If you receive water from a well, chances are that it contains large amounts of iron. This is bad because iron can alter the taste and smell of water, leave ugly reddish stains on basically every surface that it gets in contact with, and damage your household appliances and water treatment equipment.
So it’s no wonder that just like you, people are trying to get rid of it. But how? How do you remove iron from well water effectively?
This article provides all the answers, plus you will find reviews for the best iron filters and softeners!
On this page you will learn:
Iron (Fe) is a naturally occurring mineral in rocks. It dissolves in groundwater and as a result, high iron levels are the second most common problem right after hardness that people on well water are facing.
The bad news is that iron is more difficult to treat to a satisfactory level than hardness minerals. Why? Because when mixed with water, iron can form different compounds, some soluble and some insoluble. These different compounds require different treatment methods. On top of that, other factors like water pH also play a major role.
Fortunately, once all water conditions are known, choosing the best iron filter is pretty straightforward.
Iron is an essential trace element in living organisms. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established a secondary drinking water standard for it, which means that public water systems can test for iron on a voluntary basis, but are not obliged to do so.
In other words: Iron in drinking water is not considered a health threat. The guideline was only created to assist in managing drinking water aesthetics including taste, color and odor.
By the way, an acceptable iron level in well water is everything below 0.3 mg/L (or ppm). Experiments have shown that such concentrations are usually characterized as unnoticeable – at least in terms of taste. Higher concentrations will cause a rusty color, metallic taste and smell, and reddish or orange staining on clothes, bathroom fixtures, etc.
Iron levels in water are measured in milligrams per liter (mg/L) or parts per million (ppm). 1 mg/L = 1 ppm
Above that, iron may form deposits in pipes leading to a drop in water pressure due to clogging and causing damage to hot water tanks. Washing machines, dishwashers, pumps and sprinklers are commonly affected, too, which can lead to costly repairs.
To reach toxic dosages, one would have to intake more than 1 mg iron per kilogram of body weight per day. The average lethal dose is about 200 mg/kg body weight. (Source: WHO)
How can you find out if there is too much iron in your water?
A red or yellow stain and a metallic taste are good indicators. However, only a real test can provide certainty, which should be your next step: Determine if, how much and what type(s) of iron can be found.
For choosing the best treatment system later on, you should also test for alkalinity, pH, hardness, hydrogen sulfide and manganese. Some tests will also allow you to check for iron bacteria – more on that in a bit.
The most accurate method for testing is to send a direct sample of your water to an independent lab, or have one of the associates collect the sample himself. As an alternative, you can pick up one of the widely available iron water test kits, which you can buy online or at your local hardware store. Obviously, test kits are more affordable, but also less precise. Your county’s health department might also offer a testing service.
If you do the testing yourself, try to test the water right before in enters your house. If for some reason this is not possible, run one of the faucets in your home for about 5-10 minutes before taking a sample to make sure that the water is coming right from the well.
Of course, your iron problem can also originate from corroding pipes, fixtures or the water heater. These parts need to be replaced in order to solve the problem permanently.
For later treatment, it’s important that you distinguish between soluble clear-water iron, or “ferrous iron”, and insoluble red-water iron, also called “ferric iron”. Then there is organic iron and bacterial iron.
There are different approaches for how to get rid of iron in well water and basically any other water source, such as:
It turns out that the best way to remove iron from well water depends on the water conditions present. Some factors are:
Insufficient iron removal is usually due to selecting the wrong method or equipment. Also, it’s essential that you follow the manufacturer’s guidelines in regards to maximum iron levels that can be handled, required water flow and backwash rates, and any other application limitations.
Please note: Some water treatment professional do NOT recommend using a water softener for iron removal. This is because iron will shorten the lifespan of the softener resin.
Does a water softener remove iron? Yes, clear-water iron can be removed in an ion exchange process with the help of a water softener. It’s a commonly used method which delivers good results for concentrations of up to 3 (5) mg/L. However, please keep in mind that the maximum threshold of clear-water iron that a water softener can handle varies from one model to the next and can be much lower than that. So it’s a good idea if you read the manufacturer specifications.
Of course, the actual purpose of a water softener is not to remove iron but hardness minerals – think calcium and magnesium. This is why a salt-based softener will add sodium or potassium to your water.
What’s more, chances are that the iron will plug and foul the softener resin bed as time goes by, although you run frequent regeneration cycles. Thus the resin must be checked regularly. Also, consider using Iron-Out™ or another chemical iron remover. A softener that is badly fouled is difficult to clean, which is why replacing the entire bed might be the better option.
The Role of pH
If water pH levels are too high, a softener will not perform up to its potential. This is because ferrous converts to ferric iron more quickly in alkaline water. At the same time, low pH levels can prolong a softener’s resin bed life and so can longer backwashes and more frequent regenerations with high saltings, as it delays fouling.
When Not to Use a Softener
If you struggle with clear-water iron plus red water iron, organic iron or iron bacteria, or the concentration of clear-water iron exceeds 5 mg/L, a water softener should not be applied. Some of the compounds may simply pass through the unit totally unaffected by the ion exchange process and/or lead to clogging and rapid fouling of the resin bed. The latter will also gradually reduce the hardness removal capacities of the softener.
For high amounts of clear-water iron, about 7 to 15 mg/L, it is recommended to use specialized iron filters. They are widely used for their versatility of oxidizing filter media. Examples are greensand, Birm and Pro-OX.
Iron filters are similar in appearance to conventional water softeners. The important distinction, though, is that as soon as water passes through their filter media, any soluble ferrous oxidizes into the ferric state (red-water iron). Thereby it becomes insoluble and gets trapped.
Depending on the condition of the water and the filter media in use, pre-oxidation is required to reach adequate dissolved oxygen levels. The oxygen will act as a catalyst. Methods for pre-oxidation are aeration and the injection of chlorine, ozone or peroxide among others. For aeration, an air pump or air inductor can be used.
Ozone is a very powerful disinfectant and unlike chlorine, it won’t add a chemical taste or odor to your water (and no disinfectant byproducts).
Just like softeners, iron filters require periodic backwashing to clean out the precipitated rust that accumulates in the media bed. This in turn requires sufficient water flow. The flushing also ensures that no iron bacteria can grow inside the filter, so it’s essential for water safety. Every once in a while, the filter media also needs to regenerate to retain its oxidizing and adsorption capabilities.
By the way, insufficient backwash and regeneration are the most common reasons for iron filters to fail.
The Role of pH
The ideal pH value for iron filters to work effectively is between 7 and 8.5. Anything lower than that and you have to expect unsatisfactory results. Furthermore, the filtration system might get damaged. A pH value of at least 8.0 will increase the filtration effectiveness significantly.
In case the pH of your water is way too low, consider adding sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide.
When Not to Use an Iron Filter
Iron filters should not be used when organic matter is present in water and they don’t kill iron bacteria!
This is probably the cheapest way to remove iron from well water.
Clear-water iron in concentrations of 10 mg/L and more can be handled with great effectiveness using a chemical agent for oxidation in combination with a filter stage.
A pump can be used to add the oxidizing agent to the feed water. The solution then needs to sit in a retention tank (in most homes that’s the pressure tank) for long enough to allow the chemical reaction to happen and iron to precipitates out. A good starting point is 20 minutes. Lastly, a manganese greensand or activated carbon filter is used for the actual iron removal.
Whole house iron water filter that combines hydrogen peroxide oxidation with carbon filtration. The system requires regular maintenance: The hydrogen peroxide needs to be refilled and the carbon filter media requires periodic backwashing or replacement after several months/years of use.
Other applicable oxidizing chemicals are chlorine, sodium/calcium hypochlorite and potassium permanganate among others.
Chlorine and hypochlorite will also act as a disinfectant and kill iron bacteria, which is great. On the downside, excess chlorine can make your water taste and smell unpleasant and also form dangerous disinfectant byproducts. This is why when choosing chlorine or hypochlorite for oxidation, it is recommended to apply an activated or catalytic carbon filter. You can learn more about the chlorine treatment here.
Oxidation can also be achieved by aeration (injecting air). An air injector uses the oxygen in the air to convert ferrous to ferric iron. The iron is then strained out by a filter. According to various sources, iron levels of up to 30 mg/L can be treated with this method.
The only problem with using an air injector is that air is only about 20% oxygen. So chances are that not all iron will oxidize. As a result, it forms sludge which can plug the filter and the eductor that is part of the air injector.
As stated above, red-water iron can be removed by mechanical filtration. Concentrations of 15 mg/L and more should be manageable.
Organic iron treatment is particularly challenging. Organic iron can slow down or even prevent oxidation entirely, which is why water softeners, iron filters and aeration systems might not work. Your best option is probably chemical oxidation in combination with a mechanical filter.
If some of the iron exists in colloidal form, it’s even harder to get by due to its smaller size. To solve the problem, it might be necessary to add a coagulant to your water, which will glue the particles together making them larger in size and therefore easier to remove.
As with the selection of an iron filter itself, it’s also important to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations when it comes to the choosing the best filter media. Each type has its pros and cons…
Greensand is the most commonly used chemical oxidant in iron filters. It has proven itself over the years, has relatively high iron removal capacities and can operate at high water flow rates requiring only moderate backwash.
Coated with manganese oxide, sometimes called manganese greensand, it oxidizes iron as soon as it comes in contact with it. Greensand is also effective at oxidizing hydrogen sulfide and manganese.
An alternative to “regular” greensand is synthetic greensand, a granular mineral with a manganese dioxide coating. The benefits that synthetic greensand has over regular greensand is that it’s
In case you didn’t know, potassium permanganate is used as an oxidant to regenerate greensand. The problem with it, however, is that it’s a harsh chemical that is poisonous, can irritate skin and may even decrease fertility.
This is why it’s important to prevent excess potassium permanganate to enter your water system by all means. Usually, this is automatically done by your iron filter in a special rinse cycle where all permanganate is flushed out before any raw water is re-routed through the distribution system.
Birm can be used to reduce iron and manganese levels in water, but it has no effect on hydrogen sulfide. It uses dissolved oxygen as a catalyst and in some cases requires pre-oxidation if dissolved oxygen content is too low.
Advantages of Birm filters are that they are easy to maintain, long-lasting and don’t require any salt or chemicals.
Manganese dioxide has the ability to remove iron, manganese and hydrogen sulfide. Just like Birm, it requires enough dissolved oxygen in water for optimum performance.
Iron bacteria are a group of organisms that naturally occur in shallow soils and groundwater. They live on iron and can enter a well and other water systems during their constructions or repair.
Iron bacteria convert ferrous to ferric iron leaving slimy deposits in form of a red or brown biofilm. The slime not only causes clogging, it’s also the best indication for a potential iron bacteria infestation, for example in softeners, filters or toilet tanks. Clumps that break away from these deposits produce iron laden water, which is likely to cause staining.
How to check for iron bacteria in your toilet tank? Simply lift the cover and look for slime floating at the surface of the water.
The good news is that iron bacteria are not harmful to humans, however, they can make an iron problem much worse.
First of all, iron bacteria can only be identified with absolute certainty by microscopic examination.
Then, physical, chemical and thermal treatment can be used to eliminate them. The most common method is shock chlorination, a process that’s also used in swimming pools.
Shock chlorination works by adding large amounts of sodium hypochlorite (bleach) to water. The bleach needs to stay in the well and entire water system between 8 and 48 hours before being flushed out.
After the treatment, the water should not be drunk until the concentration of sodium hypochlorite is down to 3 ppm or less.
Remember: Even the best water softener can only handle relatively small iron levels.
Our favorite water softener for iron treatment is the Fleck 5600SXT made in the USA. It’s for moderate to hard water and recommended for ferrous (clear-water) iron levels of 2 ppm at max. Anything above that and you should go for the Iron Pro version (see unit below), which uses a special fine mesh instead of the standard one. Ferric iron will not be treated.
The softener can provide up to 12 gallons of water per minute – enough for 6 people – and comes with a user friendly digital controller.
Customers have reported that the unit does a great job at handling iron. No more rings around toilet bowls, no stains on laundry and better tasting water – it’s totally up to the challenge!
The install is easy and will only take you a few hours, plus an additional 5 minutes for the programming. Resin, brine tank, iron/hardness test kit – everything is included in the package. Oh, and great customer support!
By the way, if your water has more than 0.5 ppm iron, the softener requires a little more salt during regen to ensure that all ferrous is removed from of the softening resin. This adds to the effectiveness and also helps to prevent fouling.
The Fleck 5600SXT is a best seller on Amazon and backed by hundreds of customer reviews.
The Fleck Structural 48k-56sxt Iron Pro is a water softener and iron filter – all in one!
It’s sized for homes of 2 to 6 people (48,000 grain capacity) and thanks to the special fine mesh resin, it can handle iron up to 6-8 ppm and manganese up to 6 ppm, while also removing hardness minerals. Yes, the unit traps some ferric iron, but you are going to get the best results with ferrous iron.
A digital metered valve for efficiency and ease of use, a brine tank and a test kit for iron and hardness are part of the deal.
DIY installation? The provided step-by-step instructions will help you with that. If you get stuck, make sure to check out our water softener installation guide which you can find in the sidebar.
Also, the iron/hardness test kit allows you to configure the unit according to your water conditions for optimum regeneration.
The minimum water flow for backwash that an iron filter using oxidation media needs is about 5 gpm. In general, the larger the unit, the higher the required flow rate – some filters may take up to 20 gpm.
So if you don’t know the water flow rate of your well pump, this is the very first thing you will have to find out.
Remember: If you can’t backwash the filter media properly, it will eventually foul and make the iron removal process ineffective.
In cases of relatively low iron content, it can make sense to go with a regular whole house cartridge water filter system. These can help you to tackle ferrous and ferric iron, manganese, hydrogen sulfide and various other contaminants – think chlorine, pesticides, herbicides, VOCs and what not.
The iSpring combo can reduce iron of up to 6 ppm down to 0.1 ppm. At 3 ppm, the system has a theoretical iron filtration capacity of 50,000 gallons with a maximum flow rate of 15 gpm.
In other words, you get sufficient flow to run multiple water outlets at the same time, while maintenance requirements and costs are down to a minimum.
If you have some basic plumbing experience, you should be able to set up the system yourself.
As for the Home Master HMF3SDGFEC, the system also provides enough water for larger homes. It’s low in maintenance, which saves you time and money, and you can switch to cheaper replacement filters to save even more.
In addition to that, you get a 2-year limited warranty and you can always contact Home Master’s excellent customer support team in case you have any questions or issues.
The filters are able to remove up to 95% of iron, manganese, sediment, chemicals and other contaminants. The maximum combined contaminant load of iron, manganese and hydrogen sulfide is 3 ppm, which is a little lower than what you get with the iSpring.
Click the following link for a more thorough review of the Home Master HMF3SDGFEC whole house water filter.
The #1 air injection filter that we recommend for the removal of ferrous and ferric iron (up to 15 ppm), sulfur (up to 6 ppm) and manganese (up to 6 ppm) is the Silver 10.
It’s a whole house oxidizing water filter that doesn’t use chemicals for an all natural filtration.
Contaminants get trapped in the filter media until they are washed down the drain during a backwash cycle. Of course, the backwashing system is fully automatic, so set it and forget it!
The unit is relatively easy to install – bypass valve included for easy servicing – and the filter media needs replacements only about every 5 years.
What’s more, due to the fact that the whole oxidation process takes place inside a single tank, space requirements and maintenance costs are super low.
Last but not least, customers have reported that the seller is very responsive and reliable.
The Waterboss Model 900IF is for more severe cases of ferrous iron contamination (<15 ppm). It uses greensand media for oxidation and also reduces iron bacteria and hydrogen sulfide.
The system is made in the USA, which we know many of our readers care about, and the installation is really straightforward.
There are a couple of regular shower head filters that seem to help with iron, too – although their removal capabilities are probably rather low. Unfortunately, we can’t tell with certainty, because there is no additional information provided by the different manufacturers.
If you are looking for a garden hose iron filter, the Camco TastePURE is probably your best bet. The filter uses high-flow granular activated carbon rated at 100 microns and reduces iron, lead, mercury and other heavy metals, and also takes out bad odors and taste.
The filter can be used for 1 season and needs replacement after that.
A reverse osmosis filter system can be used to remove low levels of iron, manganese and other (heavy) metals as well as salts. If a test has shown that your water not only contains iron but many other potentially harmful contaminants alongside it, reverse osmosis is a great solution for water treatment.
However, all professionals in the field agree that reverse osmosis requires thorough pre-treatment when used on well water. Otherwise, the RO membrane will clog almost immediately. So if you receive water from a well, consider pairing an RO system with a whole house (iron) filter.
If you are using an iron filter together with a water softener, always install the filter before the softener. This will greatly extend the softener’s lifespan, because no iron can clog the resin bed.
There is no such thing as removing iron from well water naturally. You either need to be using a water softener, iron filter or an oxidizing agent/air injector in combination with a filtration stage.
To get iron out of pool water, you can use the exact same methods for filtering well water. Probably the best way to go about it is shock chlorination:
Removing iron from drinking water works exactly the same as removing iron from a well or any other water source:
If you have any questions about how to remove iron from well water, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!
And don’t forget to come back to this page from time to time, as we are going to add new iron water filter reviews occasionally.