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Hard Water versus Soft Water and What’s the Difference?

85% of the water in the United States is very hard and requires softening.  The Water Quality Association of the United States defines hard water as having dissolved mineral hardness of 1 GPG (grain per gallon) or more.  The following table is useful in determining whether your water is soft or hard, and if you have hard water, how hard it is:

  • Soft water: less than 1 GPG

  • Slightly hard water: 1 to 3.5 GPG

  • Moderately hard water: 3.5 to 7 GPG

  • Very hard water: 7 to 10 GPG

  • Extremely hard water: more than 10 GPG

Rainwater is naturally soft, but as it travels through the ground and into waterways, it collects minerals, such as chalk, lime, calcium, and magnesium.  Water is a good solvent, so it easily accumulates minerals and holds them well. That hard water is carried through lakes and streams, and into the groundwater that is fed into our homes.  Different areas have more or less hard water, varying with the number of minerals available for the water to collect as it travels through soil and rock.

Hard water contains an appreciable quantity of dissolved minerals.

Because these minerals provide health benefits and a good flavor, it is often preferred as drinking water.  However, when it comes to cleaning and household chores, hard water can be very detrimental. It can pose serious problems to any appliance that uses water.  It forms an off-white scale on pipe surfaces, and when the scale builds-up, it can restrict the flow of water in pipes and reduce water pressure or cause a blockage. Mineral deposits left by hard water can also impair boilers’ heat flow onto the water, reducing heating efficiency, waste energy, and potentially causing an overheated boiler.  Calcium and magnesium ions also react with soap and reduce its ability to lather, causing more soap to be used washing dishes and showering, and reducing the effectiveness of dishwashers and laundry machines. Hard water can also:

  • Give clothing a dingy appearance;

  • Make dishes spotty and add residue;

  • Add a layer of film and soap scum to bathtubs;

  • Give hair a sticky feeling and dull appearance;

  • Reduce the life of household appliances;

  • Waste energy.

NOTE: It is a common misconception that hard water causes kidney stones.  No link has been found between hard water and kidney stones, but you should stay hydrated to prevent kidney stones.

Soft water, by comparison, tastes salty

Soft water is sometimes not suitable for drinking because in the softening process, as minerals are removed, the water’s sodium content increases.  If you have heart or circulatory problems, or if you are otherwise on a low sodium diet, it is advised that you do not consume soft water. The only natural soft water is found in communities that draw water directly from snow-filled mountain streams.  Otherwise, water must be treated to become soft. Although soft water is not preferable for drinking, it is better for the performance of chores and cleaning. Soft water:

  • Lathers better;

  • Leaves items cleaner;

  • Makes glass sparkle;

  • Gives hair a healthier look;

  • Prevents scum from accumulating on your shower curtain;

  • Gives your clothes and skin a softer feel;

  • Saves both time and money by allowing for the use of less soap and detergent, giving your appliances a break, prolonging the life of appliances that use water, and reducing energy bills.

There are several ways to soften hard water.

A traditional water softener solution will reduce the hardness of water.  A salt-free water conditioner can reduce scale build-up in your home. Salt-free water conditioners don’t use chemicals, so they will protect your health and the environment from the negative effects of adding too much salt to the water.  Some other methods of removing sodium from soft water are reverse osmosis, distillation, and deionization. Use of a water conditioner is the best method of dealing with hard water, but several natural remedies are also available:

  • Use distilled vinegar in your dishwasher to remove white film and spots;

  • Reduce the temperature of your hot water heater;

  • For better tasting coffee, run a pot of white vinegar through your coffee machine every so often;

  • Use soaps and shampoos formulated for hard water;

  • Flush your hot water heater as directed on the manual;

  • Remove the calcified build-up on pipes and appliances on a regular basis.

If the hard water in your home does lead to clogged pipes, necessitate appliance repair, or cause any other plumbing need, be sure to call a licensed and experienced plumber!  Get more information about Water Softener Installation Cost before you book service.

Kelson Carter

Article reviewed by:

Kelson Carter, aka, The Prince of Plumbing

Kelson is a 3rd generation Plumbing Contractor. His family business is located in Greenwood, Indiana, and provides Residential Plumbing Service to the Indianapolis Metro market.

Kelson grew up watching his grandfather and father do plumbing. After graduating high school, Kelson went to Trade School and became a Licensed Master Plumber and Licensed Plumbing Contractor. He is also Certified in Backflow Prevention. He currently owns and operates Carter's My Plumber with his parents.


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