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Signs Of Hard Water: Tips From The Experts

A cream colored bathroom that is suffering from signs of hard water

Water isn’t something homeowners typically think much about. Turn on a faucet, crank up the shower, push a button on the dishwasher or washing machine and the water flows. Depending on where you live, however, your home might have what’s commonly referred to as hard water, which means that you have dissolved magnesium and calcium compounds and possibly other metallic elements in your running water. If your pipes or appliances are showing signs of hard water, it might be time to take action.

Homes get their water from different naturally occurring sources. Groundwater, a common source, flows through limestone or other rocks, absorbing the minerals contained inside of them. Over time, those minerals build up in a home’s plumbing system. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 85% of homes in the United States have some level of hard water.

Your water would be labeled “hard” if it contains more than 61 milligrams of mineral residue (calcium, magnesium and other trace minerals) per liter. These minerals are among those essential for health, so having a little extra in your water can be a benefit to some people. The term hard water originally referred to water that was hard for people to wash things in, because water with a high mineral content doesn’t lather well when it mixes with soap. That same characteristic makes it difficult to get a number of things really clean, from your cookware to your hair.

So, without testing your water, how can you tell if you have hard water?

An Odd Taste Or Smell

A high concentration of minerals, such as iron or sulfur, can make drinking tap water unpleasant. Some report that their water tastes like dirt, which can be the result of sediment in water, old pipes or algae. In addition, mineral buildup causes scaling, which gives bacteria a perfect place to thrive. In the most extreme cases, hard water smells like rotten eggs. If you detect this odor, you could have hydrogen sulfide gas or some sort of bacteria in your water.

Water Spots And Soap Scum

Homeowners with hard water can spot a lingering residue on glassware and dishes after a cycle in the dishwasher or a constant film on shower walls, faucets and showerheads. This buildup is left behind when there is excess calcium in your water source. When you have hard water, you may notice that soap scum seems to show up more quickly in your bathtub or sinks, as soap and hard water don’t mix well. This mixture can lead to the growth of bacteria on shower curtains if not dealt with quickly or correctly.

Low Water Pressure

The buildup of scale materials inside of your pipes shrinks the area through which water flows to your faucets and appliances. More buildup means it is harder for water to get through and it can take longer to fill up your sink or tub, which can even lead to other common plumbing problems.

Failing Appliances

Adding excess minerals to water lines can cause washing machines, dishwashers, water heaters and ice makers to work less efficiently. Over time, calcium and magnesium scaling can lead to costly repairs or even early replacement for many of the appliances we count on every day. In particular, with water heaters, excess sediment at the bottom of the heater can start as a small problem. At first, you may notice your water doesn’t get as hot as you would like it to. If left unattended, the appliance can crack. Eventually, your hot water heater will start leaking.

Rust Stains

Streaks and rings in your sink, bathtub and toilets indicate that calcium or even iron, depending on the color, are sticking around, even after a flush or rinse. Such stains are often difficult to remove and will continue to return until you have addressed your home’s hard water problem.

Itchy Or Dry Skin

If your hands don’t feel clean after a good scrubbing, or your sensitive skin seems to become drier or more irritated over time, hard water might be to blame. Much like the soap that is left over in your sink or bathtub, when you wash your hands with hard water, the excess minerals can make it difficult to get all of the soap off your hands. When this soap stays on your hands, it can make your skin dry.

Scratchy Clothes And Linens

Excess minerals in hard water are abrasive, which means clothing, towels and bed linens not only come out of the washer and dryer rougher than you might like, but they will also show signs of wear faster.

If hard water can cause so many problems in your home, it is only natural to look for a solution.

A shower head that has been turned on

Hard Water Vs. Soft Water

Soft water sometimes comes from a naturally occurring source. For instance, cities that pull their water from area rivers generally have a softer water reading than those that use groundwater or homes that rely on well water. Soft water has less of an impact on skin and doesn’t clog pipes with scaling, leave rings in sinks or tubs or prematurely wear linens and clothing. Ultimately, living with hard water or choosing to find a way to soften it is a personal decision.

If you’re still not sure whether you have hard water, water utility companies generally send out an annual report that lists measurements for minerals in your area. If you are still unsure, or you don’t have such a report handy, there is a way you can test for water hardness yourself.

Take a clean, empty bottle with a lid and fill it about one-third full with tap water. Add a couple of drops of pure soap (no dyes, perfumes or other additives), place the lid on top and shake vigorously for several seconds. If you see a lot of bubbles on top and the water below the bubbles is clear, your water is probably soft. If, however, you see just a few or no bubbles and the water is cloudy, you probably have hard water.

You can also buy strips to test for water hardness, or kits that can measure a more exact level of the hardness of your home’s water.

Water hardness will vary depending on the county where you live and even your ZIP code, since it depends on the geographical makeup around your water source. Many homeowners enlist the aid of a water quality professional to better understand the impact of the water hardness in their area and what adjustments can be made to better suit the needs and preferences of their household. After learning more about the ways that softer water can improve conditions around your home, you may decide to make a change.

How Water Softeners Help Your Home

Not everyone needs a system to soften their water, which is why you can weigh the pros and cons of water softeners. If you choose to switch from hard to soft water, the most effective and popular mechanism to do so is by installing a water softener. The type of unit you choose will depend on many variables, such as your family size, home size, water usage and personal preference.

One of the most important factors in selecting a water softener system is the size. You want to make sure you have enough treated water to cover everyone in your household. To calculate the size of water softener you will need, you’ll first need to have a general idea of your water’s hardness level. Then, take the number of people in your household and multiply that by the number of gallons of water each person uses daily (keeping in mind that the average amount is about 80 gallons a day, per person). Multiply that number by the number of grains of hardness in your water. This will show you how many grains need to be removed, or softened, daily by your system. A professional can help you with the math and ensure you are getting the right softener for your needs.

Before you decide on whether to invest in a water softening system, it’s helpful to better understand how they remove hardness from your water.

A kitchen with a dishwasher and sink

How Water Softeners Work: What Is Water Softener Regeneration? 

Home water softeners use resin beads to remove the excess minerals from your home’s source water. The beads have a negative charge, so they attract the positive calcium and magnesium ions. After some time, the resin beads need to be rinsed free of the minerals and “re-charged” so that they can continue to pull the calcium and magnesium ions out of your water. This is what happens during the water softener regeneration process. When this happens, a saltwater solution is deposited into your brine tank to pull the positive ions from your resin beads, so the resin beads will revert back to being negative. That allows the beads to properly attract the positive calcium and magnesium ions in hard water. Water softeners are programmed to regenerate at set intervals, which for most people is weekly.

Your system must be calibrated to not only your household size but also to the hardness level in your water. If it is set to a lower level than is required for your home, you won’t see the best results. If the unit is set to a higher hardness level than your home needs, you will spend more to operate your unit, and you will be inadvertently wasting water.

Proper maintenance will keep your water softener system working correctly for the long haul. These routine tasks include:

  • Regularly measuring the pellet level in your tank. If you can’t see the pellets when you take a peek inside the main tank of your system, you probably need to add some. Talk with your service professional to determine how many pounds of replacement pellets you need.
  • Flushing the resin bead bed. The extra minerals might not be in your tap water anymore, but they have to go somewhere, and that place is in your softener unit. Using a cleaner specifically made for this part of the system several times a year will keep your softening process running smoothly.
  • Checking and cleaning components. Buildup can happen on any part of the unit, and that can mean reduced efficiency and potentially costly repairs. For best results and peace of mind, call in a professional to give your system a once-over and recommend any maintenance work.

If you tend to make common plumbing mistakes, or if you aren’t sure if your water softener is working correctly, you may want to bring in a water quality services professional to advise you on how to keep your water hardness to an acceptable level.

ABC Can Improve Your Water Quality

With all of the drawbacks of hard water, many homeowners opt to have a water softener installed in their home. Fortunately, the professionals at ABC Home & Commercial Services can advise you on the best water softening system for your home, and then install it for you. We can do all of the hard work for you, so all you have to do is reap the benefits!

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.

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