Hard water is a dilemma for numerous U.S. households. The presence of hard water is a nuisance for many homeowners because of its impact on the home plumbing system, appliances, and boilers. Understanding the truth about hard water can help you recognize factors that may directly impact your quality of life. The chemical composition of water can have a significant effect on your plumbing and maintenance bills. While you do not necessarily need to know the difference between calcium carbonate and dihydrogen monoxide, it is helpful to know all the basics about hard water. Knowing the fundamentals of hard water can help you make the right decision on how to address this phenomenon.
What is Hard Water?
Hard water describes a fresh water supply that contains relatively high amounts of minerals. The minerals most commonly found in hard water include calcium and magnesium. Depending on the region, hard water may also include other dissolved metals like iron, zinc, copper, or manganese. The higher the dissolved mineral content, the “harder” the water. While hard water is safe to drink, it can leave chalky white deposits on your fixtures. Over time, the accumulation of these mineral deposits can create buildup that permanently damages household plumping and pipes.
What Causes Hard Water?
Rainwater that falls from the sky consists of hydrogen and oxygen (H20). As water moves through Earth’s atmosphere and soil, it dissolves small amounts of minerals and transports them into the groundwater supply along the way. Water is an excellent solvent for minerals calcium and magnesium and can absorb these minerals quickly. The absorbed content transforms the water from soft to hard due to the increased volume of minerals per gallon of water. This hardened water eventually collects into aquifers and can end up in homes.
Scientists measure water hardness in terms of milligrams per liter (mg/L) or grains per gallon (GPG). For U.S. households, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) classifies water hardness in terms of milligrams of calcium carbonate per liter of municipal water. According to the USGS, standard water hardness are as follows:
- Soft water – 0 to 60 mg/L (or 0–3 GPG)
- Moderately hard water – 61 to 120 mg/L
- Hard water – 121 to 180 mg/L
- Very hard water – >181 mg/L (or >7.5 GPG)
What are the Effects of Hard Water on Plumbing?
Hard water leaves behind mineral deposits. Also known as “scale deposits,” the accumulation of this leftover substance can clog appliances and pipes. When you heat up hard water, a certain amount of the water eventually evaporates. Any minerals dissolved in the water then precipitate and remain left behind on any surfaces. This solidified scale or limescale can accumulate in everything from the coffeemaker to your home water heater, washing machine, dishwasher, or household plumbing.
While scale deposits in coffeemakers might not seem like a big deal since you can clean them off monthly with vinegar, limescale deposits in plumbing can narrow the opening of your pipes. This increases the likelihood that your pipes will crack or burst. Scale deposits can also cause mineral corrosion within your water heater, shortening the lifespan of this appliance and increasing the chances that the unit will leak or fail.
To understand how hard water can impact everyday life, consider what happens when you use hard water to wash your hands. The minerals in hard water react with the hydroxide in soap to create soap scum. This soap scum inhibits the creation of suds and lessens the effectiveness of cleansing. You may find yourself using more soap to wash your hands, hair, dishes, or laundry. And even then, you may still feel a chalky film or dry residue left behind. The same mineral buildup can impact your plumbing in the following ways.
Each time hard water flows through a faucet or drain, calcium and magnesium attach to the sides of the pipe. These deposits accumulate over time. Mineral deposits eventually inhibit the flow of water within pipes in the same way that plaque in human arteries restricts blood flow in the heart. The presence of these deposits can compromise the lifespan of all plumbing materials, including steel, copper, or PVC. Clotted minerals can also harden into solid blockages or large plugs that slow down main drains, interfere with garbage disposals, and clog toilets. Even smaller deposits can create pinhole leaks or joinery gaps within pipes. These leaks can result in dripping inside of walls, mold growth, or even indoor flooding. It is best to contact a professional to address hard water issues before letting clogged drains escalate into property damage.
Decreased Water Flow
Calcium and magnesium deposits within water valves can also reduce water flow. When hard water passes through tight spaces like the spray jets of kitchen sinks, shower heads, or dishwasher arms, clogs can form rather quickly. According to a study from the Water Quality Research Foundation (WQRF), shower heads can lose up to 75% of standard water flow rate after nine months of using hard water. If you notice limescale buildup along your water valves and faucets, contact a professional for hard water testing and softening solutions.
Reduced Water Quality
Hard water can also reduce the quality of water that flows from your pipes. Households rely on plumbing systems to provide clean water for cooking, bathing, washing dishes or clothes, and other daily tasks. With hard water, however, you may notice particles in drinking water or debris left behind on dishes or in the sink. While hard water is safe for human consumption, it is not ideal for other tasks that help households operate efficiently. For example, hard water can clog the pipes of large appliances like refrigerators and dishwashers. Hard water can even affect the jets inside of bathtubs or hoses and sprinklers located outside of the home.
Broken Pipes and Leaks
If the water hardness level is high enough, it can destroy pipes in two ways. First, the minerals in the hard water erode the piping materials, creating pores in the construction of the material. These pores can gradually grow in size until a leak occurs. Second, the aggregation of minerals impedes proper flow. When water pressure forces liquid through pipes, the result is connection failure or complete breakage.
Reduced Energy Efficiency
Hard water can also reduce overall energy efficiency in your home. Since hard water can create clogs that decrease water flow, appliances can end up working harder to complete basic tasks. This increase in water usage can lead to higher utility bills. Mineral residue from hard water can also cause appliances to work harder than normal. For example, some high-efficiency models of dishwashers and washing machines use sensors to determine when a cycle should end. Hard water deposits can trigger these sensors and cause the appliances to operate longer than necessary.
Increased Risk of Corrosion
As minerals, calcium and magnesium are particularly destructive to metal elements within the plumbing. Due to the oxygen in water, calcium and magnesium cause the atoms on metal pipes to oxidize. The resulting corrosion wears down metal pipes and can cause hair leaks, discolored water, or complete breaks. Without the help of an experienced plumber to repair the corroded section of the pipe, the whole component can eventually deteriorate.
Possibly Voided Warranties
Manufacturer warranties typically cover accidents or production defects. Warranties can also cover reasonable problems that arise despite regular care and maintenance. However, hard water deposits can indicate that you do not keep with reasonable maintenance. Some warranties even include sections that void the agreement if there is evidence of misuse or mineral buildup. Working with a professional can help you avoid loss of warranty due to poor maintenance or lack of care.
What Can I Do About Hard Water?
If you suspect that you have hard water, one of the first steps is to contact a plumber for professional testing. A plumber has the equipment and experience necessary to provide you with an accurate water testing report. Since hard water can depend largely on the region in which you live, there is no way for the average person to suddenly “fix” hard water. Instead, you can work with a professional to determine the best water treatment solution for your household. These treatment solutions can include whole-house filtration, reverse osmosis, water softening, or water purification. For example, the plumbing company may suggest an ion-exchange water softener that replaces hard minerals with potassium or sodium, thereby reducing the calcium or magnesium in home water. Your technician may also offer salt-free water conditioners and electric filtration options.
Contact Us Today
Although hard water is a widespread problem, a professional home services company can help. Summit Heating & A/C offers expert plumbing for homes in Denver, CO and surrounding areas. We offer plumbing inspections and specialize in water quality products, drain cleaning, and pipe repair. Contact Summit Heating & A/C for all of your plumbing needs.