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If you've ever dealt with it, you know that hard water sucks. It crusts up your faucets, makes your dishes look like they're never clean and does a number on your hair. So how should we deal with this junk?

Eighty-five percent of American homes have hard water according to HomeWater 101, and if you live in Indianapolis, Vegas, Minneapolis, Phoenix, San Antonio or Tampa — well, you pretty much have the hardest water out there. But we did a little digging and found that there are things you can do to combat the effects of hard water — even without a softener.

What is hard water?

According to the United States Geological Survey, the short answer is water hardness is the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in the water — hard water is high in both calcium and magnesium. The reason you can feel the difference on your skin is because in hard water, soap reacts with the calcium (which is relatively high in hard water) to form soap scum — which is why you need more soap or detergent to get things clean. And that's where the term "hardness" came from. It was originally applied to waters that were hard to wash in and referred to the soap-wasting properties of hard water according to the Water Quality Association.

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 — and can even have some benefits. Humans need minerals to stay healthy, and the National Research Council, via the USGS, states that hard drinking water generally contributes a small amount toward total calcium and magnesium for human dietary needs.

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The big 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 shorten 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 help 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 — they can set you back up to $2,000.
  • If your water softener is set to cycle too frequently or if the automatic cycling mechanism malfunctions, your water bill could be sky-high according to Primo Plumbing.
  • Water softeners in general have been known to increase monthly water usage.
  • 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 — though some groups argue that this is a myth.

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 will also help.
  • Follow the laundry detergent manufacturer's instructions on using the product with hard water.
  • For better-tasting coffee, Good Housekeeping recommends white vinegar: Fill the reservoir with equal parts vinegar and water, and place a paper filter into the machine's empty basket. Position the pot in place, and "brew" the solution halfway. Turn off the machine, and let it sit for 30 minutes. Then, turn the coffeemaker back on, finish the brewing and dump the full pot of vinegar and water. Rinse everything out by putting in a new paper filter and brewing with a full pot of clean water.
  • 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.

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Image: My Full House

Originally published July 2009. Updated March 2017.