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What Causes Brown Well Water & How to Get Rid of It

Scott Winfield
Last Updated on
by Scott Winfield

Unwanted compounds such as dirt, rust, or iron in well water can cause it to turn an unsettling shade of brown. Brown well water is not only unsightly but can also pose a health risk.

While many residential houses rely on public city water, as many as 23 million US families use private wells for their water. Private wells are not subject to the same testing and treatment procedures as city water, meaning a higher chance of contamination.

If you notice brown discoloration in your water, it may be unsafe to use. The root cause needs to be found and treated before consumption.

What Causes Brown Well Water & How To Get Rid of It

Why Is My Well Water Brown All of a Sudden?

Rusty plumbing, bacteria growth and iron ore buildup are common causes of brown well water.

1. Rusty Plumbing Can Cause Brown Well Water

Rust, or iron oxide, is a common issue in older plumbing systems, especially those with cast-iron pipes. If you notice brown water coming from only one faucet,  rusty pipes the likely culprit.

Rusty Plumbing
Rusty Plumbing

Over time, using rusty pipes, appliances, and fixtures will lead to brown water. Discoloration can also happen more quickly with heavy rainfall as the influx of water can mix with rust and wash into your well.

Brown water coming from only hot water faucet may indicate a problem with your water heater. Older heater models are prone to inner rusting, especially with poor or infrequent maintenance.

2. Iron Ore Buildup In Well Can Affect the Water

In addition to iron oxide in older pipes, iron ore can build up in your plumbing and lead to brown water. Iron ore can enter your plumbing system through surrounding streams, soil, aquifers, and more. Heavy rain can also flush environmental contaminants into your well.

Iron Ore Buildup
Iron Ore Buildup

Rust is ferric iron in its oxidized form. It tends to have a more reddish hue than ferrous iron ore, a type of dissolved iron that causes darker, murkier discoloration in water.

Unlike rust, iron ore is easy to detect in tap water, thanks to its strong taste and odor. Ferrous iron ore in water can also permanently stain clothing if used in the washer.

3. Bacterial Growth in Well Can Cause Brown Water

In some cases, you may notice a brownish-red buildup sticking to the walls of your well. While this might look like rust, it is actually a buildup of iron bacteria.

Bacterial Growth in Well

Iron bacteria deposits will be thick, slimy, and generally stick to plumbing walls. Bacterial colonies don’t cause any known diseases, but can encourage the growth of more dangerous germs. The buildup can also impact water flow in pipes.

4. Dirt and Debris In Wells Can Cause Water To Be Brown

In some cases, brown coloration might be the result of sediment buildup in your plumbing. Dirt, silt, tannins, and other types of debris can make their way into your well, especially following heavy rain.

Dirt and Debris
Dirt and Debris

Turning your water system off for longer than a few hours may also lead to debris buildup. After turning the system back on, you may notice your water turns brown for a brief period before clearing.

The best way to determine whether discoloration is due to sediment is by allowing a glass of tap water to sit undisturbed. If you have debris in your water, it should separate and settle at the bottom of the cup.

5. Brown Well Water Might Be Caused By Septic Runoff

If your house has a septic system instead of using city sewers, it may be the likely cause of brown water. A malfunctioning septic system may leak fluid into the surrounding landscape. Tanks located too close to your well run a high risk of cross-contamination.

Septic Runoff

Septic cross-contamination of drinking and bathing water is incredibly dangerous. It can foster a wide variety of viral, bacterial, and parasitic diseases, some of which can be deadly.

Contaminated water can be particularly toxic for young children, elderly adults, and immunocompromised individuals.

How To Get Rid of Brown Water in Wells

You can get rid of brown water in your well by using a water softener, installing a filtration system or replacing old, rusted pipes.

Here’s a step by step guide:

Step 1: Test Your Well Water

The best way to determine why your well water is brown is through chemical analysis. Testing kits can identify which contaminants are present in your well water.

You can find DIY water testing kits online or at your local home supply store. Some kits test for specific contaminants such as iron, while others offer a broader range of targets such as dissolved chemicals, bacteria, and pH levels.

For more accurate results, you may want to send your well water to an independent lab for analysis.

A certified laboratory can test for even uncommon or trace contaminants. Most testing sites will also tell you the concentration of different impurities so you can come up with a more effective treatment solution.

Step 2: Choose a Treatment Solution Based on Your Test

Once you know the cause of your brown well water, you can work on treating it. There are a wide variety of solutions you can try depending on the test results:

1. Remove Brown Well Water by Using a Water Softener System

Water with high levels of dissolved minerals such as calcium and magnesium is known as hard water. Hard water is also subject to contamination by compounds such as rust, which give water a brown coloration.

Water Softeners use ion exchange to remove mineral buildup in water. Not only does this leave water tasting better, but it can also clear up discoloration.

A water softener will also prevent stains and limescale buildup on clothing, appliances, and more.

If tests show that your brown well water is due to impurities such as rust or iron, installing a water softener for your plumbing system may help.

2. Install a Filtration System For Your Well

A water softener will remove mineral impurities, but it may not tackle issues such as silt and soil or bacterial growth.

You can remove large sediment from your water by using a particulate filter. If your brown water comes from surrounding dirt and debris, a particulate filter should help to restore water purity.

Air injection filtration systems rely on oxidation to remove minerals such as iron and manganese from water. However, they don’t remove organic or sedimentary impurities.

Perhaps the most comprehensive purification system is the reverse osmosis filter. A semipermeable membrane allows water to pass through while blocking even microscopic impurities.

Whether your water tests positive for rust, minerals, bacteria, or sediment, an RO filter should be able to filter out contamination.

3. Chlorinate Your Well To Remove Brown Water

If your well is brown due to bacterial growth, chlorinating the water can help to kill unwanted bacteria colonies in your well. It may be a good idea to preemptively chlorinate your water after heavy rains, as they can wash soil microbes into your well.

Shock chlorination is one of the best ways to deal with advanced bacterial growth in your well. It’s best to use chlorine bleach containing 5% or more sodium hypochlorite.

Step 3: Retest Your Well Water After Treatment

Once your water is clean and clear again, it is time to retest for hidden contaminants. Even water that looks pure to the naked eye can contain dangerous impurities, toxins, and diseases.

You should test your water using a DIY kit or by sending it out to a water testing lab to check for contamination. If your well water tastes clean, it should be safe to start using it again.

You may also want to perform a quick taste test after treating your water. It shouldn’t have any strange smells or bitter flavors.

If you’re not happy with the taste of your water, you may want to consider treating it a second time to ensure you remove all unwanted impurities.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is my well water brown after it rains?

Heavy rain can flush dirt & contaminants into your plumbing system and lead to brown discoloration.

Rust and iron ore from pipes, appliances, and fixtures can give water a reddish brown color. Rain can also wash dirt, sediment, and even septic runoff into pipes to cause discoloration.

Why is my well water brown after heavy use?

Rust and mineral buildup are very likely to occur in older pipes.

How much does it cost to get rid of brown water in a well?

It can cost anywhere from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars to fix your well and get rid of brown water. In some cases, you may only have to replace the pump or install a filter.

However, for older or poorly maintained wells, you may have to replace the entire system.

How long does it take for brown water to go away?

Adding a filter to your plumbing setup can clear brown water in a matter of hours. For larger systems, it could take a few days to clear out impurities.

Is brown well water safe to drink?

It’s never a good idea to risk drinking brown water. At best, water containing contaminants such as iron ore is likely to taste foul and may leave stains.

At worst, water can harbor dangerous diseases from septic runoff.  Always err on the side of caution and avoid drinking discolored water.

Is it okay to bathe in brown water from a well?

While you shouldn’t drink brown water, bathing or showering is most likely safe. Contaminants such as rust may look unsightly, but they are unlikely to cause any damage.

However, you should still avoid getting water in your eyes or mouth to be safe.

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Scott Winfield
Scott Winfield
My name is Scott Winfield and researching and writing about water filters and other strategies to purify water has become my full time passion in recent years. I'm glad that you found our site and you can look forward to authoritative and well researched content here to help you get the best in water.
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