What is hard water? Homeowners who learn that their water is hard might wonder if it is OK. While water hardness poses no serious health risks, it can nonetheless cause various problems within a home.
Here’s where hard water comes from, how to check for it, and what you can do to remediate the negative effects.
What is hard water, and where does it come from?
Hard water contains high levels of certain minerals—namely calcium and magnesium (soft water, by comparison, lacks these elements).
If a home’s water comes from a well, there’s a stronger likelihood it’s hard because groundwater is often naturally full of minerals, says Stephen Johnson, an Ashburn, VA-based field supervisor at Benjamin Franklin Plumbing.
In particular, water hardness increases when it drains through deposits of limestone, which are rich in calcium and magnesium. However, high levels of hardness can also be found in city water systems.
Water hardness is a common issue: An overwhelming 85% of U.S. homes have water of some level of hardness, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Research from the Environmental Protection Agency shows these six cities have the dubious honor of having the hardest water in the country:
- Indianapolis, IN
- Las Vegas, NV
- Minneapolis–St. Paul, MN
- Phoenix, AZ
- San Antonio, TX
- Tampa, FL
What are the negative effects of hard water?
Hardness of water can have a negative effect on the maintenance of your home, warns Fred Webster, president at MillTown Plumbing, Heating, Air Conditioning, and Drain Cleaning, in Chelmsford, MA. The effects can include the following:
- Clogged or corroded pipes: Hardness levels of your water can create major issues with your plumbing system. Scale deposits from hard water can build up inside pipes—like plaque inside an artery, constricting the flow of water—eventually causing pipe backups that need to be addressed by a plumber.
- Poor water heater efficiency: A study by the Battelle Memorial Institute, a global science and technology research firm, found that water heaters with hard water can be up to 25% less efficient than water heaters with soft water—a loss of energy that can, in turn, drive up your home’s utility bills.
- Appliances that can malfunction: When left untreated, hard water can cause appliances such as refrigerators, ice makers, washing machines, water heaters, and dishwashers to leak, malfunction, or use more energy, Johnson says.
- Water stains: When hard water evaporates from the surface of your bathtub, sink, faucet, or toilet, it can leave the minerals behind in the form of limescale, water stains, and residue buildup. The good news? Most hard water stains dissolve when you clean the affected area with rags soaked in white vinegar.
- Odor and bad taste: “Hard water tends to have a rotten egg smell and a metallic taste,” Webster says. In most cases, though, hard drinking water is still safe regardless of its funk or taste.
- Skin irritation: Showering in hard water can cause dry skin, since the mineral deposits “suck the moisture out of your skin,” Webster says. Minerals drying on the skin can also clog pores and cause flaking and itching.
- Difficulty using soap and detergents in cleaning: Soap does not lather or form suds as readily in hard water, and it takes more soap to clean things when you have a hardness problem. Furthermore, the soap forms a scum residue when you have a water quality problem.
How to test for water hardness
“Plumbers either send someone to your home to take a water sample, or the homeowner sends in a water sample, which is then sent to a lab for testing,” says Webster. “The lab results will show us exactly what’s in the water.”
Have hard water? Here’s what to do
If you discover your home has hard water, don’t panic.
“Usually, a water softener will take care of the situation,” Webster says.
Water softeners, which hook up to your plumbing lines, can reduce hardness by removing minerals from your water supply.
Here’s how it works: As the hard water passes through the softening tank, negatively charged magnetic beads attract the positively charged calcium and magnesium particles, but allow the water to pass through.
If you’re fairly handy with tools, you can install a water softener system yourself by buying a basic installation kit and unit for about $500. Otherwise, professional installation costs about $800 to $1,000 for a one- to two-bedroom home. Water softener systems generally last about 15 years.
If you’re buying a house with extremely high hardness levels, you may have to install a water filtration system to address the issue, Johnson says.
Filtration systems tend to be more expensive than water softener systems. According to HomeAdvisor, the national average is $1,683. If you can’t spring for a water filtration system for your entire house, smaller systems that hook up to just one tap (say, the one you drink out of) are also available.
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