What is Hard Water?

What is largely understood as hard water is basically water with high levels of minerals which are largely made up of calcium carbonates and magnesium ions. Hard water forms when rainwater, which is naturally soft, seeps into the ground. As the ground contains minerals such as limestone and chalk, the water changes from soft water to hard water before it reaches our waterways.

Hard water may provide health benefits to those who drink it because of its reasonable concentration of calcium and magnesium. Generally, it has been shown that drinking hard water and beverages made with hard water can contribute to a person’s daily mineral requirements – courtesy of the calcium and magnesium it contains. It can be somewhat easy to identify whether or not the water is hard. If you notice that it is harder to rinse soap or that there is soap scum, rather than lather, when using soap, then you are using hard water. Also, the presence of limescale in kettles and water heaters after continuous use indicates hard water.

Although hard water may not be terribly troublesome in the home, it can cause problems in an industrial setting where it is used with machines such as boilers, hot-water pipes, and other machines that handle water. When hard water is boiled or heated in these machines, it leaves deposits of magnesium salts and calcium which can cause blockages in the boilers and even cause them to burst. These deposits also reduce the heating efficiency of the equipment as they reduce the flow of heat into water. It also happens that the accumulation of deposits in boilers, water heaters, and other water heating appliances causes a need to regularly descale the inside of the appliance. As a result of these adverse effects, water softening is often used to produce soft water.

What is Soft Water?

Soft water is water that contains low levels of dissolved salts of metals such as magnesium and calcium. You already know that rainwater is soft water. Another example of natural soft water is water from rivers with low-in-calcium, impermeable rocks as river basins. Snowdonia in Wales is one of such places with low levels of calcium in the basins and sea beds. Softened water is often used interchangeably with soft water, that is, when people say soft water, they oftentimes mean softened water.

Softened water is hard water that has been stripped of most of its mineral properties through a process called water softening. Softened water can be harmful if it is drunk regularly. This is because softened water contains high levels of sodium and bicarbonate. Admittedly, sodium is an essential part of a balanced diet, but taking it in excess will increase the concentration of salt in the body, and this can cause cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure. Naturally, the body’s reaction to high levels of sodium is to retain water. If a person’s body retains a constant amount of water, the heart will be forced to work harder to supply blood to the body; thus increasing blood pressure.

However, this does not mean that soft water is without its benefits. There is no problem with soap scum or lack of formation of lather when using soap. This is because of the low concentration of calcium ions and magnesium in it. The chemicals in the soap react properly in the near-absence of calcium. The major reason water softeners are used is because softened water prevents scaling on taps, pipes and kitchen appliances.

In the USA (United States of America), water is “soft” if it has less than 60 mg/l (milligram per litre) of calcium carbonate. Because of ancient sea beds with high levels of limestone concentration, the only states in the USA with soft water are Maine and Mississippi. Most of the other states need water softening treatments. There is a difference as regards the levels of calcium required before water can be considered “soft” in the UK (United Kingdom). If the hardness is less than 50 mg/l of calcium carbonate, water is considered as “soft” in the UK.

Hard Water vs. Soft Water

Experts have argued that, with regards to consumption and the benefits to the body, hard water is superior to soft water. This is because of the minerals it encounters on its way to our waterways. These minerals such as lime contain elements such as calcium, iron and magnesium which are essential to the growth and health of the human body. This is one of the advantages hard water has over soft water; coupled with the salty taste that many claim soft water has. The salty taste is as a result of the high level of sodium which occupy the water after the process of ionization (a critical part of water softening). This high level of sodium is part of what puts soft water at a disadvantage as it causes high risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Advantages of Hard Water

  • Drinking hard water may provide dietary supplements of calcium and iron which help for healthy teeth and bones.
  • It tastes considerably better than soft water.
  • It is useful in preventing cardiovascular diseases.
  • Poisonous metal salts are prevented from dissolving in the water through the formation of insoluble carbonates on pipes. These carbonates are formed when lime scales in pipes cover the insides of the pipe, thus preventing the water in the pipe from making contact with the metal of the pipe.

Disadvantages of Hard Water

  • Limescale build-up inside pipes which causes reduction of efficiency in machines.
  • Reduced machine efficiency may lead to forced replacement of the appliance.
  • Has numerous smells which range from earthy to a strong sulphur smell.
  • There may be a correlation with eczema in children and drinking hard water.
  • Constant need to descale household appliances of mineral deposits.
  • It makes the skin dry.
  • It makes hair look lacklustre in its appearance.
  • Clothing may look dirty or retain odours because of the minerals in the water.
  • A residue of sticky film in bathtubs, sinks and showers.
  • Soap is wasted because more is needed for washing.

Soft water is however the preferred choice when it comes to household chores. Have you ever used soap and you’re wondering “what’s wrong with this soap? Where’s the lather?” That is all thanks to hard water. As has already been mentioned, rather than foaming, hard water causes soap scum to form. This is even harder to wash off and it leaves clothes looking grimy, dishes looking dirty and bathtubs looking filmy. Needless to say, hard water with household chores is not a particularly good sight. However, soft water is the absolute best for dishwashing, laundry, and even bathing. Soft water is good for the skin because it lacks the intense concentration of minerals found in hard water. It also does not cause accumulated scales from minerals in household appliances, thus causing a longer lifespan for such appliances. Nonetheless, one must not forget its high concentration of sodium.

Advantages of Soft Water

  • Lack of scale build-up in kitchen appliances and pipes.
  • Users of soft water do not suffer from dry hair or dull skin.
  • Laundry becomes cleaner.
  • Less detergent is needed when using soft water.
  • Soap produces a rich lather, rather than sticky soap scum which films over sinks, bathtubs and showers.
  • Water appliances such as water heaters and boilers, require less maintenance as they run efficiently.

Disadvantages of Soft Water

  • Due to high levels of sodium, it is not suitable for drinking.
  • Lack of necessary minerals such as calcium and magnesium.
  • It is highly volatile and may acquire harmful elements such as lead.

Main Differences Between Hard and Soft Water

Now that the pros and cons of both types of water have been considered, it is important to address the differences between them. Although some of them have already been discussed, a recap is needed.

  • Skin: Hard water makes the skin dry but soft water is good for the skin as it does not contain the minerals present in hard water.
  • Drinking: It is more dangerous to continuously drink soft water as it contains high levels of sodium, whereas drinking hard water may contribute to a person’s daily dose of minerals.
  • Mineral Content: Soft water contains sodium which is different in effect from the minerals contained in hard water. Hard water contains minerals made of elements such as iron, calcium and magnesium from its journey through the ground to waterways.
  • Household Chores: Although hard water is good for drinking, it is terrible when used in cleaning. There will be spots on washed dishes, sticky soap scum on tubs and sinks, and other domestic nightmares. Even your clothes will suffer from the use of hard water as they will degenerate and breakdown after constant use of hard water. However, soft water does neither of these and for this reason, it is generally preferable when performing household chores.
  • Effect on Appliances: When heated or boiled, hard water leaves limescale residue in water-heating appliances such as boilers, dishwashers, etc. As a result of this, appliances face constant repair and descaling and, in extreme conditions, replacement. On the other hand, soft water leaves no residue as it does not contain such minerals and thus, does not require as much repair.

Hard Water or Soft Water – Which is Better?

With regards to consumption, experts and studies show that hard water is, in fact, better than soft water. This does not mean the benefits of soft water should be ignored as, as you’ve already seen above, it has numerous advantages. It is as a result of these numerous benefits of soft water that many people consider water softening. Of course, most of us have to consider water softeners for our homes, that is why it is recommended that you use a water softener that has a bypass valve system. This will direct the hard water to the required areas in the house where it can be used for cooking and drinking purposes. If you cannot afford or find a water softener with a bypass valve, it is recommended that you use an alternate source of water such as bottled water for drinking.

Temporary and Permanent Hard Water

Have you ever been in a situation where you drank or used water and found it was hard water, rather than soft water? That is temporary hard water. No, your plumber did not do a terrible job. Temporary hardness of water happens when bicarbonate minerals such as calcium and magnesium dissolve. These dissolved minerals produce metal cations which make the water hard. The good thing about this is that temporary hardness of water can be reduced either by adding lime through the process of lime softening, or simply boiling the water.

Permanent hard water is more complex in nature to “soften”. It is difficult to soften permanent hard water by boiling because the minerals in the water are of a permanent nature. Thus, the minerals causing permanent hardness of water can be removed with an ion-exchange column, or a water softener.

Methods for Testing Water Hardness

There are ways through which you can test for water hardness. These methods are simple and efficient, and can even be carried out at home.

  • Bathtub or Shower: Without all the complications, one of the easiest way to test for hard water is to look at bathtubs, showers and sinks. Hard water used with soap leaves sticky soap scum and film on your tubs and showers. A lso, if you notice white mineral scale (mineral residue) on the surfaces of your tubs and sinks, you most likely use hard water. These scales can clog your pipes when they build up.
  • The Bottle Test: This test can be observed regularly as it includes the use of soap/detergent and hard water. You already know that the minerals in hard water prevent foam formation on soap. However, for this test, you will need a clean, empty plastic bottle with a cap, and dishwashing liquid. Fill the bottle halfway with clean water and add a few drops of the dishwashing liquid. Then cap the bottle and shake. Normally, you will see foam forming but if the foam disintegrates when you stop shaking, it is hard water. However, if the foam stays even after you’ve stopped shaking, it is soft water.
  • Water Test Kit: A water test kit can be gotten from anywhere, even from online shops. This test is perhaps the most accurate indicator of water hardness. The first thing you need to do is to fill a vial with the water you want to test. After that, you’ll add a drop of solution and shake gently for ten seconds. Keep adding drops and shaking the vial when a half-inch of lather is sustained. Each drop of solution used is equal to a grain of hardness. If, after everything, you have less than 3 grains of hardness, your water is only the slightest bit hard. If, on the other hand, you have more than 3 grains, you have hard water and may consider water softening.

Solutions to Hard Water

There are a few ways you can soften your water in order to make it suitable for household chores and maintain the efficiency of your appliances.

1.    Shower Head Water Softener:

Showerhead water softener/filter is a reasonable solution to hard water. When you consider how much costs you will save by installing a water treatment system such as a shower head water softener, you will realize its benefits. They use different stages of filtration to remove water toxins. They use carbon filters that remove chlorine, chloramines, and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from water. The vitamin C filters work hand-in-hand with the KDF filters which remove heavy metals and chlorine from the water.

2.    Water Softeners:

A water softener is perhaps the best solution to hard water. It works by running hard water through resin – a sticky, insoluble substance from trees and plants – that has been layered with positively charged sodium or potassium ions. The concentrations of sodium or potassium basically replace the calcium and magnesium ions in the water. Water softeners require constant maintenance and salt (sodium pellets) in order to keep the resin charged. There are many companies that manufacture water softeners. Because of this, there are different types of water softeners but we will only discuss the main types:

●     Salt-Free Water Softeners:

In the process of water softening, salt is an important ingredient. As a result of this, salt-free water softeners are not so effective. This does not fall into water softening but “water conditioning”. They do not remove minerals from the water, rather, they change the effects the minerals would normally have had. The main purpose of salt-free water softeners serve is to prevent minerals from clogging pipes.

●     Salt-based Water Softeners:

These are also called Ion Exchange Softeners because they exchange the calcium and magnesium ions in the water with sodium ions, or, in some cases, potassium ions. They are the regular water softeners. An example of a good salt-based water softener is the Fleck 5600 SXT. It is a best seller on Amazon with numerous positive reviews. Click here for more information on Fleck 5600 SXT.

●     Magnetic Water Descalers:

This is not the most popular water softener because it is largely seen as an alternative to water softeners. This does not strip it of its advantages; one of which is that it is a hassle-free service. Magnetic descalers are electric devices that require no installation. All that is needed is to wrap a few wires around your water intake pipes, thus, it does not interfere with your piping system. The plug-in device that comes with the descalers creates a magnetic field around the pipes. This causes the water to reshape the properties of the minerals. Just like salt-free softeners, magnetic water descalers are not so useful – at least they prevent limescale from lining your pipes.

●     Dual Tank Water Softeners:

Dual tank water softeners come with two big iron tanks and a brined (salted) one. This type of water softener is more convenient for households with high water consumption, as it is more heavy-duty. The tanks will ensure constant, daily supply of soft water. If one of the tanks is faulty, the other will function. Although this system is more expensive than other types of water softeners, it is better in the long-run.

If you want to know more about water softeners and how to install them, check it out here.

3.  Alternative Tips:

It is possible that you may not be able to afford water softeners, so these alternatives should help you use the water of your choice.

  • You can use vinegar to declog your pipes and waterways, or even to prevent clogging in the first place.
  • A squeegee can be used after using the bathtub or shower. This can help remove sitting water.
  • We also recommend using modern detergents that react properly with hard water.
  • You can also use an all-purpose cleaner to remove scale from your pipes, etc.