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Why Is My Well Water Brown? Answers and Solutions


Is there brown water in your cup? Your well could be to blame. Here are just a few potential causes for this water quality issue:

  • Iron
  • Iron bacteria
  • Rust
  • Sediment
  • Rainwater runoff
  • Well construction problems

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to fix brown water — as long as you know the root cause of this discoloration. Here’s what to know, what to do and where to begin.

9 Causes of Brown Well Water

Dirty water can be an unpleasant sight, especially when you’re using it to wash your hands, cook food or make your favorite beverage. Fortunately, if you know how well water works, you also know that problems like these don’t have to be the end of the world. All you need to do is track the problem to its source.

Possible causes may include:

#1: Rainwater or Snowmelt

Rainwater and snowmelt can carry contaminants and microorganisms that may leave your drinking water looking dirty.* This water can mix with your well’s source, such as an underground aquifer, or it may wash directly into your well system. Either way, the result can be unpleasant — and a little alarming.

The main issue with rainwater and snowmelt runoff is that, even if you know where this water is coming from, you can’t be sure where it’s been or what it’s carrying. As liquid moves through the environment, it picks up all kinds of material — which means that you may have issues beyond just discolored water. Unfortunately, how serious these issues are is a bit more difficult to identify on sight.

#2 Septic Cross-Contamination

Many people who rely on private wells also have septic systems. While these underground tanks are built to prevent leaks, they can sometimes fail or be constructed too close to a drinking water well — and the result is cross-contamination. In this case, the discoloration is from septic water, which you definitely don’t want coming out of your home faucets. It’s not just unpleasant or unsettling; this water can also contain microorganisms and other contaminants that may impact your health.

#3: Iron

If you think you have a rusted pipe somewhere, look again — what seems like rust particles may actually be the result of iron contamination in your well water.

Iron is a chemical element naturally found in the environment and your body. Fortunately, dissolved iron doesn’t generally pose a health risk when it’s in your drinking glass; instead, it causes red or brown stains on pipes, sinks, tubs, laundry and dishes or even discoloration in your water itself. In some cases, it can also build up in your plumbing and impact water pressure. However, iron could also create a favorable environment for other contaminants that may have more serious side effects.

#4: Iron Bacteria

Iron bacteria are living organisms that combine oxygen and iron to form a sticky, slimy substance and rust-like conditions. In fact, you might think you have “rusty water” coming from your pipes because of the orange, red and brown coloration. You may also notice stains on your faucets and fixtures.

While the bacteria themselves aren’t generally a health issue, they make it easier for other, potentially harmful organisms to take hold. That means discolored water may not be your only concern.

#5: Plumbing Corrosion

Plenty of issues can cause your cast iron or lead pipes to erode, from rust buildup to water with a low pH. When this happens, the pipe material itself may become a contaminant. Effects can range from brown tap water to potential health impacts, and it all depends on your plumbing system.

#6: Tannins

Tannins are “phenolic compounds” found in many plant species. When trees, flowers and other organisms leach tannins into surrounding soil and water, these chemical substances can make their way right into your well water supply. The result is tea-colored water and, sometimes, an astringent or dry taste. Although they may not look appetizing, tannins are already present in some of your favorite beverages — including coffee and red wine — and may actually benefit your health in small amounts.

However, it’s important to remember that tannins could be a warning of other potential water quality issues. After all, the tannins had to get into your well somehow — and this same source or issue could allow other contaminants into your water supply simultaneously.

#7: Silt/Sediment

Erosion is a natural part of the ecosystem, and it creates a certain amount of sediment that can be comfortably absorbed and managed by the environment. When the rate of erosion increases — often due to human activity — sediment can sometimes get out of hand.

That’s just one way for these tiny particles of rocks, minerals, plants and other materials to end up in your well. You may notice discoloration when you turn on the tap; you may even see these little particles floating in your glass or settling at the bottom.

Unfortunately, the effects may not be purely aesthetic. Silt and sediment can also carry nutrients, pesticides and other contaminants that may cause more significant issues to your plumbing and overall health.

#8: Water Softener Maintenance

Water softeners typically use resin beads to attract hard water minerals and flush them out. These systems require little maintenance on your part — but without proper care, they can have issues that leave you with water discoloration.

For example, the resin beads may wear out over many years and could eventually impact the color of your tap water. You might also have an iron or manganese buildup in your mineral tank, pipe corrosion or sediment somewhere in your softener system.

#9: Aging Well Structure

As wells age, their performance can begin to show signs of wear. You may notice decreased water pressure and less water flow, increased sand and sediment, corrosion and other issues — all of which could impact your water’s color and overall quality. Effects vary and may be either aesthetic or health-related; sometimes, they can even be both.

Well Water Filter Solutions

The good news is that most well water problems — including discoloration — can be solved with comprehensive filtration. While some issues, such as corroded pipes, may need to be addressed by a plumber and others (like septic cross-contamination) might require support from a water authority, water filter solutions are usually a solid bet.

To find out which filtration system is right for your well, you should start with a professional well water test. Your local water expert will find out where your problems are coming from and what your next steps should be. They can even recommend the right kind of filter:

  • Reverse osmosis filtration: Also called drinking water filters, these systems force water through a semipermeable membrane to reduce a broad range of potential contaminants.
  • Whole home filtration: These filtration solutions, designed for specific water issues, can address everything from silt and sediment to tastes, odors and more serious issues.

If your water test identifies high hardness levels, your local expert might also recommend a water softener. Keep in mind that water softeners and filtration systems are two separate solutions, but they often work together.

What About Other Well Water Problems?

Although water discoloration on its own may not be a health concern, it’s often a sign that other contaminants or issues could impact your water supply. Here are a few other well issues to look out for:

  • Hard water: Hard water, which is caused by a buildup of certain minerals, is common in well systems. It can lead to spotty dishes, soap scum, dry skin, brittle hair and more.
  • Turbidity: Turbidity describes water’s cloudiness. Sediment, dissolved compounds and even organic organisms can cause high turbidity.
  • Copper: If there’s copper in your well water, you may notice metallic tastes and blue-green stains.
  • Nitrate: More common in areas with a lot of agricultural activity, these can be a health issue at higher levels.
  • Arsenic: As a naturally occurring element, arsenic can make its way into some wells. It’s invisible to the senses and can cause certain health impacts, even at low levels.
  • Low pH: pH measures the “balance” of your water. Low pH is acidic and can cause all kinds of problems, including plumbing corrosion.


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FAQs About Well Water Quality

There’s a lot to know about well water. Check out these frequently asked questions:

Is Well Water Safe To Drink?

In general, tap water in North America is safe to drink. However, when it comes to wells, you should be sure to have professional water tests performed at least once a year just to be safe. You should also have these tests whenever significant events occur, including natural disasters, well work and any changes in water taste or appearance.

Why Is Well Water Different?

When it comes to well water vs. city water, the main difference is responsibility. If you get water from a well, the city isn’t in charge of monitoring, maintaining or even testing the water or system — which means those jobs likely fall to you. On the other hand, city water may have issues that aren’t as common in wells, such as strong chlorine tastes or odors.

No matter where your water comes from, though, water testing is generally a good choice. That’s because even treated city water can come into contact with different contaminants and minerals on its way to your house and through your pipes. There also may be water issues not yet included in federal regulations.

Where Does Well Water Come From?

There are lots of ways to think about where well water comes from. You could say that it begins its life as precipitation, which sinks through layers of earth and rock to become groundwater. This water is stored in underground aquifers that need to be “recharged” through more precipitation. However, aquifers aren’t always fed by a single source; water from snowmelt and lakes or streams can end up there, too — as can less pleasant sources such as agricultural runoff or septic tank contamination.

Are There Different Kinds of Wells?

The type of well you have depends on a few factors. For example, a well may be defined by how it was constructed — dug/bored, driven or drilled. You might also hear people talk about private vs. shared wells, which are often structurally similar but serve one household or several, depending on their size and location. Finally, wells are sometimes described based on how deep they are — that is, how deep underground their water source is located.

Say Goodbye To Brown Well Water

If you’ve noticed brown water from your well, it’s time to find the cause — and, more importantly, the solution. Whether iron, tannins, corrosion or even plumbing problems are to blame, it’s important to take the right steps toward better water quality.

That all begins with a professional water test. In about 30 minutes, your local water expert can identify the cause of your well water’s discoloration and recommend next steps based on your needs.

Get started today. Schedule your free, in-home water test and consultation.

*Contaminants may not be present in your water.

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