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Iron in well water can cause havoc if left unchecked. Staining is only the beginning. Over time, iron deposits reduce water pressure and can even block pipes completely causing leaks.
Another reason to remove iron from water is to get rid of its unpleasant taste.
How? There are several ways: Iron filters with different types of filter media and with or without pre-oxidation; and water softeners. The effectiveness of each method depends on which iron types are in your water and at what levels.
So, here is our guide on how to remove iron from well water.
- 1 How Does Iron Get Into Well Water?
- 2 Contamination Signs: How Do I Know If There is Iron in My Well Water?
- 3 How an Iron Problem Can Damage Your Home
- 4 Test Your Water for the Different Types of Iron
- 5 Treatment: What is the Best Way to Remove Iron from Well Water?
- 5.1 Ferrous Iron Water Treatment
- 5.2 Ferric Iron Removal
- 5.3 Removing Bacterial Iron
- 5.4 Organic Iron Removal
- 5.5 Can an Ion Exchange Water Softener Remove Iron?
- 6 Is Iron in Water Dangerous or Safe to Drink?
- 7 Frequently Asked Question (FAQ)
- 8 Conclusion
It is important to have your well water tested to know the kind of iron you are dealing with. This will determine the most effective method to remove it.
- For ferrous iron, a regular iron filter will do the job and you can even add pre-oxidation.
- For ferric iron, mechanical filtration is the best solution.
- For iron bacteria, you have two options: 1) you can either shock the well water periodically, or 2) you can use a chemical injection system and a retention tank followed by a filter stage.
- Lastly, for organic iron, it is best to use chemical oxidation followed by mechanical iron removal.
How Does Iron Get Into Well Water?
In our review guide listing the leading iron filters for well water in 2023, we already mentioned that iron is very common in the earth’s crust. In fact, iron is one of the most abundant metals.
And since iron naturally dissolves into water when the latter trickles through the soil, it is also commonly found in both groundwater and surface water. Other sources potential of iron are our industry and corroding pipes.
Contamination Signs: How Do I Know If There is Iron in My Well Water?
Even at relatively low levels can an iron contamination issue be detected. Signs include:
Iron stains are most common in toilets, sinks, bath tubs, and showers. Usually, the staining is red or brown and a pain to remove.
You might also find stains on clothes and dishes.
2. Discoloration of Water
Water containing iron can be colorless or reddish, depending on the type of iron present. If you let the water sit for long enough, though, any iron will oxidize and cause the characteristic rusty color.
3. Metallic Water Taste & Odor
Being an aesthetic water contaminant, iron in water causes an unpleasant metallic taste and smell at concentrations above 0.3 parts per million or mg/l. The off-taste becomes even more noticeable when you make tea, coffee, etc.
4. Irritated Hair and Skin
Iron may irritate hair and skin. Sometimes hair even becomes darker; blonde hair may take on a tint of orange. Above that, water with iron is known to enhance wrinkles.
Slimy clumps in your water may be an indicator for iron bacteria. The clumps can break away from the deposits formed by the microorganisms. Check your toilet tank!
That said, the only way to identify bacterial iron with absolute certainty is using a microscope.
How an Iron Problem Can Damage Your Home
Clogged pipes are another problem that can be caused by too much iron found in well water – and it’s one that you can’t see which makes it all the more problematic. Deposits in pipes, plumbing fixtures, and appliances can decrease water pressure and flow, and eventually even cause leakages. Costly repairs are your only option at this point.
On top of that, there is a microorganism called iron bacteria. As the name suggests, these bacteria feed on iron. An infestation can make an iron problem much worse, accelerating iron buildup in your plumbing system and intensifying iron staining and bad odor.
Test Your Water for the Different Types of Iron
In well water, iron usually exists in the form of ferrous iron or ferric iron. Then there is organic and bacterial iron. For successful water treatment, you need to test for each type.
- Ferrous Iron (Clear-Water Iron, Fe2+) – Ferrous iron, or clear-water iron, only occurs in anaerobic well water. That’s because if water contains too much oxygen any ferrous iron will quickly oxidize into ferric. Since ferrous is soluble iron it’s colorless and it can stay that way all the way from your well to your taps and other water outlets.
- Ferric Iron (Red-Water Iron, Fe3+) – Ferric iron, or red-water iron, is commonly found in oxygen-rich well water. It’s insoluble and causes a reddish color. Being gelatinous, ferric iron is also the form of iron that causes the most issues with clogging
- Organic Iron – Organic iron is a compound of iron and organic matter. It only occurs in shallow wells and wells affected by surface water and is responsible for severe iron staining.
- Bacterial Iron – Bacterial iron, or iron bacteria, live on iron and can make an iron contamination problem much worse. Usually, they enter a well water systems during their construction or repair. Once in your home’s water supply, they convert ferrous into ferric forming slimy deposits.
In addition to testing for the different forms of iron you should test for manganese and hydrogen sulfide. Determining water alkalinity, pH, temperature, and oxygen dissolved in the water can also help make a better buying decision.
To make things much easier we recommend you use the Essential Well Water Test by Tap Score in combination with the DIY test kit for iron-related bacteria to cover all of the above.
Treatment: What is the Best Way to Remove Iron from Well Water?
Ferrous Iron Water Treatment
How can you remove ferrous iron from your well?
Using a Well Water Iron Filter
The best way of getting rid of iron in your water is with the help of a whole house iron filter. Most regular models can treat clear-water iron in concentrations of up to 15 ppm (mg/l).
These water filters contain different media such as greensand. As soon as iron in the water gets in contact with the media it oxidizes into its ferric form and precipitates out. Once insoluble the iron is trapped in the media bed.
At some point the media bed will be saturated. This is when all iron needs to be flushed out of the system. This can be achieved through backwashing which also prevents germs from fouling the oxidizing filter.
In addition to backwashing, some types of iron filter media need to recharge their oxidation capacity. For this, the media is rinsed with a chemical solution.
Using an Air Injector + Water Filter (Cheapest Way to Eliminate Iron in Your Water)
Pre-oxidation followed by iron filter media allows you to treat extremely high levels of iron (up to 30 ppm). Many of the best whole house well water filter systems combine both steps in a single tank: An air pocket is kept at the top. The oxygen is used to pre-oxidize ferrous to ferric. All particles are then trapped in the media bed at the bottom of the tank.
By the way, air injection iron filtration is probably the cheapest way to remove iron from the water.
Using an Oxidizing Agent + Water Filter
Another way to pre-oxidize iron is through the injection of an oxidizing agent. Examples are chlorine, ozone, hydrogen peroxide, sodium hypochlorite, calcium hypochlorite, and potassium permanganate.
A pump or injector adds the chemical into the feed water which is then filtered by greensand or another suitable media.
On the one hand, this method allows the treatment of almost any amount of iron and with great effectiveness. Furthermore, bleach and other chemicals will act as a disinfectant and even kill iron bacteria.
On the other hand, the solution may need to sit in a retention tank to allow for a longer contact time before the actual filtration. And you need to remove any chemicals that may have formed. For chlorine, a regular activated carbon water filter should do the trick.
Ferric Iron Removal
How can you remove ferric from well water?
Ferric can be removed by mechanical water treatment – think sediment filter. Even high levels of more than 10 parts per million are easily manageable this way.
Removing Bacterial Iron
The answer to treating bacterial iron in water is shock chlorination followed by mechanical filtration.
The bad news is, shocking your well once won’t solve the problem for good. You have to repeat the process on a regular basis, at least once or twice a year, if you want to control growth.
If you don’t like the idea of shock chlorination, a chemical injection system combined with a retention tank and a filtration stage provides a valuable alternative. First, an oxidizing chemical like bleach is injected into your well water. The mixture then sits in the retention tank to allow all iron to oxidize. The chemical will also kill any bacteria. Finally, everything will be removed by the filtration system.
Organic Iron Removal
Your water testing showed organic iron? Then you most likely require a more customized approach for successful removal, especially in case of colloidal iron. The problem is that iron compounds can slow down or prevent iron oxidation which is why iron filters and water softeners may not work. Chemical oxidation plus mechanical well water treatment is usually the solution.
Can an Ion Exchange Water Softener Remove Iron?
Yes, a whole house water softener can remove iron in water at levels of up to 3-5 ppm, as long as you are dealing with ferrous iron. Water softeners and red-water iron are incompatible.
Of course, water softeners were designed to soften hard water containing calcium and magnesium. Too much iron or the wrong type will damage the softening resin sooner or later. Thus, you want to make sure to check the resin beads on a regular basis. Programming your water softener to do longer backwashes and use higher salt doses during regeneration cycles also help delay fouling. And so can a chemical iron remover.
When Not to Use a Water Softener
Don’t use a well water softener for iron treatment if clear-water iron levels are above 5 ppm (mg/l); if your water’s pH is too high which tends to convert ferrous iron into rust; or if your well water contains rust, iron bacteria, or organic iron.
Is Iron in Water Dangerous or Safe to Drink?
Iron is an essential nutrient. Negative health effects only occur in cases of extremely high iron ingestion – much, much more than what one might consume through drinking water (even severely contaminated well water).
To provide you with a little more detail: Ingesting up to 0.8 mg iron per kilogram body weight is easily tolerable. Only at 200 mg or more per kilogram body weight can it become lethal.
Is Iron Bacteria Harmful to Drink?
Drinking water containing iron bacteria is a different story. That’s because bacterial iron can create an environment where other, disease-causing microbes may flourish. The bacteria themselves are not harmful to humans.
Frequently Asked Question (FAQ)
What is the cheapest way to remove iron in well water?
The cheapest way is using air injection in combination with oxidation water filter media.
How to remove iron in well water DIY?
You can install a well water iron filter in your home yourself. Does that count? Ion exchange water softeners can work, too!
How to remove iron from water naturally?
Removing iron naturally can be achieved with the help of a simple iron water filter – chemical-free.
Removing iron found in well water isn’t overly complicated as long as you know your water conditions and choose a filtration system accordingly. For removing ferrous iron you need a specialized iron water filter. In cases of severe contamination you might need to add pre-oxidation. At low levels of iron, a simple water softener can be enough. A sediment or carbon filter helps you get rid of ferric iron. The best way to control bacterial iron is through shock chlorination. Removing organic iron requires a more sophisticated approach.
Whatever you do, you must not neglect an iron problem to protect your plumbing system and home appliances from harm.
-  https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/dwq/chemicals/iron.pdf
-  http://www.idph.state.il.us/envhealth/factsheets/ironFS.htm
Jason is the founder of Water Masterz and head of content creation. After six years in the industry, he has tremendous knowledge and first-hand experience on all things related to water treatment.
His credo: Not a single American should have to drink unhealthy water at home.