Ask the Architect

Brown water from a shower


Q. We noticed that our water is brown from our showerhead, but only the hot water. It seemed like a simple issue, since our water heater is 30 years old and probably needs replacing. We checked different faucets and another bathroom, and there the water runs clear sometimes and brown sometimes, like every few months or several months. That made the whole thing more confusing. Can you explain why this is happening, what causes this and what we should do?

A. Sounds like a murky question, filled with mystery. Your hot water supply system is generally made up of metal piping, and can, over time, corrode.
First, don’t drink the water, even though you may assume it’s caused only by iron deposits, either from a galvanized pipe that is leaching or from the rod in your hot water tank that is corroding. Run your hot water. See if it continually comes out brownish. If it doesn’t, it may be an outside source, such as periodic flushing of water lines by your water supplier. Work done on your street may also cause temporary interruption, and the water can be temporarily brackish. Flushing will dilute the rust, and the water can then become clearer. Sometimes the problem is bacteria, but in a public water system, where you live, this is much less likely.
You mentioned that you know the water heater is old, and it is. Thirty years is considered a long time for a hot water tank, but with regular maintenance, a tank can last that long. I typically hear that with proper annual flushing of the tank, where you either attach a hose, fill deep buckets from the valve and pour the water out elsewhere or have it serviced by your plumber, a hot water tank can last that long.
Most people, however, naively assume that everything in the house lasts forever, and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This simply leads to an emergency situation when corrosion points to the anode rod, which will have nearly completely deteriorated. The anode rod in your hot water tank is there to attract sediment through electrolytic action, the normal occurrence of positive and negative electrons, so that the rod will deteriorate instead of the inside walls of the tank.
Based on what you have described, you need a service call from a licensed professional plumber who can analyze the situation fairly quickly and not necessarily just replace the hot water tank, even though I anticipate that this is where you’re headed. The only other problem you may have is old, galvanized piping, as I mentioned, and replacing piping, after tracing it inside the walls, will probably be the most expensive process, since walls and floors will need to be opened, pipes sawn out and replaced, and the walls and floors repaired, which often leads to larger projects, like redoing rooms and seriously costly domino-effect renovation. Good luck!

© 2022 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.