Hard Water Vs. Soft Water: All You Need To Know
Water is an essential element that’s critical to life. It is a gift from nature and one of the most plentiful substances on Earth covering about 71 percent of its surface. Water is not only found on the Earth’s surface but also within its soil.
Water that is typically used in people’s homes can be put into two main categories:
- Hard Water
- Soft Water
Hard water doesn’t describe the actual feeling of the water. Instead, it can be defined as water containing a large quantity of minerals within it.
The minerals typically found in hard water are magnesium carbonate, calcium, and manganese. The minerals responsible for making water hard usually bring negative effects to it. Hard water is safe to drink, but causes many problems for homeowners.
Hard water can come from a variety of sources where minerals can easily dissolve into the water. The hardness level of water therefor varies, depending on where it originates from. Water hardness is measured in either Parts Per Million (PPG) or Grains Per Gallon (GPG). 1 GPG is equivalent to 17.1 PPM.
Advantages of Hard Water
- It contains essential minerals, which include magnesium and calcium
- It is healthy and tasty for everyday drinking
- It is believed to help prevent cardiovascular diseases, but there’s limited scientific evidence to back up this claim
Disadvantages of Hard Water
- - It causes skin to become dry and makes the scalp itch if used for bathing/showering
- - It creates soap scum and film on bathtubs and showers
- - It changes the skin’s pH balance thus making it susceptible to infection
- - It is responsible for the occurrence of eczema in children
- - It causes an accumulation of limescale in household appliances thus reducing their efficiency
- - It can cause costly equipment breakdowns if used in industry
- - It uses more energy especially when it comes to heating it
- - It causes an accumulation of limescale deposits in plumbing leading to clogs
- - Soap and detergents dissolve poorly in it, which leads to dingy-looking clothes and grayish spots on dishes
Soft water is essentially the opposite of hard water. It is simply defined as water that contains a minimal amount of minerals responsible for making water hard i.e. calcium and magnesium.
Rain is the major source of soft water. Rain water is usually harvested from roofs before being stored in tanks. Soft water is also sometimes obtained from drainage basins formed by hard impervious rocks that don’t contain calcium. It is then dispatched using water bubblers.
Soft water can also be obtained from hard water though a process referred to as water softening. Water obtained through this process is referred to as softened water. Softened water might lack significant calcium and magnesium ions, but it may contain high levels of sodium and bicarbonate ions.
Advantages of Soft Water
- It causes skin to become soft and healthy if used for bathing/showering
- It does not cause the appearance of ugly stains and soap scum on showers, taps, and dishes
- Soap and detergents dissolve well in it, which makes dishes and clothes cleaner
- It leads to lower energy bills
- It helps prolong the life of household appliances
Disadvantages of Soft Water
- It is neither tasty nor healthy for drinking
- It acquires some unwanted elements, which include lead, during the softening process or while flowing through the pipes
- It can make it challenging to remove soap and/or shampoo from hair and/or skin, which means that more water is used while showering
- It may contain a higher sodium content and may prove harmful to those sensitive to a heightened level of water salinity, such as those with diabetes or high blood pressure
- It may harm blood cells and inhibit the process of oxygen transportation to body organs
- It may lead to issues with the heart and circulation
- The high sodium content, especially in softened water, can affect plants negatively
- It is not safe for use in aquariums because it is susceptible to fluctuations in the pH level thus causing the death of fish
Temporary Vs. Permanent Water Hardness
Water hardness can be either permanent or temporary.
It occurs if the water contains elevated levels of calcium and magnesium bicarbonates. If such water is boiled, they transform into carbonate and form precipitate. Once it cools, the water will be soft.
It is the type of water hardness that cannot be removed by boiling the water. The reason for the permanent hardness is the high level of chlorides, as well as calcium or magnesium sulfates. It can be softened using some type of water purification process.
How Can You Tell Whether or Not Water is Hard?
The requirements in different countries will determine whether or not water is hard. It typically depends on the concentration of calcium carbonate. In the United States, water is considered soft if it contains less than 60 mg/l of calcium carbonate. In Europe, the level is 50 mg/l.
Water is considerably hard in most states in the U.S. due to the high limestone concentrations in former sea beds. In fact, close to 85 percent of all water in the United States is classified as hard. It is why water softeners are regularly used to make it softer.
Testing Water Hardness
If you suspect that your water might be hard, you should get it tested. Testing whether water is either hard or soft and to what extent is incredibly easy. There are many different ways to check it without the need to buy any expensive kits.
Find a clean empty plastic bottle with a cap and some dish washing liquid. Remove the cap and fill the bottle with water about halfway. Add about 5 drops of dish washing soap, close the cap, and shake vigorously. Foam should start forming. If the foam stays, the water isn’t hard. However, if it quickly dissipates, the water is hard.
Water Test kit
A hard water test kit indicates the level of water hardness with decent accuracy. To perform the test, start by filling a vial with the water to be tested. Then add a drop of solution before shaking well for 5 to 10 seconds. Keeping adding a drop and then shaking until half inch of suds is sustained.
Each drop used represents 1 grain of hardness. Anything below 3 grains of hardness is at most slightly hard and does not require any intervention. However, anything higher than 3 grains of hardness may require treatment.
Tub or Shower Test
The easiest way to tell whether or not you have hard water in your home is by looking at your shower or tub. If you see a white mineral scale on surfaces, you definitely have hard water. The scales typically form due to the presence of magnesium and calcium in the water. If that’s the case, you should be careful since the minerals may build up in your plumbing system thus clogging it.
What is the Problem with Hard Water?
Hard water might be safe for drinking, but that’s just about the most positive thing about it. It poses many different problems especially for homeowners, which include:
Higher Usage of Soap
Homeowners that have hard water in their houses tend to use more soap in either the shower or while doing their laundry. Hard water lathers poorly compared to soft water, which means that homeowners with hard water spend more money on cleaning products.
Dry and Itchy Skin/ Dull and Lifeless Hair
Bathing/showering in hard water can make skin feel dry and itchy afterwards and can leave hair feeling dry and lacking shine.
Dull and Lifeless Glassware
If glassware is washed in hard water and left to dry, it is left looking dull and lifeless with little or no sparkle.
Damage to Plumbing System and Boilers
The accumulation of limescale in boilers means that they have to work harder and less efficiently. It is also a major factor in the breakdown of boilers, taps, washing machines, dishwashers, and central heating systems.
Prevents Clothes from Getting Really Clean
If clothes are washed in hard water, they will most likely use more than the recommended amount of detergent and will need to be washed at a much higher temperature to get them clean. The clothes don’t get really clean since the minerals in the hard water react with the detergent forming insoluble salts that build up on the clothes leaving colors looking dull and faded.
Leaves Soap Scum Deposits in the Bathroom
If your bathroom fixtures always seem to be covered in a layer of limescale, you can blame hard water for that. The layer is comprised of calcium mineral deposits building up on the fixtures. When minerals present in the hard water mix with soaps and shampoos used to wash skin and hair, soap scum is formed. It is this scum that sticks to the shower walls and sides of the tub leaving the bathroom looking not so clean.
Reduces the Lifespan of Household Appliances
Hard water often leaves mineral deposits in household appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers thus reducing their lifespan. Homeowners that notice that they are replacing their appliances more often than recommended by the manufacturer could be suffering from the effects of hard water in their homes.
What is Water Softening?
Water softening is the process of removing minerals (i.e. calcium and magnesium ions) from hard water. The process helps get rid of the problems brought about by hard water. The resulting soft water is better compatible with soap and extends the lifespan of appliances and plumbing systems.
Types of Water Softening Methods
Water softening is achieved using a variety of methods, which include:
Ion exchange is one of the most common and oldest water softening methods. It generally involves exchanging the calcium and magnesium ions in hard water for sodium ions. Since each magnesium and calcium ion has a positive charge of 2, each ion is exchanged for 2 sodium ions.
The sodium ions usually come from a brine solution, with the displacement of the sodium happening due to the more powerful calcium and magnesium charge. The exchange thus frees water of calcium and magnesium ions thus making it soft.
Distillation refers to where hard water is heated inside a container until it starts to vaporize. The vapor is then fed via a tube to a container with a cooling unit. Upon condensation, the vapor changes back to its liquid state i.e. water. The distillate is typically pure of all impurities and not just minerals.
Distillation might be a cheap way to soften hard water, but it is only used to produce soft water that’s needed in just small quantities, especially that used for cooking and drinking purposes. It is also a water purification method.
The major drawback of this water softening method is that the water it produces lacks even the most essential minerals that body needs, which is why it isn’t advisable to drink it every day. However, alkaline filters can be used for re-mineralizing the water before it is consumed.
Reverse osmosis is an incredibly effective method for water softening and water purification. It involves several stages to produce highly purified water. Magnesium and calcium ions are eliminated at the reverse osmosis membrane chamber where about 35 psi of pressure is applied.
It is only the water molecules that can pass through the membrane, and the result is therefore instantly softened water. The unwanted water is usually piped out to the drainage while the softened water can be directed to the filtered water coolers.
Types of Water Softeners
Ion exchange water softeners are the most popular and commonly used whole-house water softeners. However, that’s not the only technology that’s currently available. Below are the most commonly used types of water softeners:
Salt-Based Ion Exchange Water Softener
A salt-based ion exchange softener cycles the water through 2 tanks: The first one has special resin beads while the other is filled with brine. It works on the principle of ion exchange, which as explained above, softens hard water by substituting the calcium and magnesium ions with sodium ions.
- Completely eliminates hard minerals
- Produces results quickly
- Affordable in the long term
- Eliminates spots and stains
- Effective in preventing the buildup of limescale
- Can lead to an increased sodium intake
- Requires cleaning of resin bed and salt refill
The salt-based ion exchange softener is the type most commonly used in households since it is very effective in eliminating mineral residue in water. While it requires occasional changing of the resin bed, it is still affordable for most homeowners. When compared to the long-term cost implication of hard water, it is the financially reasonable option.
Salt-based ion exchange water softeners might have many advantages, but they do have their downsides too. They tend to add a small amount of sodium chloride into water, depending on its original level of hardness. While that is usually not a problem for most healthy people, the resultant softened water is not recommended for drinking if you are following a strict low-salt diet.
Fortunately, it is easy to remedy the situation. Simply add either an under-sink or counter-top reverse osmosis filtration system to eliminate the salt along with other chemicals, contaminants, and heavy metals that the softener cannot handle.
Salt-Free Water Softener
Salt-free water softeners use a potassium chloride salt substitute instead of sodium. It may be better suited to those that are concerned about salt intake. A salt-free water softener is in reality a descaler since it does not reduce the minerals in hard water but rather prevents them from being deposited as limescale to surfaces of pipes and appliances that use water.
- It prevents the buildup of limescale in pipes and appliances
- It requires little maintenance
- It is affordable
- It is slower than a salt-based water softener
A salt-free water softener can be incredibly effective when it comes to making hard water soft without introducing sodium into the water. It is the idea option for people on a low-salt diet. It is also ideal for people living in areas where salt-based water softeners aren’t allowed due to environmental reasons.
Unfortunately, since a salt-free water softener does not eliminate the minerals, it is not particularly useful when it comes to getting rid of or reducing spots and stains on silverware, glassware, cars, mirrors, and faucets.
Dual Tank Water Softener
Ion exchange water softeners typically require several hours to regenerate after the addition of salt. It means that households might be out of water for. New systems come with 2 resin tanks to ensure the availability of water at any time, even while one tank is regenerating. A dual-tank system is ideal for households that consume a lot of water.
- It is incredibly effective
- No off time
- Large capacity
- It is fast
- It requires maintenance
- It can increase salt intake
- It is expensive
A dual-tank setup is a larger and slightly more complex version of the salt-based water softener. It has 2 tanks rather than one, not including the salt container. The tanks take turns processing the water and ensure a steady supply, regardless of the time of day.
Why Invest in a Water Softener?
The following are the benefits associated with investing in a quality water softener:
Increase the Lifespan of Household Appliances
Water softeners prevent limescale deposits and thus extend the lifespan of household appliances such as coffee makers, washing machines, dishwashers, air humidifiers, water heaters, as well as the entire plumbing system by as much as 30 percent. As a result, repair and maintenance costs will be lower.
Hard water might be good for health, but not in the long run. The excessive intake of magnesium and calcium can lead to increased formation of stones in the body. Calcium can lead to overgrowth of bone joints if consumed in excessive quantities for extended periods. It can lead to yellowing of teeth.
Lower Energy Bills
Water softeners can lower energy bills by preventing damage to pipes. If scale builds up inside a pipe, there’s less space for water to pass through. Water pressure therefore has to increase for water to push through. The narrowing of pipes also leads to an inefficiency in the transfer of heat, which means that the water heater must be run higher to compensate. Both of these issues result in higher energy bills.
Bathing/showering in hard water really affects the skin. After bathing/showering, traces of magnesium and calcium remain on the skin and they may cause dryness, rashes, and frizzier looking skin. Excessive deposit of magnesium on skin may cause irritation and itching. Soft water, on the other hand, is soft on skin and helps retain the moisture within. It doesn’t cause irritation or itching.
Clogged pipes are one of the most irritating issues linked to hard water. Pipe clogging drastically reduces the water flow rate. Clogs can also lead to leakage as well as permanent damage to pipes due to wear and tear. Fortunately, clogged pipes are one less thing to worry about when it comes to soft water.
Improved Water Flavor
Hard water is noticeable when it comes to taste. It has a salty, sour taste and some smell too. Water softener replace the salts in hard water with odorless and tasteless salts of sodium through the ion exchange process, which results in odorless and tasteless water that’s great for drinking.
Hard water usually takes its toll on clothes. Whenever clothes are washed in hard water, stains are left behind. It can be hard to create lather in hard water, which means that more soap and detergent is used and this damages clothes. In contrast, soft water lathers easily, which mans that less soap is used and clothes end up being cleaner.
In the hard water vs. soft water debate, it is quite clear that each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Hard water, however, has its fair share of drawbacks that make water softening something of a necessity.
Water softening is particularly important at home, especially for those that live in areas where only hard water is readily available. Softening the water provides numerous benefits and helps prevent complications arising from having excessive minerals in water.
Homeowners looking to soften their water should shop around and discuss with a plumber regarding how the system they choose affects their plumbing. It can also be a good idea to understand the maintenance requirements of a water softening system before making the purchase.