Clear facts on water appearance, smell and taste

cloudy water

Chicago’s water consistently meets all federal state and industry standards for cleanliness and safety. This is because the Department of Water Management performs over 200,000 tests a year on our water throughout the system and adds corrosion control to help prevent contaminants from leaching into the pipes.

Any resident that is concerned about their water quality can call 311 or visit for a free water quality check or to request a water lead test kit.

There are certain conditions that can cause changes in water appearance, taste, or smell. Among these are:

  • My water is cloudy or white: 
    • Water can appear cloudy due to the presence of tiny air bubbles in the water. 
    • Tip: To test this, fill a clear glass with tap water and observe whether the bubbles have disappeared after about two minutes. Bubbles, which are harmless, come from a variety of sources, such as bends in pipes, temperature changes, and aerators (the small mesh part on the end of your faucet).
    • This is more likely to happen in the winter.
  • My water smells earthy or musty:
    • Because Chicago’s water comes from Lake Michigan, the smell and taste are affected by the plant and fish life that exist there. 
    • Seasonal algae growth contributes to a typically “earthy” and “musty” smell, which peaks during the summer and fall months. 
    • There is no health concern related to this smell.
  • My water smells like chlorine:
    • Chlorine is added to the water as part of the standard treatment process to prevent bacteria from growing in the pipes.  
    • Although the amount of chlorine added is low, some people are more sensitive to the smell and taste than others.
    • TipIf you’re sensitive to chlorine, fill a jug or bottle of water and let it sit for a couple of hours -- the taste and odor of your water will decrease because the chlorine levels dissipate when the water is stagnant. 
  • There are particles in my water (rust, dirt, etc.) or it is discolored
    • Discoloration or particles in water can occur from a change in water flow from recent plumbing work, or anything that disrupts the pipes that deliver your water, such as outside construction work or turning off a nearby water valve in the street. 
    • Usually this is temporary and running cold in your faucets will clear out the water. 
    • Tip: Hot water may take longer to clear up because it comes from your hot water heater which may trap sediment at the bottom of the tank. In this case, the hot water tank can be drained to flush the sediment out. It is also good practice to clean out the small mesh part on the end of your faucet (called an aerator).
  • Tip: If there are sand, rust, dirt, or other particles in your water, try flushing your faucets. This means letting the cold water run for five minutes (either on its own, or by showering, doing laundry, washing the dishes, etc.) to clean out the pipes. Flushing is recommended if your water hasn’t been used in six hours or more. 

If you experience a change to your water and have questions or concerns, you can always call 311 and submit a Service Request to speak to a DWM engineer.

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