Iron in Water: What Is It & Where Does It Come From?

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If you get your drinking water from a private well, there’s a good chance that your water contains iron.

Iron is a mineral that gives water a metallic taste and causes orange staining on your appliances and plumbing fixtures.

Here, we’ve discussed everything you need to know about iron in water, including what it is, where it comes from, and how to test for it.

๐Ÿ“Œ Key Takeaways:

  • Iron is a naturally occurring mineral found in the earth’s crust.
  • There are four common types of iron in tap water: ferric (insoluble) iron, ferrous (clear water) iron, organic iron, and iron bacteria.
  • Iron gets into water through groundwater seepage and corroding iron or steel pipes.

๐Ÿค” What Is Iron In Well Water?

Iron is an essential trace mineral and a common contaminant in private well supplies.

Iron occurs naturally in the earth’s crust, which is why it’s so often found in groundwater supplies.

While iron isn’t harmful to human health, it can affect water’s taste and leave reddish-brown stains around your home.

Iron in water

๐Ÿ“‹ 4 Types Of Iron In Water

There are several different types of iron that you’re likely to come across in your well water system:

Ferrous Iron

Soluble ferrous iron is the type of iron that’s most commonly found in well water. Ferrous iron is dissolved in water, meaning that the water comes out of your faucet clear.

But when this soluble iron reacts with oxygen in the air, iron oxidation will occur, causing water to turn red or brown. If you leave the water for long enough, all the ferrous iron present will convert into ferric iron.

Ferric Iron

Insoluble iron, known as ferric iron, doesn’t dissolve in water. If your water contains ferric iron, it’ll be orange or red the moment it leaves your faucet.

You may also notice flecks of rust in water that’s contaminated with ferric iron.

Organic Iron

Organic iron usually has a brown or yellow color, but may also have no noticeable color at all.

This type of iron is most commonly found in a shallow well or water system that’s affected by surface water supplies.

Iron Bacteria

Iron bacteria, or bacterial iron, occurs when iron and bacteria combine. This type of iron is characterized by orange or brown slimy or sludgy deposits in your toilet tank and other water-using fixtures.

Bacterial iron is the worst kind of iron to have in your well because it’s the most damaging (it can clog your pipes and appliances rather than simply staining them) and because it’s the most difficult to treat and can’t be targeted with a standard iron removal system.

Iron bacteria in water

๐Ÿ“ฅ How Does Iron Get Into Water?

Iron gets into water in a couple of different ways.

The most common cause of iron in drinking water is surface runoff or water seepage. In surface water sources (like lakes and rivers), iron may be carried into the water from rain or other runoff that contains iron minerals.

More commonly, iron gets into groundwater through seepage – when water travels through iron-containing soils and rocks and picks up iron minerals on its way to the groundwater source (such as a well aquifer).

Alternatively, you might have iron or steel pipes that are leaching iron into your water. When old iron pipes corrode, they begin to rust, and flakes of iron are pulled into your water as it flows through your plumbing.

๐Ÿ”Ž Signs Of Iron In Well Water

Whether you have dissolved iron or insoluble ferric iron, there are a couple of signs of iron contamination to look out for:

Staining And Clogging

The most obvious sign of excess iron in your water is orange staining. You might notice orange or brown stains on your toilet tank, sinks, bathtubs, and other surfaces that come into contact with water.

Iron isn’t only known to stain plumbing fixtures – it may also stain your laundry. If you notice an orange tinge to your whites, you might have an iron problem.

In a worst-case scenario, iron might combine with bacteria to form iron bacteria, a slimy substance that may clog pipes and appliances in your home.

Dark brown stains in shower

Poor Water Taste & Smell

Iron may also give water a metallic taste and smell. The organic iron taste is earthy and unpleasant, and you might decide to take up a bottled water habit to avoid drinking the water from your tap.

The metallic flavor of iron might also seep into foods that you boil in water containing iron, such as pasta and vegetables.

๐Ÿ™‹โ€โ™‚๏ธ Is Iron In Drinking Water Dangerous?

So, is it dangerous to drink iron in well water? The answer is no – iron shouldn’t make you sick or cause any adverse health conditions if you drink it in your water.

Even in moderate concentrations, iron is safe to drink. That’s because iron is a trace mineral that humans need to survive, so, when it’s present at natural levels in your drinking water, it shouldn’t have any health effects.

Too much iron is more likely to have effects on your home than it is on your body.

๐Ÿšฐ Is Iron In Tap Water Regulated?

No, iron isn’t regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has only issued a secondary drinking water standard for iron, which is 300 mg/L (micrograms per liter).

Why are there no legally enforceable limits for iron in tap water? Because iron doesn’t have any known health effects and is only considered a nuisance contaminant because of its aesthetic effects.

However, many city water treatment plants and private well owners choose to employ an iron removal solution because of iron’s staining and water quality effects.

Filling glass of water from tap

๐Ÿงช How To Test For Iron In Tap Water

Before you start making iron treatment methods considerations, you want to be certain that you’re definitely dealing with iron-contaminated water.

There are a few different ways that you can test for iron in your water. We’ve shared the two most popular methods below.

Method 1: Use An At-Home Test Kit

The quickest and cheapest way to test for iron in your well water is to use an at-home iron water test kit.

You can buy one of these kits for around $20-$30 online.

To use the test, remove one of the test strips from the package and dip the strip in a sample of water from your tap. Wait for the strip to change color, then compare it to the included color chart to get a reading of your water’s iron concentration.

Method 2: Buy A Laboratory Test

A laboratory analysis will give you the most thorough and accurate understanding of your water’s iron levels, including the different types of iron present in your water supply, and the exact concentrations of each.

You can buy individual iron water tests for around $60, or testing packages for well water that also test for other common contaminants, like manganese, tannins, and sulfur. We recommend the Essential Well Water Test by SimpleLab.

For this testing method, you just need to take a sample of your water and send it off to the laboratory. You’ll receive your test results usually within 2 weeks.

Completed tap score well water test

๐Ÿ“– How To Know If You Have Iron Or Tannins In Water

Iron and tannins are commonly confused because they both have water coloration and staining effects.

The best way to determine whether your water contains iron, tannins, or both, is to test your water.

But if you want to quickly get an idea of which contaminant is in your water, do this DIY water test:

  1. Fill a clear glass with water from your kitchen faucet.
  2. Leave the glass to sit for a few hours, preferably overnight.
  3. Observe the color changes in the water.

If your water contains iron, you’ll notice that the coloration has settled at the bottom of the glass, or you might notice floating rust particles.

If your water contains tannins, it’ll have an all-over yellowish discoloration.

There’s a chance that your water may contain both iron and tannins, meaning that there’s some settling at the bottom of the glass, but your water still has an all-over yellowish discoloration.

๐Ÿ“‘ Final Word: Removing Iron From Water

We know now that iron in water isn’t dangerous – and, in fact, low levels of iron are actually good for human health.

But due to the aesthetic and cosmetic consequences of iron in well water, you probably want to remove this mineral from your water.

If so, you’ll probably be interested in reading our guide on the best ways to remove iron from well water.

  • Jennifer Byrd
    Water Treatment Specialist

    For 20+ years, Jennifer has championed clean water. From navigating operations to leading sales, she's tackled diverse industry challenges. Now, at Redbird Water, she crafts personalized solutions for homes, businesses, and factories. A past Chamber President and industry advocate, Jennifer leverages her expertise in cutting-edge filtration and custom design to transform water concerns into crystal-clear solutions.

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