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Rust-Colored Stains: Iron

Water with a high concentration of iron causes an array of irritating and potentially costly problems for homeowners. The surest signs of iron contamination include:

  • Brown, orange, or rust-colored stains on sinks and plumbing fixtures
  • Rusty deposits and staining on freshly-washed clothing
  • An objectionable, metallic flavor or smell from drinking water and faucets
  • Coffee, tea, and other beverages becoming inky or black

As little as 0.3 ppm (parts per million), is enough iron to cause staining. Over time, this iron will react with water and air in a process known as oxidation and form rust, turning relatively new plumbing fixtures into eyesores and shortening their useful lifespans. Most iron problems fall into one of three categories:


ironpipesSoluble iron is often called "clear water" iron. Clear water iron is notable because the water is clear when first drawn from the tap. However, after coming in contact with the air, the iron oxidizes, or "rusts", forming red or reddish-brown particles in the water. It is commonly found in well water supplies throughout the United States. 

Soluble iron problems can often be treated with a water conditioner or a system containing a softener and filter. An iron filter that recharges with chlorine or potassium permanganate will oxidize the iron, allowing the rust particles to bind to the specialized resin inside before being rinsed away.


Sometimes the iron content has already been exposed to sufficient air to undergo oxidation and precipitate (turn to rust) before it gets to the tap. This is common in well and surface waters. 

Water containing oxidized iron is filled with reddish rust particles visible in the water when first drawn from the tap and is commonly referred to as “red water” iron. Removal is relatively simple, requiring a high quality filtration system.


Iron bacteria are living organisms that feed on iron in the water and in wells, piping, tanks, and iron futures. The bacteria themselves are harmless, but when they break down dissolved iron in the water, the result is a brown gelatinous slime. This slime can build up in wells, causing extremely discolored water and breaking free at high flow rates. Large clumps can plug pipes, water heaters, and fixtures.

Iron bacteria must be killed in a process known as shock chlorination. High levels of chlorine are introduced into the plumbing and allowed to flow throughout the toilets, pressure tank, and water heater to kill the bacteria. Depending on the severity of the problem, chlorine must sometimes be fed continuously to prevent future growth. 

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Blue or Green Stains: Copper

Copper is seldom naturally present in a water supply, and usually results from the corrosion of copper plumbing. Signs of copper contamination in a water supply include:

  • Blue or green stains on showers, sinks, and other plumbing fixtures
  • Green soap curds
  • Unpleasant metallic or medicinal tastes
  • Corrosion on aluminum fixtures

Copper is not usually considered harmful to humans but concentrations of 1 - 5ppm result in objectionable tastes and all the other unwanted side effects listed above. Copper is toxic to aquarium fish and causes color variation in hair toners, especially blonde.

Water softeners can remove small to moderate amounts of copper, but the best way to treat a copper problem is to eliminate the corrosion problem. Make sure that dielectric unions are used for all plumbing connections between copper and galvanized pipe. Raising the pH of the water and feeding polyphosphate and/or silicate chemicals into the water help protect plumbing from the effects of corrosion.