ABC Blog

Do I Have Hard Water?

a shower that has been turned on

Both seasoned and first-time homeowners have asked the pros, “Do I have hard water?” It’s hard to know if you have hard water if you don’t know the signs to look for. Homes on well water or city water can have hard water. The signs that you have hard water include everything from dry, itchy skin after a shower to spots on your dishes and silverware after running the dishwasher.

Many people don’t even know exactly what hard water is. Put simply, hard water is water that contains high levels of minerals. This specifically means minerals like calcium, limestone or magnesium. But, hard water can also have trace amounts of other minerals as well. These minerals are naturally occurring, and they are safe to drink. Their tiny particles dissolve into the water and typically aren’t visible to the naked eye.

As tiny as they are, though, they are abrasive. These particles become a problem when their abrasiveness wears away at things in our homes made of porcelain, glass or fabric. They become an even bigger problem when they build up in our pipes and water heaters over time. You can think about it like the way plaque causes health problems when it builds up in our arteries.

Signs of Hard Water

Itchy, dry skin and spotty dishes are two common signs of hard water in a home. Other signs include clothes, sheets and towels that feel rough or lose their color quickly. Appliances that use water, like washing machines and dishwashers, can also fail prematurely due to hard water. Even while they still work, these appliances have to work harder, which can cause high utility bills.

Hard water can even cause ugly stains or discoloration on toilets and bathtubs. It can cause soap scum residue to build up on glass shower doors. It can even cause low water pressure, as mineral deposits build up inside showerheads and faucets, blocking the flow of water.

If your home has hard water, you aren’t alone in this problem. The majority of American homes actually have hard water. Water hardness varies regionally, since it has to do with naturally occurring minerals in the ground.

The hardness of water is sometimes measured in terms of grains of minerals per gallon, or GPG. If you live in central Texas, your water likely ranges from moderately to very hard—from 3 GPG up to over 15 GPG. Any GPG rating of seven or higher is high enough to cause noticeable or even damaging effects in the home.

Other times, water hardness is measured in terms of milligrams of minerals per liter of water (mg/l). Anything over 60 mg/l is moderately hard water; over 180 mg/l is very hard. Any measure within this range indicates hard water that is likely causing issues that would be noticeable to most homeowners.

Fixing Issues Caused by Hard Water

There are certain things you can do to resolve some of the problems caused by hard water. If you notice reduced water flow in a faucet or shower head, for example, you can soak the fixture in vinegar to dissolve the mineral particles that have built up inside. You can also flush your dishwasher and your coffee maker with vinegar to improve water flow there as well.

Lots of the problems caused by hard water aren’t easy to fix, though. The best way to resolve hard water issues is by installing a water softener in your home. Water softeners are basically filtration systems that remove some of the minerals in the water.

Once the mineral particles have been filtered out, the water is considered soft. Soft water preserves your pipes, fixtures and appliances. It also protects your clothes, sheets and towels, and helps your dishes get cleaner after a wash. There are lots of good reasons to get a water softener if your home doesn’t already have one. Having a water softener professionally installed will ensure that it’s installed correctly to improve the water quality in your home.

a white kitchen

How Does a Water Softener Work?

If you are experiencing hard water problems in your home, you might wonder, how does a water softener work? The minerals in hard water bond well with metal, which is how they are able to build up in metal pipes over time. That’s actually where hard water got its name—from the hard, rough mineral buildup it causes on shower heads and other fixtures. Thus, water softeners “soften” water by filtering those minerals out of the water and preventing this hard buildup.

Most water softeners look like metal cylinders attached to pipes. At a basic level, they work by filtering the water that comes into your home. Water passes through the water softener, which filters out as much of the mineral content as possible. The water that comes out of the water softener contains a much lower level of mineral particles. This means far less buildup inside pipes, and less wear and tear on your washing machine and dishwasher.

Want to know a bit more about the way water softeners actually work? They’re kind of like magnets. Magnets have a positive end and a negative end, and they have to connect positive-to-negative. If you try to connect two magnets at their negative ends or at their positive ends, it won’t work. They’ll just repel each other.

Water softeners work in much the same way. The minerals in hard water are made up of molecules that are positively charged. The water softener contains resin beads that are negatively charged. As the hard water passes through the water softener, its positively charged minerals stick to the negatively charged beads, which draws them out of the water.

A water softener should be installed as close as possible to the spot where water enters your house. Your water softener should also be installed “upstream” from your water heater, so it can filter the water that goes into the water heater. In most homes, this means the water softener will be installed in the attic, basement or garage, or wherever the water heater is located.

Installing the water softener at this point will protect your water heater from mineral buildup along with the rest of your home’s pipes, fixtures and appliances. This protection will prolong the life of your water heater as well as that of any appliances in the house that use water.

Water softeners do need regular maintenance to keep working properly. The same plumbing professional who installs your water softener can advise you on maintenance steps you can follow to keep it in good working order. They can also set up an annual maintenance schedule. Yearly check-ups by a pro can head off problems like blockages and motor problems that can occur over time. This will keep your water softener working efficiently for many years.

a kitchen with stainless steel appliances and stained wood cabinetry

Do I Need a Water Softener?

Many people wonder, “Do I need a water softener?” Considering the fact that between 80% and 85% of homes in the United States have hard water, installing a water softener is likely worth it. If your home has already had a water softener in the past, the plumbing is likely prepped and ready for a new one. If not, you’ll need to hire a plumbing professional who can install the water softener at the right point along your home’s water pipes.

Many people wonder about the cost when it comes to weighing the pros and cons of water softeners. The cost will depend in part on what type of water softener you choose. It will also depend on how hard the water is in your home. Basically, the harder the water—meaning, the higher the mineral content that your water has—the more your water softener is likely to cost. This is because the cost of water softeners increases in proportion to the level of minerals they filter out.

The cost will also depend on the existing plumbing in your home. If the home had a water softener in the past, the installation will likely cost less. However, if not, it will cost somewhat more to install, since the job will require extra work to fit the plumbing for the new unit.

If you aren’t sure whether you need a water softener, you can have your water tested to determine its mineral content level. Whether to have a water softener installed is each individual homeowner’s choice. This choice depends on lots of different factors and considerations. But keep in mind that anything higher than 7 GPG (that is, seven mineral grains per gallon of water) does indicate a need for a water softener. That’s the level above which your water-using appliances and pipes are likely to be negatively affected by the hardness of your water.

a kitchen with granite countertops and white backsplash

Salt Versus Salt Free Water Softener

So you’ve decided to have a water softener installed. Now it’s time to choose which type you should install. There are several things to consider when you’re trying to decide between a salt vs. salt-free water softener. First, let’s take a look at how the two types of water softeners work.

Salt-based water softeners have two tanks—a resin tank and a brine tank. They work by removing the mineral particles from water. Salt-free water softeners, on the other hand, don’t remove those particles, so they don’t actually soften the water. Instead, these water softeners condition the minerals so they won’t build up inside your pipes, fixtures and appliances.

There are pros and cons to each type of water softener that can help you choose which one you want in your home. Salt-based water softeners are generally considered better than salt-free ones. This is because they better prevent scale buildup and related problems.

They do increase the salt content of the water in your home, however, which is a problem for some people. Also, you must replenish the salt regularly.

Salt-free water softeners typically have a shorter lifespan than salt-based ones. They don’t come with the hassle related to replenishing salt, and they take up a bit less space since they have one tank instead of two. But since they don’t actually remove the high mineral content of hard water, they won’t resolve problems like spotty dishes or dry, itchy skin.

If you decide to go with a salt-free water softener, be sure to look for one that comes with NSF/ASNI 44 certification. This will ensure that it removes radium from the water, like salt-based water softeners do. If you aren’t sure which water softener to choose, it’s a good idea to consult with a plumbing professional.

ABC Can Help With All Your Water Softener Needs

There are a lot of factors to take into consideration when it comes to purchasing a water softener. Fortunately, the pros at ABC Home & Commercial Services can help. We can do everything from water testing to installing the water filtration system that works best for your needs.

Tom Riggs

Tom Riggs is the Division Manager for Mechanical Services, overseeing sales and operations for HVAC, Plumbing, Electrical, Appliance Repair and Water Quality for all ABC Austin branches. He joined ABC in 2014. Before ABC, he was an HVAC Service Technician, HVAC Comfort Advisor/Sales and Operations Manager. Tom attended Universal Technical Institute. He's an avid outdoorsman and enjoys country living with his wife and two sons.

Learn More

Comments are closed.