Iron in the water supply is a common problem and a very real nuisance in doing the home laundry. Iron can get into water in two main ways: 1) iron may be dissolved and picked up by groundwater used for the home water supply as it seeps naturally through soil and rock. If groundwater for use in homes has much dissolved iron in it and is used without treatment to remove the iron, it causes ugly discoloration and stains on kitchen, bathroom and laundry fixtures and equipment, as well as on dishes and laundered items. 2) Iron deposits can build up inside pressure tanks, water heaters and water pipes. It occasionally breaks loose, causing rusty water to flow when faucets are first opened. This happens especially when city or household water lines are disturbed (e.g., moved, replaced, back flushed, or repaired) and rust breaks loose from old pipes. Low water reserves and accumulated sediment in the lines may also cause rust. Such incidents are short term and temporary and generally cause more trouble in the laundry-yellow, orange or brown stains deposited on clothes-than elsewhere in the home.
Whether iron in the water occurs naturally or as a result of iron build-up in the pipes, prevention of problems caused by the presence of the iron is generally easier and more successful than attempts to cope with problems it causes after they happen.
If the level of iron in the colorless, soluble form is small (less than 3 milligrams per liter or 3 parts per million), a mechanical water softener can generally remove the iron along with other hardness minerals. Another alternative is to hold the iron in suspension by use of a phosphate feeder system.
For moderate iron levels (3-10 parts per million), a green sand filter or oxidizing filter may be adequate, but should be carefully sized to meet household water needs to avoid maintenance problems. For example, a temporary breakthrough of red, untreated water may occur if the system is expected to treat large quantities of water.
For very large amounts or high concentrations of iron (more than 10 milligrams per liter) a chlorination/filtration system treats water before it enters the lines. The chlorination/filtration system has two main parts-a chlorinator and a filter. An automatic chlorinator, generally using household chlorine laundry bleach, releases chlorine into the water system. The chlorine does two important things: It kills iron and disease-causing bacteria and it changes (oxidizes) colorless, soluble iron to insoluble, red iron particles that can be removed from the water by a filter in the system. Such an iron treatment system should be installed on the main water lines in the house before the water passes through the water softener and the water heater.
Laboratory tests are recommended in all cases to determine iron and other mineral concentrations and water quality concerns. Have your water tested by an independent laboratory to determine what level of iron and form occurs in your water supply. The method of iron control is influenced by the amount of iron present, what form it is in, and other water treatment needs. Take your water analysis report and consult with a reliable dealer to provide proper equipment, installation, and service. Check with the Ohio State University Extension office in your county for publications on water testing and treatment information.
If it is not possible to pass the water through a water softener, a phosphate feeder, or a chlorinating filter, reasonably acceptable laundering results may be possible by:
Iron stains that occur on clothes during laundering in rusty water can be easily prevented. Simply check the water for discoloration before doing the laundry. Run water from faucets near the washer, or start filling the washer with water before putting in the clothes to be washed. If the water is discolored, don't put clothes into the washer. Instead, without a load of clothes, let the washer fill and run through the wash and rinse cycles to clear the water lines. Also, it may be necessary to flush toilets and open other faucets in the house to clear all the discolored water from the water pipes.
Note: In some situations, community flushing of hydrants or work on water lines may cause water quality problems for an extended period of days. In this case, it is advisable to delay laundering in the home until flushing to clear lines can be completed.
If you notice rust or iron stains on clothes when taking them from the washer, don't dry them in the dryer before treating the stains. Heat sets the stains and makes them difficult or impossible to remove. Here are some things to try: 1) rewash the clothes immediately in clear water with a heavy duty detergent. If the water in your water system is still discolored, do re-laundering at a coin-operated laundry or at another residence where the water is clear.
Caution: Do not dry stained items in a dryer, do not iron them before treating the stains, and do not use chlorine bleach. Heat and chlorine bleach make the problem worse.
If the stain is not removed by the first method, try a more drastic treatment.
2) Launder with a commercial rust remover (such as RoVer®, Rit Rust Remover®, Iron-Out®, Miracle-Rid-Iron®, or Whink®). The important ingredient in these compounds is an acid-usually oxalic or hydrofluoric acid. The remover ingredients combine with the iron and loosen it from the fabric, then hold it in suspension in the wash water. The compounds are poisonous if ingested. Use them carefully according to the manufacturers' directions, and rinse the clothes thoroughly. Acid remaining deteriorates fabrics.
Commercial rust removers are intended for use only on white or colorfast fabrics. Test colored clothes for colorfastness before attempting to remove rust stains with commercial removers. Caution/Danger: Commercial Rust Remover Products contain oxalic or hydrofluoric acids or other chemicals which can cause skin or eye irritation, burns, or poisoning. Use with care and according to the product package.
Follow any instructions for colorfastness testing provided on rust remover product package. If no instructions are given, follow the procedure outlined here.
To determine the effect of an iron stain remover on the dye in a fabric, test the fabric with the remover in the concentration recommended for iron stain removal. If you can control the spread of the solution, put a drop of the solution on the edge of a seam allowance or the edge of a hem (let out a short length of the hem) which would be hidden inside the item. Let stand for one or two minutes, then blot dry. If no color change occurs, the dye is probably colorfast to the iron stain removal compound and it should be safe to use on that fabric. (You may prefer to be safe and just snip off a small piece of the fabric from the inside seam or hem allowance of a stained item for testing fastness of the dye.)
Rinse clothes well after treatment with iron stain removers!
Note: Another iron stain situation unrelated to water quality occurs due to deterioration of the washer inner basket. Small areas near basket holes may show chipping of enamel, allowing the basket to rust. During the spin cycle, clothing comes in direct contact with this surface, and rust is deposited or transferred onto clothes. Stains may not be noticeable until dried, or may even "mysteriously" appear later in storage due to oxidation of the iron (rust). Stains may appear as small pin-points scattered over a portion of the garment, or as larger, stained areas about the size of a dime. In this case, the source of the rust must be corrected through repair or replacement of the washer basket. Stain removal procedures for stained clothing are similar to those suggested for other iron stains.
Special thanks to Karen Mancl, Extension Specialist, Agricultural Engineering, for review and input to this fact sheet.
Reference to commercial products is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended or endorsement implied.
All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extension are available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without regard to race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.
Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and Director, OSU Extension.
TDD No. 800-589-8292 (Ohio only) or 614-292-1868