Most of us know iron is an essential metal we need to be healthy. Who hasn’t heard about iron deficiencies, anemia, and other similar issues? However, large amounts of iron in water might spark some confusion and debate: is it good or bad? How does iron end up in our drinking water? How to remove iron from water in case the levels are concerning?

We will answer these questions and more, offering you a handful of actionable suggestions on how to deal with this problem should you consider it troublesome for you and your family.

How Does Iron End up in Drinking Water?

The second most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, accounting for about 5% of all metals, iron’s main purpose – when it comes to human consumption – is to carry oxygen in the hemoglobin of red blood cells throughout the body, so the cells can produce energy.

Besides the fact that we find iron in food, some of its forms also occur in soils, lakes, rocks, and groundwaters. We need to make here a distinction between elemental iron and its ions.

Types of Iron in Water

Elemental iron is rarely found in nature, as the iron ions Fe2+ and Fe3+ easily combine with oxygen- and sulfur-containing compounds to form other combinations. This is why, when we refer to iron in water and how to remove iron from well water, for instance, we discuss iron as Fe2+ and Fe3+ mostly.

Before we even begin to discuss how to remove iron from water, we have to understand how it reaches our water supply. As we said before, there are multiple types of iron ending up in well water especially.

Iron is usually released from industrial wastes and plumbing. It reaches our drinking water when rainwater leaks through rocks, soil, etc. According to the World Health Organization,

The median iron concentration in rivers has been reported to be 0.7 mg/liter. In anaerobic groundwater where iron is in the form of iron(II), concentrations will usually be 0.5–10 mg/liter, but concentrations up to 50 mg/liter can sometimes be found (6). Concentrations of iron in drinking-water are normally less than 0.3 mg/liter but may be higher in countries where various iron salts are used as coagulating agents in water-treatment plants and where cast iron, steel, and galvanized iron pipes are used for water distribution.

Is Too Much Iron in Water Harmful?

Although, iron is essential for a healthy body, too much iron may be harmful. It can damage blood vessels, the kidneys and the liver. It may sometimes lead to cancer and other potentially fatal conditions.

According to the EPA, iron is a secondary water contaminant, and its safety standard level is 0.3 mg/L. While it takes a lot of iron in water to lead to fatalities, the prolonged consumption of high iron levels has correlated with stomach problems and other health conditions.

Nevertheless, high levels of iron in water can lead to a diverse range of everyday life issues:

  • Stains: Iron in well water can be a big problem and can cause brown, yellow or red stains on laundry, dishes, sinks, and tubs that can be impossible to remove.
  • Clogging: Iron bacteria, in particular, can clog up dishwashers, washing machines, sprinklers, wells, water pumps, and more. Such issues usually lead to costly repairs.
  • Problematic cooking: Since the most iron in our drinking water has no color, it can easily end up in foods and drinks cooked with iron-rich water. Iron water makes beverage look darker. Vegetables cooked with iron-rich water have an unpleasant odor and flavor to them.

Iron Bacteria – An Issue to Pay Attention To

In combination with a certain kind of bacteria that naturally occur in shallow soils and groundwater, iron leads to the development of iron bacteria. Most experts refer to them as “iron slime” – in fact, a smelly biofilm.

You know you have iron bacteria around the house if you see a brownish, orange film on your faucets and fixtures. You can also detect them on laundry screens, inside the pipes and water tanks. The issue here is that iron bacteria can reach your water during the well-drilling process or the installation of the water pump.

Iron bacteria usually cause a bad odor and can clog up the plumbing. Traces of iron bacteria can also lead to health problems for humans and pets.

How Do You Know You Have Iron in Your Drinking Water?

At this point, it is necessary to discuss testing your water for iron levels. First and foremost, some types of iron are easy to detect. As we said before, rust (ferric iron or red-water iron) is visible and gives the water a specific smell and taste.

Iron-rich water usually has an odd taste and odor. It also tends to be a bit brownish. But sometimes, drinking water with elevated levels of iron is clear, odorless, and tasteless. In this case, you should employ other means of testing your water.

1.    The Simple and Cheap Way to Test Your Water for Iron

To test for iron in tap water, all you need to do is pour water in a clear glass or container and let it sit. If you see brownish deposits on the bottom of the glass, you may consider you have an iron contamination problem.

  • If on the bottom at the glass you see dusty rusty deposits, the water does not likely contain iron bacteria.
  • Nevertheless, if you observe deposits looking like fluffy strands of cotton, you have an iron bacteria issue on your hands.

2.    Laboratory Testing

You can also send water samples to an independent laboratory to have your water tested for levels of pH and iron concentration. Such testing requires a special way to collect the samples to get an accurate measurement.

3.    Home Water Testing Kits

Water test kits are good indicators whether you need to worry about your daily drinking water. While most of them act like screeners, they offer a detailed image of the things you need to manage. By design, some water testing kits focus solely on iron and other heavy metals, and you should start with them.

Some of the best water testing kits out there allow you to learn very soon if you need to deal with heavy metals in your water, besides other contaminants. Iron, lead, mercury, and other heavy metals pose serious health problems and people are always looking for the best solutions to remove such contaminants from their homes.

Home Water Testing Kits vs. Third-Party Testing

While professional water testing is ideal, the price of third-party laboratory tests and the waiting times are far from compelling.

On the other hand, home water testing kits for well water and city water generate results in a matter of minutes or hours and may even provide you with information you never had. In the case of household relying on well water, iron, bacterial iron, and other metals may be just the tip of the iceberg. As we discussed many times before, some of the most worrisome water contaminants include dangerous pesticides, coliform bacteria, nitrates, nitrites, chlorine, fluoride, and more.

Experts recommend you test your water and act accordingly – after all, it is your health involved.

How to Remove Iron from Water

When it comes to iron removal from water, you have a handful of possibilities at your fingertips.

1.    Phosphate Treatments

The treatment consists in mixing phosphate ions with iron ions. The reaction prevents the iron from precipitating as solids. The problem with this treatment is that it does not remove the metallic taste from the water. Furthermore, phosphate is not good for the environment, so it may be banned in some areas and is not considered the best option.

2.    Water Softeners

Water softeners work well with the removal of contaminants that cause hard water. Some of them also remove small amounts of iron.

As you already know from our previous guides on hard water, water softeners use a process called “ion exchange.” They replace iron with sodium. In case you deal with high blood pressure, you should factor in this fact into your purchase decision.

While some of the best water softeners are capable of removing iron from well water and city tap water, they usually work alone. The best solution is to combine them with other types of filtration systems.

3.    Oxidizing Filters

Greensand filters use a green clay material to filter out moderate levels of both iron and manganese.

4.    Whole House Water Filters

A great number of whole house water filters can remove moderate to high levels of iron from the water. Once you install them on the main water supply to filter the water before it enters your home, everything should be fine.

The thing you should pay attention to is to pick a whole house water filter that is designed to remove iron from well water or city water. Usually, whole house water filters deal best with clear-water iron or “ferrous” iron – the one that is invisible for a long amount of time until it reacts with the oxygen in the air.

5.    Reverse Osmosis Water Filters

As we all know, reverse osmosis water filters can remove pretty much everything in your water. When it comes to iron compounds and iron bacteria, RO systems in combination with other filters and UV technology may be the best solution, especially if your water testing kits revealed elevated levels of iron in your water.

Reverse osmosis filtration systems work best in two main situations:

  • The removal of organic iron (found in shallow wells, exhibiting intense colors, and leaving stubborn stains behind);
  • The removal of iron bacteria.

Reverse osmosis filters come in many shapes and sizes, but if drinking water is your main concern, you should consider an under-sink RO system – and even one coming with UV lights.

6.    Iron Water Filters

Iron filters for well water or city tap represent a cost-effective way to remove iron from your drinking and everyday use water.

The best part about iron water filters is that they are incredibly versatile. You can pick whole house iron water filters and under-sink iron water filters. Before you buy one, however, you should take into account the following criteria:

  • The level of iron in your water – you can obtain this information by using water testing kits at home;
  • The size of the device – it is important when you want to install a whole house water filter in the basement or an under-sink water filter under the counter in your apartment;
  • The filter’s size/capacity – make sure the filter covers all your water consumption requirements, as a family for four needs a medium-designed device, while larger households or businesses should focus on filters with bigger capacities;
  • Types of iron removed – many iron filters can remove all forms of iron in your water, while some deal best with rust;
  • Filter life – an essential criterion to keep in mind every time you consider buying any type of water filtration system. We recommend the filters that work for over three months, while one that boasts up to 1 year of filter life is the obvious choice here.
  • The removal of other contaminants – if you deal with well water regularly, you know iron is just one part of the problem. Get an iron water filter capable to get you rid of other impurities and problems such as other heavy metals, pesticides, chlorine, pharmaceuticals, bacteria, viruses, chemicals, etc.

As we said before, we strongly recommend you test the water before you invest in an iron water filter. We also suggest having a professional plumber installing the filtration system in your house. While most iron water filters come with detailed manuals and instructions, the presence of a professional may spare you additional costs and troubles.

Bottom Line

Low levels of iron in your drinking water are safe for everyday use. Thankfully, high levels of iron in well water or municipal water are not too common. Nevertheless, when you notice some issues and you suspect you deal with elevated levels of water, you can expect bothersome consequences for the plumbing, your daily chores like laundry, cooking, and so on. Iron in water stains and smells bad tastes bad, and – to some extent – may entertain iron bacteria that, in extreme cases, can also cause health issues.

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