Why is My Water Brown?
While red or brown is certainly an alarming color to see in your water, don’t panic–it is most likely just iron (and other ferric hydroxides).
There are steps you can take to resolve the issue!
We’ve produced this handy guide to answer the following questions:
How does iron get into the water supply?
Iron–the fourth most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust–is also present in groundwater; unless it is treated or filtered out, it enters the water supply. As pipes and well casings corrode and rust, they can release iron into the water as it flows through.
How can you tell if there is iron in your water?
Unlike some of the stealthier contaminants (like PFAS, pesticides, or radon), iron contamination often makes its known–irritatingly so. From reddish-brown stains on clothes and fixtures to colored water, iron can cause unpleasant odors and tastes in drinking water or slimy residues and stains on our home appliances.
What are the effects of iron in tap water?
Iron is thankfully not dangerous to human health–it is in fact necessary for us to live and we consume iron in foods such as leafy green vegetables and red meat.
The human body uses iron to carry oxygen in the blood, hence giving blood its rusty red color. While excessive consumption could lead to iron toxicity (the poison is in the dose, as they say), acute iron poisoning is not known to happen from tap water.
What are the safe levels of iron in drinking water?
The federal drinking water standard for iron is 0.3 milligrams per liter (or 0.3 parts per million).
How can you treat iron in drinking water?
If you are experiencing unpleasant odors and tastes in drinking water or slimy residues and stains on our home appliances, step one is to test your water. Each of our Tap Score Essential, Advanced, and Extended Water Testing packages for city or well water include analysis for iron.
The form of iron that your water likely contains differs depending on whether your water comes from a (1) water utility or (2) private well.
1. City Water: Ferrous and Ferric Iron
Utility water (from a public water system) is filtered for iron, but treatment plants only reduce iron to levels below the legal concentration limit (0.3 mg/L)–they do not remove iron completely. Over time, small levels of iron can build up in the many miles of pipeline water must travel through before it reaches people’s homes.
Disturbances to the pipes can then knock these mineral deposits loose and into the water stream, including:
The two most common forms of iron in public utility treated water are “ferrous” iron (“clear-water” iron) and “ferric” iron or (“red-water” iron).
How do I treat ferrous or ferric Iron?
However, we always recommend that you test prior to treating your water. Before you spend money on a treatment product, take a look at these two tests specifically designed for city water users.
Essential City Water Test: Along with iron analysis, this package includes laboratory testing for 40 analytes commonly found in city water and that may present a health impact.
Both of these testing packages will provide you with a Tap Score Water Quality Report, including a comprehensive analysis of all test results, health impacts, unbiased and personalized treatment options, and household water appliance risks.
Not served by a water utility? Read on for what to do if your private well is contaminated by iron (or iron-related bacteria).
2. Well Water: Organic Iron, Tannins, and Bacterial Iron
Private well water is not usually filtered, so if there is iron in the source water or from your pipes, it will remain there until you filter it.
Well water can contain clear-water iron or red-water iron, just as public utility water can (see above). It can also contain organic iron and tannins or iron bacteria, both of which are much, much more difficult to remove.
- Tastes and odors: Described as “swampy”, “oily or petroleum”, “cucumber”, “sewage”, “rotten vegetation”, or “musty”. The taste or odor may be more noticeable if the water hasn’t been used for a bit.
- Color: yellow, orange, red, or brown stains in sinks or toilets, on laundry, etc.Red slimy deposits: sticky slime that is usually rust colored in toilets or pipes.
How to test for iron bacteria:
We highly encourage testing for bacterial iron if you are concerned, as these symptoms could be signs of other bacteria. While for chemical contaminants like lead and arsenic, we recommend laboratory tests, you can test for iron-oxidizing bacteria at home. Learn more here.
How do treat organic iron, tannins, or bacterial iron?
Organic iron and tannins: Can be treated with chemical oxidation followed by filtration. Water softeners, aeration systems, and iron filters may not work well because organic iron and tannins can slow or prevent iron oxidation.
Bacterial iron: Iron bacteria are very difficult to remove, so physical removal, heat, and chemical treatment must be used. The most common treatment is “shock” chlorination, or adding a very strong chlorine solution to a well.
If you are unsure of your iron source, it’s time to test! For private well owners, we recommend our TapScore Essential Well Water Test or an Advanced Well Water Test with an iron-related bacteria add-on.
Just like our city water tests, each testing package includes unbiased and personalized treatment recommendations, so you’re not left wondering what to do. Our team of treatment experts, chemists, and water quality engineers can walk you through how to treat your drinking water so that you know that what you are drinking is safe.
Iron contamination in water is not dangerous, but can cause undesirable odors, tastes, colors, stains, slimes, and in the case of iron bacteria, can create an environment for other harmful organisms to grow. Because there are so many different kinds of iron in water, you must identify which form you are dealing with to determine which type of removal treatment will work.
If you have any questions, be sure to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!