Soft water, hard water, what’s the difference? And does it really matter? Should you get a whole house water filtration system? Does installing a water softener help avoid having to repipe? Many homes have been operating just fine entirely on the water that comes from a municipal water source, but depending on the location, that water may be more soft than hard – or the other way around. With hard water, you may be facing an expensive plumbing repair down the road.
What is Hard Water?
Water is rated as hard or soft depending on the degree of total dissolved solids, referred to as TDS. These solids are comprised of calcium, magnesium, bicarbonates and some sulfates. They exist in almost all water to some degree. In the Bay Area, 85% of the water comes from Hetch Hetchy and surrounding mountain fed lakes and reservoirs.
As this water tumbles over mountain granite, it is “scrubbed” of some of its TDS and is naturally soft – or softer – as it comes out of local taps. San Francisco has already initiated a program to progressively add more groundwater (hard) to their Hetch Hetchy supply (relatively soft) and will continue to do so over a number of years in the future. This will bring the water supply up from a range of 45 to 50 TDS (soft) to 70-120, which is higher on the hardness scale but may only slightly affect the taste of bread and coffee, if at all.
Groundwater typically has a higher hardness rating, but unless you draw water from an old well with no filtering, the municipal water hardness rating is well within serviceable ranges for many household uses.
What is the Downside of Hard Water in the Home?
- Scale buildup on your appliances. An overabundance of minerals means they will more easily fall out of solution. Wherever you heat water, deposits can form. Teapots and coffee makers are the most visible places, but even unheated water can leave solid deposits around the base of faucet handles and inside screens on faucets and shower heads.
This is the hard, white substance made up of calcium and magnesium that is left behind after water dries.
- Mineral deposit buildup inside your water supply lines and waste pipes. This is like high cholesterol or plaque build-up in a circulatory system. Pipes narrow and the flow of water is reduced. In the wasteline, this mineral buildup readily combines with organic matter to increase the likelihood of clogs and frequent plumbing repair. The buildup can be critical in older steel pipes, but even in newer copper, accumulation can occur in joints and bends.
- Dry, itchy skin after a bath or shower. When the water is high in calcium and magnesium, your skin isn’t getting nourished. the pores are becoming blocked so natural oils cannot hydrate the skin. The mineral residue cannot be completely removed by soap because soap can’t dissolve properly in hard water and roll away the film.
- Clothes washed in hard water tend to become scratchy and faded. Some laundry soaps include water softening additives to help address this. However, minerals that fall out of solution leave deposits in the washing machine draining system that can shorten its life.
- Water bills can escalate as pipes narrow. When this happens, you actually use more water rather than less.
- Glassware becomes impossible to fully clean without resorting hand polishing or special rinses, that may result in higher water use.
- Ugly sink and toilet staining that requires extra, and frequent, scrubbing to remove.
- Shorter water heater life. Not only does your water heater fill up with sediment but it has to work harder to push water through constricted pipes. Heating hard water quickens the formation of scale deposits in the system and takes its toll on your water heater’s heating elements and lining.
- If your house still has steel pipes, hard water can corrode them from the inside, forcing you to have to repipe to copper when the pipes constrict too much.
Water Softener Misconceptions
- You are loading your drinking water with sodium or salt. Nope. Salts pull the minerals out of the water and replace it with sodium. However, the sodium put into the water is minimal. If you drank a gallon of water a day, you’d be adding less sodium than eating a green salad with one ounce of standard salad dressing.
- A water softener makes water pure. The only thing a water softener does is to remove minerals and metals that add a strain on your plumbing and appliance systems. They do not filter out contaminants. To achieve this, you may need an in-house water filtration system, depending upon your locale.
- Calcium and magnesium are good for your water. Actually, in a hard water environment, these minerals are inorganic and are not as easily assimilated by the body as they would be if ingested from foods such as vegetables, where they have become bio-active. There is some controversy on this point but there is no debate on the fact that healthy foods are a better way to absorb minerals.
- That slick feeling on your skin from soft water is a film residue. The truth is, that’s your body’s natural oils, free of hard water residue. The “squeaky clean” feeling is mineral residue drying your skin. Once you know what’s really happening, you’ll appreciate the slick feeling.
- Water softeners will make your water and electricity bill skyrocket. Water softeners require periodic additions of salt and do draw electricity you wouldn’t be using without one. However, checking over the above list of hard water downsides, you’ll find the scale can tip in favor of the economics of using a water softener.
How To Get the Most From a Soft Water System?
Benjamin Franklin Plumbing is highly experienced in determining which households can benefit from a soft water system. What works best for you may be a system that only feeds software to your bathtub, showers and laundry. If your water is excessively hard, you might need to protect your hot water heater as well. We can help you determine how hard your existing water is and the best way to deal with it based on your unique plumbing system and lifestyle.
Software systems have evolved, and you have many choices to ensure you get the efficiency and economy you require. Our professional team of plumbing technicians at Benjamin Franklin Plumbing has worked with many systems for almost every conceivable need from modest homes to mansions.