How to Treat Iron Bacteria in Well Water?

Why is it important to learn how to treat iron bacteria in well water?

Iron bacteria naturally occur as small living organisms that can be found in soil, shallow groundwater, and surface waters. However, when the bacteria is combined with iron, it becomes a very damaging and difficult-to-remove contaminant in a well water supply.

Iron bacteria can cause your well water to have unpleasant tastes and smells. Not only this, but you might even notice a brownish foam in your water.

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to kill bacteria in your well water for a cleaner water supply. In our article today, we will be touching on what iron bacteria is, how to detect iron bacteria in your well water, as well as how to kill iron bacteria or treat iron bacteria in well water.

What is Iron Bacteria?

Iron bacteria are microorganisms that get their energy from oxidizing dissolved ferrous iron or manganese in groundwater. The two common bacterial species involved in iron and manganese oxidation are Gallionella spp. and Lepothrix spp.

Although you may find a small population of iron bacteria in groundwater, they typically prefer living above ground. The most common way for these bacteria to enter our wells is during well drilling, installing submersible pumps, or any other construction, maintenance or well servicing activities that could carry iron bacteria from the surface into the well water.

Iron exists as two forms in the environment: ferrous iron (soluble in anaerobic or oxygen-free environments) and ferric iron (insoluble in aerobic or oxygen-rich environments forming solid rust particles).

When ferrous iron is met with an oxygen source, the iron bacteria converts ferrous into ferric iron, producing a slimy rust-colored residue filled with living and dead bacteria, secretions, sheathes, stalks, and other by-products of the bacteria.

Once the iron bacteria is in your well system, it also means that your home water supply may also contain these bacteria as the iron-bacteria-contaminated well water is pumped into your home’s plumbing system. And unless you’ve fitted your house with a water filter or treatment system, you’ll also likely be ingesting them via your drinking water.

Iron bacteria in well water symptoms and effects

There are a few telltale signs that indicate that you may have a problem with iron bacteria in your household water supply. The signs include:

Stains on plumbing fixtures, pipes, and water-based appliances

A common indicator of iron bacteria in your water supply is stains and deposits along your plumbing fixtures and pipes. You may also start to see your appliances with such stains and deposits. Iron bacteria will leave rust-colored slime stains and deposits in your sinks and toilets.

These deposits are noticeable on fixtures, tableware, laundry, and various surfaces that keep coming regardless of your cleaning efforts. Although the stain is often a reddish-orange color, it can also appear in grey, yellow, or brown.

Discolored Water

As mentioned above, iron bacteria can form deposits that are yellow, red, or orange in color. The deposits take the form of slimy coating along the walls of the tank and if the deposits are widespread, they may start to break off and float in the water. This will cause the water to also have a yellow, red, or orange hue.

Oily Water

Another quick and easy way to check if your water has iron or other slime-producing bacteria is to open up your toilet tank and check if you see an oily sheen on the water surface.

If you notice an oily sheen on the surface and you can feel a slimy residue along the side of your tank, there’s a high chance that you have slime-producing bacteria present in your water system. These conditions might not be so apparent if you are using a disinfectant in your tank.

Unpleasant Water Taste or Odor

In addition to color, iron bacteria can also cause the water to have an unpleasant taste or odor such as a rotten egg smell or that resembles fuel oil, cucumber, or even sewage. You may notice the smell in the mornings or after not using water for extended periods of time. If you or your guests ever notice or comment on any of these signs, it’s likely that you have an iron bacteria problem in your well water.

Plumbing Corrosion

Iron bacteria form micro-zones of high acidity and with elevated concentrations of corrosion ions within your plumbing. This will cause your plumbing equipment to corrode. The occurrence of corrosion is worse in areas with stagnant water. So, if you notice your pipes or plumbing fixtures begin to rust excessively, you might want to test your well water for iron bacteria.

Clogged Well Screens and Pipes

If you begin to notice that your water yield from your well decreases without any apparent explanation, it might be due to the significant growth of iron bacteria and the slime they produce. The slime residue produced by iron bacteria can build up and clog pipes, reducing water yield inside your home by restricting water flow.

This restricted flow can also affect water softeners and water filter systems like a clogged water softener drain line that could potentially damage the water softener resin. Reverse osmosis systems and carbon filters are especially sensitive and can be fouled even more quickly from iron bacteria slime.

Damaged Appliances

It’s no surprise that iron bacteria can also damage your appliances, like dishwashers, washing machines, and hot water heaters. The slime build up by iron bacteria can cause your appliances to clog, preventing them from working properly.

Not only that, but iron bacteria slime can also act as a layer of insulation, which poses a problem for your water heater as it’ll need to work harder and longer to heat your water.

Increased Infestations of Other Bacteria

Iron bacteria can foster a good environment that promotes the growth of other types of bacteria, including coliform and sulfur bacteria. Sulfur bacteria produces a rotten egg smell.

Though the smell mentioned earlier is not directly caused by iron bacteria, the iron bacteria may be the main reason why your water has sulfur bacteria and other types of bacteria that you do not want present in your drinking water.

Is Iron Bacteria a Health Risk?

Fortunately, the presence of iron bacteria in your drinking water isn’t necessarily a health risk but more of a nuisance issue.

How to Test for Iron Bacteria?

There are not many water laboratories that test for iron bacteria in water since there’s no actual standard for it considering the fact that iron bacteria does not cause any health implications. Hence, testing water for iron bacteria is seldom recommended and is generally not required.

Nonetheless, the most suitable test for iron bacteria is the BART (Bacterial Activity Reaction Test). The BART test can be used for detecting iron and sulfur bacteria. The good thing about using BART is that it is more affordable than sending a water sample to the laboratory.

The test also does not require a microscope, incubator, or any other kind of science equipment.
However, one downside to BART is that you need patience since most kits recommend checking on your water every day for 8 days.

An alternative is to do a simple visual test. Here are the steps that you can carry out:

Step 1: Remove the screen or faucet-mounted filter from the faucet.

Step 2: Fill a clean, sealable, clear glass container with water from the faucet (preferably early in the morning when the water has not been used for several hours).

Step 3: Leave the sample in the container undisturbed for 24 hours.

Step 4: If the water is clear after 24 hours, there are no precipitates of oxidized iron and manganese nor iron bacteria. If there’s a thin layer of rusty, flour-like precipitate at the bottom, then you might have a few iron bacteria in the water. If the sediment at the bottom is rust-colored fluffy strands or clumps, then you might have a serious iron bacteria problem in your water.

Although a simple visual inspection or BART is sufficient at indicating whether your water contains iron bacteria, you can still go ahead and have your water tested for iron bacteria at a certified laboratory. Laboratory analysis will reveal the extent of iron bacteria problem while also providing other vital information such as hardness levels, alkalinity, and pH.

Other than iron bacteria, you should also test your water for other common contaminants such as:

  • Coliform bacteria every year and any time you notice a change in taste, odor or appearance in your water.
  • Nitrate every other year. Make sure to test your water for nitrates, especially if you have bottle-fed infants under 6 months old as they have the highest risk of being affected by high nitrate levels.
  • Arsenic at least once. Drinking water with arsenic for long term can contribute to reduced intelligence in children and increased risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other skin problems.
  • Lead at least once. Lead can get into drinking water and cause damage to the brain, kidneys and nervous systems. Research has also proven that lead can cause slow development or cause learning, behavior and hearing problems in kids.
  • Manganese before feeding to babies. High levels of manganese have been proven to cause development problems with memory, attention and motor skills in children. The chemical has also been found to cause learning and behavior problems in infants and children.

How to Prevent Iron Bacteria

Once iron bacteria gets into your well water, they can be tough to remove. Hence, it is better to prevent them from entering your well water in the first place than to try to remove iron bacteria or treat them later on. As discussed in the previous section, there are a few ways for iron bacteria to enter the well water despite it being more abundant in surface water.

To significantly reduce the chances of iron bacteria entering your well system, you need to make sure that strict preventive measures are performed during any drilling process, submersible pump installation, assembly, and any repair or maintenance activities.

Here are a few preventive methods to keep in mind:

  1. Keep drill bits, pumps, and casing pipe clean and away from the ground.
  2. Only place disinfected water in a well for drilling, repair, or priming pumps. Never use water taken from surfacer sources like lakes, rivers, streams or ponds.
  3. Ensure well casing is capped, watertight, and extends at least one foot above the ground.
  4. Disinfect well, pump, and plumbing after repairs.

How to Remove Iron Bacteria?

Physical Removal

The first step to iron bacteria treatment is to physically remove bacteria present. This job requires a professional plumber or handyman as the process involves removing and cleaning your well equipment. The plumber will need to also scrub out your well casing and prepare the system for further chemical treatment discussed in the next section.

How to Treat Iron Bacteria in Well Water?

If your well water contains iron bacteria, fret not as there are a few ways to get rid of them. Two of the most frequently recommended treatment steps to eradicate iron bacteria problem in well water are shock chlorination and chemical injection processes.

Shock Chlorination

Shock chlorination involves shocking the water with intense chlorine dosage at (200 ppm concentration) to disinfect the water. Chlorine is a strong disinfectant that’s frequently used in water systems.

It’s highly toxic to bacteria and helps to kill other unwanted microbes like parasites, viruses, fungi, molds, and algae that are commonly found in water reservoirs. However, iron and sulfur bacteria are much more resistant to chlorine compared to the other bacteria because they occur in thick layers and are protected by the slime they secrete.

In the case of iron bacteria, the iron dissolved in water may absorb some of the chlorine before it reaches the bacteria. This is why it is recommended to shock the water with high chlorine concentration of about 500 ppm to address both iron and sulfur bacteria problems.

In addition to using high concentrations of chlorine, you should also perform shock chlorination your well about 2 to 3 times a year if you’re not using a continuous chlorinator or chemical injection system.

Chemical Injection

A chemical injection system involves feeding chemicals into a water system to treat microbial contamination problems in water.

Chemical injection systems are better than shock chlorinators since they automatically feed chlorine into the water system continuously with a chlorinator pump. The chlorine and well water mixture is left in the contact tank to allow sufficient contact time for complete disinfection and oxidation to occur.

Once the process is done, you won’t want to have chlorine still present in your drinking water as it could cause an unpleasant taste and smell. Not only that, but chlorine can also bleach out clothing and laundry, burn eyes and nose, as well as cause other long-term health risks.

Thankfully, a chlorine injection system usually comes with a filtration component to dechlorinate water and eliminate other potentially toxic contaminants. If the system you bought does not include a carbon filter, you can always add a carbon whole-house filtration system to help remove chlorine from the water. The goal is to ensure no chlorine is present in your household water for clean, healthy, and better-tasting water.

The methods involved in continuous injection are as follows:

Step 1 Chemical Injection

This step uses the same method of chlorine injection as a municipal water supplier where chemical is added into your water, which acts as a disinfectant for treating iron bacteria and similar organisms.

Step 2 Retention

After adding chlorine into your water, you need to let the chlorine and water mixture sit for a while. Chlorine can’t kill bacteria immediately and needs to be held in a retention tank long enough for it to do its job. The size of the tank will determine how much water you will have access to at any given time.

Step 3 Filtration

The final stage of continuous disinfection is to remove the water’s contaminants and disinfectant chemicals. This step is usually done with a carbon filter.

Aside from chlorine, chemical treatment may also use other chemicals to remove iron bacteria:

Disinfectants – Disinfectants such as household laundry bleach, are most commonly used to remove iron bacteria in well. Contact a licensed well contractor to disinfect your well.

Surfactants – Surfactants are detergent-like chemicals, such as phosphates and are generally used with other chemical treatments. It is important to pair it with a disinfectant if phosphates are used otherwise bacteria might use phosphates as a food source instead. Only trained professionals should do surfactant treatments.

Acids – Acid can dissolve and iron bacteria deposits, destroy bacteria and even loosen bacterial slime. Acids are part of a series of treatments involving chlorine. However, due to its hazards, only trained professionals should handle acid treatment and be very careful when using and disposing any of these chemicals.


Another step to get rid of iron bacteria is to inject steam or hot water into the well to keep well water temperature at 60 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes. While pasteurization method is effective without the use of chemicals, the procedure can be quite expensive.

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