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Iron can sneak into your well water through seepage – when rainwater or melted snow passes down through the soil and into the well water supply. It usually shows up as reddish-brown stains in your tubs and on your faucets, and while it isn’t dangerous, it can cause problems around your home in the long run.
If you suspect you may have iron in your well water, this guide will help you find out for sure. Most homeowners will find that it’s easy to test for iron in the water, and you can clear water iron using one of several water filtration methods.
💡 Effects of Too Much Iron in Your Well Water
Having too much iron in your well water can have a number of negative effects around your whole house. The most noticeable issues you may experience with your home s water are listed below.
Clogging of Pipes
When the iron in water flows through your plumbing, it can gradually build up inside your pipes, eventually restricting your home’s water flow.
You may find that your home’s water pressure becomes more and more restricted if you have high levels of iron in your water.
Any appliance that uses water will be affected by bacterial iron in well water, and iron build-up over time may result in more regular maintenance and a reduced lifespan of your appliances.
Skin and Hair Issues
You may notice that your hair takes on an orange tinge if you shower in water with a high iron concentration, even ferrous iron, on a daily basis.
Your skin experiences the same negative effects of iron dissolved in the water you bathe in. It may take on a reddish-orange tone and become dry and flaky. If you suffer from a skin condition like eczema and acne, you may find that exposure to a high amount of iron in your water worsens your condition.
Staining of Appliances
One of the easiest ways to spot iron in the water is to look for red or brown stains on your water-based appliances.
You’re most likely to see well water iron stains around your sinks and in your toilet bowl. They may look streaky, like iron stains in your toilet, or cause an all-over discoloration, like iron stains in your sink and bathtub.
Water with high concentrations of ferric iron will usually come out of your home’s faucets in a brown, red or yellow color. Pour yourself a glass of water and you should see that your water isn’t entirely clear if it contains iron.
Metallic Tasting Food
This bitter, metallic flavor of well water containing iron may also get into anything you boil, including vegetables, rice and pasta. Coffee and tea that’s made with well water with a high iron content may have a black, inky appearance and an unpleasant taste.
🤔 How Does Iron Get Into Well Water?
Iron is present in the earth’s crust, being one of the most abundant minerals in our soil. Numerous types of iron naturally occur in shallow soils and groundwater, and heavy rainfall can send iron down through the soil into underground well water systems. Melting snow is another cause of iron in well water.
But iron isn’t only found in well water and private water systems. Any home with a city water supply may also have an iron problem if it’s able to get in through plumbing. When iron pipes get old and start to corrode, they can leave flecks of iron in your city or well water that leave bright orange stains on your surfaces.
📝 Types of Iron in Well Water
There are three forms of iron in well water:
- Ferrous iron
- Ferric iron and
- Bacterial iron
It’s unusual to have a single iron type in your well water – you will probably find you have a combination of two or all three.
Ferrous iron is a soluble iron, and is also known as clear water iron. This is because it’s completely dissolved into the water, and won’t show up as brown or red when you fill a glass with water. It also won’t affect water taste or smell, making it all the more difficult to detect.
But ferrous clear water iron does show itself if it is exposed to the air, which causes it to oxidize.
Ferric iron is insoluble, and won’t completely dissolve in water. This makes it easier to spot from the moment it comes out of your faucet, because it gives water a brown, red or orange tinge.
You may also notice ferric iron staining in your sinks and other water-based appliances.
Bacterial iron is the most complex of all iron types. It is formed when iron and bacteria merge together inside well water. It tends to be the worst sort of iron for dealing with, as it’ll stick to your surfaces, like the bottom of your toilet, and clog the plumbing in your whole house.
It’s also a nightmare problem to have if you use certain well water treatment appliances like water softeners and water filter systems. When it comes into contact with these systems, it clogs them up and reduces their quality of performance.
But it’s the most distinctive in appearance – it’s bright red and sludgy. If you have bacterial iron, it’s not a sign of a healthy well. Common causes of bacterial iron in well water are a poorly sanitized or incorrectly fitted well pump.
🧪 How to Test for Iron in Water?
Knowing how to test for iron is the first step towards cleaner, healthier drinking water.
How can you detect iron in your water by sight? Turn on your faucet and look at the water flowing out of it. If there’s iron present, it’ll have a red, brown, yellow, or orange hue. You can also pour a glass of water to see what color your well water takes when it’s sitting still.
None of these visual test methods are good for detecting soluble ferrous iron, which doesn’t have distinct color and taste in water. In this case, you need a way to encourage the dissolved iron to oxidize by exposing it to the air. You can do this by dipping a tissue into a glass of water, then leaving the tissue to dry. The oxidized iron should show up on the tissue as rust discoloration.
Visual tests aren’t 100% accurate – your water quality may be quite different than a visual test indicates. You’re also unlikely to detect small amounts of iron with a visual test.
At-Home Test Kits
At-home test kits can give you a more accurate idea of the concentrations of iron in your water. They usually cost between $10 and $20, though some can cost up to $40 and above.
Using an at-home test kit takes less than 5 minutes. Here’s the general process to follow:
- Fill your test tube with water from your faucet.
- Remove the test strip from its packaging and submerge it in your water for 30 seconds.
- Remove the test strip from your sample, then wait 2 minutes.
- Put the color strip against your color chart and find out which iron rating is closest on the chart.
You need a test kit that can measure for iron as high as between 3 and 10 mg/L or PPM, or parts per million. Unless you have a particularly unique living situation, your well water shouldn’t contain more than 10ppm of iron at the very highest.
The most thorough method of iron testing is laboratory testing. Laboratories use expensive testing equipment and the most tried-and-trusted techniques to provide a much more accurate result than a testing kit that costs less than $10.
You can find lab tests that test specifically for iron, or for a range of common well water contaminants. My recommended laboratory test for iron is the SimpleLab Tap Score groundwater test package, which tests for iron and other common well water contaminants.
✔️ How to Get Rid of Iron in Water
Now you know how to test for iron in water, here’s what you need to know about removing it. There are several water filter solutions that you can choose from for well water iron removal. I’ve listed the most popular below.
Ferrous Iron Treatment
The below whole-house treatment options are available for removing ferrous, or soluble, iron:
Whole-house water softener systems don’t just remove hardness-causing minerals like calcium and magnesium. Many are also effective at removing iron. You can buy a whole house salt-based water softener that will treat well water at its point of entry into your home.
During ion exchange, dissolved iron, calcium and magnesium ions will bind to the water softener resin, and will be replaced with sodium (salt) ions. This produces salt-softened water, and the unwanted ions are flushed away from the resin when the water softener regenerates.
If you have ferric iron in your water, it’s recommended that you install a sediment pre-filter before your water softener. This will prevent the iron from clogging up the water softener resin and reducing its effectiveness.
Iron-focused water softeners can remove up to 7 PPM of ferrous iron. If you’re dealing with more iron than this, it’s best to use a dedicated iron filter, as too much iron could damage your water softener.
Air Injection Oxidation (AIO)
Air injection oxidation uses an injected pocket of air to remove iron, as well as manganese and hydrogen sulfide.
In this unit, water flows into a tank containing an air pocket. When the iron in water comes into contact with oxygen in the air, it changes state and becomes oxidized. This oxidized iron – now known as ferric iron – sticks to the media bed in the tank. Eventually, when the media bed is saturated with iron and other oxidized minerals, the system will flush the minerals away with backwashing.
Air injection is capable of filtering out up to 30 PPM of ferrous iron, making it one of the most effective systems for ferrous iron removal.
With a copper-zinc media, a KDF water filter produces an electrochemical reaction that converts harmful contaminants into non-harmful, or removable, forms. This type of water filter is effective at removing iron in both soluble and insoluble forms, but is best for ferrous iron.
KDF oxidizing filters are more effective when water has a slower flow rate, giving it more contact time with the media.
Most KDF filters can remove between 4 and 6 PPM of iron. Again, it’s best looking at a dedicated iron filter if you’re dealing with a higher concentration of ferrous iron.
Like air injection, birm whole house filters produce oxidized iron and filter it out of the system for effective removal. It’s one of the most economical and efficient water filtration methods for removing iron.
Birm water filters are made from a natural material, usually pumice, coated with manganese dioxide.
There must be enough dissolved oxygen in water for birm’s iron removal media to work. Many birm systems require an air pump to increase the oxygen levels in water. The oxygen works like a catalyst to change soluble ferrous iron into insoluble ferric iron, which is captured in the media and flushed out.
Birm filters can remove up to 10-15 PPM of iron in well water.
Like birm, whole house manganese greensand filter systems are made with manganese dioxide – but they don’t require oxygen for effective water filtration and iron removal. Instead, manganese greensand systems water use a chemical called potassium permanganate, which cleans the filters and restores them back to their best form after use.
Some people also use chlorine with this type of water filter, which means the system can be used to treat iron bacteria, ferrous iron, ferric iron, and manganese.
Manganese greensand filters are also capable of removing between 10 and 15 PPM of iron from water.
Ferric Iron Treatment
To treat ferric, or insoluble, iron, you have the following whole-house treatment options available:
The iron filters that can convert ferrous iron to ferric iron can also be used to remove iron that’s already oxidized. These include birm, manganese greensand, KDF and air injection oxidation.
Aeration + Filtration
An aeration and filtration system, otherwise known as an air injection oxidation filter, can remove high concentrations of ferric iron from well water. Because this filter also converts ferrous iron into ferric iron, it’s a good option for anyone dealing with both types of iron in their well and water system.
In the aeration process, water passes through an oxygenated air bubble, before flowing into a media bed that traps oxidized minerals. Iron-free water then flows out of the system for whole-home use.
Aeration and filtration is capable of removing high quantities of iron, usually up to 30 PPM. This system can also remove high levels of manganese and hydrogen sulfide.
Chemical Oxidation + Filtration
You can also use a chemical such as chlorine to remove iron from well water. Chlorine is a chemical oxidizer, and provides the same oxidizing process as air injection.
In a chlorine oxidizing system, a feed pump is used to deliver a measured amount of chlorine into water. The water will be held in a tank to give the chlorine time to take effect. Around 20 minutes of contact time is typically required for chlorine to oxidize the iron in water.
Chemical oxidation filters offer similar results to aeration water systems, but less convenient, as you have to wait for the chlorine to take effect.
Chemical oxidation is another of the most effective iron-removal solutions, and can remove up to 20-30 PPM of iron.
Sediment water filter products remove suspended sediment in water, like dust, sand, and rust. You can use them to remove iron from well water in ferric form, which usually shows up as browny-red flakes.
The presence of bacterial iron, too, can be reduced by sediment filters, but this type of iron tends to be too thick and sludgy to use with a sediment water filter – it’d clog the filter in a matter of days,
Soluble ferrous iron can’t be removed from sediment filters, as it’s dissolved in water, so it’ll pass straight through the filtration system with the water particles.
Most sediment filters can remove an average of 6 PPM of iron. If your ferric iron levels are any higher than 8 PPM, a sediment filter isn’t the best choice.
Bacterial Iron Treatment
Iron bacteria is a particularly tricky contaminant. Many of the methods of iron removal are incapable of removing iron bacteria.
Instead, methods of physical removal, then shock chlorination or chemical disinfection, will be required. This is typically followed by chemical injection, which will kill bacteria and prevent iron bacteria formation in the long run.
It’s important to understand how to treat iron bacteria in well water if this is the problem you’re dealing with. I’ve shared the most effective ways to remove iron bacteria in this guide.