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Iron is one of the most common well water contaminants in the US. Some soils and rocks have a very high iron content, and this iron can leach into water and end up in our well water supplies.
If you notice reddish-brown staining on your sinks and in your toilet, your water has an orangey hue, or you can smell rust when you shower, you’re probably dealing with iron in your water.
In this guide, I’ll be looking at how iron gets into water, and how to know if you have an iron problem. I’ll also share the best method of testing for drinking water iron, and how to respond with treatment if iron is present in your home.
🤔 How Does Iron Get Into Well Water?
There are two ways that iron most commonly gets into well water:
If you live in an area where rocks and soils naturally have a high iron content, you may have high iron in your drinking water because of surface runoff. Rain or melted snow seeps into the ground through the earth. If this earth has a high iron content, some of these minerals will dissolve into the water.
Corrosion of Iron Pipes
Alternatively, if you have an old well or water system, corrosion of iron pipes or well casing could be the cause of your iron contamination. When exposed to oxygen, this iron will rust, staining your pipes and plumbing fixtures.
❔ How Can You Tell if There is Iron in Your Water?
The biggest indication that your drinking water contains iron is its color. Iron-laced water takes on a reddish-brown hue. It may also look yellow or orange.
It’s common for elevated water iron levels to cause reddish-brown stains, too. Look at surfaces that are always in contact with water, like your toilet bowl. If you notice brown or orange staining that can’t easily be removed, you’re probably dealing with an iron issue.
If your water has a metallic taste, you could be dealing with iron. However, copper, manganese and zinc can also give water a metallic taste, so if you’re only noticing a taste issue, I would suggest that you test your water for these contaminants as well as iron.
Finally, iron can combine with bacteria to form a slimy substance known as iron bacteria. Iron bacteria can pose a problem in your pipes and fixtures, especially when it’s left to build up over time. Eventually, this bacteria may cause such a clogging issue that your water flow is noticeably affected.
🧐 Should I Test My Water for Iron?
Whether you want to protect your plumbing or look after your own health, it’s definitely a good idea to test your water for iron.
Iron can cause water to taste metallic, and will even affect the taste of the foods you cook in water. Dissolved iron also stains surfaces, such as toilet bowls, bathtubs, plates and cutlery, and even laundry.
From a health perspective, elevated water iron levels can cause issues when drinking and showering. Dissolved iron can cause your skin to dry out, and can prevent soap from lathering properly. Iron is classed as a secondary contaminant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because it can carry organic contaminants like bacteria, which may cause unwanted health effects.
📌 How to Test for Iron in Drinking Water
To test for iron in your drinking water, you can choose laboratory testing or DIY water testing.
Certified Laboratory Testing
If you’re looking for private, professional testing for iron in water, it’s worth paying for certified laboratory testing. There are many state-certified laboratories that offer this testing, usually at a price of around $100, depending on the exact test you choose.
To conduct a certified laboratory water test, the laboratory will usually send you a test kit. You can collect samples in the provided vials, then post them to the laboratory.
The Environmental Protection Agency has set a Maximum Contaminant Level for iron, which is 0.3 mg/L. Any higher than 0.3 mg/L and your health might be at risk. You will usually receive your results from laboratory testing by email, within 24-48 hours.
Laboratory testing is a lot more extensive than any other form of testing, and will accurately inform you of exactly what your water contains. You can test for contaminants aside from iron, such as manganese and sulfur. You can also get a breakdown of the types of iron your water contains, including ferrous iron, ferric iron and iron bacteria.
My recommended certified lab is Tap Score by SimpleLab. The Essential Well Water Test tests for iron in water, as well as other common well water contaminants, like aluminum, arsenic, copper, hardness minerals, lead, tannins, manganese, and zinc.
Home Water Test Kit
Alternatively, if you want to spend less money on an iron test and you’re not particularly bothered about getting the most accurate results, you can use at-home testing kits to provide insight into your water’s iron levels.
DIY iron test kits will give you an indication of how much iron your water contains in PPM or mg/L. You’ll be provided with testing strips and a color chart. Simply dip a strip in a sample of your water, then wait for the strip to change color. Compare the strip to the color chart to work out your water’s iron levels.
At-home testing kits offer the most affordable means of testing for iron, costing between $10 and $20. These kits are a good choice if you’re just looking to get an idea of what your water contains, but the results won’t be exact (for example, you won’t be able to see if you have ferric or ferrous iron).
🙋 What Can I Do If My Water Tests Positive for Iron?
If you find out your water contains iron, you should first try to determine the source. I would recommend replacing any old iron pipes or well casings if these are leaching this mineral into your water.
If your iron is coming from a natural source, there are a number of water treatment options to consider:
For a low iron concentration, a water softener may be the most suitable form of water treatment. Water softeners use ion exchange to replace calcium, magnesium and iron minerals with sodium. However, not all water softeners can treat water with a particularly high concentration of iron, so make sure you do your research and purchase a system that’s equipped to effectively tackle this mineral.
KDF oxidizing filters are another popular treatment choice for removing iron from water. Using copper-zinc media, this type of filter converts impurities like iron into easily removable forms, then flushes them out of the system when the media regenerates.
KDF filters can eliminate both soluble and insoluble iron, as soluble ferric iron is converted into insoluble ferrous iron during the oxidation process.
KDF media is typically used as a means of whole house water treatment for well water. It may be used alone or in conjunction with other filters to provide a wider filtration solution.
Other Types of Filters
There are several other types of filters that can also be used to remove iron from your water. Reverse osmosis filtration can remove almost every impurity from water, including lead, tannins, bacteria, and chemicals. Birm is also an option for iron removal, and works a bit like KDF media, oxidizing contaminants before filtering them out of the system.
Sediment filters can be used to get rid of ferric iron, and will also remove suspended sediment from water, including sand, dirt and dust. Check out my guide on how to remove iron from well water if you’re looking for more information on your iron removal options.