Ever wondered about what people are talking about when they comment about hard or soft water? Read this and you’ll be ready to jump right into the next similar discussion you encounter. Here’s how water becomes hard or soft, and what drawbacks and benefits your local water type involves. We’ll throw in some cleaning tips and best maintenance practices too.

First, why does this matter?

Our water affects our health and hygiene, and it’s behind the scenes of just about everything we do day to day. It impacts everything that works in our homes with water, and some of these impacts can cost money tomorrow if neglected today.

So it’s important to understand the effects of our type of water over time.

How Hard Water Becomes What It Is

Most — around 85% — of the water available from taps around the United States is hard water. Its origin? Rain.

As rainwater soaks into the earth and makes its way into wells, its movement naturally cleanses and purifies it. On its way, it collects minerals from the earth and rocks through which it passes — minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and lime.

These minerals bind with the soaps we use, and help dissolve them. Also, most people prefer the taste of hard water. Yet while hard water has its good points, it also leaves us its hallmark residue: think lime scale in a tea kettle.

Common Hard Water Complaints…

Years of washing with hard water can bring accumulations of lime scale. Additionally, clogs in the basin, tub, and shower drains may happen more often than they would in an area with soft water.

With hard water, your dehumidifier, water heater, and faucets all may be subject to a lot of sediment buildup. Very hard water can leave deposits that gradually corrode pipes. If untreated, hard water ultimately causes major home appliances to become less efficient, guzzle more energy, and even leak.

A water heater can be especially vulnerable to long-term damage caused by water with a heavy mineral content.

…And Solutions

Most people looking to address hard water issues have a water softener installed at the point of entry to their homes. A water softener filters your home’s water through resin that takes out the hard ions. Some models are self-cleaning. Others require a cleaning to address the buildup of minerals accumulating over time.

Homeowners with hard water take a variety of other measures, such as using a mix of white distilled vinegar and baking soda in drains, followed by a pot of boiling water, to wash out clogs in the making. Or they might buy detergents made especially for use in areas that have hard water. To prevent the buildup of scale on your appliances, add vinegar into your dishwashing cycle and your clothes washing machines. Vinegar is great for washing coffee makers and anything that runs on hard water.

Calcium and magnesium ions in the hard water mean soap is quickly dissolved and you might get more of a soap scum than good, sudsy lather. As sodium counteracts the mineral in hard water, it’s possible to adjust your bathwater to your liking by adding bath salts. You might find the adjustment enables you to get a fine bubble bath.

What Makes Soft Water Different

Now, soft water. Soft water never took that rocky path. It was, instead, taken straight from rainwater collection basins or from lakes and rivers.

Soft water tends to be a great at washing and rinsing dishes and clothes, and it leaves your skin silky after bathing. It won’t leave deposits in appliances and pipes. Everything in a home that’s associated with water — kitchen and AC appliances, fridges, washing machines, and pipes — are easier to maintain and will function more efficiently throughout their useful lives.

On the other side of the coin, soft water will lack that desirable, refreshing mineral water taste that hard water offers.

And without the calcium and magnesium, soft water really does have a “soft” or less abrasive quality. If you’re not used to it, it can feel filmy (people who like it call it “silky”). So, for example, if you typically bathe with hard water, and you visit a place with the soft water, it might seem your hair isn’t as clean after shampooing.

Common Soft Water Complaints and Solutions

Soft water tends to be high in sodium, and obviously that’s less desirable for people who need to restrict their sodium intake. Additionally, the plants won’t care for it much. For outdoor water, hard is better. Most irrigation water bypasses water softeners for just that reason.

If your concern is sodium intake, you can shop for a reverse osmosis water purification system for your household drinking water. These devices are designed to remove not only the sodium but also several other problematic chemicals from your tap water. Reverse osmosis devices can even be used with your ice maker. And some people consider them a great benefit when used with a humidifier to take the dryness out of household heating in the winter. These devices do not replace water softeners; the two can work together.

Methods for Testing Your Water at Home

The bottle test is a great activity to do at home with the kids. Get an empty, capped plastic bottle. Take off the cap. Run water into the bottle until it’s half full. Now put a few drops of dishwashing liquid into the water. Shake it up and you’ll see a bubbly foam. If the sudsy foam lasts, you have soft water. If it disappears, you have hard water. Here’s a brief video to watch with your kids, to really get into the chemistry!

There are also water testing kits on the market. The kits contain a bottle and solution that you add with water and shake according to the instructions on the label. Drop by drop, you add the solution into the water, shaking as you go, until you get a certain level of sudsy foam. The test lets you know whether your water is soft, slightly hard, or hard enough to warrant a water softener.

Help for Your Pipes

Getting ahead of problems by testing your water and addressing troublesome effects makes good sense. The rewards? Gentler electricity use, more efficient appliances, maintenance-free winter heat, and certainly fewer pipe problems. Homes that have relied for years on hard water may need the pipes professionally cleaned and the scale buildup removed.

Unsure about your water quality? Concerned about preventing or addressing water-related issues? Give us a call today. We’re here to help. Contact our knowledgable team today online or call 707-263-1629.


Image: U.S. Geological Survey (U.S. government image, identified as public domain here).

Show Technology Productions

Popular Mechanics