How To Test For Iron In Water (Updated 2023)

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How To Test For Iron In Water

Iron and iron bacteria are among the most common well water contaminants. In many cases, iron contamination in well water may be visible by its reddish or brown hue. Unfortunately, this color does not always show up until it reaches an extremely high level in your water supply.

The good news is that you can test for the presence of iron in order to tell if your well has an iron problem. In this guide, I’ll explain the different types of iron contamination as well as how to test iron in water to make sure it is safe.

Key Takeaways:

  • Private well water sources should be tested at least once a year for iron and iron bacteria.
  • If your water has an orange or brown color, smells unpleasant, or has a metallic taste, you should test for iron contamination immediately.
  • Iron is classified as a secondary drinking water contaminant as it does not pose any health risks but creates aesthetic issues
  • The best method to test for iron and iron bacteria in water at home is with a laboratory test kit.

How Does Iron Get into Drinking Water?

Iron is the most abundant element within the earth’s mass, making up approximately 35% of it. This means there is plenty of it present for rain and groundwater to pick up as it seeps through the soil and rocks. This water picks up trace amounts of the element as it passes through and carries it with it as it ends up in lakes, aquifers, and private wells.

Iron bacteria are microorganisms that also occur naturally in surface and groundwater. When these
bacteria combine iron with oxygen, they create a slimy substance that sticks to well pumps, plumbing, fixtures, and appliances that can create costly damage.

This is how iron ends up in water supplies naturally. However, it can end up in water supplies due as a result of iron present in your water system itself. This can be caused by iron pipes and well casings, which rust, releasing iron particles into your water system, thus affecting your water quality.

Chemical Formula In WaterFerrous Iron: Fe+2
Ferric Iron: Fe+3
Maximum Contaminant LevelEPA SMCL: .03 mg/L
Common IndicationsUnpleasant taste and odor
Red and brown discoloration
Well pump clogging
Best TreatmentsHydrogen Peroxide Injection
Air Injection Oxidization
Ion Exchange

Types Of Iron Contamination

Sources Of Iron In Well Water

Ferrous Iron 

In its pure elemental state, iron is soluble, which allows it to bond with water and form ferrous iron (Fe++). Soluble ferrous iron is relatively common in well waters and is able to remain stable as long as it remains in the low oxygen environment present underground. Once it leaves your tap, however, and is exposed to oxygen, it will develop a characteristic reddish-brown haze as it becomes ferric iron.

Ferric Ion 

Insoluble ferric iron (Fe+++) is better known colloquially as rust, and this is the stable acid active state of iron. It appears reddish-brown out of the faucet. When left sitting, these particles will often settle to the bottom.

Organic Iron Bacteria

Unlike most bacteria that feed on other organic matter, this bacteria thrives on converting ferrous iron into its ferric form. On its own, this is harmless enough, but these bacteria form a thick reddish or brown slime that has a strong odor and can clog screens and pipes. Generally, water affected by these bacteria will have a yellow or brown tint.

Signs of High Levels of Iron in Your Water

The one good thing about iron contamination is that there are a few distinctive signs. Here is what you should look for.

  • A metallic taste in your drinking water
  • Unpleasant odor or rotten egg smell produced by iron bacteria
  • Clogging of wells, pumps, and fixtures such as dishwashers and lawn sprinklers
  • Discoloration of teeth
  • Red, yellow, or brown stains form on laundry and dishes
  • Rust stains forming on plumbing fixtures

Rust in water is an oxidation reaction where the iron reacts with oxygen and water to form hydrated iron(III) oxide, which creates the rust we see. It can take as little as .3 ppm of iron in water to cause staining.

When Should I Test My Water For Iron?

Though iron in your drinking water can even be healthy in small concentrations, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies iron as a secondary contaminant with a limit of 0.3 mg/L due to its potential for carrying organic contaminants, which can be extremely harmful to health.

For both protecting your own health and the condition of your plumbing, it is a good idea to test for high levels of iron contamination. Soluble ferrous iron will cause your drinking water to have a metallic taste that can affect any food or beverage it is used in as well. This type of iron may appear clear at first, but it will cause iron stains on surfaces, including shower walls, dishes, and laundry.

If any of the above signs of iron contamination are present or it has been a few years since your well water was last tested, it is time to test your water for iron as well as other common contaminants.

How To Test for Iron In Water At Home

When it comes to testing for iron in your water, there are two available options. The first is using a certified laboratory test or performing the testing on your own with a home water test kit.

Certified Laboratory Test

Having a certified laboratory test for iron in your water will give the most accurate testing possible to determine if your water has an iron problem. There are a number of laboratories that are state certified to perform this type of testing, and in most cases, a basic test for iron will only cost about $100.

To perform the laboratory testing, the lab will mail you a testing kit you will use to collect samples. You will then mail the samples back to the laboratory, which will analyze the sample for the exact amount of iron and iron bacteria. You can use the lab report to determine if the iron contamination present exceeds Environmental Protection Agency standards.

I recommend using the Freshnss Labs water test kit which analyzes dozens of common water contaminants in water. The test then comes with a detailed report of all contaminants detected, potential health risks, plumbing concerns, and the best treatment options based on the data.

Laboratory Water Test Kit

Tests for iron, bacteria, and dozens of other contaminants
Analyzed in a certified laboratory
Includes detailed report with EPA benchmarking and safety concerns

Tips To Collect Water A Sample

In order to test your water quality, the laboratory will require a sample of your well water. The kit will come with water sample collection vials and instructions. Here are precautionary steps to follow to ensure accurate testing results:

  1. Disinfect your faucet surface area with diluted bleach or rubbing alcohol
  2. Wait at least 5 minutes to let the disinfectant dissipate
  3. Take a sample from a tap that comes before any water softener, disinfection unit, or filter
  4. Turn on your tap and let it run for 30 before collecting your sample
  5. Wear clean rubber gloves if you have them available to avoid cross-contamination
  6. Turn on cold water supply and slowly collect your sample so it does not overflow
  7. Then simply package the samples as instructed and send them to the lab for analysis

Follow these steps carefully for your testing kit. It is possible for you to contaminate the sample and any contamination of your water sample can lead to a false positive.

Home Water Test Kit for Iron

Chlorine Test Strips

Home water test kits are cheaper than laboratory testing. A home iron test will cost $10 to $30 in most cases, and if you aren’t concerned with maximum accuracy, they are a good option. These testing kits can still provide a strong indication of how much iron contamination is present.

These kits will generally include both testing strips and a color chart. You will simply dip the testing strip into a sample of your water and wait for the instructed amount of time for it to change color. Then you will need to compare the strip’s color to the color chart to determine how much iron is present.

Home Water Test Kit For Iron Bacteria

There are also home water test kits for iron bacteria as well and these work very similarly to testing kits for iron itself. These test kits generally cost between $30 to $60 and test for the biological activity associated with iron reducing bacteria.

You will simply fill the testing tube with a water sample, seal the kit, and wait for the tube to change color. This color is then compared with the provided color chart to determine the concentration of bacteria in your water supply. Once you determine the iron concentration of your water, you can treat your water to reduce your health risk and remove the metallic taste.

What To Do if Your Water Tests Positive for High Levels of Iron

If your water tests positive for iron, the first thing to do is to try and determine if it may be caused by your own plumbing. If your home has old iron pipes or well casings, this may be the cause of the issue, and these can simply be replaced.

If, however, the cause is a natural source, there are a few permanent treatment solutions that can be used to treat high iron levels in water and improve your water quality. Here are a few methods to consider for iron removal.

Air Injection Oxidation System

One possible system you can use to treat well water for iron is an air injection oxidation system. These systems will work for both types of iron. But, if you have iron bacteria, you may want to consider shock chlorination

This system has an air pocket at the top of the tank when it is working. The water runs through this air pocket, causing the iron to be oxidized. After this, the oxidized iron will be filtered out of the water by the filter media bed.

Hydrogen Peroxide Treatment

Hydrogen peroxide is another effective chemical oxidation treatment for iron in water. This treatment works by having a proportional injection system inject the hydrogen peroxide through a chemical feed pump into the water.

After this, the water goes through a filter to remove the iron and then a carbon filter. Next, the water will go through a media bed which will remove the oxidized contaminants, including the dissolved ferrous iron, along with any remaining hydrogen peroxide.

Water Softener (Ion Exchange)

Ion exchange water softeners can be used to remove low levels of ferrous iron from your well water under 1 ppm. Although water softeners are ideal for removing hardness minerals, they are not the best solution for water with very high iron content. If that is the case, you should pair the softener with an iron filter.

Also, these types of water softeners are not effective for ferric iron. So, it is important to find out when you have your water test what type of iron is present. If you have ferric iron in your water, it will be necessary to use a sediment pre-filter, as this type of iron can clog water softeners.

UV Water Purification (For iron bacteria)

Although UV light can kill bacteria, it is not the best choice for iron bacteria. Iron can shield the UV light and prevent it from killing iron and coliform bacteria. This is why using a sediment filter before the UV light is critical.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does Boiling Water Remove Iron?

Boiling water will not remove iron from your water. Boiling will kill harmful bacteria, thus making your drinking water safer. But, it will not remove iron minerals from your water.

What is the best iron and iron bacteria test kit?

The best method to test for iron and iron bacteria at home is with a certified lab test kit. Using a lab will provide accurate results and the exact concentration of iron levels in your water.

Are There Iron Water Filters for the Whole House?

There are whole-house water filters that can reduce iron levels. Although, in some cases, oxidation may need to be combined with filtration.

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