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How to Test For Iron Bacteria In Well Water?

how to test for iron bacteria in well water


Although iron bacteria in your well water are not associated with harmful health effects, their leftover marks turn your area rusty and dirty where they are exposed. Isn’t it true? As simple as it looks, testing and treating it is difficult but not impossible.

Generally, High iron concentrations cause the dissolved iron to oxidize and degrade when bacteria are present, generating a slimy, reddish-brown substance. It can be tested by its slimy deposits, odor, and taste or by using a BART device at home. However, for more accuracy, it is suggested to test by certified labs.

In this article, we will be guiding the possible ways to test iron bacteria in well water and sharing some of the best ideas to remove it.

How to Test Iron Bacteria in Water at Home?

You can detect iron bacteria in well water by visual analysis, odor, or tasting. Here is how you can do it.

1. Visual Inspection

Iron bacteria in drinking water can be detected easily by a visual analysis. For this test, you need to check if it has turned the water yellow,  brown, red, or orange.

If iron bacteria are present in your drinking water, they form sticky, rusty, yellow, brown, or grey slime, especially in standing water such as toilet tanks, faucets, pipes, or pumps. 

Their development in toilet tanks is one of the main indicators that can be seen on the top of the toilet water tank.

 If it is yes, you can also read our article on how to remove iron bacteria from the toilet tank.

2. Tastes and Odors Test 

If you’re doubtful about your well water, you can taste and smell the water. Follow the given steps to detect:

  1. Pour some water into a container and leave it for a while.
  2. It will leave a swampy, oily, or petroleum, sewage, rotten vegetation, or musty smell.
  3. Lastly, you can also taste the water and check if it has a metallic or unpleasant taste. 

3. Test by Using BART Device

It is a commonly used method for detecting the presence of iron bacteria, sulfur bacteria, and other common in well water. Its kit contains specialized culture media that encourage the growth of iron bacteria if they are present in the water sample. The kit also includes vials or tubes with indicators to monitor the growth and metabolic activity of these bacteria.

Consider this device or a kit if you’re looking for the cheapest yet best way to detect iron bacteria.

Testing by Using BART Device
Test by Using BART Device

Follow the given steps to learn how the BART test works for detecting iron bacteria:

  1. Collect a well-water sample in a sterile container.
  2. Add some of the water samples into the vials or tubes to create an oxygen-free environment for the growth of iron bacteria.
  3. Place the tube or vial at room temperature for several days.

Note the observation if iron bacteria metabolize iron compounds, they produce characteristic byproducts such as a slimy or gelatinous substance and often a rusty, reddish-brown color. 

The BART’s vial or tube has a small ball and bottom, which is made with crystallized media that are designed to test for each type of bacteria. When you add a water sample to the tube, the crystalized media will dissolve, sending the ball up to float on top of the water. The ball will provide an oxygen-favorable environment to grow the aerobic bacteria, and the bottom will provide a favorable condition for anaerobic bacteria. 

The Bart is very beneficial for various reasons, as it will cost you around $40-$50, which is much less than the laboratory method. At the same time, the test is qualitative, meaning it provides a yes-or-no answer regarding the presence of iron bacteria based on observable reactions. 

Laboratory Methods to Test Iron Bacteria

There are several laboratory techniques and methods used to detect iron bacteria in water. For this purpose, you need to collect the sample and send it to the laboratory, where the technicians will analyze the sample by using various methods, such as I mentioned below.

You can go for a microscopic examination, which allows for the direct observation of microorganisms, including iron bacteria, their types, and concentrations in the sample. It can cost you around a few hundred dollars. 

Cultural Methods provide effective quantitative data on the concentration of iron bacteria. A lab provides its results in 4-10 days, usually costing moderate to high in range.

Molecular Techniques such as PCR and DNA Sequencing are extremely sensitive and specific for detecting the genetic material of iron bacteria. These methods can identify and differentiate various species of iron bacteria. The lab will take 72 hours to produce results while costing you $100 to $500 per sample.

The laboratory also uses other methods, such as Chemical Tests for Metabolites, Electron Microscopy, and Flow Cytometry methods; however, the most widely used methods are mentioned above and are enough to generate accurate results.

You can choose according to your budget and convenience, whatever is suitable for you. 

How to Treat Iron Bacteria in Well Water?

Treating iron bacteria in well water can be accomplished through various methods. Still, we have suggested top solutions to make the water safe for drinking

1. Physical Removal of Iron Bacteria

Physical removal is usually the first step in every infected well. You will need to remove and clean the pumping equipment. Then, scrub the well casing with brushes and treat it with a chemical such as disinfectants such as chlorine and surfactants such as phosphates and acids which can dissolve iron deposits, destroy bacteria, and loosen bacterial slime.

Shock chlorination is the most efficient and reliable method that is mentioned below. 

2. Chlorinating the Well 

It involves the addition of chlorine (typically in the form of sodium hypochlorite or calcium hypochlorite) to the well water to disinfect it and control the growth of iron bacteria. 

It works by adding a concentrated amount of chlorine to the well water by using a chemical feed pump or by manually pouring the chlorine solution directly into the well. It is important to allow the chlorinated water to mix thoroughly and sit for 12 to 24 hours to ensure that the chlorine effectively disinfects the well and kills iron bacteria. After the contact time, you can flush the well and distribution system to remove excess chlorine.

Chlorination can effectively kill iron bacteria and disinfect the well water. Its readily availability and relatively inexpensive ability made it an ideal choice for most of the well users. However, if you don’t repeat it regularly, the iron bacteria can grow again and contaminate the well.

3. Using a Water Distillers

Distiller is a water treatment system that involves heating the well water to create steam, which is then condensed back into pure liquid water. Iron bacteria and other contaminants are left behind during the distillation process.

As the steam cools and condenses, it turns back into liquid water. This condensed water is collected and stored as purified water.

Water distillation units can be installed as a whole house, on the countertop, or under the sink in your kitchen. Our best pick includes Mophorn Distiller and CO-Z, which are affordable and ideal for purification and disinfection. 

Although water distiller gives 100%, it is energy-intensive, may result in higher utility costs, and may be a slow process, making it less practical for large volumes of water.

4. Aeration + Filtration 

Aeration followed by filtration is a water treatment method commonly used to remove iron bacteria and iron from well water. This process is effective because it exploits the natural oxidation properties of iron and iron bacteria, making them easier to filter out. 

Aeration involves introducing air into the well water by oxidation of ferrous Iron by exposing the water to oxygen from the air and changing it into ferric iron or solid particles. 

After aeration, the water containing oxidized iron and iron bacteria is directed through a filtration system. Filtration media, such as sand, manganese greensand, or other specialized filter media, trap the solid particles of oxidized iron and iron bacteria and remove them from the well water. 

Aeration and filtration are generally chemical-free methods, making them environmentally friendly and avoiding the introduction of potentially harmful chemicals into your water supply. However, you need to maintain the filtration systems require regular maintenance to ensure they continue to function effectively. 

If your water contains all types of iron, then you must read the guide on the cheapest ways to remove iron from well water


Remember that dealing with iron bacteria in well water can be a complex issue, and DIY solutions may be helpful but not 100% accurate. The choice of method to test iron bacteria usually depends on the specific needs, the budget, and the desired level of accuracy.

BART is an affordable and simple initial screening tool that you can use at home, too. However, More advanced techniques like molecular methods and cultural methods provide detailed information but are expensive and require specialized expertise and equipment. 

Lastly, we should be thankful for the systems they have developed, such as media to remove them efficiently from the well water. You can choose which is more suitable for you to ensure and maintain the water quality and safety standards. 

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