Understanding and Managing Hard Water at Home: Health and Cleaning Considerations
Many houses have hard water, and most homeowners may be generally unaware of its effects. Hard water is extremely common in the United States, present in as many as 85 percent of homes. There is a lot of variation for what hard water means for an individual home. Simply put, hard water indicates a range of possible minerals in the water in concentrations past a certain level.
Hard water may or may not be a problem, depending on the homeowner and the property’s residents. Hard water collects on any hard surface, leading to deposits on fixtures, cooking implements, countertops, sinks, and showers. The extent to which people want to deal with hard water relates to their budget, their tolerance for hard-water accumulations, and their general cleaning habits. This guide identifies what homeowners can expect from hard water in the home, with tips to manage it, if needed.
Table of Contents
- What Is Hard Water?
- Hard Water & Your Health
- Signs of Hard Water
- Testing Your Water
- Managing Hard Water
- Home Water Softening Considerations
What Is Hard Water?
All types of water contain certain types of minerals. No water system is 100 percent pure water. Anything that can float in water can be carried by the current, which includes both helpful and harmful chemicals. Hard water indicates a high amount of minerals. This most often occurs when natural water sources pass through mineral deposits such as limestone or chalk.
The process leads to a relatively high level of calcium, iron, and magnesium. These minerals are necessary for proper function of the human body. However, in larger quantities, they can raise concerns in the home that homeowners may have to manage. By comparison, soft water does not contain high levels of these minerals. It may happen naturally, due to the features of the water sources in the region, or as part of a specific water softening system.
Sources of Minerals
It is not difficult to imagine how water can carry all kinds of particles, healthy or potentially dangerous. Water may pass hundreds or even thousands of miles before it reaches a homeowner’s tap. People might start by thinking about a nearby reservoir on a fair day. In the morning, the water is calm and clear. The sediment sits on the bottom. Later in the day or after a storm, the water may be cloudy.
This is somewhat of an oversimplification, but it illustrates how easily water can pick up sediment and carry it away. As the water travels down a river, stream, or creek, it picks up anything light enough to float. It may include:
Once the water’s natural progression ends, it reaches manmade means of transport, which may add more chemicals to the mix. Minerals are just as likely to stick to plumbing as they are to move. This means that the water may pick up minerals and contaminants as it moves through the pipes. When the plumbing corrodes, it can leach metals like copper or lead into the water. Municipal water treatment plants will test for high levels of known toxic components like lead. Those that accumulate on personal property may be more difficult to identify, unless homeowners take a direct action to assess it. Although experts generally do not consider hard water to be harmful, knowing what is in the local water supply should be an important goal for homeowners.
Temporary vs Permanent Hardness
Certain situations make it important to understand if the hard water is temporary or permanently hard. Part of the way that water carries minerals is by dissolving them. If boiling separates them, the water’s hardness is temporary. Specifically, this concerns minerals mixed with bicarbonate, like calcium bicarbonate or magnesium bicarbonate. These solutions will separate if boiled or if lime is added to the water.
This might seem insignificant, until homeowners begin to think about appliances they use that rely on boiling water. For example, boilers, which are still used as a primary source of heating and water heating in many parts of the country, boil water to create steam. The accumulation of bicarbonates in the pipes and tank of the boiler can make the system work less efficiently. It can even cause the system to overheat and trigger an explosion. This is just one example of the effects that hard water can have on the home’s systems.
Hard Water & Your Health
It can be difficult to make broad claims about the health effects of hard water on the human body. Hard water in one area might be significantly different in one area of the country than others. Too much of a good thing can be problematic in almost any case.
Generally, experts say that people have no reason to fear drinking or otherwise using hard water. In some cases, it may have beneficial effects. However, prolonged exposure and consumption is also correlated with an increase in certain health conditions. This may vary based on people’s diet of foods rich in minerals provided by the water, as well as their access to regular healthcare. Understanding the potential benefits and considerations helps homeowners to determine how hard water may be affecting the people living in their homes.
Getting enough vitamins and minerals is a difficult prospect for a lot of people. Consuming minerals through water or supplements is notoriously inefficient, simply because the body tends not to absorb it to a high degree. Drinking water containing the minerals or taking a supplement with certain foods can aid in absorption, but the body will still excrete most of it. When it comes to calcium and magnesium, major components of hard water that are well-known for their contribution to bone and heart health, many people do not consume an adequate amount.
People need a regular dosage of certain kinds of minerals to aid in function of certain body systems, particularly the cardiovascular system. Increasing the quantity of calcium and magnesium in drinking water may help prevent certain types of conditions, such as:
- cancer of the digestive or endocrine systems
- cardiovascular disease
For the most part, people do not have to worry about overconsuming these minerals. The body has methods that prevent overabsorption through the intestines. However, this is dependent on the person’s general health and the current function of their systems. For example, a diabetic with low levels of magnesium, a condition common to people with the disease, may need to consume much higher levels to receive the same benefit.
For most people, overconsumption has few risks. People with healthy kidney output will usually excrete most of the excess out of their systems on a regular basis. Getting too much calcium is fairly rare. Too much magnesium, which is hard to do unless people are taking supplements, usually just causes minor intestinal upset.
Possible Hard Water Hazards
There are many conditions that can turn a good thing into a possible household hazard. When people consider the possible benefits that hard water can present them, they should also think about how their individual situations may change the nature of the benefit. It can even, in some instances, turn an advantage into a concern.
For example, consuming more calcium is widely considered a benefit. For many people, it is not as simple as adding a supplement or drinking more hard water. People may not worry that they are consuming too much calcium, thinking that the Vitamin D in their systems will help to filter it out. However, there are many necessary minerals that come from water consumption. The presence of excess calcium in the intestines can make it more difficult for people to absorb nutrients like iron or zinc.
Other factors of the water can also make a difference. For example, the acidity of the water affects the rate at which certain minerals are absorbed into the system. This means that water that is too acidic or alkaline may make it harder or easier for the body to retain these nutrients, quite independent of the water’s level of hardness.
It is difficult to quantify the risk hard water can pose to people, since it is so dependent on region and other factors. Some studies may show a correlation, only to be disproved by others. However, consumption of very hard water is associated with increased risk of conditions such as:
- kidney stones
- reproductive failure in men
People who are already at risk for these types of concerns may want to examine their water to see if there is an obvious association.
Signs of Hard Water
People might think that hard water would be easy to identify by its color and flavor. Since this is a subjective assessment, it can be more difficult than that. Very hard water, with more than 100 parts per million of common minerals, often has a metallic taste. It can even carry a dirty color like a light gray or brown. However, most people with hard water may not have these obvious signs. They need to look for other symptoms, including:
- stains on bathtubs or toilets that keep reappearing after cleaning
- hard water deposits on faucets and fixtures
- soap scum or residue that is hard to wipe away
- difficulty effectively washing clothes or dishes
- running out of hot water too quickly
- persistently clogged pipes
These indicators show up because of the way that minerals affect the home’s systems. Calcium and magnesium interact with soap to make it less like to foam. This means that the soap can collect on shower walls and doors when people are taking a shower, as well as being less effective at cleaning. Shampoo and detergent contain similar cleaning elements, which explains why people will notice the same problem in the dishwasher and clothes washer.
The presence of minerals in water changes over time. Solutions that dissolve in cool or warm water may separate when boiled, leading to accumulations on the inside of certain home appliances. This accumulation can happen almost anywhere the water is present, from the inside of pipes to the interior of a glass left to dry. Water spots become more permanent over time, creating stains that are harder to wipe away. Since the nature of hard water varies by region, homeowners may want to find out which minerals are most present in their homes before deciding whether and how to deal with them.
Testing Your Water
Many homeowners rely on their municipal water management systems to test their water and alert them to possible problems. There are a few reasons people might want to do their own testing, or at least keep tabs on the results that the city finds. Experts usually classify hard water by a specific level of calcium and magnesium measured in parts per million. However, there are plenty of other minerals and elements that may be present, and not all of them are considered safe or beneficial. Possible contaminants include:
- nitrites and nitrates
Some of these can pose health concerns, especially in higher quantities. Homeowners have a few options for testing, such as requesting reports from the municipal water tests, private water testing companies, and DIY methods.
Cities are required to test their water on at least an annual basis and make the results public. This yearly assessment, required by the Environmental Protection Agency and called a “Consumer Confidence Report,” must be released to residents at the first of July each year. The report contains information about the quality of the local water. It is designed to provide city-level information about the water sources and possible contaminant levels in relation to national standards. As a general rule, the results are classified by tests for specific contaminants, with information about location and quantity.
Cities often perform their own water checks on a more frequent basis. Homeowners who are interested in the results would need to contact their city’s administration to find out which governing body is responsible for testing. Larger towns and cities may have a separate water board that people would need to consult for more information. For example, if you're looking for Fort Belvoir housing you might want to check out local reports to understand what, if anything, you'll need to do as far as filtering is concerned.
There are a few ways that homeowners can determine whether or not they have hard water independent of the city’s testing. The simplest and most obvious may be a water test kit, available from home improvement stores or companies that sell pool testing supplies. These kits can identify the presence of certain chemical compounds. Some may be able to specify certain levels of calcium, magnesium, or other particles. This is necessary because most water will contain trace amounts of common minerals. It is higher quantities of the minerals that determines whether or not the water is hard.
Besides the more obvious signs that people have hard water, there is a simple way that homeowners can test the interaction of soap with their own water. It is a quick test that requires a clean but empty bottle of water that will hold at least 12 ounces and pure liquid soap. People should put ten drops of the soap into the bottom of the bottle and fill it with a few ounces of water. Shaking the bottle for 10 seconds will create some suds.
Once the bottle is set back on the counter, people can determine the presence of hard water by looking at the quality of the suds. If there is a lot of foam and the water underneath is clear, the water is probably on the softer side. Cloudy water and minimal suds indicates harder water. This test is neither definitive nor particularly informative, but it can help homeowners decide if further testing is needed.
Contact the Pros
People who encounter a lot of signs of hard water, or who are having particular difficulties keeping their homes clean, may want to request individual water testing. Some cities will do this periodically, but homeowners might prefer to talk to a local company that provides the service. Common services may include businesses that provide bottled water or water softening services to homeowners in the area. They may be small companies or large corporations with franchises or satellite locations nearby.
Testing is often free, but may require a small fee. Homeowners should find out which aspects of the water are included in the test. It is worth keeping in mind that local water testing companies may be hoping to secure services for water softening in exchange for a free test. Homeowners should ask for all details concerning the test before signing anything that may commit them to a service.
Managing Hard Water
There is a wide range to water hardness. Anything over about 60 parts per million usually counts as hard water. A few areas of the country can have certain minerals up to 180 PPM. The best solutions often require a multifaceted approach. As hard water usually does not present significant health risks, homeowners can decide how much they want to address it.
Typically, homeowners may want to make a list of aspects they would prefer to control, and then consider common ways to address them. This may require them to set a schedule to clean certain parts of the home more frequently, or change the cleaning products they use. In most cases, hard water will be a regular part of a person’s life wherever it occurs naturally. This means that any solution they employ will probably need to be used frequently and consistently to have an ideal result.
For mild accumulation of hard water deposits, vinegar may be a useful and inexpensive tool for cleaning. As an acidic solvent, vinegar helps to dissolve hard water spots and stains, making them easy to wipe away. It may be insufficient for significant or long-term accumulations. However, it can clear the top layers in those cases, possibly making other treatments more effective.
For best effect, vinegar usually needs to be diluted or mixed with another ingredient. Vinegar tends to have a powerful odor that can take some time to clear away after cleaning. People may want to run a fan in the kitchen or bathroom, to remove the scent more quickly. It is typically wise to start with the smallest amount, to see if it is effective. Increasing the quantity of vinegar may be necessary, but will also increase the permeation and duration of the odor.
To address hard water spots on flat surfaces, people can mix a 50/50 combination of water and vinegar into a spray bottle. They should spray the solution onto the surface and leave it for at least 5-10 minutes. This will give the vinegar time to loosen the accumulation. Homeowners should use a dry cloth to scrub or wipe away the vinegar. Relying on water or a wet cloth to rinse it will likely leave hard water spots as it dries.
Larger accumulations or those in difficult-to-reach places may call for a different approach. A paste of vinegar and baking soda will loosen particles in sink or bathtub corners without immediately draining away. As an abrasive, baking soda should only be used on surfaces that will not scratch. Lightly soaking a cloth in vinegar and wrapping it around a tap or showerhead will keep the vinegar in place as well. People can leave these cleaning solutions on the surface for an hour or more before wiping, for maximum results.
Cleaning by Color
In many cases, the best cleaning approach depends on the color of the stain. The presence of pink stains in a bathtub indicates a different problem than red or brown deposits in a toilet. Homeowners should keep in mind that, whenever they employ DIY cleaning methods at home, safety is paramount. They should always do research before mixing chemicals. Combining common cleaning products like ammonia and bleach can produce chlorine gas, which is dangerous or even deadly.
Pink stains are often caused by a different problem than those that create the color red. The minerals in hard water can leave deposits that make it easier for bacteria to remain on the surface. Controlled amounts of chlorine in the water supply will usually take care of it, but it is not always sufficient. Homeowners can clear away bacteria with a rag dipped in a solution of water with a small amount of bleach.
Red stains are generally an indicator of rust. Rust collects when higher levels of iron are present in the water. This can come from natural water sources or corroding pipes. An acidic solvent helps to dissolve it. Specifically, tartaric acid (a major component of grapes, commonly called “cream of tartar”) mixed into a paste with water is known to be particularly effective against rust stains.
Copper turns green as it oxidizes, creating stains that look green or blue-green in the home. Homeowners who have copper pipes should consider that the cause may be corrosion and imminent failure of the pipes. Cleaning copper stains requires soap suds and ammonia in a well-ventilated space. After a few minutes, rinsing the area should remove the stain.
Black or brown stains reflect too much iron or manganese in the water. It is more common in homes that rely on well water. This will probably need a heavier cure than a simple approach to eliminate rust. A paste of hydrogen peroxide and cream of tartar should be applied to the surface and left to sit. Rinsing clean should clear the accumulation.
Hot Water Heaters & Plumbing
The areas that can sustain the most damage from hard water are also often the most difficult to see. Minerals in hard water collect inside the plumbing and the hot water heater. Without a place to go, they accumulate into sediment. This increases the likelihood that minerals will continue to collect. Over time, it can corrode a pipe or shorten the lifespan of a hot water heater.
Homeowners do not have too many choices for addressing hard water in their plumbing, if the area has hard water. Pipes made of PVC or newer pipes made of copper are less likely to have this problem. Older steel pipes (that you may find if you buy a historic home) can break down or even become completely clogged. Setting up a whole-house water softening system may resolve the problem. However, there are reasons that homeowners may not want to do this. Replacing old plumbing may be the most practical and effective long-term solution.
Hard water’s negative effects on water heaters are often much easier to prevent. Once a year, homeowners should have their water heater tanks drained and flushed to remove sediment. The sacrificial anode rod may also need replacement. This rod attracts certain minerals that might otherwise attach to the tank and corrode it. It will eventually dissolve, and if it is not replaced, it can no longer prevent that accumulation. These home maintenance tasks will usually give homeowners more hot water and a longer lifespan for the equipment.
Laundry & Dishwasher
There are two kinds of issues that hard water can pose to dishwashers and clothes washers. The first is harm to the appliance, which can make it work less efficiently or break down more frequently. The second is ineffective cleaning of clothes and dishes. Homeowners should consider multiple approaches to solving these types of concerns.
People can start by attempting to reduce or prevent the buildup of hard water deposits in the machine. Each appliance has a hot water supply line and a drain. These can accumulate minerals as well as the inside of the equipment. Periodically, residents may want to run a cycle using vinegar to clear out minor instances of deposits. If the accumulation is much larger or thicker, scheduling a professional cleaning service with experience working with these appliances may be necessary.
For washing clothes, people should pay attention to the type of detergent they use and how they use it. Detergent powder can attach to the hard water deposits, leaving less detergent available to dissolve in the water and clean the clothing. Liquid detergent often works better than dry, but is not a complete solution by itself. It may be necessary to select a detergent labeled “heavy duty,” as these solutions often contain heavier cleansers in the same quantity of detergent. Adding borax to the wash can assist, since it minimizes the reactions between the minerals and detergent. Cleaning clothes stained by hard water usually calls for letting lightly wet clothing sit in detergent for several hours before rinsing.
The dishwasher needs a slightly different approach, since the items in the dishwasher need to be kept food-safe. Some products like Jet Dry will soften the water, minimizing water spots. This only works for dishes that are washed in the dishwasher, not by hand. Homeowners may need to adjust their habits based on the dishwasher, as well. Turning off the drying capacity of the machine or pulling dishes out early may mitigate any positive effects of the boosters.
Preventing Hard Water Stains
In most cases, the best way to address hard water stains is to prevent them from accumulating in the first place. In areas where the water is particularly hard, this means that residents have to form effective habits and follow them consistently. It only takes days of inattention to cause an accumulation.
On any hard surface, homeowners should plan to wipe it dry. Allowing water to dry naturally on a fixture or flat surface practically guarantees water spots. Instead, people should confirm that they can do the following on a regular basis:
- wipe faucets and fixtures with a dry cloth each day
- use a squeegee or microfiber cloth to remove excess water from shower walls and doors
- spray a daily cleaning solution that prevents hard water buildup
- clean toilets, sinks, and showers to remove any soap residue
- remove limescale whenever and wherever it comes up
- use a nontoxic sealer and protectant that keeps water spots from forming on surfaces
In some cases, homeowners may have an uphill battle getting everyone in the house to complete tasks necessary to prevent hard water buildup. Homes without effective filtration, like properties using well water, may have very hard water that creates issues almost instantly. In this instance, a more overt approach may be more effective than simply trying to prevent or manage. Water softening systems are not problem-free, but they can be a viable solution that people should consider.
Home Water Softening Considerations
If people decide to soften their water, they have a few different ways they can do this. In most cases, they will have a water softening system installed on the property, attached to their private water supply. Some Loudoun County homes may draw (hard) water from a well, so some may already have them installed. Since this type of system ranges from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars, homeowners should be sure that they will gain a benefit from it. This is a personal decision that requires balancing the likely results with a few possible risks to vulnerable populations.
Water softening works by binding minerals to other elements. The water softener uses a reservoir of resin beads or salts that draw calcium and magnesium. In exchange for the minerals that make water hard, the system releases sodium or potassium into the water. These are more likely to drain away without accumulation. Periodically, homeowners have to replace the resin beads, so that the system can continue to operate as intended.
By removing the most common elements of hard water, water softeners make it easier for people to clean surfaces in their kitchens and bathrooms. It allows soap to lather more effectively, making personal hygiene and clothes washing more effective. Some people may notice that their hair feels fuller and shinier without hard water accumulations. In some cases, it may help to manage skin conditions such as eczema.
The replacement of calcium and magnesium with sodium or potassium may present problems for certain parts of the population. Some people need to follow a diet that is low in these salts as a way to control heart conditions or other chronic diseases. Using a water-softening system, particularly for culinary uses or drinking, may increase salt consumption by a notable rate. Older systems are more likely to produce more sodium in conditioned water than newer ones. People living under this kind of health advisement may need to avoid water softening systems, or limit the way they use them.
Home water softening is not an all-or-nothing proposition. People are not required to have softened water coming from all faucets, or none at all. Typically, homeowners will keep some faucets free from the water-softening system. In many cases, people will use unsoftened water for culinary uses in the kitchen. They may limit water softening to showers and clothes washers, where the benefits of the conditioning are most likely to be felt.
Most of the time, homeowners should look at water softening like they would any other home improvement related to their comfort and convenience. Hard water does not pose a significant health threat like the presence of lead in water can, which means that people do not necessarily need to manage it immediately. If installing a water softener and using it correctly has more potential benefits than concerns to a particular household, it may be a reasonable choice.
Hard water might not be a huge risk that homeowners need to manage or prevent to avoid significant health effects. However, the results of hard water can certainly be a nuisance, increasing cleaning obligations or making it more difficult for people to achieve the level of cleanliness they would like. Testing for hard water is widely available and easy to do in most cases, allowing homeowners the ability to determine how the home’s water may be affecting them.
Managing hard water and preventing the deposits is largely a matter of preference for homeowners and other members of the household. Regular cleaning with the most appropriate solutions minimizes accumulations that look unsightly and can cause damage to fixtures and appliances. People who notice obvious effects of hard water in their homes may want to start with testing, and then make a plan for cleaning and prevention based on the results.