Iron is one of the most common well water contaminants. While iron is typically not dangerous to drink – and, in fact, we need iron for the production of red blood cells – it can be very damaging to your home’s plumbing and appliances when present in high quantities.
Luckily, there are now plenty of ways to remove iron from your well water, and they won’t all break the bank. If you’re looking for the cheapest way to remove iron from well water, consider a sediment filter, whole house iron filter, or water softener. I’ll be sharing the most effective, affordable options in this guide.
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⚛️ How Does Iron Get Into Well Water?
Iron is a mineral found naturally in the earth’s crust. When rainwater falls and lands on the ground, it seeps through the earth and picks up minerals and other impurities on its journey downward. If the earth in your local area contains a lot of iron, groundwater will naturally have a higher iron content.
This groundwater will then be drawn into your well from the aquifer. Because iron isn’t a large or visible contaminant, it’ll be able to pass into the well with the water through the screen.
The concentration of iron in your private well water will depend on the geology of your region. On average, around 0.3 to 10 parts per million (PPM) of iron is found in well water in the US.
🔬 Types of Iron Found in Water
There are three types of iron commonly found in well water: ferric iron, ferrous iron, and bacterial iron.
The insoluble form of iron is known as ferric iron. You’ll know when ferric iron is present in water, as it’ll give is a reddish-orange hue. Because ferric iron is insoluble, it is suspended in water, and can be filtered out as a particulate with an iron filtration system.
Ferrous iron is the soluble form of iron. This iron is dissolved in water, so you won’t even know it’s there. However, while it might be invisible in water coming out of your faucet, ferrous iron oxidizes when it comes into contact with air. In its oxidized form, ferrous iron can be just as damaging as ferric iron.
To filter ferrous iron out of water, you’ll first need to convert it into ferric iron with an oxidation process. In this solid form, iron can be removed from water using a filter system.
Bacterial iron is a slimy orange substance that floats on top of water. It’s most commonly found in toilet tanks, or any other location where water is allowed to stand for long periods of time.
As the name suggests, bacterial iron is formed when bacteria and iron combine. The result is a nasty slimy matter that is very difficult to get rid of.
📋 Effects of High Concentrations of Iron in Well Water
There are several dangers of high concentrations of iron in your well water:
Skin Health Effects
When you drink water containing high quantities of iron, your skin may suffer. One study found that too much iron may be linked to a higher risk of bacterial skin infections, including abscesses and cellulitis. Both ferrous iron and ferric iron can also affect water’s ability to lather, and may leave behind a soap residue on your skin after you shower. This soap residue can cause dry skin and other problems.
The most common effect of iron in drinking water shows up in your plumbing and appliances.
Some types of iron are more damaging than others. Ferric iron causes staining, which looks unsightly and is difficult to remove. Ferrous iron isn’t a problem – until it oxidizes, and then it’ll cause the same problems as ferric iron. Iron bacteria can eventually cause blockages, which can affect your water pressure, and are expensive to fix.
Another common aesthetic iron issue is unpleasant, metallic-tasting water. While poor water taste isn’t concerning, it can make you less inclined to drink, which has the potential to lead to dehydration.
If the water you use for drinking and cooking tastes metallic, you’re probably dealing with an iron issue. You may also be able to smell iron in your water. Coupled with the orange hue that iron-contaminated water can take on, it’s unlikely that you’ll enjoy drinking your water if it has a high iron content.
Your plumbing isn’t the only area of your home that can be damaged by iron. Iron can also leave harsh stains in any appliance that is supplied by well water. You may notice orange streaks in your sinks, surrounding your drains, and in your toilet bowl. Shower units and bathtubs may also become discolored by iron over time. Even your laundry and dishes can take on a brown or red tint from high iron levels in the water they’re washed in.
It’s unlikely that you’ll drink enough iron in your well water to experience iron toxicity. However, I’ve included it on this list as something to be aware of.
Iron toxicity symptoms may present themselves if you consume as little as 10 to 20 milligrams of iron per kilogram of body weight. You may experience vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea, as well as pain in the stomach. If you continue to consume excess iron, iron may accumulate in your internal organs, which can be especially damaging to the brain and the liver.
🔎 How to Test Your Water for Iron
There are several ways you can test your water for iron, depending on how accurate you want your results to be.
1. Visual test
If you have iron in your water, there’s a high chance that you’ll be able to see it. The easiest way to detect iron in your water is simply to look for it.
To conduct visual testing for iron, pour water into a clear glass and leave it to stand. If you have at least 0.3 mg/l (milligrams per liter) of iron in your water, you should notice reddish-brown sediment. If this sediment only appears after your water has been left to stand, it’s a sign that you have ferrous iron.
You may not even need to conduct a standing water test. Ferric iron present in water can be seen in the water flowing from your faucets. If you have brown or red stains on your appliances, you can also be certain that iron is present in your well water.
2. At home test kits
At-home test kits can be used to give an indication of iron in your well water. Most kits can only be used to detect soluble iron, and not bacterial iron or insoluble iron.
An iron testing kit will come with dipping strips and a color chart. Simply take a sample of your water and dip a strip into it, leaving it submerged for the recommended period of time. Then remove the strip, wait for several minutes, and compare the strip to the color chart. This will tell you how much water your iron contains.
Iron testing kits have their limitations. I’ve already mentioned that they can’t tell you what type of iron your well water contains, as most only detect only one type. Most can only detect up to a certain amount of iron, too (usually 5 PPM).
Make sure you buy kits for testing iron in your water, not iron blood level tests – it’s an easy mistake to make!
3. Laboratory Testing
If you want to test accurately for different types of iron in your water, laboratory testing is the best option.
Laboratory testing can tell you what types of iron you’re dealing with in your water, including ferric and ferrous iron, and iron bacteria. This type of testing can also provide you with an exact measurement of how much iron is present in your water.
To get your water tested by a certified laboratory, you’ll usually need to take samples in vials provided by the lab, then post these samples to be tested in-house. The laboratory will return your results by email.
You can learn more about testing your well water for iron in my full guide.
💸 Cheapest Way to Remove Iron From Well Water
You should now know the effects of high levels of iron in well water, and how to detect water iron with various methods. Let’s take a look at the cheapest way to remove iron from well water, depending on the type of iron present.
Removing Ferric Iron
Ferric or insoluble iron is easier to remove, as I mentioned earlier, because it isn’t dissolved in water. This type of iron can simply be filtered out of your water with a basic filter.
A sub-micron sediment filter allows water to pass through its pores, while trapping large, solid particles and preventing them from getting into your home’s plumbing.
Sediment filters are largely used for removing dirt, sand, gravel, and other debris from drinking water. Not all filters have a small enough micron rating to remove iron, so make sure to assess this before you buy.
There are several types of sediment filters available to buy. You can check out my list of the best sediment filters for well water if you’re keen to learn more about these filters.
Keep in mind that sediment filters can only remove insoluble iron. If you also have ferrous iron present in your water, a sediment filter won’t be able to remove it.
Treating Ferrous Iron
It’s more difficult to remove iron that’s dissolved in your water. You will usually need to oxidize the iron out of its dissolved form, converting it into a solid form that can be filtered out of water.
Water softeners aren’t typically used purely for iron removal purposes, but their ability to filter ferrous iron out of water is certainly a bonus factor.
A water softener uses the ion exchange process to swap hardness minerals, like calcium and magnesium, with sodium ions. This softens water, eliminating limescale issues.
Iron, like calcium and magnesium, is a positively charged cation. This means that it’ll also be attracted to the softening resin, and will be removed from water in the same way.
Most water softeners can remove around 3 PPM of iron. Some units, however, are designed for higher levels of iron removal, and can remove up to 6-8 PPM of iron.
Keep in mind that water softener systems aren’t ideal for high levels of water ferrous iron. You’ll need a dedicated filter to remove iron if your water contains excess iron.
Also, if your water also contains insoluble iron, you’ll need to install a sediment filter to remove this first. Otherwise, your water softener runs the risk of getting blocked up with iron sludge.
Air Injection Oxidation + Filter
Perhaps the most popular water treatment solution for iron is the air injection oxidation and filtration system. This type of system is highly effective, and can usually remove up to 15 PPM of iron, sometimes even more.
This unit features a single tank with an air bubble at the top and a media bed (usually manganese greensand or birm) at the bottom. Water flows through the air bubble, and the dissolved iron is oxidized into a solid matter.
Once in this form, iron is trapped in the media bed. When this media bed becomes saturated with contaminants, it will be flushed and replenished when the unit performs a backwash cycle.
Air injection oxidation and filtration units don’t only offer iron removal. These systems also remove manganese and sulfur, two other well water impurities that can affect the taste of drinking water.
Oxidizing Agent + Filter
An alternative to air injection is to use an oxidizing agent to oxidize iron, before filtering it out of the system in the same way (using a manganese greensand media or similar).
A chemical oxidizing agent like ozone or hydrogen peroxide is typically used to oxidize iron. This type of filtration is slightly more expensive than air oxidation, as you’ll need to pay for top-ups.
Removing dissolved iron involves using oxidation to increase water’s redox potential. If your well water has a low pH, this process could be supplemented by increasing water’s alkalinity.
There are a number of chemical feed applications that can be used to remove iron from well water. Sodium hydroxide and sodium carbonate are effective agents for raising pH. You can also use a combination of 7 percent hydrogen peroxide to 5 percent chlorine.
Different methods require different rules, so be sure to follow your system’s manufacturer’s guidelines carefully regarding proper installation and feed rates.
Getting Rid of Bacterial Iron
Eliminating bacterial iron is more of a challenge, as many of the filter processes that remove iron can’t also be used to remove bacteria.
I’ve listed the two best options for eliminating bacterial iron from well water below:
Shock chlorination involves introducing high levels of chlorine to your well, which disinfects both your well water supply and the well itself – including the walls, the pump, the pressure tank, and the distribution system.
You’ll require around 200 PPM of chlorine to shock-chlorinate your well. When you shock the well, it’ll kill the bacteria bound to the iron, which will then allow you to remove the remaining iron with a water softener or iron water filter.
Using certain disinfecting chemicals, like chlorine, in a chemical feed application will also offer a means of iron bacteria removal. You should follow a chemical feed application with a water filter that’s designed to remove iron from well water.
📝 Oxidizing Media Used in Iron Filters
Manganese greensand is the most common media used to trap and eliminate iron. Manganese greensand itself is an oxidizer, helping to covert iron into a particulate matter. This media must be periodically backwashed by water and a powder known as potassium permanganate. This flushes away the collected iron particles and restores the oxidizing capacity of the media. High-quality manganese greensand can remove around 15 PPM of iron.
Birm may be used in place of manganese greensand as a media in an oxidation filtration system. Birm can remove iron without a chemical oxidizing agent, and works most effectively when used with water with an elevated pH. For this reason, birm is usually combined with calcite, which elevates water’s pH, and prepares it for treatment.
Finally, KDF is a media designed from granular zinc. This media isn’t only used for iron removal – it’s also highly effective at removing chlorine and heavy metals from water. KDF is found in many in-line iron water filter cartridges. The longer the contact time, the more effectively a KDF filter can work, so these filters are best used with slow flow rates and lower water volumes.
🧠 Frequently Asked Questions
Can reverse osmosis remove iron?
You might be interested in a reverse osmosis system to remove a whole host of common well water contaminants. But can this system remove iron from well water?
Yes, reverse osmosis can remove iron. The problem is that most RO systems are designed for point-of-use applications (such as underneath your kitchen sink or on your countertop). This means you wouldn’t get the whole-home benefits of iron-free water. You’d simply remove iron from your drinking water. You can find whole-home RO systems, but they’re very expensive, and you’ll have fewer systems to choose from.
Another issue with reverse osmosis water treatment is that a high iron content may end up damaging the RO membrane. It’s better to look at a dedicated iron filter if you’re dealing with particularly high iron levels.