Iron in the Water Supply

Editor's Emphasis

"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

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

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

"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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