What's Wrong With Your Water? A Color Guide To Water Problems

We need water to survive, but you might – and probably should – be a little skeptical drinking it if the water coming out of your faucet is anything but clear. Use this water color guide to help you diagnose the problem with your water and seek out the right solution.


Iron is the culprit behind red colored water. Usually, when a faucet hasn't been used for a long period of time, the water will be red for the first 24 hours when you start using it again. This is often due to either a galvanized iron pipe, a rusted pressure tank, or a rusted well casing or pump. If you allow your red water to stand for 24 hours and it clears (all the iron has precipitated out), then you have what is known as red-water. Alternatively, you have clear-water if your water starts out running clear then turns red.


We need iron in our bodies, but don't usually want to get it from our water.  If you cook with the iron-heavy water from your faucet, you will be able to taste the iron in your food.  An excessive amount of iron in your pipes could also damage any appliances that use water, including well pumps, dishwashers, or sprinklers.  In addition, the red color of iron in the water can stain any clothes that go through your washer.


If you have red-water, a sediment filter will remove the iron particles. Clear-water iron is often removed with a water softener. One treatment that will work for both types of iron is a manganese greensand filter, which has the additional benefit of removing manganese. It is also a good idea to contact plumbers who can get to the root of the problem and tell you whether you will need to have any offending pipes or your pressure tank replaced.

Yellow to Dark Brown

A yellow to dark brown color is caused by the presence of tannins. If you're water supply passes through coal veins, peaty soils, or decaying vegetation, it will pick up tannins along the way to your home.


Tannins are not generally harmful to your health; they are found naturally in plants and many foods including fruit, tea, wine, and corn. Even though they are harmless, they may give a bitter taste to your water and indicate the presence of other, more harmful additives.


Tannins cannot be removed with water softening or filtering. The most effective method for tannin removal is through chlorination. This process requires an anion exchange unit which exchanges tannin in the water for chloride. There are self-cleaning automatic tannin filters that provide a relatively low-cost solution to this problem.


When your water is black or has a blackish hue, there is an excess of manganese dissolved in the water. Manganese is naturally found in rocks and soil, but can enter water supplies due to underground pollution sources. If manganese is present in your water, it is highly likely that iron is also present.


Manganese can be dangerous in large amounts. High levels of this mineral have been linked to a Parkinson-like syndrome that affects the nervous system. Health Canada recommends a limit of 0.5 mg/L.


A water softener can remove small amounts of both manganese and iron. However, for high levels of manganese you will need a manganese treatment device. These devices will effectively remove iron in addition to manganese if the levels are less than 5 mg/L.


Water that is milky or cloudy in appearance is due to dissolved air in the water. This could arise from a number of situations:

  • A well pump is sucking air into the system

  • A pressure tank is malfunctioning

  • Your water heater is new and the anode rod is generating higher amounts of hydrogen (this could especially be true if only your hot water appears cloudy)

  • The aerator on the end of your faucet spout is putting excessive air bubbles into the water.


Milky-colored water is still safe to drink and use.


This problem does not usually need to be treated. If you have a new water heater, the problem should settle itself within a year. However, if you are on a well and your water does not clear after 5 minutes or a white film gets left behind, have your water quality tested.

Regardless of the color of your water, make sure to have it tested before you treat it. Then seek out a solution that corresponds with your test results. It is important that the water you drink and use in your home is free of harmful chemicals and runs clear. Talk to your local experts for more information.