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Get Informed | Iron Bacteria

What are Iron Bacteria?

Iron bacteria are not specifically regulated by a drinking water standard, but their growth can result in creating situations or problems that can then violate a primary or secondary drinking water standard. Therefore, I tend to call these types of organisms nuisance bacteria, because they tend to create a nuisance problem before they create or facilitate a problem associated with a health concern or impact. Iron-reducing bacteria are chemotrophs, which get their energy from electron donors like iron and manganese. These non-pathogenic (not health-threatening) bacteria occur in soil, shallow aquifers, and some surface waters.

How Do Iron Bacteria Become a problem?

Iron-reducing bacteria can cause the water to have a metallic sheen, can create slimy coatings that appear yellow, brown, red, and or black, and can produce a brown foam in the water. These bacteria can create a nuisance and in some cases the biofilms have been associated with microbiologically-induced corrosion. Iron-reducing bacteria are also associated with elevated levels of iron, manganese, arsenic, and, in more extreme cases, metals associated with corrosion by-products like aluminum, copper, lead, and zinc.

What are the Health Risks for Iron Bacteria?

At this time, we are not aware of any specific health risks from iron-reducing bacteria, but if this bacterium is abundant in the groundwater and/or well, it is more likely the water may have an aesthetic problem. Iron-reducing bacteria can result from the premature failure or poor performance of water treatment devices and other appliances and can increase the levels of aluminum, iron, and manganese in your water; the reduced forms of iron and manganese are more soluble in water. In more extreme cases, the bacteria may cause microbiologically-induced corrosion and result in elevated levels of copper, lead, zinc, and other metals found within the piping and components of the water distribution system.

Biofilms and coatings caused or associated with nuisance bacteria may interfere with the effectiveness of disinfection systems, reducing the ability of the systems to inhibit the the formation or regrowth of other bacterial agents in a water distribution system or other water treatment devices.

What are the Standards for Iron Bacteria?

There are no specific standards for iron-reducing bacteria, but there are standards for other groups of bacteria. There is a standard for total coliform bacteria (it should be absent) and a standard for "standard plate" count (< 500 colonies per ml). It can be inferred that iron-reducing bacteria are indirectly regulated because a regulated water can not pose a nuisance or have a specific aesthetic problem.

Get Tested | Iron Bacteria

There are warning signs of a potential problem with iron-reducing bacteria. These warning signs may include a water that has a metallic odor/taste, metallic films, very high levels of iron and manganese, and "slimy" coatings.

Level 1 | Observational Self-Testing

Level 1 Testing is done with simple observations that an individual can make with their own senses such as sight, smell, and taste. These observations can be readily apparent or can be observed as they change over time. In addition, accessible related information about the home can also be used to narrow down the cause of your water issues.

Notes on Level 1 Testing for Iron Bacteria

The first place to help screen your water for iron-reducing bacteria is to look in places where your water sets, such as the inside of the toilet tank. Another sign is that there is an increase in the iron and manganese concentration of your water with time or you experience periods of reddish-brown (iron) or black (manganese) water when the water is not regularly used.

Observations for Iron Bacteria

You might suspect that there is a problem with iron bacteria, if you notice the following:

  • The inside walls of the toilet tank reservoir or other water storage vessel that is in contact with the water is discolored.  This discoloration normally looks yellow, red, brown, and sometimes black.
  • The water has a metallic sheen and/or the walls of the tank have a slimy feel.
  • When you run the water, the first flush of water from the plumbing appears to be discolored, may or may not have an odor, and may or may not have a metallic sheen.
  • You are likely experiencing problems with water staining.
Try Our Level 1 Drinking Water Self-Diagnostic Tool
Have water issues? Answer our self-diagnosis questionnaire from your observations to get an initial diagnosis. Then follow our recommended steps to remediate your issue.
Self-Diagnostic Tool

Level 2 | Do-It-Yourself Water Testing

Level 2 Testing is Do-It-Yourself testing that can be done in your own home using a Testing Kit. After you’ve done Level 1 Testing, Level 2 Testing can confirm if your observations are correct. If your test results reveal the presence of a contaminant that is cause for concern, you can either proceed to determine the best treatment (see below) or continue to Level 3 Testing.

Notes on Level 2 Testing for Iron Bacteria

Low-cost screening tests for iron-reducing bacteria are not readily available, but the primary warning signs would be discolored water, increased levels of iron/manganese, or water that has a metallic taste/odor. There are in-home screening tests that include iron, manganese, and bacterial quality.  If the water is positive for bacterial contamination, it may be advisable to conduct a shock disinfection of your private water source before conducting any additional testing.

Recommended Products
National Testing LabsL3-NATE-P-1 | Problem Check (Iron and IRB)

<div class="product-note in-L6-dissolved-gasses">Note: For Biological Odors / CO2 / Sulfur-Like Odors</div>

National Testing LabsL3-NATE-W-4 | WaterCheck® Standard

<div class="product-note in-L4-sulfur-treatment">Note: Use in combination with Sulfate-Reducing Bacteria Test</div>

National Testing LabsL3-NATE-W-2 | WaterCheck Deluxe

<div class="product-note in-L4-carbon-filtration">Note: For rural Areas with <a href="/indoor-6/herbicides-pesticides">Herbicides and Pesticides</a> Usage</div>


Level 3 | Informational Water Testing

Level 3 Testing is done through an accredited Water Testing Laboratory. With Level 3 Testing, you can order a testing kit that is used to prepare your sample and submit it to the lab. By utilizing a lab, you have the assurance that a certified water expert had analyzed your water sample. If your test results reveal the presence of a contaminant that is cause for concern, you can either proceed to determine the best treatment options (see below) or continue to Level 4 Testing - Certified Testing.

Notes on Level 3 Testing for Iron Bacteria

There are informational water testing kits that include nuisance bacteria, such as iron-reducing bacteria. Because iron bacteria can be associated with water that is potentially corrosive and water that is mineral rich, we recommend conducting a comprehensive water quality test and then adding specific nuisance bacteria depending on the users observations.  For a private water source, you may want to consider conducting a basic informational water quality test.  If you are not concerned about volatile organics or pesticides, we recommend the National Testing Labs WaterCheck Standard.  If you are concerned about volatile organics and pesticides, we recommend the National Testing Labs WaterCheck Deluxe.

Level 4 | Certified Water Testing

A Level 4 Certified Test Test uses chain-of-custody with a water professional coming to your home to prepare the water sample and then works with an accredited laboratory in order to certify your test results. This type of testing not only gives you the highest level of assurance in the accuracy of your test results, but can also be used as a document in legal cases. For Baseline Testing, we recommend that you use Certified Testing.

Notes on Level 4 Certified Testing for Iron Bacteria

Certified water testing is available for iron-reducing bacteria, but this evaluation should most likely include a wider range of microbiological agents. If you need assistance with finding a certified laboratory, please Contact our team.

Get Treatment | Iron Bacteria

To determine the best way to treat or manage an issue or problem related to iron-reducing bacteria, it is critical to understand the source of the contamination and the associated water quality.

Short-Term Treatment

For well water users, our primary recommendation is to inspect your wellhead and shock disinfect the well and distribution system. The shock disinfection should be done twice and the water lines should be flushed with all water treatment systems by-passed and in-line filters and aeration devices removed. If you have a standard water heater, we recommend that the unit and the distribution lines in your home should be pasteurized. If this is a city water source, it may be necessary to flush the water main and in some cases to shock disinfect and pasteurize the water heating system. This is why we recommend homeowners on a city water system install a clear-water filter housing immediately after the "city water" enters your home.

Long-Term Treatment

For city water customers, the long-term treatment is typically the responsibility of the water provider. Such treatment may include increasing disinfection residuals in the water, changing piping, and flushing water lines. For city water customers with intermittent water quality problems, we suggest the installation of a barrier water treatment system that would include a whole-house backwashable particle filter (we do not recommend a carbon filter), UV disinfection system, and then some point-of-use submicron particle filters.

For private systems, the treatment process will depend on the water source and the extent or presence of other contaminants. For these systems, the first step is typically a combination of chemical oxidation/disinfection, a reaction tank, backwashable particle filtration (in some cases a carbon filtration system is advisable), and then any additional water treatment systems to address other water quality issues. In many cases, it is necessary to use a professional to install, manage, and maintain these systems. After the system is installed, it would be advisable to benchmark the system to ensure it is operating properly after which the system should be inspected and maintained regularly.

Note: In most cases, it will be necessary to work with one or more local professionals to develop a long-term solution.

Contact a KnowYourH2O Recommended Professional

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