A faucet with brown stains - potential water quality issue.

Brown Water Coming From Your Tap? Here’s What You Need To Know

If you’ve noticed brown or discolored water coming from your taps, you’re likely wondering what’s causing it and if it’s safe to use. As a retired plumber with decades of experience, I’ve seen all kinds of issues that can cause brown water and I’m here to walk you through the common causes, as well as what to do about it. Whether the brown water is coming from your hot or cold tap, this guide will help you identify the source of the issue and take steps to clear it up. So read on to learn why your water supply might be discolored and what you can do to get clean water flowing again!

First off, let me reassure you that in most cases, brown or discolored water is not dangerous to your health. It is often simply caused by extra sediment, rust, or minerals that have been shaken loose within the water pipes or heater. However, brown water can also indicate more serious underlying issues that need to be addressed. Here are some of the most common causes of brown tap water and steps you can take:

What Causes Brown Water From The Tap?

Rusty Pipes

One of the most common reasons you may find brown or reddish water coming from your tap is corrosion and rust buildup inside your home’s pipes. As water flows through the pipes over time, the iron in the pipes reacts with minerals in the water, causing the buildup of reddish-brown rust. Eventually, pieces of this rust will break free into the water. Older homes with galvanized steel pipes are especially prone to this issue, but it can happen in pipes of any material.

Sediment Buildup

Sediment naturally occurs in water supplies and water mains. However, a disturbance can stir up extra sediment and cause discolored water. For example, nearby construction, water main breaks, fire hydrant flushing, or changes in water pressure or flow could all loosen sediment that tints the water coming into your home.

Failing Water Heater

If the brown water is only coming from your hot water tap, the issue may point to a problem with your home’s water heater. As heaters age, rusty buildup inside the tank can begin to flake off into the heated water supply. This discoloration usually indicates your water heater is reaching the end of its lifespan and needs to be replaced.

Private Well Issues

Homes on private wells can experience temporary brown water if there has been a major change in conditions near the well. For example, flooding, drought, construction, or overuse that lowers the surrounding water table could stir up sediments or minerals in the well water.

City Water Changes

Sometimes a change or disturbance in your public water system can also flush more sediment through the water mains, affecting your home’s water supply. This discoloration should eventually clear on its own after a few hours. However, if the brown water persists for more than a day, there is likely a problem specific to your home’s pipes or water heater.

Is Brown Water Safe To Use?

While discolored water may look unappealing, in most cases it is still safe to use for washing, cleaning, and even bathing. The discoloration itself does not make the water unsafe. However, if the brown coloration is accompanied by a change in odor or taste, it could indicate contamination and you should avoid using the water for drinking or cooking.

The main risks of brown water use come from the possibility of rusty sediment blocking plumbing fixtures or staining laundry. Run the cold and hot water taps for 5-10 minutes to help flush sediment from your home’s pipes. If the flushed water runs clear, your pipes should now be free of the discoloring rust or silt.

However, if flushing doesn’t resolve the issue, or if you experience brown water repeatedly over time, it’s a sign you need to address an underlying problem like corroded pipes, mineral buildup, or issues with your water heater or well.

How To Get Rid of Brown Water

Here are the steps I recommend homeowners take when brown water suddenly appears from their tap:

1. Check if the issue is isolated to your home

Before tackling plumbing repairs, first check with neighbors to see if they are also experiencing brown water. If the discoloration is affecting your whole area, it is likely a temporary issue related to the public water system or supply that will clear up on its own soon. Give it several hours to see if the water runs clear again.

2. Flush the water lines

If the brown water seems isolated to your home, flushing the water lines is the first step to clearing up any sediment or rust inside your pipes. Run the cold water tap closest to your home’s main water shutoff valve for 5 to 10 minutes. Then run the hot water tap for an equal time. Moving between the taps help flush both your hot and cold water pipes.

Check if the water is discolored again after flushing. If it’s still brown coming out of the faucets, move on to the other troubleshooting tips below. However, if flushing returns your water to a clear color, the issue was just some harmless sediment that was stirred up and should now be gone from your pipes.

3. Inspect your water heater

As mentioned earlier, rusty hot water points to a problem inside your home’s water heater tank. Drain a bucket of water from the heater drain valve at the bottom of the tank. If the drained water is discolored, your tank needs professional maintenance or replacement. If an older tank is showing signs of rust, replacement is usually the better option since they have a typical lifespan of 8-15 years.

4. Check your well system

For homes on private wells, inspect the well head and storage equipment if you haven’t had any water quality changes recently other than the new discoloration. Events like heavy rains or flooding can affect well water conditions. You may need to shock chlorinate your well system to clear up excess sediment or have your treatment filters serviced if they are too clogged to handle an influx of particles.

5. Consider replacing old pipes

If your home has aging galvanized or cast iron pipes that are prone to corroding, replacing the most affected water lines may be needed to permanently solve recurring brown water issues. Pipe replacement can be a big project, so talk with a plumber if you think your pipes are a likely culprit. They can help assess your home’s plumbing and determine the best solution.

6. Install a water softener or filter

For homes with continued minor discoloration even after pipe flushing, adding a whole-house water softener or sediment filter can help remove traces of rust and minerals that affect the appearance of your water. Filters give an extra level of protection against discoloration without replacing all your pipes.

When Should You Call A Professional?

While brown water is often an annoyance you can resolve with the steps above, there are some cases where you’ll want to call in a plumber:

  • If flushing your water lines and heater does not resolve the discoloration
  • For inspection and replacement of an aging water heater
  • To assess old pipes and recommend replacement if needed
  • For well shock chlorination or servicing filters/treatment systems
  • If you have low water pressure, smells, or an oily sheen in addition to discoloration
  • For installation and maintenance of water softeners/filter systems
  • If the brown water persists for more than 1-2 days

Reputable plumbers have seen all kinds of brown water problems and can pinpoint the cause as well as recommend solutions. Their experience and equipment for shutting off water, accessing pipes, and replacing parts can give you peace of mind that the issue is fully resolved. Don’t hesitate to call an expert if you’ve tried the common fixes without success.

The Bottom Line On Brown Water

If brown or discolored water suddenly starts flowing from your tap, in most cases it is not a major health concern. However, identifying the cause is important to prevent damage to your home’s plumbing system and ensure your water supply is safe. Try flushing your pipes, inspecting your water heater, and checking with neighbors first. If that doesn’t solve the issue, call a professional plumber to properly diagnose and address stubborn sediment, corrosion, or equipment problems that require service and replacement. With the right attention, you can get your tap flowing crisp and clear once again!