Iron in the Water Supply

"It makes my water taste funny."

"It leaves an orange ring in my sink and shower."

"It has a weird smell."

Ask the average consumer about iron in his water and chances are you will get one of the above responses in some form or another. One thing you can be certain of is that positive comments will be few and far between. What is it about iron that brings on such a strong response from customers? More importantly, what solutions can you offer them?

To offer the best solution, it is best to understand the problem. At the most basic level, it should be considered that iron is the fourth most abundant element in the earth. Since water absorbs iron as it passes through the ground into the water supply, it should be of no surprise that large areas of the country have issues with iron in their residential water supply.

Although there really are no known major health issues associated with the presence of iron in the residential water supply, that does not mean that iron does not cause its fair share of problems within the household.

Aesthetically speaking, iron in water can cause stains in the sink, bathtub and toilet. Anyone who has ever tried to remove the classic reddish stain from these areas knows that it is far from an easy task and can be an ongoing battle. There can be other problems too. Clothes that you put into the washing machine can come out stained and streaked. In the kitchen, glasses and dishware that are run through the dishwasher can come out looking worse than when they were put in.

Even your meals can be affected by the presence of iron in the water. Your cooking utensils can end up stained and the taste and smell of your food might even be affected. Beverages also can have an added, sometimes sharp taste. And as java aficionados can profess, coffee made with water with a high level of iron can be a particularly bad combination (the resulting sludge at the bottom of the pot is no coincidence).

"Some of our customers even complain about how their hair is affected," said Ron Mettert, vice president of Mettert's WaterCare in Auburn, Ind. "We also hear quite a bit about film in pipes." As Mettert's customers are alluding to, iron in the water actually can cause damage to plumbing and appliances as well. Faucets and water pipes carrying water with iron in it can become damaged and clogged. The life span of appliances such as water heaters, washing machines and dishwashers can be shortened due to the ill effects of iron buildup.

So it is abundantly clear that iron in the residential water supply can cause its fair share of problems. But what can you say to customers who have these issues and, more importantly, what can you do to help them?

"In the old days, everyone seemed to have two-inch wells and a pressure tank that mixed air and water," said Mettert. "When water and air mixed it changed the type of iron from ferrous (soluble) to ferric (particles in the water). It is more difficult to remove ferric iron. Now with the latest equipment, the water and air do not mix. This makes it a lot easier to remove iron from the water."

Every customer will have a different need and fortunately there are several treatment options available. Use of a water softener, aeration, filtration, ozonation, sequestering and chlorination are some of the more common techniques. The most popular methods all involve the use of a water softener.

Ion Exchange With Sodium Chloride

Traditional ion exchange water softening units can offer one of the best treatments of iron. Most water softeners will treat water with up to 5 parts per million (ppm) of iron. Customers with up to 2 ppm of iron can get good results simply by using a water softener with a high-purity water softening salt.

"These types of pure salt can be used in all water softeners," said Scott Koefod, research chemist for Cargill Salt. "Typically they are up o 99.8 percent sodium chloride and are virtually 100 percent water soluble." For customers with higher levels of iron, the typical high-grade sodium chloride might not be enough. A formulated salt product with iron-fighting additives for the water softening unit might be necessary.

"Products such as these offer effective softening with the added convenience of iron-cleansing chemicals, said Koefod. "Additives will help dissolve the oxidized iron compounds and remove them from the resin, preventing iron fouling."

Ironically, water softeners in households with excessive levels of iron are not immune to the same problems that other appliances face. Prolonged exposure to high levels of iron can shorten the lifespan of the unit.

Consumers with lower levels of iron in their water also can benefit from using a bag of sodium chloride with iron-fighting additives every few months. This will help prevent staining of the softener and help dissolve any remaining iron on the resin bed. This also may prolong the lifespan of the water softening unit.

Rust Cleaning Additives

There are cases where salt with iron-fighting additives still might not be enough. In these situations, additional chemicals such as sodium bisulfate and sodium hydrosulfite might be necessary. Most iron treatment chemicals are available through professional water treatment dealers or can be found at hardware stores and can be added directly to the brine tank. Some consumers are hesitant to do this on their own due to the strong odor of these chemicals. Dealers should talk with the customer about the benefits of using these types of products or highlight them as part of a salt delivery and softener maintenance program.

Iron Filters

In areas with extremely high levels of iron, another alternative is an iron filtration system. These systems actually are separate from the water softening system but easily can be added to it. In order for the filtering system to work, the iron must be oxidized (by feeding air or chlorine). Many dealers offer some type of filter that oxidizes and filters the water before it enters the water softener. More importantly, they should not be intimidated by such a system, as maintenance tends to be very minor (primarily refilling the solution tanks).

The primary drawback is that the installation cost may be high. However, over the long-term the potential damage from the iron could outweigh the initial cost consideration. It also should be noted that iron filtering systems need a reliable backwash system. Without the proper backwash flow, iron filters might need to be rebedded more frequently.

Chlorination and Beyond

Consumers in some areas face bacterial iron problems. With its strong smell and slimy appearance, bacterial iron can be more than just a nuisance. At a certain point, chlorination of the water supply must be considered. By following state guidelines, chlorination can be a safe procedure and the water softener will not be harmed during the process.

Colloidal iron is another problem to be considered. This occurs when small iron fragments become suspended in the water system. By adding alum to the water, the iron coagulates and can be filtered out through a sediment filter.

"My water tastes great."

"The rings in my sink and shower are gone."

"My water actually has no odor."

Possible responses to the effective treatment of an iron problem? A definite yes. As many iron problems as there might be, dealers can offer an equal number of treatments to resolve them.

Nancy Lucas is marketing manager for the water conditioning segment of Cargill Salt. Lucas started with Cargill Salt as a chemist in 1988 and joined the marketing department in 1991. She holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

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