Why Tap Water Can Taste Salty


It’s important to be grateful for the fact that drinking water is accessible in the convenience of our homes. Yet that doesn’t mean we should not question its quality. You may have noticed that tap water sometimes tastes particularly salty. Here are the reasons why your faucets are providing you with saline water. 

Salty tap water shows a fluctuation in mineral levels, usually related to so-called ‘secondary contaminants’ such as chloride, sulfates or TDS (Total Dissolved Solids). These infiltrate drinking water through seawater, water softeners, industrial waste, irrigation drainage, sewage or fertilizers. 

While secondary contaminants are not a major concern, they can cause cosmetic or aesthetic effects, as well as plumbing issues. In this article we will further explore the causes and consequences of concentrated minerals in your drinking water. 

3 reasons why your tap water tastes salty

1. Chloride

Chloride ions are the most common contaminant in tap water. Sodium, potassium and calcium chlorides can infiltrate drinking water from different sources, such as:

  • Run-off from snow and ice control
  • Rainwater overflows
  • Chemical fertilizers
  • Landfill leachates
  • Septic tank effluents
  • Animal feeds
  • Irrigation drainage
  • Seawater intrusion in coastal areas

Chloride can also result from groundwater purification processes that utilize chlorine. When these ions enter your water supply in concentrations over 250 milligrams per liter, they provide a detectable saline taste. 

Chloride toxicity has not been observed in healthy individuals. Yet chloride does increase the electrical conductivity of water. If your plumbing is made out of lead pipes, there is a risk of galvanic corrosion. If your taps are connected to metal pipes, you may experience intrusion of metals into your drinking water due to a chemical reaction. 

2. Sulfate

Sulphate ions are a combination of sulfur and oxygen. Magnesium sulfate and sodium sulfate are naturally released into groundwater from soil and rock formations after prolonged rainfalls.

Sulfate minerals can also enter your water supply through industrial waste and fertiliser run-offs.

The maximum standards for sulfate in drinking water are 250 milligrams per liter, beyond which the water is still drinkable but tastes salty or bitter. 

Sulfate minerals can have laxative effects that can especially affect infants. Healthy humans and livestock develop a tolerance over time. Sulfate can cause scale build ups or clogs in water pipes, and stain clothing. 

3. Total Dissolved Solids (TDS)

Total Dissolved Solids are made up of a combination of inorganic salts and organic matter. Magnesium, calcium and sodium are usually found within your water supply’s TDS, as well as the aforementioned chloride and sulfate minerals. They come from a variety of natural or anthropogenic sources.

Even bottled mineral water has high levels of dissolved solids. 

An elevated level of TDS may affect the odor and color of your tap water, and give it a slight saline or bitter taste. It can also stain household fixtures and pipes, as well as build up sediments on the inside of your hot water pipes. 

Is salty water safe to drink?

Chloride, sulfate and TDS are classified as secondary contaminants according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. This means that they do not present a health threat.

Even when these contaminants are present in levels above the standards established by the EPA, the water is still drinkable.

The noticeable issues caused by these materials are grouped into three categories: 

  • Aesthetic effects
  • Cosmetic effects
  • Technical effects

Undesiderable tastes or odors are considered aesthetic effects that do not necessarily indicate that the water is unsafe to drink. As mentioned above, chloride, sulfates and TDS giving water a salty aftertaste does not make it undrinkable. 

Cosmetic effects do not impair body functions but can promote skin or tooth discoloration. Neither chloride, nor sulfate, nor TDS have shown signs of having a cosmetic impact.

Technical effects include corrosion and staining of water lines, which have the potential of hampering the functionality of your plumbing system. Corrosive effects can stain household fixtures and affect the aesthetic quality of your tap water.

The presence of chloride and TDS in your pipelines can cause issues of this sort. TDS can also promote scaling and sedimentation on the insides of hot water pipes and boilers. 

Secondary contaminants are evaluated through non-mandatory water quality standards that are not legally enforceable. Testing is done on a voluntary basis, and their management depends on the public water systems. 

Sodium chloride is what we know as salt. High levels of salt in a person’s diet can have negative consequences when there is a preexisting condition such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Kidney problems

In the case of healthy humans with mature kidneys, they are able to efficiently excrete the sodium absorbed through their drinking water. Plus the largest sources of salt in a regular diet come from junk food and excessive seasoning.

Thus the salt in drinking water does not represent a significant harm to the average person. Yet it can disturb local vegetation and soil quality. 

Can you taste the salt from a water softener? 

Water softening involves removing heavy ions from hard water. Minerals are replaced with small amounts of sodium ions through an ion-exchange process.

Thus soft water produced by water softeners contains sodium, which is different from sodium chloride. The latter is the equivalent of table salt and, as mentioned earlier, it can alter the taste of tap water. The former, however, should not modify the flavor of water unless there is a technical issue. 

If you have recently installed a water softener at home and the taste of the water becomes saltier, you should inspect your device. Check whether it was incorrectly fitted or there is a malfunction in one of its components. Alternatively, water conditioners are salt-free water softeners for people with low sodium diets.  

How do you treat salty tap water?

The first thing to do if you are concerned about the taste of your tap water coming from the city supply is to contact your local public water system.

Request a report on the chemical levels of your drinking water.

You can also ask your neighbours if they too have noticed a change in their water quality. 

Distillation, reverse osmosis and electrodialysis are effective treatments to remove the minerals that modify the taste of your water.

Blending tap water with uncontaminated water from a different source is a cheap fix while your water is being monitored by the authorities. 

How do you fix salty well water?

If your water comes from a well, you should test its quality whenever you notice changes in its taste. Hiring a certified laboratory to test your well water will allow you to determine which contaminants you are dealing with.

The most common reasons for salty tasting well water include, but are not limited to: 

  • Erosion of local salt deposits
  • Naturally elevated salt levels in your well’s aquifer
  • Seawater infiltration in coastal areas
  • Wastewater or sewage contamination
  • Road surface run-off
  • Rain or snow run-off 
  • Industrial or agricultural contamination

Depending on the minerals identified in your water, you can choose the appropriate treatment to remove them.

The main filtration methods are divided between Point of Entry Whole House Water Filters and Point of Use Water Filters. 

Point of entry (POE) filtration targets the main water pipe to filter water before it enters your home. Depending on your budget and needs, you can choose between a number of POE filtration methods: 

  • Carbon based systems
  • Reverse osmosis systems
  • Next generation filter technology

Point of use (POU) water filters are localized systems. People generally choose these methods when their major concern is to have clean drinking water. For example, they can be connected only in the kitchen sink faucet. There are three main types of POU filters: 

  • Under sink systems
  • Countertop systems
  • Water filter pitchers 

These methods vary in price and efficiency, with water filter pitchers being the most affordable and convenient option. 

Conclusion

Although salty water does not represent a hazard, you may wish to apply any of the filtration systems mentioned in this article. Whether or not you want to consume the minerals that give a saline taste to your tap water is at your discretion. 

Noticeable variations in the taste of your water are not necessarily a reason for concern. At the same time, flat tasting water could deceive you into thinking it’s secure.

If your tap water comes from the public line, it is regularly monitored by the EPA to ensure it remains safe to drink. Every year, they will share with the community a water quality report, or consumer confidence report. If you have any concerns, you can check the report that applies to your municipality.

Keep in mind that the EPA does not test private wells. It is every homeowner’s responsibility to have their well tested at least once a year, or whenever there are any suspicions regarding the quality of the water. 

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