If you’ve been using well water for some time, you’d agree when I say that iron is the worst enemy of private well owners. Not only does it destroy the taste and color of your water, but it also builds up yellow and brown scale in porcelain fixtures. Even as little as 0.3 PPM of iron in well water requires your immediate attention.
Some iron removal systems can cost as much as $3,000. But why dish out so much money when many top-quality filters are available at an affordable price? There are also a few DIY techniques for filtering out water for as low as $10.
To make it easier for you to decide how to remove iron from your well water, I’ve compiled a thorough rundown of the types of iron present in well water, their health risks, and how you can filter them out with little financial investment.
Health Risks Associated With Iron in Drinking Water
The USEPA has not laid down any strict health guidelines related to iron in well water because iron, in essence, is not harmful to the human body. In fact, we need to consume 10–50 mg of iron per day to function properly. If you can fulfill the daily requirement through your iron-contaminated drinking water, then it’s more of a blessing than a nuisance (though not the best way to consume iron). Just how much iron is in your well water will determine what, if anything, you should do about it.
If you have more than 0.3 PPM of iron—that is, the secondary maximum contaminant level (SMCL) for iron set by the EPA—it will change the color and taste of your drinking water and stain your utensils, laundry, and toilets. Excessive iron in the plumbing system can produce ferrobacteria—microorganisms that can create conditions for other harmful microbes to grow in plumbing fixtures.
Overconsumption of iron can sometimes lead to a disease called hemochromatosis that can harm your liver and intestines.
Washing your body and hair with iron-contaminated well water can cause irritation, dryness, and allergies. If you use this water for extended periods of time, you risk developing acute dryness, eczema, acne, and wrinkles on the skin. Your hair might lose its luster and become dry and grayish.
For these reasons, keeping the iron level in your well water below 0.3 PPM is always a good idea.
Types of Iron in Well Water
Iron is abundantly present in the earth and it can find many ways of entering your well. In other cases, iron can seep into the water from corroded pipes and old plumbing systems.
Before jumping to the filtration methods, let me give you a quick primer on the types of iron that contaminate well water. It’s a good idea to have a firm understanding of what type of iron resides in your well water before you decide how you’re going to remove it.
Unless you have the test results in your hands showing the concentration and type of iron in your well water, you cannot land on the optimum filtration system for your house. You can conduct DIY testing, which I’ll tell you how to do, or you can have your water tested in a laboratory. If you decide on professional testing, be sure to use a certified laboratory. These are often sponsored by your state and cost around $100.
Ferrous iron dissolves completely in water and is not visible to the naked eye, which is also why it’s called “clear iron.” Although the best way to detect it is to test the water in a laboratory, you can also perform a quick DIY test by leaving tap water in a glass for a while and checking the color change. If ferrous iron is present, it will oxidize after coming in contact with oxygen in air and turn yellowish.
Ferrous iron can cause brownish stains in sinks and toilets and make your well water taste metallic.
Since ferrous iron can easily pass through sediment filters, you’ll need to oxidize it first into ferric oxide and filter it out using an oxidation filtration system.
When ferrous iron oxidizes, it turns into orange flakes, also called ferric iron. You can easily detect the presence of ferric iron in your water because it gives the water a characteristic orange color. At higher concentrations, ferric iron visibly floats in the form of flakes. The best way to remove it is to install sediment filters.
Bacterial iron is a type of bacteria in well water that feeds off iron. It can be a big nuisance because you may have to conduct intensive maintenance to get rid of it. Iron bacteria turns the water into a slimy and gooey reddish liquid that has an uncanny resemblance to tomato soup. It clogs up fixtures and pipes and makes your drains stink. It is mostly the result of unhygienic well servicing and using dirty tools during maintenance.
Best Methods to Remove Ferrous Iron from Well Water
There are many ways you can tackle the unsightly iron in your well water. It’s just a matter of finding a filtration system that falls within your budget.
Although water softener systems are designed to soften the water, they can also remove small amounts of ferrous iron—up to 5 mg/L.
In water softeners, the positively charged ferrous iron and the hardness-causing salts are replaced with sodium during the ion-exchange process, killing two birds with one stone.
Water softeners are only viable and economical for removing iron if you have hard water with a miniscule amount of ferrous iron. If your water has a combination of ferric and ferrous iron, you will need to install a sediment pre-filter to prevent ferric flakes from clogging up your system.
This doesn’t work everywhere, since most regions of the United States have a higher concentration of iron in the groundwater.
You can find a good-quality water softening system within the range of $150–$2500.
Oxidation filters are made of greensand or zeolite coated with manganese oxide and are designed to remove a higher concentration of iron, ranging from 10–15 PPM in well water. The system oxidizes ferrous iron passing through the granular manganese-oxide media and retains the flaky ferric iron until the system backwashes the filters. This self-cleaning capability of oxidation filtration systems is an added advantage and can save you a lot of time and money in the long run.
In addition to iron, oxidation filters remove arsenic and manganese as well. So, if you have a combination of these contaminants in your well water, a greensand oxidation filter will be your best pal.
Greensand filters are available for as low as $200–$400. If you have a big household, you may need to jack up your budget to buy a filter that fulfills your needs.
Birm is yet another widely used catalytic media that can remove up to 10 PPM of dissolved iron and manganese. It only requires periodical backwashing and doesn’t need a lot of maintenance. However, in order for a Birm filter to work, the well water must contain an adequate amount of dissolved oxygen and a pH greater than 6.8. Water with low oxygen levels must be aerated first.
Since the Birm catalytic media is not used up in filtration, this becomes a highly economical option for removing iron.
You can get an iron filter with Birm media for as low as $55.
Kinetic degradation fluxion (KDF) filters
KDF removes dissolved iron through a redox reaction. KDF 85 granules are especially used for reducing iron into ferric oxide that is later flushed out of the filters through backwashing. It won’t cost you much and can remove about 90% of ferrous iron from your well water. Besides iron, KDF can also eliminate chlorine, hydrogen sulfide, lead, and mercury.
A standalone KDF filter will cost $150–$200 and is good enough for a small household with one to two bathrooms.
Air injection oxidation (AIO) filters
An AIO system, also known as an aeration system, is a chemical-free method of removing ferrous iron and sulfur. It works by passing the water through an air pocket at the top of the filter tank that oxidizes ferrous iron into ferric iron. This system works in combination with a filter bed that increases water pH for better filtration of iron and traps iron precipitates.
AIO filters are slightly expensive and start from $500.
Chlorine oxidation filters
Chlorine dioxide is an effective oxidant that converts ferrous to ferric in the retention tank and also removes manganese and microbial contamination in the well water. Since chlorine is not the best oxidizer, the system requires the water to be in contact with chlorine for 20 minutes. The residual ferric iron is filtered out using a granular activated carbon filter. It works well if you have up to 8 PPM of iron contamination.
Best Method to Remove Ferric Iron
The easiest and cheapest way to remove ferric iron is through a sediment filter.
Ferric iron particles are heavier and denser than water, so they can sediment at the bottom or be mechanically filtered out through filter meshes. Select a micron rating that is adequate to capture all iron flakes, dust, and debris from your well water. Typically, well water contains a number of contaminants and not just ferric oxide, which is why sediment filters must be used in tandem with reverse osmosis or UV filters to remove other contaminants as well.
If you are extremely short on money and need a quick fix, get a tub or bucket—that will cost you around $10—fill it with water and let it rest for three to four hours. The heavy ferric oxide particles will settle at the bottom, leaving the clean water above. This is probably the cheapest way of removing iron but not very convenient or effective.
A good-quality sediment filter is easily available for as low as $50. There are many types of filter cartridges, such as spin-down, pleated, melt-blown, string wound, and bag filters—all designed for the same purpose.
Best Methods to Remove Iron Bacteria
Bacterial iron in well water is bad news. In extreme cases, this contamination is rather tricky to deal with, and you may need to call a well-water professional.
If bacterial iron is present in a low concentration, you can easily get rid of it by scrubbing and brushing the insides of your well casing and plumbing system. It’s a cheap method but time consuming and may not guarantee 100% removal of iron bacteria.
One good way of treating sludgy bacterial iron is shock chlorination. If you’re handy, you can perform it yourself. The process is fairly easy and requires a pair of gloves, a garden hose, safety glasses, and, most importantly, chlorine bleach. Flushing the well, pipes, and faucets with a high chlorine concentration kills off iron bacteria attached to the walls and crevices of a plumbing system. It is a surefire way of eradicating all the pesky microorganisms in the water. The process is a bit tedious but can be done with little money.
If the issue arises frequently, you may need to invest in a continuous chlorination system. The Minnesota Department of Health doesn’t endorse this method because continuous shock chlorination can hide other microbial contamination that can cause health hazards and corrode pipes.
For a detailed step-by-step guide on how to perform shock chlorination, check out my article on the topic here.
Shock chlorination will cost less than $100, including the price of all the equipment. You can also hire a licensed well contractor to help you with the process.
Other Filtration Methods to Treat Iron
Reverse osmosis filters (RO)
Reverse osmosis is also considered useful for iron removal, but it is not a cheap process. Reverse osmosis filters will cost you somewhere between $500–$3,000. RO is an excellent option if your well water is a horrible concoction of dozens of contaminants, such as heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and microbes.
Pasteurization is sometimes used to remove iron bacteria in wells. In this method, hot water and steam are injected into the wells and pipes at a high temperature of 60 degrees for an hour. The downside to this technique is that it’s pretty expensive.
Ozone filters use ozone gas to oxidize ferrous iron in well water. Ozone is a powerful disinfectant that prevents bacterial iron formation in wells. However, these filters cost four to five times more than the rest of the iron removal techniques because of their high electricity consumption and costly maintenance.
|Types of iron||Filtration method||Iron concentration||Price range|
|Ferrous iron||Water softeners||1–5 mg/L||$150–$2500|
|Greensand medium||10–15 mg/L||$200-$400|
|Chlorine oxidation||10–15 mg/L||$200-$700|
|Ferric iron||Sediment filter||Depends on the micron rating||$100-$500|
|Bacterial iron||Physical removal||7–10 mg/L||Free|
|Shock chlorination||7–20 mg/L||$100|
|Reverse osmosis||20–30 mg/L||$700-$3000|
Every well has a different combination of contaminants. You can make the best choice only after finding out what toxins are present in your well and in what concentrations. In most cases, homeowners need to remove a blend of contaminants simultaneously. And the best practice is going for a whole-house filter or series of filters that can work in tandem to tackle every pollutant. There is no one-size-fits-all iron filtration system. So, you must lay out your requirements and budget before choosing the cheapest way to remove iron from well water. You can always consult a well-water professional and discuss your needs beforehand.
If you have an extremely high concentration of iron in the well, you may need to consider changing your water source or building a new well.