The water that comes out of your taps may be causing bad hair days at best and serious clogs in your pipes at worst. Nearly 85 percent of the tap water in the U.S. is hard water, which means it has high amounts of calcium and magnesium from coming into contact with rocks and soil. By comparison, soft water contains very few or no elements and either occurs naturally or is rendered soft through treatment.

Whether you choose to soften your water is largely a matter of determining whether hard water is causing problems for your appliances and pipes, and whether softening your water will save you money on everything from energy costs to detergents.

Hardness of Water

There are two types of hard water. Water with temporary hardness contains bicarbonate minerals like calcium bicarbonate and magnesium bicarbonate, which can be removed from the water by boiling it. Boiling the water results in the formation of carbonate from the bicarbonate and the carbonate is precipitated out, leaving the water soft.

Permanent hardness, on the other hand, is caused by calcium and magnesium sulfates, which can’t be boiled out of the water, but can be removed through other means.

Cleaning with Hard vs. Soft Water

While both hard and soft water are entirely portable and neither is particularly better for your health than the other, there are a number of practical ways in which hard and soft water differ.

The minerals in hard water interact with soaps and detergents, preventing them from effectively removing stains on clothes and soil on dishes. And because of its mineral content and interaction with detergents, hard water can take a toll on your clothes leaving them dingy and damaging the fibers through repeated washing. In fact, using hard water on your clothes shortens their life by up to 40 percent.

Likewise, washing your dishes with water that’s hard results in spotting and film which is unsightly and difficult to prevent without additional chemicals used in the washing cycle.

Cleaning with soft water is better for clothes and dishes and in fact reduces the amount of detergents and soaps you need by 50 percent.

Showering with Hard vs. Soft Water

Hard water can take a toll on your skin and hair as well. Because of the way the minerals interact with soaps, you’re more likely to end up with sticky soap curd on your skin than a healthy lather that rinses off easily. This film can prevent the effective removal of soil from the skin as well as interfere with its natural pH balance, leading to irritation. It may increase the severity of eczema in children and can result in a flaky scalp and hair breakage. It also causes hair dyes to fade faster.

Soft water interacts better with soaps, resulting in cleaner, softer skin, but it can also leave your hair feeling oily and lacking volume.

The Health of Your Pipes

Perhaps the biggest threat from hard water is the damage it can do to your pipes and appliances. Hard water causes scale to build up in coffee makers, dishwashers, and other appliances, and it can completely clog your pipes over time.

Scale buildup in the water heater is another serious problem caused by hard water. Scale and sediment in the tank acts as an insulator between the heating element and the water, which increases energy bills and can damage the equipment. For every five grains of calcium carbonate per gallon of water, your water heater’s efficiency decreases by 8 percent.

Soft water is better for pipes and appliances, but it can result in the deterioration of metal over time, particularly in swimming pools, where it can also damage fiberglass and vinyl as well as reduce the effectiveness of chlorine.

Softening Water

The most popular and least expensive method for softening water is by way of ion exchange using a self-regenerating water softener. This type of system replaces the calcium and magnesium in the water with salt, potassium, or hydrogen. Using salt is the most common method due to its wide availability and low cost. But using salt to soften your water is also the least environmentally friendly method because the brine that’s produced is flushed back into the environment where it builds up in the soil and water. Some communities have banned these types of water softeners.

An alternative to ion exchange for softening water is a water conditioner, which works by altering the chemical structure of the minerals in the hard water as it moves through a filter. This prevents solids in the water from adhering to pipes and appliances. Water conditioners produce softer water that doesn’t feel slippery like salt-softened water, and they don’t result in wasted water like the self-regenerating systems do.

If you’ve been using hard water for some time, a water conditioner can also help clear your pipes of existing scale buildup. The new structure of the molecules actually help descale the pipes as the water moves through. Other benefits of a water conditioner include the absence of chemicals and the fact that they require little maintenance, no electricity, and they free you from having to buy salt on a regular basis.

The Bottom Line

Hard water can damage your pipes, appliances, and clothes, and can leave your skin dry and your hair dull. Soft water can save you money on soaps and detergents and result in cleaner dishes, but choosing a salt-free softener is better for the environment.

For more expert advice about soft and hard water, please feel free to contact us at Bill Fenwick Plumbing, Inc.