Why Is My Well Water Brown?

Is your well water brown or rusty red in color? It may indicate high concentrations of iron in your water. Iron is one of the earth’s most plentiful resources, making up at least five percent of the earth’s crust. When rainfall seeps through the soil, the iron in the earth’s surface dissolves, causing it to go into almost every natural water supply, including well water. When iron is present in well water, it is usually found at concentrations less than 10 milligrams per liter (mg/l) or parts per million (ppm); however, levels high enough to make well water brown or rusty red can occur.

Well water brown at the faucet.

Health and Water Quality

Iron is not considered hazardous to health. In fact, iron is essential for good health because it transports oxygen in your blood. In the United States, most tap water probably supplies less than 5 percent of the dietary requirement for iron.

Under Department of Natural Resources (DNR) rules, iron is considered a secondary or “aesthetic” contaminant. The present recommended limit for iron in water, 0.3 mg/l (ppm), is based on taste and appearance rather than on any detrimental health effect. Private water supplies are not subject to the rules, but the guidelines can be used to evaluate water quality.

For instance, when the level of iron in water exceeds the 0.3 mg/l limit, we experience well water brown in color with red, brown, or yellow staining of laundry, glassware, dishes, and household fixtures such as bathtubs and sinks. The water may also have a metallic taste and an offensive odor. Water system piping and fixtures can also become restricted or clogged.

Types Of Iron

Iron is generally divided into two main categories:

  • Soluble or ferrous iron – soluble iron, or “clear water” iron, is the type of iron found in our groundwater and oxidizes to insoluble or red iron in the presence of oxygen either in the well or in your home. This type of iron is identified after you’ve poured a glass of cold clear water. If allowed to stand in the presence of air, reddish brown particles will appear in the glass and eventually settle to the bottom.
  • Insoluble or ferric iron – when insoluble iron, or “red water” iron is poured into a glass, it appears rusty or has a red or yellow color. Insoluble iron can create serious taste and appearance problems for the water user.

Iron, which combines with different naturally occurring organic acids or tannins, may also exist as an organic complex. A combination of acid and iron, or organic iron, can be found anywhere; however, it is more common in shallow wells and surface water. Although this kind of iron can be colorless, it is usually yellow or brown.

Also, when iron exists along with certain kinds of bacteria, problems can become even worse. The bacteria consume iron to survive and leave a reddish brown or yellow slime that can clog plumbing and cause an offensive odor. You may notice this slime or sludge in your toilet bowl or tank when you remove the lid.

Other Causes Of Well Water Brown – Red Coloring

There are other reasons why you may experience well water brown or rusty red in color at your faucet:

  • Rust – caused by corroding piping or plumbing fixtures. If well water brown or reddish in color flows in certain parts of your home but the water that comes from outlets of other faucets remains clear, rusty pipes can be causing discoloration.
  • Silt – also known as sediment, should not get into the well water through the pump. However, if the components of the well have been damaged, dissolved solids that come from rainwater may be easily sucked into your well.
  • Manganese – manganese is a common element found in minerals, rocks, and soil. Manganese is found naturally in groundwater, but levels can be increased by human activities like steel production and mining.

    Manganese can turn the water a brown or rust color, cause staining of faucets, sinks, or laundry, and make the water have an off off-taste or odor. The level of manganese in Wisconsin groundwater varies with some wells having no manganese and others having high levels.

You Should Know

Studies in research animals suggest that high levels of manganese may also affect reproduction and impact the kidneys. People over the age of 50 and infants less six months are the most sensitive to these effects. In older adults, high levels of manganese may cause a disorder similar to Parkinson’s disease. In infants, exposure to high levels of manganese may affect brain development and impact learning and behavior.

The First Step For Well Water Brown In color

If you have well water brown or reddish/rusty in color you should have your water system inspected by a professional. (like us!) This should include testing your water, which we recommend to be done on an annual basis. With well water brown or rusty color flowing from your faucets you may need an optimized filtration system that is based on your water quality.

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