When water vapor in the atmosphere condenses into clouds and then rains back down, it’s in a relatively pure state. This is what we call soft water. Once it hits the earth, though, it begins to flow, dissolving minerals – especially magnesium and calcium. This turns it into what we call hard water. No adverse health effects of hard water consumption have ever been found, but it can cause other problems. Let’s take a look
Problems Caused By Hard Water
1. Plumbing Problems
Alpine Cleaning and Restoration recently posted an article about a case where hard water caused bathroom flooding for a customer. How can this happen? The big problem with hard water is that it leaves deposits of magnesium and calcium. Over time, these deposits keep building up until they begin to clog your plumbing. This reduces the flow of water and can cause stress on the pipes as more pressure is required to pump it through. For more delicate parts of plumbing, such as inner parts off shower heads, the effects are felt first. As the deposits build, the more fragile parts break under the stress, causing leaks. Not only will this cause flooding, it’s also a massive increase to your water bill.
2. Ugly Stains
Hard water deposits build up on everything the water touches. You’ll see these deposits as white or yellowish scum around faucets and in sinks. It’s very ugly and it makes your bathroom and kitchen look much dirtier than it actually is. While this won’t pose any significant health risk, it definitely doesn’t look good.
3. Cleaning Becomes Harder
Cleaning becomes more of a hassle with hard water. Soap will bond to the calcium and magnesium ions, causing it to lose its ability to lather. The end result is you need to use more soap to clean it up. It will also leave streaks and spots on your glasses and silverware. Again, there’s not much adverse effects health-wise, but it certainly keeps your dishes from looking really clean.
This effect also applies to detergents used for cleaning clothes. In addition to reducing the effectiveness of the detergent, it can leave chalky or rusty looking stains on fabrics and make them feel stiff and itchy.
4. Hair and Skin Problems
Hard water will also leave these mineral deposits in your hair. This reduces the natural shine your hair should have. Even more problematically, the deposits can also block moisture from your hair shafts, drying it out. Attempting to solve this with more shampoo, or a longer rinse will most likely make the problem worse. This build up can also occur on your skin with the same results. It’s not a serious health concern, but to many it feels very uncomfortable.
How To Deal With Hard Water
Hard water deposits can most easily be cleaned with white vinegar, but it takes time. It usually takes at least an hour, but may take more depending on the level off the deposits. You can soak dishes in vinegar and then wipe them dry. To clean faucets, sinks, and other fixtures, soak a rag in vinegar and then lay it on the deposits. Let it soak for a while, then wipe it clean. For very large deposits, it may take more than one try to get rid of it.
Unfortunately, most of the build up from hard water will be in places you can’t see – the inside of your pipes. It’s much harder to clean the inside of your pipes. Some professionals will claim that they can do it with special cleaners. This is technically true, as the chemicals can dissolve the hard water deposits. The problem is that these chemicals are highly toxic and will most likely kill you if consumed, so it can’t be used to clean any pipes that pump water you may drink or come into contact with. In most cases, this is all the pipes in your house, so the EPA does not recommend doing this.
The only way to really deal with hard water build up inside your pipes is to replace them entirely.
While you can’t prevent build up inside your pipes, you can reduce the amount of build up you get by softening the water. There are many different kinds of water softeners and each work in different ways. Some work chemical processes that replace the magnesium and calcium with sodium. Sodium does not have the same adverse effects, but it does require a tank to be added to your plumbing and be routinely filled with special salts.
For people who are ordered to be on low-sodium diets, these types of softeners may – in rare occasions – cause problems. For these people, salt-free mechanical filters can be used to remove the calcium, but they don’t work well on very hard water (more than 180 mg/L).
The most effective way to soften water is reverse osmosis. Devices that use this principle filter water through a semipermeable membrane that filters out up to 98% of all water impurities. This will also filter out chemical impurities as well as softening the water, but it is considerably more expensive than other options.
Do I Need A Water Softener?
All water will have some amount of calcium and magnesium (and other minerals) in it. That’s unavoidable. Does this mean you always need a water softener? No, not always. It really depends on the level of minerals in the water. Most state agencies only recommend water softeners if the amount of minerals in the water exceeds 120 mg/L. Less than half the country gets to this level of hard water and many municipalities soften water as a part of basic treatment. In the case of lesser degrees of water hardness, it may actually be beneficial, as both calcium and magnesium are necessary minerals in the human diet.
To determine if you need water softener, there are plenty of ways to test. A basic test is to put a small amount of water and dish soap into a closed container and shake it. If you don’t see it forming a lot of suds, that indicates a problem. More precise tests can be done by asking your water provider, sending a water sample to a lab, or by using a water hardness test strip available at most hardware stores. If you send a sample to a lab, make sure it’s not one by a company that provides water softeners. Many of them will tell you that any amount of hardness is a problem, which is not true, so you can’t always trust their recommendations.
Cache Valley’s Hard Water
Here in Cache Valley, we’re in one of the places where hard water is a more common problem. Our proximity to the mountains means that our natural water flows through a lot of minerals before reaching our water treatment plants. The average hardness in the area is measured at 270-300 mg/L, which is more than double the level at which hard water becomes a problem.
If you live in Cache Valley, it may be a smart idea to invest in water softening. While there may not be any adverse health effects to hard water, too much can cause a variety of other problems you don’t want to deal with. It will extend the lifespan of your plumbing and help you avoid other problems that are a pain to deal with. There are many companies around the valley that can provide you with water softening systems, so you should have no trouble finding someone who can help. It may save you some serious hassle down the line!