How Do I Get Better-Tasting Water?

Q: We have a deep well, and the water has a lot of iron and that rotten-egg-like sulfur smell. A water-softening system makes the water fine for laundry and bathing, but it doesn’t taste nice. The system’s old, and we’d like to replace it with something that could solve the taste problem. Anything new out there? — B. V. Wood, Katonah
A: I have the same problem at my house, so, even though conversations with plumbers usually leave me feeling that we might as well be discussing matters in a Slavic tongue for all I’m able to grasp, I was pleased to delve in for you.
Joe Scollan, whose Mahopac company, Bee & Jay Plumbing, has been dealing with such problems for 46 years, says that, to answer your question accurately, he’d need to know the precise chemistry of your water. There are various minerals and contaminants that require different treatments, and there are several “green” methods. But Westchester water typically has “a fair amount of iron and it’s usually high in calcium,” Scollan says. Both of those play havoc with your pipes and appliances, and make cleaning products less effective. “So a new water softener is the best, first line of defense. It protects your plumbing system against corrosion and calcium buildup, and the payoff is clear, soft water,” he says. According to Scollan, the technology has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Modern systems are extremely efficient—they take out more minerals, they’re very durable, they’re low maintenance, and they consume far less water and salts to backwash and clean themselves. (I’m picturing a little creature down in the cellar at this point.)
Essentially, a water softener takes out hard minerals by creating a process in which mineral ions in the water are attracted to a thing called the resin bed inside the softener. Every so often, a wash of potassium chloride flows over the resin bed, pulls off the minerals that are stuck on the surface, and flushes them down the drain. “There’s a final rinse cycle with fresh water, like in a washing machine,” Scollan says, which gets the resin bed ready for another round. “The nice thing is that the resin bed in the new softeners will last 15 to 20 years, so the only curveball is that you need to protect it from sediment — silt, sand, iron,” which you trap with a filter.
A good system begins at about $1500 to $1800, depending on the size of your home, how many people live there, and the water chemistry. Properly softened water usually has a bland taste. If there’s still a flavor you don’t like, Scollan recommends you install a whole-house carbon filter. “It’s a wonderful addition, a great taste- and odor-polisher,” he notes. Such a system, which removes any lingering taste and smell, would be installed in the basement, and costs about the same as a water softener.
Neither soluble iron nor sulfur in drinking water are health hazards, but both are nasty. If those minerals are your only problem, “a chlorinator could work well, depending on the amount in the water,” Scollan says. Then, you follow up with a filter to trap the iron deposits and a carbon filter to eliminate the swimming-pool taste. You can either have a dry-pellet chlorinator installed on the wellhead or put an inline chlorinator in the basement. “Sort of like an IV,” Scollan adds. A greensand iron filter is an option if your “raw” water has rust in it. If you have very low levels of sulfur, an aerator might do the trick by (as I understand it) bubbling the smell away.
Finally, UV treatments destroy nasty organisms that might be lurking in your well. “Plumbing is not an earth-shattering subject for most folks,” Scollan admits, when I explain that I’m supposed to interpret this info rather than send everyone straight to his website (here’s his website: “But if you soften and filter your water, all your ducks are in a row.”

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