How To Tell If Your Home Has Hard Water & How to Deal With It

Hard water can be bothersome. It leaves crusts on faucets, makes our dishes look like they’re never clean, and does a number on our skin and hair. So what can you do about it?

Water hardness is essentially the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in your water. The water that runs through your house and in public buildings have varying levels of hardness based on calcium carbonate concentration.

Hard water is not detrimental to your health per se, but it can cause problems for your skin, hair, clothes, plumbing, and appliances. For many homeowners, hard water is considered a big nuisance.

Before we begin, if you’re in the market for a new water softener system, we highly recommend you check out our buying guide of the top water softener systems for your home.

Learning exactly what hard water is and how it affects your life can help you determine what, if anything, needs to be done about it.

So, without further ado, let’s begin!

How Does Water Become Hard?

Water from rainfall is technically pure when it falls from the sky, however, as it flows from the surface into aquifers, it absorbs minerals, such as calcium and magnesium.

This absorption changes the water from soft to hard water and the amount of mineral content that the water contains determines the hardness level of the water.

Water hardness is commonly measured in milligrams per litre (mg/L) or grains of mineral per gallon (GPG). The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates water hardness as milligrams of calcium carbonate per litre of water and classifies hardness levels as follows:

Milligrams Per Litre
Hardness Level
0–60 mg/LSoft
61–120 mg/LModerately hard
121–180 mg/LHard
181 mg/LVery hard

Who Gets Hard Water?

If your household gets water from a well, you most likely have hard water. However, hard water is not just a rural issue.

85% of American households have hard water. The map below displays how water hardness varies across the U.S. Even if you don’t live in the “very hard” or “extremely hard” water zones, you may start to see the effects of hard water at around 7 grains of hardness.

Note: Although the World Health Organization says that there is no evidence of hard water causing adverse effects on human health, hard water can cause potential harm to your skin, hair and water-using appliances at your house. This is due to the tendency of hard water to stick to any surface it touches, be it your skin, your hair or your brand new dishwasher. Soap and detergent lather less in hard water as the mineral ions reduce the surfactant property of soap and form a layer of soap scum on the skin and scalp.

8 Signs You Have Hard Water

  1. Your Water Tastes/Smells Funny

    A strange odor or taste in your drinking water is often one of the first clues that there is hard water or some bacterial contaminant present.

    If your water has an unpleasant almost metallic like taste, that’s probably due to excessive iron in the water. If your water smells funky like rotten eggs, that could be certain bacteria reacting with magnesium to form sulphates.

  2.  Strange Stains

    Brown or reddish stains on your dishes is never a good thing. These stains usually look like rust spots due to the iron in your water from rusty pipes. Unfortunately, these stains will keep reappearing until you fix your hard water problem.

  3. You’re Regularly Cleaning Up Soap Scum

    When you have hard water, you’ll notice soap scum accumulating everywhere. That’s because soap and the minerals in hard water just don’t go well together.

    Even worse – soap scum left on shower curtains can lead to the development of a microbial biofilm that could contain disease-spreading bacteria.

    Note: You may find yourself cleaning the bathroom and kitchen more often and using more cleaning product to get the job done.

  4. Your Showers Are Not The Same                   

    As we’ve mentioned earlier, minerals in hard water react poorly with soap.

    This reaction makes it harder to get a good lather and makes it harder to wash all the soap off your body. This usually leaves a soapy residue on your skin. The deposits in hard water can also clog up your shower head too resulting in weaker water pressure.

  5. Your Pipes Keep Getting Clogged

    Hard water can cause significant plumbing issues.

    Scale deposits build up inside your pipes are like plaque inside an artery. Scale deposits constrict the flow of water, eventually leading to backups and the need to call a plumber for help.

    Note: If you have PVC or copper pipes, this probably is not an issue. It’s most-common with older, steel pipes.

  6. Your Clothes Aren’t Getting Clean

    Hard water can make doing laundry unpleasant. When detergent doesn’t get rinsed off properly, it can increase soil build up on your garments.

    Clothing that is washed in hard water often appears dingy and wears out faster. It can also make your towels feel scratchy and rough. If you do have hard water, you’ll need to invest in detergent formulated to soften the water.

    You’ll also likely have to use more laundry detergent as well as more hot water to get your clothes cleaned properly. It’s even recommended that people who are washing with hard water use 4x more detergent.

    And, just as iron stains your bathroom fixtures, it can stain your clothes. Iron content in the water could cause premature yellowing of your whites.

  7. Skin Irritations     

    The soap that gets left behind from using hard water causes the skin to get dried out and itchy. If mineral deposits are left on your body, it can suck the moisture right out of your skin. The occurrence of eczema from hard water is relatively common.

    Research states that bathing in hard water can cause eczema symptoms to worsen. Another study found that exposure to hard water could increase the risk of developing eczema in children.

  8. Your Appliances Are Wearing Out (Quickly)

    Those scale deposits wreak havoc on many appliances in your home, from the dishwasher to the water heater. Poor efficiency means bigger utility bills.

    The icemaker in your fridge can also stop working due to scale deposits. The American Water Works Association says hard water can cause a washing machine to wear out 30% faster than average.

    Tip: You can find out the hardness level of your water by contacting your municipality, or by purchasing a water hardness test kit. Most water is not pure and contains some amount of dissolved minerals and gases from the atmosphere. The ideal pH of water is 7.

Water Hardness: Temporary or Permanent?

As we know by now, hard water is water that consists of hard elements like calcium and magnesium. However, this type of water can have temporary and permanent hardness depending on the ions found in water.

If you have hard water flowing in your house, then the hardness of this water can sometimes be temporary or permanent.

If the hard water is temporary, then different methods and systems can provide an effective way to treat your hard water. Some of these methods include water softeners and boiling the water.

Do You Have Temporary or Permanent Hard Water?

If your water consists of low amounts of calcium and other elements, then the water is most likely temporary hardness. However, if it consists of those elements in a higher content, then it’s permanent hard water.

Note: Temporary water hardness is easier to remove than permanent hardness.

Temporary Hardness

Temporary hardness is when there is a presence of dissolved bicarbonate minerals in the water like calcium bicarbonate and magnesium bicarbonate. Temporary hardness can be reduced by boiling your water or by adding lime (calcium hydroxide).

Permanent Hardness

Permanent hard water cannot be treated by boiling the water. Permanent hardness should be removed by a water softener that uses ion exchange process. A water softener treats hard water by displacing calcium and magnesium ions present in the water by sodium ions.

Testing Your Water

If you want to test the hardness level of your water, there are several measuring scales to help you determine the hardness level of the water that’s flowing to your house. The temperature of the water after adding certain elements or minerals in the water will determine the hardness.

Scale buildup on plumbing fixtures is often a big indicator of hard water. If you do suspect that you have hard water, you can test for it by shaking up a little amount of dish soap and water in a closed container. If the mixture doesn’t create lots of suds, you most likely have hard water.

You can also contact your water provider to request a recent water testing report. Additionally, you can have a sample of your water tested at a local lab or have a company perform an on-site test.

There’s also the option of a water hardness test strip. These are sold at home centers and hardware stores and work by holding the test strip under running water then matching it to a color gauge.

Is Hard Water Harmful?

Yes and no.

Hard water leave behind deposits known as scale. This builds upon the exterior and interior of the plumbing. This buildup of scale can require more frequent cleaning of surfaces that come into contact with hard water. What is harmful about this is, scale buildup from hard water clogs pipes, reduces water flow and limits the lifetime of your appliances such as water heaters and coffee makers. Although it can be a great inconvenience, the scale is not harmful to health.

On the other hand, soft water can cause staining and resistance to chlorine, which is especially problematic if you have a swimming pool.

Why Hard Water Is A Problem

Hard water is problematic because it reacts oddly with cleaning products. This reaction creates soap buildup and can wear down fixtures and appliances.

It does this because when minerals in hard water react with soap, it creates soap scum restraining suds, meaning, you’ll need to use more soap with hard water.

The buildup of minerals on your dishes, your clothes, your fixtures, and even your skin and hair can take a toll over time.

Common Problems With Having Hard Water:

  • Scale buildup inside water supply pipes
  • Restriction of water flow
  • Film & scale buildup on ceramic tile and fixtures
  • Difficulty rinsing off soap and shampoo thoroughly
  • Leaves your skin and hair feeling dry/dull
  • Shorter lifespan for water heaters
  • Spots on glasses & dishes from the dishwater
  • Less efficient clothes washing
  • Increased wear on clothing during washing

Hard Water & Plumbing

Buildup on tubs, shower, sinks, and faucets are only a fraction of the problem. Over time, the minerals in hard water also start to build up inside pipes, fixtures, and appliances.

This build-up can cause all sorts of plumbing problems, such as clogs, decreased water flow, and increased pressure on pipes and fixtures.

Scale from mineral deposits can also cause appliances to wear down faster and work less efficiently. For instance, a water heater has to heat all of the mineral scale buildup inside the tank, plus the water.

Hard Water & Appliances

Over time, hard water produces white-encrusted faucets, spotted glassware, clogged shower heads and scaled bathroom tiles that are frankly annoying to deal with.

Washing clothes with hard water can cause your clothing fabric to break down more quickly. Hard water laundry syndrome is the term for hard water that runs through your household appliances.

Additionally, hard dishwasher water can leave spots on dishes, and cleaning with hard water can leave residue on your surfaces. You may also see rust or build upon your sink faucets and shower head. As for your actual water piping, hard water can cause mineral build-up in your pipes and eventually clog them.

In boilers and heaters, the calcium and magnesium in hard water form a hard, precipitated scale on the plates causing inefficiency and an increase in utility bills. Hard water can clog water pipes and can drastically reduce the flow pressure. It also causes damage and can weaken hot water-using appliances.

Adverse Effects of Hard Water on Our Body

Taking a hard water shower can cause hard water skin and hard water hair. This means that the water reduces moisture and leaves behind a film, making both your skin and hair feel less than clean to the touch.

Hard water can make your hair appear dull and filmy and the scale build up on the scalp may even cause some hair loss. Hard water may also cause dandruff and irritate skin. Hard water can also stimulate skin problems such as eczema.

Of course, things like calcium, magnesium and iron found in hard water aren’t bad for you. In fact, they’re actually beneficial nutrients. However, hard water deposits can potentially carry harmful bacteria. A 2014 study found hard water scaling is directly responsible for bacterial growth in residential drinking water.

3 Ways Hard Water Increases Your Household Expenses

It’s been estimated that hard water expenses could cost you $800 or more every year!

  1. Excessive Soap/Detergent Consumption

Traditionally, hard water is tested by using soap. If the soap foams easily then the water is considered soft. If it takes longer for the soap to lather, then the water is considered hard.

The hardness of water becomes apparent in our daily household tasks. Because hard water makes it difficult to form a lather, it lessens the cleaning effect of soaps and detergents.

The harder you water is, the more soaps and detergents are needed. Hard water also causes the loss of brightness in colored fabrics, and it can shorten the lifespan of your clothes.

  1. Low Efficiency, Short Lifespan & Increased Costs of Appliances

The dissolved minerals in hard water can solidify and form limescale. Limescale can shrink lifespans, lower efficiencies and raise the costs of heating water.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that local water quality is one of the significant factors that affect the performance and durability of water heating equipment. The report highlighted that hard water leads to the accumulation of scale, which impacts the efficiency of water heaters.

“Increasing the lifetime of water heaters can improve the cost-effectiveness and increase the amount of savings achieved by an efficient water heater investment” –  Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

  1. Hard Water Clogs Pipes

Limescale also develops on the inner walls of pipes. As water travels through the pipes, calcium ions present in hard water react with the air inside to form limescale. The limescale buildup can slowly clog water pipes, resulting in lowering of water pressure and less water movement. Limescale inside your pipes may require an expensive pipe replacement.

Hard Water vs. Soft Water

If it’s one thing we’ve learned in this article, it’s that not all tap water is created equal. To make matters more confusing, hard water isn’t better than soft and soft water isn’t always the favoured choice either. With that said, let us dive into the positives and negatives of hard and soft water.

While hard water can decrease the overall quality of your life, studies conducted regarding the health effects of hard and soft water have shown that people who drank greater amounts of soft water had higher incidences of heart disease. They also had higher blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and faster heart rates than those who drink mostly hard water.

Soft water is also corrosive to pipes, which may allow toxic substances like lead to contaminate drinking water. Sometimes hard water is preferred for drinking not just because of the minerals, but also the taste.

These findings lead us to ask why someone would want to use a water softener then?

Well, for some people, the benefits of soft water include a longer lifetime for appliances as well as the ability to use less cleaning detergents. When it comes to cleaning, soft water makes things easier. Glasses are easier to clean, shower curtains are scum-free, and clothes are more delicate.

In addition to time, soft water can also save you money, since you’ll be using less soap and detergents while cleaning. With hard water, your appliances have to work harder because of the minerals left behind, and that’s why energy bills are noticeably lower for households with water softeners.

How Can You Have The Best of Both Worlds?

This is where salt-free water softeners come in. If you’re not familiar with salt-free water softeners, this wonderful machinery reduces scale buildup while maintaining the pleasant-tasting and nutritious minerals found in hard water.

Your best choice would be A Whole House Water Filter with the addition of salt-free so that the taste of your water won’t be compromised.

How Water Conditioning Could Help

While we looked at the positives and negatives about having a water softening system, a salt-free water softener/conditioner actually keeps hardness scale from building up in pipes, water heaters, and appliances. It also extends the lifespan of your plumbing, fixtures, and appliances. 

Best part? Little to no maintenance is required.

Before you begin your search for a water softener, you must first decide if you’d prefer to use a Regular Ion Exchange Water Softener (uses salt and physically removes hardness) or a Salt-Free Water Conditioner (does not use salt and doesn’t remove hardness) which works best to keep scale from building up in pipes.

Standard water softeners use ion-exchange mechanisms to eliminate hardness. The ion-exchange resin (inside the softener) draws calcium and magnesium from the water and replaces them with sodium ions from the exchange resin.

During the process by which the softener resin is cleaned, saltwater is drawn from a brine tank into the softener to reconstruct the sodium in the resin.  This process removes calcium and magnesium, which eliminates scale thus making fixtures spot-free, clothes cleaner, and skin softer.

Saltless water conditioners do not actually physically remove water hardness, but they change the dissolved calcium carbonate into a calcite crystal that can’t attach to pipes or appliances to create hardness deposits.

Salt-free conditioners also require less maintenance than regular softeners because they don’t need to be back washed or regenerated which makes salt-free conditioners more cost friendly.  Also due to the decreased water and energy usage, salt-free conditioners eliminate the need to replace the brine solution, this further increases your savings over a standard water softener.

Tip: If you only care about protecting your appliances, plumbing, and fixtures and not so much about the sticky, dry feeling left by the precipitation of soap scum on your skin, then consider a salt free conditioner.

There are lots of other water conditioning products, such as a reverse osmosis system, which can help eliminate harmful contaminants  – will get into that more in the next part of this article.

“Conditioning of water, including central softening and stabilization, may be necessary to reduce corrosion of piping materials and scaling effects in installations. Corrosion and scaling can be associated with adverse effects on health (from leachates such as lead) and the environment (from leachates such as copper if the water is not conditioned) and reduced lifespan of the distribution network and appliances using water.”

Source

How to Soften Hard Water (Solutions)

There are many water-conditioning products for dealing with mildly hard water. However, the most complete and universal solution for treating hard water is a whole house water softener. In some cases where the water tests above 3 GPG, installing a water softener system is often the most effective and efficient solution.

Other processes include:

Ion Exchange

During this exchange, the unwanted ions are exchanged for more acceptable ions.  To do this, the hard water is moved through a resin-containing column which then binds the unwanted ions to its surface and delivers the more tolerable ions.

The hard water ions then become fixed ions because of their attachment to the resin material. These fixed ions displace the desirable counterions from the column, hence exchanging the ions in the water.

Note: The ion exchange process has a disadvantage of increasing the sodium content of drinking water. This can be hazardous to the health those with sodium-restricted diets.

Lime Softening

In this process, the slaked lime is added to the hard water. The calcium hydroxide, aka slaked lime, raises the pH of the water and causes the calcium and magnesium to precipitate. These precipitates can then be filtered out easily because of their insolubility in water. After precipitation as well as removal of the offending ions, acid is then added to bring the pH back to normal.

Chelation

Chelating agents can soften hard water too.  Polydentate ligands bind the undesirable ions in hard water, these ligands are especially helpful in binding the magnesium and calcium cations.

The chelating agent forms a very stable ring complex with the metal cations, preventing it from interacting with any other substances that may be added to the solution, such as soap.  In this way, chelators can diminish the adverse effects linked with hard water.

 Reverse Osmosis Water Softener

The reverse osmosis process uses high pressure to force the water through a semipermeable membrane. This membrane is meant to be impermeable to anything other than water and works to filter out the larger ions and molecules responsible for the hardness of the water, resulting in softened water. 

Note: Reverse Osmosis does have a disadvantage of wasting wastewater compared to other water treatment methods.

To learn more, check out our complete guide to the top reverse osmosis water filter systems.  

Summary

  • Not all tap water is created equal
  • Water hardness is the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in your water.
  • For many homeowners, hard water is considered a big nuisance.
  • Hard water is not just a rural issue.
  • 85% of American households have hard water.
  • Hard water can cause potential harm to your skin, hair and water-using appliances at your house.
  • A strange odor or taste in your drinking water is often one of the first clues that there is hard water present.
  • Soap scum left on shower curtains can lead to the development of a microbial biofilm that could contain disease-spreading bacteria.
  • Minerals in hard water react poorly with soap.
  • Hard water can cause significant plumbing issues.
  • Scale deposits build up inside your pipes are like plaque inside an artery.
  • Scale is most-common with older, steel pipes.
  • It’s even recommended that people who are washing with hard water use 4x more detergent.
  • The occurrence of eczema from hard water is common.
  • Scale deposits wreak havoc on many appliances in your home
  • Poor efficiency = bigger utility bills.
  • The hardness of this water can sometimes be temporary or permanent.
  • Temporary water hardness is easier to remove than permanent hardness.
  • Temporary hardness can be reduced by boiling your water or by adding lime.
  • Permanent hard water cannot be treated by boiling the water.
  • Traditionally, hard water is tested by using soap. If the soap foams easily then the water is considered soft. If it takes longer for the soap to lather, then the water is considered hard.
  • A water hardness test strip is an easy method to test your water.
  • The buildup of minerals on your dishes, your clothes, your fixtures, and even your skin and hair can take a toll over time.
  • Hard water deposits can potentially carry harmful bacteria.
  • It’s been estimated that hard water expenses could cost you $800 or more every year.
  • Limescale buildup can slowly clog water pipes, resulting in lowering of water pressure and less water movement.
  • Hard water isn’t better than soft and soft water isn’t always the favored choice either.
  • People who drank greater amounts of soft water had higher incidences of heart disease.
  • A salt-free water softener/conditioner requires little to no maintenance.
  • Saltless water conditioners do not actually physically remove water hardness, but they change the dissolved calcium carbonate into a calcite crystal that can’t attach to pipes or appliances to create hardness deposits.
  • Salt-free water conditioners are a great choice and sound solution to solving your water problems.
  • If your water tests above 3 GPG, installing a water softener system is often the most effective and efficient solution.

Take Away

Although hard water is not a severe problem for your health, it can have devastating effects on your plumbing, water heaters, dishwashers, washing machines, and many of your other household appliances.

 The most annoying part about hard water is that white residue it leaves on dishes, glassware, sinks, shower curtains, etc. Above all, hard water reduces the lifespan of your plumbing and contributes to problems such as rusting, reduced effectiveness of cleaning agents, and scale buildup in pipes.

Generally, a water softener will help take care of your hard water problem, but if this is not an option for you right now, there are other solutions to help deal with hard water. Some of these include using a rinsing agent or distilled vinegar in the dishwasher to remove white film and spots. You can also look for soaps and shampoos specially formulated for hard water.

You’ll also have to remove calcified buildup on pipes and appliances on a regular basis and utilize white vinegar for tiles, glass and faucets to help remove mineral deposits. Nevertheless, we think that you will find that salt-free water conditioners are a great choice and sound solution to solving your water problems.