In today’s world, we’re lucky enough to be inundated with water treatment options for our home. Whether you get your water from a private well or a municipal supply, you’re probably only aware of a fraction of the systems you could use to improve your water quality.
It’s common for well owners in particular to have issues with a certain problem contaminant in drinking water: iron.
Excessive ferric and ferrous iron can cause plumbing problems in your home – it can leave orange-brown stains and form sludge-like deposits when combined with bacteria, eventually reducing water flow around your home. Iron can also affect the taste of food, as it gives water an unpleasant metallic flavor.
If you’re hoping to banish iron from your drinking water, I don’t blame you.
When it comes to removing iron from a household water source, the most obvious solution is an iron filter. But many water softeners are also capable of removing this common contaminant at a certain concentration, and they have the advantage of also removing dissolved water hardness minerals – another common type of well water contaminant.
So, which should you choose? In the iron filter vs water softener battle, which system comes out on top?
I’ve shared all the info you need to know in this guide.
Table of Contents
What is an Iron Filter
In small amounts, iron is important for red blood cells in the body, enabling oxygen to travel throughout the body. Still, too much iron in a water supply can lead to a range of household problems.
An iron filter is a type of water filter that’s intended specifically for ferric and ferrous iron removal.
This filter is typically installed at your home’s point of entry to treat water before it can travel within your pipes to cause widespread damage around your property.
How do Iron Filters Work?
Iron filters consist of a single tank that contains a media bed. This media is made from a material known as a natural oxidizing agent (because it introduces oxygen, or air, into the water).
The system sends water from your incoming pipe through the media bed, where the soluble ferrous iron particles, when exposed to oxygen (air), are attracted to the media.
The iron particles come into contact with the media, where they’re oxidized and converted into insoluble particles.
In their insoluble, oxidized state, these particles can now be removed with an iron filter inside the tank. As a result, water leaving the system should be at least 99.9% free of all iron particles.
To maintain an iron filter, the system requires regular backwashing or regeneration.
This quick process removes the insoluble iron particles from the media bed once it has reached capacity, refreshing the bed back to its optimum state for oxidation. Typically, regeneration takes place overnight, when you won’t need to use the system anyway, so it won’t disturb your water usage.
Additional contaminants may be removed
It’s not uncommon for an iron filter to remove the likes of manganese and sulfur, too, giving you a three-in-one water treatment solution.
Considering that manganese and sulfur are common well water elements, it’s likely that if you have iron in your well, you’re also dealing with these two additional impurities.
Finding an iron filter that can also reduce sulfur and manganese will further improve your water’s quality and give water a better taste and odor.
Iron removal filters don’t require much heavy maintenance from you at all.
Unlike traditional water treatment solutions, they don’t use filter cartridges that require replacement purchases on a 6-monthly or yearly basis. Instead, they use an oxidizing agent like chlorine, or a media bed that can usually last for 6-8 years.
The only regular, necessary maintenance an iron removal filter requires is regeneration, but you can set the system to regenerate automatically based on water usage and your iron levels, so it’s not something you’ll have to remember to do yourself.
Salt- & chemical-free operation
Iron removal filters operate without the need for sodium, potassium or chemical add-ins, which will give two advantages: you won’t need to pay for sodium/chemical top-ups and you won’t be adding anything extra into your water.
If you’re looking to remove iron from your well water as naturally as possible, without further contaminating your water, an iron filter is the most effective option.
Removes excess iron from water
A typical iron filtration system can remove excessive levels of both soluble iron (ferrous iron) and insoluble iron (ferric iron).
Most iron filters can remove at least 10 ppm (parts per million) of iron and, on a similar note, at least 5 ppm of manganese and sulfur. If you have excess iron content in your water, an iron filter is capable of tackling the problem.
Won’t tackle hard water issues
While they can treat high levels of iron in your water, iron filters aren’t designed to tackle calcium and magnesium issues.
You’d have to use a water softener to remove these hard water elements, which may put you off iron filters slightly if you have a hard water problem as well as an iron problem.
May require specific water conditions
Depending on the type of filter you go for, you may need to make sure your water conditions are suitable for the filtration process you’re looking at.
For instance, birm filters, which are commonly used to remove iron, require water to have a pH of more than 8 to operate effectively.
It’s important that homeowners always make sure to read the manufacturer’s product description carefully for an iron filter to make sure it’ll work with their water supply before they make a purchase.
What is a Water Softener?
You’ll typically install a water softener, like an iron filter, at your home’s water point of entry in the first free space you have available, offering clean water benefits to your whole home.
This type of water treatment equipment isn’t specifically made to remove ferrous and ferric iron; instead, its main purpose is to “soften” water, changing its state by removing the calcium and magnesium hard water minerals from water.
How do Water Softeners Work?
There are two types of water filtration to address hard water: salt-free conditioners and traditional salt-based softeners. In this case, I’m going to be talking about salt-based softeners, as these are the units that have the potential to offer iron removal.
In a standard salt-based water softener, a process called ion exchange is used.
The system consists of two tanks: a resin tank and a brine tank.
The resin chamber contains a bed of special resin beads, which, similarly to an iron filtration system, attract hard water ions to the resin. When these ions come into contact with the resin, an equal amount of salt, or sodium, is released from the media bed, effectively replacing water’s hard water content with sodium.
You’re probably wondering how this process has anything to do with iron removal. It’s because typically, most water ion exchange softener units can remove iron as well as producing softened water.
This makes them twice as appealing, as they can remove both iron and dissolved water hardness – but they’re not usually capable of removing a particularly high iron concentration present in the water.
Multiple water treatment benefits
If you’re looking for clean, clear water that won’t cause scale, water softeners will provide the solution.
An ion exchange water softener alone can remove calcium, magnesium and iron from water – three contaminants that can affect water’s appearance and cause damage around the home. Some water softener iron systems can also remove small amounts of manganese, too.
There are far more water softener systems than there are iron filtration systems on the market. Opting for a water softener iron system, therefore, should mean you have more choice when it comes to price, design, and efficiency. If you don’t want to be limited to less than 5-10 decent selections, you’re best looking at a softened water unit.
Specific softeners for iron removal
Some water softening systems are specifically produced to remove a higher iron content of between 5 and 10 parts per million. This can be a good option if you’re looking to tackle a relatively high iron content and high hardness at the same time.
Can’t tackle high iron levels
Ion exchange water softeners are generally only an effective option when water’s iron concentrations are low. If you have excess iron – typically higher than 0.1-0.3 parts per million – an iron filter is a better overall option.
Can’t remove insoluble iron
Water softeners can often only remove insoluble types of iron (ferric iron), and not soluble ferrous iron.
If forms of ferrous iron are a big problem for you, you may be better opting for an iron filtration system that can effectively handle both types of iron.
Most softening units also can’t tackle iron bacteria, which combines oxygen (air) and iron, and the sludge produced by this bacteria could clog and damage the resin beads.
More maintenance required
Water softener iron systems typically replace magnesium and calcium minerals and iron content with small amounts of sodium.
If you’re using your water softener 24/7 – which you likely are if you’ve set up your softener at your home’s point of entry – it’ll be necessary for you to top up your sodium levels once every 3 months or so.
If you let your sodium levels in the brine chamber get too low, causing the softening system to not function properly, the unit itself may become damaged. You must also program your system for regeneration and make sure regeneration frequency is suitable for your water usage, the tank’s capacity and hardness levels.
It’s also important to keep up with various other maintenance tasks such as cleaning your brine tank once a year.
Filtration vs Ion Exchange for Iron Removal
Finding the right system for your iron removal needs depends largely on your water’s iron content. If you haven’t already tested your water, getting a professional test done is the natural place to start.
You may have noticed rusty orange or brown stains on your plumbing, sinks, toilets and fixtures, or you’ve realized that your home’s water flow has been affected by this contaminant, but you may have high levels of ferrous iron (that’s the stuff that dissolves in your water and is otherwise known as clear-water iron) without actually knowing.
A water test can tell you exactly how much ferric or ferrous iron that’s present.
If your iron sediment levels are higher than 5 parts per million, a standard water softener is unlikely to effectively tackle the water problems in your house.
Too much iron can also damage the softener resin, making it less efficient and shortening its lifespan, so make sure you’re only considering a water softener if your iron levels are present below 5 ppm.
Remember, there are certain types of water softener that are intended to offer a higher level of iron removal, but check carefully to make sure the softening system is suitable for your needs before making a purchase.
Iron filtration is always a better option if you have little interest in the additional benefits of a water softener. If you don’t have particularly noticeable hard water issues around your house, a water softener certainly isn’t essential. To tackle iron staining and rust, a typical water filtration unit made for this job will work just fine.
Do I Need an Iron Filter and Water Softener?
One option that you may want to consider is the double-whammy: purchasing a combination of an iron filtration unit and a water softener together. This option can give you soft water that’s free of iron, and it’s a great option if your family is exposed to a high hardness and iron content.
Of course, this option will be a big cost upfront, but with a bit of calculation, you may realize that you’ll easily save money in the long run by having both units in operation, preventing damage to your plumbing and appliances, and improving water taste, thus reducing the need for bottled water purchases.
Using both units together will offer high efficiency, eliminating forms of ferric & ferrous iron as well as dissolved hardness ions and iron bacteria. It’ll also prevent the risk of damage to your softening system and reduce the frequency of regeneration.
If you are considering both units for your family, make sure to install your iron filter before your water softener, which will prevent excess iron concentrations from damaging the softener’s resin. You should also be sure that you have a high enough water pressure to handle both units without the flow rate in your pipes being affected.
Ready to start looking at products for easily eliminating this pesky contaminant? Check out our best iron filters for well water guide.
I’ve put hours of research into this guide, so you can guarantee that if a filter or softening system’s worth buying in 2023, I’ve included it in my list.