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Hard water: Facts and solutions

Nina Spitzer is a columnist and a freelance writer living in sunny Cave Creek, Arizona.

Living with hard water

We've all experienced the annoying results of hard water: White-encrusted faucets, spotted glasses, dull, filmy hair. Let's take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of hard water and how to live with it.

Living with hard water

According to a US geological survey, hard water is found in more than 85 percent of the country. With these kinds of numbers, we've probably all had to deal with it at one time or another. So what makes it "hard?" Is it harmful to our homes or to us? What can we do about it?

Hard water: What is it?

When water falls as rain, it's "soft" and free of minerals. It picks up minerals as it passes through rock, sand and soil. Hard water is high in mineral salts, especially calcium and magnesium ions. Water hardness is measured in grains per gallon, with a degree of hardness ranging from 1 to over 10. Hard water, generally, is not harmful to our health.

So, what's the problem?

Even though other minerals exist in hard water, it's the calcium and magnesium that create problems. When heated, these minerals precipitate out of water and encrust themselves onto items as "scale" or mineral deposits, affecting the performance of household appliances. These scale mineral deposits are unsightly in bathrooms and kitchens, and they're challenging to remove. Soaps and detergents lather poorly in hard water, so we tend to use more, resulting in a soapy film or scum residue.

Problems created by hard water

  • Hard water minerals can clog pipes and reduce water flow.
  • Film and scale can accumulate on tile and bath/kitchen fixtures.
  • An invisible soapy film on skin can leave it feeling dry.
  • Excess filmy shampoo residue on hair can leave it looking dull and limp.
  • Deposits of scale shortens the life of water heaters.
  • Utility bills can increase due to accumulated scale in the water heater. (Scale is a poor conductor of heat, increasing the energy needed to heat water.)
  • Glasses and dishes remain white filmed and spotted even after cleaning.
  • Reduced sudsing action can leave clothes looking gray and dingy.
  • Harsh minerals in hard water reduce the life of clothes.
  • Hard water can affect the taste of tea and coffee.

Is installing a water softener the solution?

To soften or not to soften? A water softener will take care of the hard water problem, but there are other things to consider before converting over to a soft water system:

  • The initial cost of the unit.
  • A water softener will increase your water usage. According to Consumer Reports, from 15 to 120 additional gallons of water are used for every 1,000 gallons of soft water processed.
  • Expect to see a higher electric bill due to the cost of operating the unit.
  • The sodium level of the water will increase slightly, which might be a health consideration.

Other solutions to help deal with hard water

These recommendations can lessen hard water problems and, in some cases, save you some money, too:

  • Use a rinsing agent or distilled vinegar in the dishwasher to remove white film and spots. Reducing the temperature of the hot water heater also will help.
  • Follow the laundry detergent manufacturer's instructions on using the product with hard water.
  • For better-tasting coffee, run a pot of strong white vinegar water through your coffee machine from time to time.
  • Look for soaps and shampoos especially formulated for hard water. A final rinse of 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar and 3/4 cup water can help remove dulling product buildup.
  • Remove calcified buildup on pipes and appliances on a regular basis.
  • Flush your hot water heater occasionally as directed in the owner's manual.
  • Consider changing evaporative cooler pads more often.
  • Inspect and clean your outdoor irrigation system regularly.
  • Use white vinegar on tiles, glass, and faucets to help remove mineral deposits.
  • Brew coffee or tea with bottled water.

Are there advantages to hard water?

Drinking hard water can reduce your risk of osteoporosis because of the calcium carbonate in the water. For this to be true, however, a good supply of vitamin D is necessary in the diet since it helps your body absorb calcium. A 2004 Finnish study suggests the minerals in hard water can help prevent heart disease, as well.

More on hard water solutions

Cleaning with vinegar

Soothing solutions for sensitive skin

Why you need magnesium

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