7 Plumbing Issues That Can Affect Your Water Quality

Most of us never think about the pipes shuttling water into our homes—out of sight, out of mind. We assume that if the water tastes and looks fine, it must be safe, not recognizing the contamination hazards from potentially faulty pipes behind our walls and beneath our local streets.

In this article, we explore a few of the most common vulnerabilities in home and public plumbing systems and how they might affect the quality of the water flowing to your faucets, appliances, and showerheads. But before we delve into these issues, let’s discuss how water gets to your home.

How Water Gets to Your Home: The Journey from Source to Tap

Water usually travels long distances to reach homes and businesses. However, this journey can look somewhat different based on where your water comes from—whether a municipality or a water well. Let’s examine both paths.

Water from a Public Municipality

Urban towns and cities typically source their water from surface water bodies like rivers, lakes, reservoirs, or underground. After collecting the water, municipalities send it to treatment plants, where it undergoes a series of processes to remove contaminants and impurities. These processes often include coagulation, sedimentation, filtration, and disinfection, as explained further in this article.

Once treated, the water is stored in giant tanks onsite and distributed to homes and businesses through underground pipes, pumping stations, and mains. Almost magically, the water arrives at your home, ready for drinking, cooking, cleaning, dishwashing, laundry, showering, and other purposes.

The water pressure is maintained to ensure a steady flow to the consumers. Moreover, treatment plants continually resupply volumes held in the storage tanks as communities use the water. That way, supply meets demand seamlessly across neighborhoods and cities.

Water from a Well

If your water comes from a well, the journey to your tap will look quite different than if it were from the city. When it rains and snows, the water soaks into the ground. It travels down until it reaches a natural water-bearing layer called an aquifer. For you to use this water, a well gets drilled into the ground deep enough to access the aquifer. A pump, typically submerged down the well, pushes the water to the surface and into your home.

Once the water enters your home, it is distributed to various fixtures and appliances through a network of pipes. The water pressure allows it to flow through the pipes and reach the intended outlets, such as faucets, showers, and appliances like washing machines and dishwashers.

How Faulty Plumbing Affects Water Quality

Despite undergoing extensive treatment before reaching your home, your water can still fall victim to specific contamination issues, especially if there are weaknesses in your home’s plumbing system or the broader public infrastructure. Hidden defects in pipes and fixtures can worsen and start leaching potentially harmful pollutants into your water supply over time.

1. Corroded Pipes and Plumbing Fixtures

Remember grandma’s antique brass faucet you adored for its old-fashioned charm? As beautiful as such decor looks, aging brass and copper contain heavy metals that can wear down over time.

When pipes and fixtures corrode, their walls become compromised. Depending on the materials, potentially toxic heavy metals like lead, zinc, copper, and iron may break away from the walls and leach into the water as they journey to your home’s faucets and other water outlets. As a result, the water you use for everything, from drinking, cooking, and preparing baby formula to shower and cleaning, will be contaminated with heavy metals.

2. Old, Outdated Pipes and Plumbing

Generally, older plumbing systems don’t meet current safety and efficiency standards, leading to potential water quality issues. For instance, if your home was built before 1986 and you haven’t replaced your plumbing system, sad to say, there’s a high chance that it contains lead.

When water passes through lead plumbing components, a chemical reaction occurs between the water and the plumbing, causing them to rust. The water then dissolves the lead as it sits in the pipes or travels to your faucets. However, that’s just one part of the problem.

Even if your home is “lead-free,” your water can pick up lead as it journeys through municipal pipelines to your home. While laws have been passed to help replace lead pipes in public water systems, an estimated 9.2 million lead service lines still deliver water to homes, businesses, schools, daycares, and other properties across the U.S. today—despite lead pipes being banned decades ago.

When these pipes are exposed to acidic water or the water sits too long inside them, it may corrode them, causing lead to leach and contaminate the water flowing to your tap. This is outrageous, considering there’s no safe lead level in water, especially for children.

3. Rusty Pipes

Like aging household plumbing, which can erode and slowly release heavy metals into the water supply, old municipal service lines can rust internally over decades, causing metals to shake loose into neighborhood water mains.

With so many lead pipes still serving homes and businesses, there’s a good chance that our water supplies are contaminated with toxic lead and other potentially dangerous heavy metals. Not only can these elements impair the taste, color, and odor of water, but they can bioaccumulate in the body and cause various health problems.

Learn more: Heavy Metals in Water & The Risk of Bioaccumulation

4. Pin-Hole Leaks

Pin-hole leaks are precisely what they sound like—leaks caused by small, pin-sized perforations (typically less than 1/8 inch wide) on the exterior of pipes and plumbing, particularly those made of copper.

While pin-hole leaks are barely visible and aren’t usually a problem in and of themselves, they often indicate that pipes are in the late stages of decay, likely to rupture entirely soon. More immediately, a drop in water pressure can cause surrounding contaminants to get sucked into the water through the tiny holes and emerge from your faucets.

These tiny punctures allow everything from bacteria and parasites to fertilizers and solvents to siphon into distribution lines and infiltrate your drinking water supply.

5. Loose Connectors and Broken Seals

The miles of piping stretching underground rely on perfectly sealed connectors and valves to secure plumbing components and maintain a good water flow to our neighborhoods. However, heavy vibrations from traffic, earthquakes, other ground movements, and even excess water pressure can slowly loosen joints and break seals over time, increasing the risk of contamination.

For instance, when aging connectors and seals break, they create fractures between solders, pipes, and other fixtures that may introduce pathogens, sediment, heavy metals, and other pollutants into the supply line during pressure loss. Even minimal slack may cause a backflow of chemicals or microbes.

6. Cross-Contamination

Modern water delivery systems may seem well-designed, with supply lines neatly connecting homes. However, few consider how these systems are all linked. Things like lawn sprinklers, fire suppression loops, boilers, and cooling towers sometimes share the same connection and rely on proper household isolation to prevent contamination.

Without the proper safeguards, issues can arise. Construction mistakes, outdated building codes, wear and tear, and a lack of awareness about cross-connection risks often lead to leaks and backflows—all of which can compromise water quality. For instance, a faulty valve in a landscape irrigation system can accidentally connect to home plumbing, allowing fertilizers, herbicides, and lawn fungi to reverse flow into the drinking water pipes.

Furthermore, a garden hose creates a cross-contamination hazard when submerged in a swimming pool or attached to a weed control chemical sprayer. Fertilizers, cesspools, or garden chemicals may contaminate garden hoses on the ground, and backflow can push chemicals into the potable water distribution system. The same goes for older homes with mixed piping for waste, vents, and drinking water. Without substantial protective barriers, these homes remain at risk of cross-contamination.

7. Water Main Breaks

Whenever you hear loud crashing noises from construction crews working on pipes outside, they are likely repairing a water main break.

Extreme weather is the most common cause of water main breaks. As it gets cold, the ground freezes, putting more pressure on the pipes. When it’s hot, the ground can shift, warping or damaging pipes. Then again, many service lines still being used are old and made of iron, which can crack during extreme temperature changes.

These cracks and breaks in water pipes don’t only waste around six billion gallons of treated water every day. They can also introduce contaminants into your water supply, including potentially harmful organic and inorganic compounds from septic systems, the surrounding soil, and nearby industrial or agricultural facilities.

Signs a Plumbing Failure May Be Compromising Your Tap Water Quality

If your tap water seems a bit off lately, you may wonder if it’s due to an underlying plumbing issue. Low water pressure, dripping pipes, fixtures, or damp areas around plumbing components are warning signs of a faulty system. But if the following signs have cropped up in your water lately, issues with your plumbing or the public infrastructure may have played a part.

Cloudy Water

White, brown, or black specks that make water appear cloudy or dirty often point to scale and sediment buildup inside aging, corroding pipes. Among these particles are possibly heavy metals like lead and copper, as well as sediments, including dirt, debris, rust, sand, and silt.

Related: Cloudy Drinking Water & How to Fix It

Discolored Water

If the water from your tap is discolored, it’s a clear sign that something’s wrong. Water that appears yellow, green, red, orange, brown, or black indicates that your pipes may be rusty and leaching copper, iron, or other metals into your water supply. It may also signal that your pipelines are about to leak or burst.

Related: 8 Causes of Brown Toilet Water and How to Fix It

Sudden Changes in Taste

Bitter, sour, or metallic flavors in water usually mean the pipes are corroding and dissolving heavy metals into your supply—chromium, cadmium, copper, mercury, nickel, and zinc, to name a few. Usually, iron tastes like blood, and copper has a slightly bitter or sweet flavor. However, lead is tasteless.

The taste of petrol, diesel, or other solvents in tap water is often a sign of a leak or dangerous runoff entering your water supply. An earthy or musty flavor usually comes from naturally occurring compounds and minerals in the water that may have entered the water through cracks or leaks. If the water has a tart aftertaste and appears yellow or brown, tannins may have entered the water supply through the same channels.

Related: 9 Reasons Your Tap Water Tastes Bad and How to Fix It

Weird Odors

Plain, fresh water doesn’t have an odor. But if your tap water does, particularly one that smells like rotten eggs, human excretion, sulfur, or mildewy and earthy, it could be a sign of microbes growing in your pipes and entering your tap water.

Related: Common Odors in Tap Water and How to Remove Them | How to Get Rid of Rotten Egg Smell in Water

What Can Homeowners Do About Water Quality Issues Due to Plumbing Vulnerabilities?

Here’s what to do if you suspect water contamination in your home or community:

Check for alerts.

Start by checking online or calling your local water municipality, health department, and neighbors to see if contamination or boil water alerts have been issued for your area and find out the suspected or confirmed source.

Inspect your water closely.

Check the water’s taste, smell, and appearance at your tap for anything unusual that indicates contamination, like strong odors, visible discoloration, oily sheens, or sediment.

Evaluate the condition of your plumbing.

Flush your pipes by running multiple taps for several minutes, or call a plumber to inspect your plumbing system. This can help rule out in-home plumbing issues versus neighborhood or city-wide problems.

Test your water.

To confirm risks, you can purchase a water test kit and have your water tested by a certified laboratory in your area. Experts will evaluate your water for bacteria, metals, organic compounds, asbestos, and other contaminants.

Understand Your Risks

Bringing your water to a rolling boil for one minute will kill most bacteria and parasites. However, boiling it alone will not remove chemical toxins, heavy metals, sediment, and other pollutants. Filtering the water will be far more effective.

Can a water filter system help address the contamination issues?

Yes, it can. But if your home’s plumbing system is in terrible shape, you might need to replace the entire thing, though it might be expensive. Still, unless it’s replaced, the contamination issues will only keep cropping up and wear down the filter system prematurely. That means more frequent filter replacements and sometimes increased maintenance.

Once you have a fresh plumbing system installed (again, assuming it was in bad shape), installing a water filter can help trap impurities and pollutants entering your home from your community water system before they reach your glass or cooking pot.

The Best Water Filters to Improve Your Water Quality

Various affordable filter types are available from hardware stores and online retailers, but not all treat the same hazards. Some may be designed to address contaminants flagged in municipal alerts or home tests, while others may not.

For instance:

An under-counter system is ideal, as it treats water at the specific point where you use it, such as your kitchen sink. It effectively eliminates any impurities that might have been picked up from the plumbing within your home. This means the water from your tap is purified right before you use it.

On the other hand, a whole-house system treats the water as it enters your home, ensuring that every tap and fixture receives treated water. While this benefits overall water quality throughout your home, keep this in mind: Since the treatment occurs at the point of entry, any pollutants in your home’s plumbing system could enter the water before they reach your tap.

Whichever option you choose, always remember to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully when installing filters. Once installed, retest your filtered water and check if governmental “boil water” or related advisories have been lifted. Also, stay on top of any maintenance schedules and filter replacement timelines. Ignoring these could cause damage to the system and reintroduce the hazards you intended to remove in the first place.

Final Thoughts

We need clean water daily for drinking, cooking, and showering. However, the system that brings this precious resource to and throughout our homes has many parts that can break down.

Even after being treated at treatment plants, water can still get contaminated as it journeys to your tap. Pipes underground and inside houses and buildings can spring leaks; Old pipes can rust and let in contaminants; And sometimes, pipes mistakenly get connected to others, letting in things that should not go into drinking water.

Luckily, there are ways to address these issues. Cities can update old, worn-out lead pipes that carry water to entire neighborhoods. Homeowners can watch for signs of problems, like a funny taste or smell from the taps, get the water tested, replace pipes, flush plumbing systems, and install quality water filter systems to protect against heavy metals, bacteria, sediment, and other contaminants.

If you need help finding the best water filter to safeguard your water against plumbing-related contaminants, please call Springwell at 800-589-5592, and one of our friendly experts will assist.