater, distribution systems, sewage systems, or areas with bacteria and sulfur present. While the smell may be unpleasant, it does not pose a significant safety issue.

How to Fix a Smelly Water Heater

Fixing and preventing a smelly water heater involves a combination of cleaning, maintenance, and implementing preventive measures. Here are some steps to help you address the issue:

  1. Flushing the water heater: Sediment buildup is a common cause of smelly water. Flushing the water heater tank can help remove accumulated sediment and debris.
  2. Disinfecting the water heater: If bacteria are causing the smell, disinfecting the water heater can help eliminate the problem. Disinfect the tank by using a hydrogen peroxide solution or chlorine bleach. Note that hydrogen peroxide is safe and recommended for use, and if combined with a higher temperature (above 160 F), the problem can be solved. Keep in mind that this flushing has to be done correctly and thoroughly as the problem can appear again and soon after.
  3. Checking and replacing the anode rod: The anode rod plays a crucial role in preventing corrosion inside the water heater tank. Over time, the rod can become corroded or depleted, which can lead to smelly water. It is important to regularly inspect the anode rod and replace it if necessary. In fact, experts suggest replacing the magnesium anode with an aluminum/zinc type for most economy-value water heaters, as well as higher-quality models. However, it’s important to note that if a water softener is installed, it can actually accelerate anode deterioration and increase the risk of odor development.
  4. Increasing temperature temporarily: Raising the temperature setting on the water heater temporarily can help kill bacteria causing the smell.
  5. Proper ventilation: Ensure proper ventilation around the water heater to prevent the buildup of moisture and stagnant air. Good airflow can help prevent the growth of bacteria and reduce the chances of foul odors.
  6. Regular maintenance: Schedule regular maintenance for your water heater, including professional inspections and servicing. This helps identify and address any issues before they become major problems.
  7. Proper water treatment: If your water supply contains high levels of minerals or impurities, consider installing a water treatment system or using water filters to improve water quality and prevent odor-related issues.
  8. Promptly address leaks: If you notice any leaks or water puddles around the water heater, have them repaired immediately to prevent further damage and potential odor problems.

How to Prevent a Smelly Water Heater

What’s even more important is preventing the development of the rotten egg smell. One highly effective method to achieve this is by installing a powered anode rod.

You can opt to purchase a water heater that comes with a built-in powered anode rod. For electric water heaters, an excellent example is the AO Smith Voltex HHPT-80, while for gas-type heaters, the AO Smith XE Effex is a great option.

A powered anode rod serves the same purpose as a standard anode rod: protecting the metal tank from corrosion. However, it is constructed using a stronger material – titanium. The key difference is that the rod utilizes a small wall-mounted power controller that is plugged into an electrical outlet. It features an LED light as a visual alert.

The powered anode rod is designed to emit a small amount of electricity into the metal tank, where it remains without posing any danger to the operator. It does not function during a power outage.

Unlike sacrificial anode rods, the powered anode does not require maintenance as it does not deteriorate over time. Therefore, it does not need to be replaced. However, it is worth noting that the powered anode tends to have a higher price compared to the standard type. Additionally, while conventional anode rods are known for their durability, powered anode rods may be prone to breakage.

If you have a water softener already installed or plan to install one, it can actually benefit the performance of the powered anode. The improved water conductivity reduces the strain on the anode, resulting in an extended service life for the rod. In fact, powered anodes often outlast the water heater itself, and some manufacturers even offer warranties of up to 20 years.

If Looking to Buy a New Water Heater

If you’re considering replacing an old water heater and want to avoid future smelly odor issues, there are several options available to you:

  1. Opt for a water heater with a plastic water tank. For example, the electric units from Marathon by Rheem are a good choice. These plastic tanks are resistant to corrosion and eliminate the risk of smelly water caused by metal tank deterioration.
  2. Consider a water heater with a stainless steel storage tank. Brands like Polaris and Westinghouse offer models with stainless steel tanks that provide excellent corrosion resistance and durability. This helps prevent the development of odors and extends the lifespan of the water heater.
  3. Explore tankless water heater optionsTankless water heaters do not store water like traditional tank-type heaters. They heat water on demand, eliminating the risk of stagnant water and subsequent odor issues. Rinnai, Noritz, and Takagi are reputable brands known for their high-quality tankless water heaters.


Dealing with a smelly hot water heater is crucial for a pleasant and hygienic home environment. Understanding the causes, such as bacteria growth and corrosion, allows you to take appropriate steps for a solution. Regular maintenance, like flushing the tank and inspecting/replacing the anode rod, helps prevent odors.

Considering alternative options like plastic/stainless steel tanks or tankless units can prevent future odor issues. If unsure or lack DIY skills, consult a professional plumber for expert guidance and safe installation.

Taking proactive measures ensures a reliable and odor-free water heating system, enhancing home comfort and well-being.

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