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Rural Living- Iron bacteria

by Carol Dunn
HUERFANO- If you have a well for your domestic water use, you may eventually develop iron bacteria in your well. There are several kinds of bacteria which live naturally in the soil and will oxidize the iron dissolved in water in order to live and grow. As the bacteria colony grows, it develops a brown, gel-like slime. This slime can build up on pipes, well screens, aquifer pore spaces, pump intakes, and plumbing fixtures. The slime mass is sticky, so sediments from the aquifer will adhere to it, exacerbating the effects of the slime. According to one area well driller, if left untreated, the slime can eventually clog up a well and render it useless.
There are some subtle clues that a well has iron bacteria. The odor of the water coming out of the tap may smell swampy, musty or like rotten vegetation or rotten eggs. The odor increases over time. Iron bacteria in your well water will cause brownish, orange or reddish stains on laundry and on sinks and toilet bowls. You may also notice that the capacity of your well has decreased, ie. you run out of water under normal use conditions. If you want to be sure, but you don’t have noticeable indications, you can have your water tested to diagnose iron bacteria.
If you suspect you have iron bacteria in your well, the best course of action is to have a well professional treat it. There are several treatment methods, and they vary depending on how serious your problem is. There are acid and salt solutions and also a method of “steam cleaning.”
The most common and easiest treatment is shock chlorination. This involves drawing down the well, pouring unscented 5.25% chlorine bleach into it; agitating the water in the well by recirculating it through a hose and back into the well; allowing the chlorinated well to stand for 24 hours; then emptying the well completely. As it is emptied from the treated well, the water will look muddy or rust-colored. If the iron bacteria infestation is severe, the well may need to be treated more than once.
If you choose to try to treat your well yourself, you can find step by step instructions on the web site of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: .
It’s best to not let iron bacteria go untreated. Once an iron bacteria colony is established, it grows rather quickly. Treatment is much simpler and less expensive than having to drill a new well.