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My water softener's brine tank has a brown foam on top of the water. the water itself has brown particles in it. My plumber said this is brown "iron" algae and it will not harm the system. but he also said the crud can clog the inlet filter to the water softener. Since the softener usually fails to complete a regeneration successfully, I am worried that this sludge is causing those failures.

I tried cleaning out the tank by bailing out all of the water and salt. I then scrubbed the inside of the tank before replacing salt and then added some chlorine bleach. Two weeks later the brown foam and sludge is still there.

What is this stuff and how do I get rid of it for good?

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"Iron Reducing Bacteria" create energy by oxidizing soluble iron in the water. In the process this creates insoluble iron which settles out and leaves iron staining. The bacteria themselves create biofilms or foamy messes in several areas, most notably toilet tanks and water heaters. Look in your toilet tank, if you have similar foam and iron staining you probably have iron reducing bacteria in the water.

If you do have iron reducing bacteria you have to deal with them at the source, your well. Generally this involves pouring bleach or another sanitizer down the well, pulling and circulating that through the plumbing system and then letting it stand in the pipes and well for 12-24 hours. This is not a permanent fix, but it can get you a few months respite. Any well company can assist with this process or you can find information online.

The problem is your water softener resin beads will be destroyed by this process, normally the water softener is bypassed during sanitization. You need to sanitize the plumbing system separately, and clean the water softener by hand. I recommend replacing the resin beads and sanitizing the resin tanks and brine tank at the same time.

A more expensive but permanent solution is to install water treatment systems to deal with the bacteria. Usually this involves chlorine injection, some contact time in a tank to kill the bacteria, and then running the water through a filter or reverse osmosis system to remove the dead bacteria and most of the chlorine. This is very expensive.

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The first and easiest approach is to try an iron-specific additive in the water softener - there is both "water softener salt with additive mixed in" and products meant to clean the resin of iron such as Rescare or Crystal Clean. Here is an example of the salt version.

If it works, great, if not, on to more drastic measures, typically an iron removal filter before the water softener. For low concentrations of iron, a softener can be adequate, for higher concentrations it may not.

Iron bacteria can be fiendishly hard to actually kill off, as they may be present in the groundwater that your well is drawing from, so killing them off in the well may be only a temporary solution. Fortunately they are not harmful, merely annoying.

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