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Iron is one of the most common contaminants faced by well owners. From muddy-colored glasses of drinking water to bright orange streaks in toilets and bathtubs, iron leaves a trail of stains, discoloration, and foul tastes in its wake. Though it is one of the most prevalent water quality issues faced by well-owners, there are many solutions to rid your water of this unwelcome mineral. 

How does iron get into well water? 

Iron primarily enters into your well water by seeping in from the earth’s crust. Iron is the most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust, making it a pervasive nuisance for well owners across the globe. Heavy rainfall percolating through the soil will dissolve iron, ushering iron deposits into the underground aquifers. As snow melts and seeps through the earth into groundwater supplies, it introduces iron into well water sources. Making up over 5% of the earth’s crust, iron is one of the earth’s most common and widespread natural resources, so its rampant presence in well water is unpreventable, no matter how diligently a homeowner maintains their well. Iron exists in wells in three forms: ferric, ferrous, and bacterial. Each manifestation of iron stipulates a different iron filter or treatment process. 

Iron can also enter your well water supply from exposure to rusty, corroded plumbing. Aged iron pipes and corroded iron fixtures will leave brown-colored flecks in your water and orange stains on your drains. Iron casings within your well will begin to rust over time. When iron is exposed to oxygen and water, the iron begins to oxidize and deteriorate. This is because prolonged exposure to the elements causes iron to break down and convert into rust. This can be remedied by replacing the pipes running from your well. If your well is old and in disrepair, drilling a new well altogether can alleviate your iron woes. 

How does iron in water damage your home? 

Iron will clog pipes, reduce household water pressure, ruin the taste of tea and coffee, and leave bright-colored stains on your appliances in quantities as small as 3ppm (parts-per-million). Though iron is rarely seen in quantities larger than 10ppm, its ability to cause such severe and visible damage at such low concentrations makes it a distinctly frustrating contaminant to grapple with. 

sediment filters iron turbidity

Stained appliances 

Iron is notorious for the harsh stains it leaves in its path. Any appliance that is plumbed to your well will become discolored from exposure to water rich in iron. Vivid orange streaks will appear in your toilet bowl. Bright red and yellow trails will appear around the rim of your sinks and surrounding the drains. Bathtubs and showers will bear the bright discoloration from iron concentrations in water. Even your dishes and laundry aren’t safe from unsightly brown and red staining after being washed in water with iron. 

Metallic and discolored water 

Iron leaves water with a bitter metallic aftertaste and will turn water unappetizing colors even in very low concentrations. Iron also gives water an unpleasant, sharp odor. An iron-laden well means the refreshing glass of water you pour from your kitchen sink may come out brown, orange, red, or yellow. Furthermore, any beverage made with water (like tea, espresso, and coffee) will also bear that harsh, metallic aftertaste. From boiling pasta to steaming vegetables, any foods cooked in iron-contaminated water will darken and be left with a residual dirty, earthy flavor. Iron also gives water an unpleasant, sharp odor. 

Clogged pipes

As iron residue flows through your pipes, it can accumulate inside your plumbing and begin to restrict water flow throughout the house. This will reduce your home’s overall water pressure, cause your sinks and toilets to clog, and diminish performance from your household appliances. Your showerhead pressure will drop, leading to an unsatisfying flow of water. Bacterial iron is particularly nasty and can cause the most serious clogging problems. Bacterial iron leaves behind thick brown slime that collects in pipes and can cause erratic water pressure and foster an environment where pathogenic bacteria can thrive. Any appliance that uses water, from your dishwasher to your lawn sprinkler, will fall victim to iron build-up, leading to premature and costly replacements. 

Stained skin and hair

Just like it can leave stains on your sinks and dishware, iron’s staining properties also apply to the human body. Showering in water with high concentrations of iron will turn your hair orange, and the heavy mineral content will leave your hair brittle and lifeless. Bathing in water high in iron can give your skin a reddish tint. In addition to drying out hair, water with heavy mineral content negatively affects the skin. High dosages of iron can dry out pores, and also exacerbate skin conditions like eczema and acne. 

Learn more about common well water problems like hard water and acidic water

Is iron in water dangerous? 

Drinking low levels of iron is not dangerous and will not have an adverse impact on your health. Iron is regulated as a secondary contaminant by the EPA. Secondary contaminants are contaminants with aesthetic and cosmetic consequences, like foul tastes and stains, but are not considered to be dangerous to consume. Iron itself is essential to a healthy, balanced diet and contributes to red blood cell production and transports oxygen throughout the body. Spinach, eggs, lentils, and shrimp all are iron-rich foods that provide your body with this vital mineral. 

If you are consuming very high concentrations of iron, there is a possibility of toxicity. Hemochromatosis is an inherited medical condition that prevents your intestines from properly absorbing iron. Hemochromatosis can lead to lethargy, weight loss and confusion, and cirrhosis of the liver. However, hemochromatosis is a hereditary condition, and drinking well water with high concentrations of iron cannot give you the disorder. 

The three types of iron found in well water 

Three different types of iron can lurk in your well water. Removing iron from your well is contingent on a thorough and accurate understanding of what types of iron are present. Iron presents unique challenges and different solutions based on its form. In order to remove it, you must have a firm understanding of what form the iron is in. Performing a water test will reveal exactly what water conditions you are working with, and present you with the clearest path forward. Iron test strips can also provide you with a more general idea of the parts-per-million of iron present in your well.

1. Ferric iron

Ferric iron is insoluble iron, meaning the iron minerals have not been completely dissolved within the water. If your water is a bright orange or red coloration, this is a great indication that you have a great deal of ferric iron present in your well. Since bacterial iron is in a precipitate form, it is the simplest form of iron to remove from your well. 

How do I remove ferric iron from my well water? 

Sediment filters 

A sub-micron rated sediment filter is capable of removing the iron precipitate that has emerged from the water. Sediment filters allow water to flow freely through them while preventing solid particulate matter from entering the household plumbing. Sediment filters are exceptional at preventing dirt, debris, and cloudiness from polluting your home’s water. Make sure your sediment filter has a small enough micron rating to adequately capture the iron. Many well-owners prefer natural cotton stringwound sediment filters to capture and remove the ferric iron in their well water supply. This solution is ideal for those with low levels of iron, all of which is in ferric form. A sediment filter alone will not solve your stained toilets and metallic tasting water if your well has ferrous iron in addition to the ferric iron.

Learn more about how sediment filters work

2. Ferrous iron

Ferrous iron is soluble iron, meaning the iron has been entirely dissolved within the water. A glass of ferrous iron will appear crystal clear. Though ferrous does not make itself known immediately, once the water is exposed to atmospheric conditions and oxidizes, it will become ferric and start to emerge as a precipitate. This means if you were to leave that glass of clear water out on a shelf overnight, you would awake to find reddish-brown flakes at the bottom of the glass. So, though it is not immediately visible, ferrous iron still has staining properties and will affect the taste and smell of your water. Ferrous iron is often found in deep wells, where the water has had less exposure to sunlight and the iron has therefore not oxidized. 

How do I remove ferrous iron from my well?

Water softeners

Ion-exchange water softeners can handily remove low levels of ferrous iron from the water. Water softeners are primarily used to remove water hardness minerals from water through ion exchange, a process where sodium ions are exchanged for positively-charged mineral ions. Since iron is a positively-charged cation, it will be attracted to the spherical anion resin beads and exchanged for a sodium ion, just like the calcium and magnesium ions. However, if there is any ferric iron present in the water, a sediment pre-filter will be necessary to prevent your water softener from becoming clogged with iron slugs. 

Furthermore, water softeners are most efficient at removing iron from hard water. There needs to be an adequate ratio of water hardness and iron for the ion exchange to sufficiently remove iron from the water. If you have soft water, an oxidizing filter will be more effective at reducing the iron content of your water. If you are using a water softener to reduce iron content, you will need to periodically flush the system and resin bed with Rust Out to protect the system and ensure the longevity of the resin beads.  

Learn more about how water softeners work.

Manganese greensand 

One of the most popular and effective ways to eliminate ferrous iron is to convert it to ferric iron and then remove it from the water. Water treatment systems that use this tactic are called oxidizing filters. Manganese greensand is a powerful oxidizer. When iron and manganese make contact with the media, they are oxidized out of a dissolved form and turned into solid particulate matter. The precipitate ferric iron is then pulled out of the water by the manganese greensand media and does not continue on into the house. Periodically, this media needs to be back-washed by a purple powder called potassium permanganate. Potassium permanganate both flushes the collected iron flecks down the drain and regenerates the greensand media, restoring its oxidizing capacity. Like any powerful chemical agent, potassium permanganate can cause skin and eye irritation and should be handled conscientiously. Manganese greensand is capable of removing up to 15ppm of iron out of well water. 

Birm 

Birm is another type of oxidizing media used to extract dissolved iron out of well water supplies. Unlike manganese greensand, birm does not require a chemical oxidizing agent to remove the iron. However, birm only works in water with elevated pH levels. Therefore, most systems utilizing birm will combine it with calcite. Calcite is a media that elevates the water’s pH, and, in this application, enables the birm media to effectively oxidize the ferrous iron and remove it from the water.

KDF

KDF is a bacteriostatic media made of high-purity granular zinc that boasts impressive chlorine reduction claims. In addition, KDF filters are also adept at reducing heavy metals. Many inline iron filter cartridges use KDF media to convert ferrous iron into insoluble ferric iron oxide and remove it from the water. KDF filters work best when they are dealing with low water volumes and low flow rates. Since extended contact time is essential to the KDF oxidization process, these filters work best when housed in a Big Blue filter housing and positioned at the water's point of entry into your home. 

3. Bacterial iron

Bacterial iron is the trickiest and nastiest configuration iron can take in your well. Bacterial iron occurs when there are bacteria in the well that have bonded with the iron. Bacterial iron is a bright red sludge, resembling tomato soup. Bacterial iron most commonly emerges in wells because of poor maintenance or improper well servicing. For example, if you had your well pump serviced, and the pump was not properly sanitized before being returned to the well, bacteria can be introduced that will then bond with the iron.  Bacterial iron will stick to the inside of pipes, clog your well pump, congest your plumbing fixtures, and leave swampy, slimy red residue in your toilet bowl and tank. Bacterial iron will also ruin water softeners, sediment prefilters, and water booster pumps. Though bacterial iron itself is not harmful, it can create conditions where harmful pathogenic bacteria can grow. 

How do I remove bacterial iron from my well? 

Shock chlorination

Removing bacterial iron from your well is a labor-intensive process, but one that is well worth it to remove the slimy, invasive contaminant. Shock chlorination introduces an intense concentration of chlorine (around 200ppm) to a well to thoroughly disinfect both the water and the physical well itself. In order to achieve satisfactory results, the entire depth of the well needs to be exposed to the shock chlorination. This includes the entire depth of the well, the walls, the well pump, and the pressure and distribution systems. Shocking the well eradicates the bacteria binding the iron, allowing you to catch the remaining iron with a softener, oxidizer, or sediment filter. If shocking your well does not adequately eliminate the bacterially bound iron, then a constant chlorination system may need to be installed after your retention tank. 


4 comments

  • My daughter has a house with 18 ppm of hardness, 2.5 iron and 6.8 ph. She has a 4 bathroom house and all the sinks and tubs are orange with iron. She tried shocking the well but it didn’t change anything. Her finances are limited. Is there a system she can add herself?

    Penny Shiley on

  • Good question Bill,

    Jim is correct. We recommend replacing manganese greensand filter media every 3-5 years. If the media is properly regenerated with potassium permanganate, you can get 5 years out of the media. However, as with many filter media, the amount of contaminant (in this case, iron) in your water can shorten the lifespan of the media.

    John Woodard, Master Water Specialist on

  • We recommend rebedding MGS filters every 5 years

    Jim Colman on

  • We bought a house with a greensand filter to remove iron and manganese. The system was installed at least 12 years ago. From what I understand the greensand media has a limited lifespan and needs to be replaced. Do you have any information on this

    Bill Retallick on

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