Hard Water: Problems and Solutions

Hard Water: Problems and Solutions

Have you noticed white scale buildup on your faucets, or chalky residue clouding your glassware? Does your soap barely lather in your shower, leaving your skin dry, and your hair limp? Does your laundry never feel completely clean?

If so, you may be dealing with hard water – and you’re not alone. The U.S. Geological Survey says 85% of homes in the nation have hard water.

What is Hard Water?

Hard water, simply put, is water with a high mineral content. As groundwater travels through minerals - such as calcium and magnesium - the minerals dissolve, and wash into your groundwater supply. The higher the mineral content, the harder the water.

Measured in grains per gallon (GPG), water hardness varies across across the country. You may start to see the effects of hard water at around 7 grains of hardness.

While hard water isn't necessarily a health concern, its effects are often felt in your showers and laundry, and over time can cause harm to your appliances and plumbing.

If you suspect you're dealing with hard water, it's important to know the symptoms, learn about treatment options, and know how to choose the best solution for your needs.


What are the symptoms of hard water?

You can find symptoms of hard water throughout your household.

For one, soap is not as effective in hard water. Instead of fully dissolving, some soap combines with the minerals in hard water, causing you to use more soap to try to get clean. After a shower, undissolved soap may still cling to your skin or hair, leaving it dull and lifeless.

In the laundry, undissolved detergent can keep dirt trapped in cloth fibers, resulting in stiff, rough-feeling fabric.

Soap deposits may also leave spots on everything you wash - from dishes to cars. Soap film may build up in your bath and shower, creating a potential haven for bacteria.

Minerals from hard water may also leave scale deposits. You'll see this chalky, plaster-like buildup on faucets, appliances, sinks and bathtubs.

The effect on your plumbing may be less obvious – at first. Mineral deposits can build up in pipes, reducing water flow and raising water bills. As the flow is restricted, scale build-up accelerates. Obstructions can damage pipes and clog appliances, leading to loss of efficiency, and even expensive repairs or replacements.

According to a 2009 study commissioned by the Water Quality Association, the impact of hard water on household appliances and fixtures can take years off the life of dishwashers and washing machines.

For high efficiency appliances, energy savings may decrease dramatically. Warranties for some high efficiency models may be voided if used with hard water. For hot water heaters, whether gas, electric, or tank-less, they won’t last nearly as long or run efficiently. Running hard water through hot water heaters cuts efficiency by up to 48 percent, with scale buildup shortening the lifespan of the heating elements.


How do I know if I have hard water?

If you suspect you have hard water and your water source is a municipal water treatment facility, you can check out your local Consumer Confidence Report, an annual drinking water quality report from your water supplier. If you have a private well, you can purchase a water test kit and test it yourself.


How is hard water treated?

There are two primary options for addressing hard water: water softeners, and water conditioners. Salt-based water softeners remove minerals from your water, while salt-free water conditioners prevent the minerals from adhering to your pipes and appliances.


How does a water softener work?

A traditional salt-based water softener system is comprised of a mineral tank and a brine tank. It is typically installed in a plumbing system at the point that water enters a home.

Using a process called ‘ion exchange’, the softener trades the hard water minerals for sodium.

The mineral tank is filled with small polystyrene beads, also known as resin. The beads carry a negative ionic charge. The primary minerals in hard water, calcium and magnesium, both carry positive charges. These minerals cling to the negatively charged beads as the hard water passes through the mineral tank.

The brine tank uses common salt (sodium) to create a brine solution. Sodium ions also have positive charges, but not as strong a charge as either calcium or magnesium.

When the brine solution is flushed through the system tank it comes into contact with the polystyrene beads, now saturated with calcium and magnesium. Once the beads are saturated, the unit enters a 3-phase regenerating cycle.

First, a “backwash” phase reverses water flow to flush dirt out of the tank. Second, a “recharge” phase carries the concentrated sodium-rich salt solution from the brine tank through the mineral tank. The sodium collects on the beads, replacing the calcium and magnesium, which are flushed down the drain. Lastly, the mineral tank is flushed or “regenerated”, eliminating excess brine and the brine tank is refilled.

Most popular water softeners have an automatic regenerating system. The most basic type has an electric timer that flushes, recharges or “regenerates” the system on a regular schedule.


Health concerns of water softeners

For those on sodium-restricted diets, the sodium remaining in softened water may be a problem. One solution is to install a separate water dispenser that bypasses the softener. You could also use potassium chloride instead of salt, although this costs about three to four times more and is 25% less efficient than salt.

Environmental concerns of water softeners

The discharge of salt brine during water softener regeneration can have a negative impact on the quality of water in groundwater basins, recycled water, and wastewaters.

Higher sodium and chloride content increases treatment costs and reduces the potential reuse of wastewater for farming and industrial applications. It can also impede the ability of a wastewater treatment agency to comply with discharge standards related to total dissolved solids (TDS).

Because most wastewater treatment facilities do not remove measurable mineral concentrations from the waste stream, they are passed on to the environment.

As a result, a small but growing number of municipalities no longer allow the use of salt-based water softeners.


What is a a salt-free water conditioner?

While salt-based "softening" removes hard water minerals, the salt-free process, called water conditioning, does NOT remove hardness minerals. However, it changes the mineral's form.

Water Conditioners process water through a catalytic media using a physical process called Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC). The hardness minerals are converted to a crystalline form, creating a “ hardness crystal”. These crystals cannot bind to surfaces, such as the insides of your pipes or appliances.

A water conditioner will reduce the formation of scale in your pipes and appliances, and even reduce existing scale.

However, if you have very hard water, this method is not as effective as salt-based systems.


What's the best solution for me?

If you want to address issues with hard water in your home, the first step is to assess your current water, either from your municipal water report or by testing the water yourself.

Once a level of hardness has been established:

Salt-Based Water Softeners remove “hardness” minerals. If hard water levels are high, a salt-based water softener may be a better choice. However, some municipalities don’t allow salt-based water softeners.

Salt-Free Water Conditioners leave hardness minerals present in the water. Scale build-up is reduced and salt usage is avoided.

Salt-free water conditioners will address medium and low hardness situations effectively.

Tier1water.com offers a selection of water softeners and water conditioning options.


Tier1's Top Softening Systems


Traditional Softeners and Salt-Free Conditioners
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