Hard Water: Problems and Solutions
FACT: The U.S. Geological Survey says that 85% of homes,
more than 250 million U.S. residents, have hard water.
What is Hard Water?
Hard water, simply put, is water containing a high mineral content. Common hard water minerals are calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg). As water travels through sedimentary rock rich in minerals, like calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg), minerals are dissolved. These dissolved minerals may be washed into your groundwater supply. The longer the water travels through these elements, the harder it becomes.
Certain cities, counties, and states can have varying degrees of water hardness. Calcium and magnesium, for example, are not necessarily unhealthy to consume. In fact, these exact minerals are included in our dietary needs. But too much of these minerals in our water can be a problem, costing us time and money.
Below, we will discuss:
- Evidence: The symptoms of hard water.
- Investigate: How to test for hard water.
- Understand: Learn more about what hardness its and how to treat it.
- Solve: How to choose the right water treatment system for your needs.
Evidence: The Symptoms of Hard Water
The symptoms of hard water are easy to identify and occur throughout the household: Hard water reduces the effectiveness of soap. While in the kitchen or bathroom, one may notice that soap is not as effective. Instead of fully dissolving, some soap combines with the minerals in hard water. Because less soap is dissolved, you may use more to try to get things clean. Undissolved soap may still cling to your skin or hair leaving it dull and lifeless.
Similar symptoms can occur when using laundry detergent. 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 high usage areas, creating a potential haven for bacteria. Minerals from hard water may also leave scale deposits; 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, lime-scale build-up accelerates. Obstructions can damage pipes and clog appliances leading to loss of efficiency. This may also lead to expensive repairs or replacements.
According to a 2009 study commissioned by the Water Quality Association, or “WQA”, 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.
Investigate: Hard Water Testing
If you suspect you have hard water or you’d like more information on its causes or symptoms, you can find additional resources at the EPA Office of Ground & Drinking Water-Local Water Report. If you have a well or live in an area not listed, you can purchase a water test kit and test it yourself.
Understand: 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.
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. This can also be referred to as “Point of Entry” (potential link). 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.
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.
Environmental Concerns The discharge of salt brines from the regeneration of water softeners can have a negative impact on the quality of water in groundwater basins, recycled water, and wastewaters. Higher sodium and chloride content increase treatment costs and reduce 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.
Salt-Free Water Conditioners
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. This method is not as effective as salt-based systems, and will not work as well when exposed to high levels of hard water.
Solve: How do I choose 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.
One may see less soap usage and brighter laundry. Salt-free water conditioners will address medium and low hardness situations effectively. DiscountFilterStore.com offers a selection of Salt-Based and Salt-Free Softening and Conditioning options. Those products can be found here.
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