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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 use one of the methods I outline below to help you remove it from yours.
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 found 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.
1. Ferrous Iron
Ferrous iron is a soluble iron, and also has the name: 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 eventually show itself if it is exposed to the air, which causes it to oxidize. When this happens, iron will leave reddish-brown deposits on any surface it comes into contact with.
2. Ferric Iron
Ferric iron, on the other hand, is insoluble, and isn’t able to completely dissolve into 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 that is particularly obvious when poured into a drinking glass.
You may also notice ferric iron staining in your sinks and other water-based appliances. As well as being the simplest to spot, ferric iron is also the simplest type of iron when it comes to removal from your well systems water, if you know how to to it.
3. Bacterial Iron
Bacterial iron is a little more complex of all the iron types, and it takes its name from how it is made – it’s first 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 your plumbing.
It’s also a nightmare problem to have if you use certain well water treatment appliances like water softeners and water filter systems, as when it comes into contact with these systems, it clogs them up and drastically 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 good sign when it comes to the health of your well. It’s pretty normal to have iron in your well water, but bacteria suggests that you’ve slipped up on maintenance somewhere.
Common causes of bacterial iron in well water are a poorly sanitized pump or an incorrectly fitted pump in your well system.
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
High levels of iron bacteria in well water is often linked with clogged pipes throughout your home. This happens when the iron from water flows through your plumbing and gradually builds up inside your pipes, leaving a thick slimy substance and eventually restricting your home’s water flow.
This can cause further problems when the situation is left to progress; for instance, 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. Ferric and ferrous iron may also clog water on a less obvious level.
Skin and Hair Issues
It makes sense that if iron in the water of your home can leave deposits on your plumbing, it can also leave deposits on your skin and hair. 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 your well 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.
The color left by iron water can be seen in the water itself (unless you only have a ferrous iron problem). Water with high concentrations of iron will usually come out of the faucets in your whole house 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 with the water, including vegetables, rice and pasta. Coffee and tea that’s made with well water with a higher-than-average iron content may have a black, inky appearance and an unpleasant taste.
How to Test for Iron in Water?
Knowing how to test for iron is the first step towards cleaner, healthier drinking water. You never have to guess whether you have iron in your water or not. There are a number of tests you can do to be certain one way or another.
The simplest and cheapest (at no cost) way to test for iron in your water is by doing a visual test. Turn on your faucet and look at the water flowing out of it. If it’s high in iron, instead of looking clear, it’ll probably have more of a red, brown or orange hue. You can also pour a glass of water to see what color your well water takes when it’s sitting still. Any iron present should, again, show up as either a browny-orange tinge or orange flecks at the bottom of the glass.
Of course, 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.
At-home Test Kits
The issue with visual tests is that while they’ll give you a good first impression of whether or not you have iron in your water, they won’t tell you how much. At-home test kits can give you a more accurate idea of the presence of iron in your water, which will help you to respond with the best solutions based on what you’re dealing with. 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 in total. You’ll be provided with a test tube, a color chart and a pack of color strips for the job. Here’s the general process you’ll need to follow when testing your water for iron:
- Fill your test tube with water from your faucet.
- Remove the test strip from its packaging and hold it submerged in your water.
- Move the test strip back and forth in the water, keeping it in there 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 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. Some testing kits test for as high as 50ppm of iron, but it’s very unlikely that it’d be worth spending the extra money on one of these.
It’s important that you find a good at-home test kit if you’re looking for the most accurate reading of your iron from well water content. Some test kits can be affected by the interference of other heavy metals present in the water, like well water arsenic, which may produce flawed results. Always read up on customer reviews before buying a test kit online.
If you want to know how to test your water with the most thorough method, you can send off a sample of your water to get tested in a laboratory.
The same companies that test water for private businesses often test residential water, too, and offer their services to the average US homeowner. Because they have the most expensive testing equipment and the most tried-and-trusted techniques, it’s likely that you’ll get a much more accurate result than a testing kit that costs less than $10.
You won’t find many labs that test solely for iron – the majority also test for other common contaminants in your well water, like chlorine and lead. Lab tests typically test for bacteria, too, so you might want to go for this type of test if you think you might have bacterial iron in your well water. Depending on exactly what a company will test for, residential testing can cost between $20 and hundreds of dollars.
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. The most popular whole house water filtering products are listed below.
A chemical-free salt-based water softener uses a single ion exchange resin to soften water. It doesn’t just remove hard-causing minerals like calcium and magnesium – many water softener systems 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 the process of salt-based 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, leaving only a small amount of salt ions in their place. If you have any ferric iron in your water, it’s recommended that you use a sediment pre-filter for your salt-based whole house water softener, which will prevent the iron from clogging up the resin and reducing its effectiveness.
A whole house salt-based filtered water softener uses a process that’s designed to effectively remove water hardness and iron from water, producing soft, iron-free water. But there has to be a similar ratio of hard water-causing minerals and iron for the ion exchange process in your salt-based water softener resin to work well. If your water is quite soft, an oxidizing filter will be better than a water softener for you.
KDF oxidizing filters are best at removing chlorine and heavy metals in water. 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 as during this oxidation process, it converts soluble ferric iron into insoluble ferrous iron, then filter it back out of water.
KDF oxidizing filters aren’t designed to work really quickly – they’re actually more effective when water has a slower flow rate, giving it more time to oxidize. Typically, KDF filters are included in a whole house water filter system, at water’s point of entry into a home.
Reverse Osmosis Systems
Reverse osmosis is one of the most effective methods of removing pretty much any contaminant from water, no matter how big or small – including ferrous and ferric iron. You can buy a reverse osmosis filtration system as a whole house system, an under sink system, or countertop system.
Using a thorough water filtration process that sees water pass through multiple filter media and a single reverse osmosis membrane, an RO system can remove iron up to around 3 ppm (parts per million). Any more than this, and while the RO system will still remove the iron, it’ll clog up the filters and you’ll have to spend more money on replacement filters more frequently.
Again, reverse osmosis systems aren’t the best solution for the removal of bacterial iron, as it’ll plug up the filter media, even in small concentrations.
Sediment water filter products remove suspended sediment in water, like dust, sand, and rust. This means you can use them to get rid of ferric iron in well water, which isn’t dissolved in water and usually shows up as brown-red flakes. As ferric iron usually shows up in tiny particles, a sediment filter should have a small enough micron rating to remove iron.
The presence of bacterial iron, too, would 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, which would mean you’d have to spend a lot of money on replacement water filter products.
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. To remove both insoluble and soluble iron, which are often present in water together, you’ll be better off with a water filter that filters and oxidizes at the same time.
Birm whole house filters work a bit like a KDF filter for iron removal, producing oxidized iron and then filtering it out of its system for effective removal. It’s one of the most economical and efficient water filtration methods to remove iron.
Birm has a filter media that’s made from a natural material, usually pumice, coated with manganese dioxide. There must be enough dissolved oxygen in water for birm’s iron removel media to work. The oxygen works like a catalyst to change soluble ferrous iron into insoluble ferric iron, in the form of rust contaminants that are captured in birm’s media and flushed out.
Your well water probably won’t have a high enough oxygen content for the effective removal of iron, so many birm systems require an air pump to reduce the oxygen levels in water. Also important is that birm isn’t a media that can be used with chlorinated water. Replacement filtered water systems are needed every 5-10 years for adequate iron removal.
Like birm, whole house manganese greensand filter products 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 enables the system to treat iron bacteria, ferrous iron, ferric iron and manganese. Manganese greensand filters are best for the removal of higher iron levels, and tend to require less backwash water in the long run. Replacement filtered water systems are needed once every 5-8 years.