The USGS considers water with a hardness of zero to 60 milligrams per liter (mg/L) as calcium carbonate soft; 61 to 120 mg/L moderately hard; 121 to 180 mg/L hard; and anything more than 180 mg/L very hard. Phil Bennett, a geological sciences professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said you may start to notice problems if your water is in the moderately hard to very hard ranges.
The D.C. area generally has moderately hard water, though it varies by season and location, said Mary Sherrill, a supervisor at D.C. Water, the entity that manages water treatment for the city. She said it tends to be harder in warmer months.
Just because you’re having issues with appliances, though, doesn’t mean your water is hard. Older pipes or aging infrastructure can cause similar problems, Sherrill said. There are at-home tests available to check water hardness, or you can hire a professional to test it. (The Environmental Protection Agency has a tool to find certified drinking water treatment labs.) Bennett recommends testing the water several times and recording the numbers, then comparing them with figures from the city’s water-quality reports. Another easy at-home test? Try soaping up in the shower, Bennett said; if it’s difficult to work up a lather, you might have hard water, and if it’s hard to rinse away, the water could be too soft. Eric Yeggy, technical affairs director at the Water Quality Association, a trade association for the water-treatment industry, recommends having water professionally tested for accurate results.
Brent Haddad, an environmental studies professor and director of the Center for Integrated Water Research at the University of California at Santa Cruz, suggests that renters and homeowners consult their city’s water-quality reports, which include measurements of minerals present in the water and the hardness level. The reports are produced yearly, as mandated by the EPA. Yeggy said well owners can reach out to their local health department for groundwater reports.
If you do have hard water, in mild cases, you may just need to clean stains or remove buildup. Too much limescale buildup can affect water pressure and clog pipes, said Chuck Khiel, vice president of Fred Home Improvement. He suggests paying attention to water pressure in the shower, because that’s where most people notice changes. Or you could purchase a pressure gauge, attach it to a spigot and compare readings with posted figures on the city water service’s website. A plumber can also help.
But even if you remove buildup from the pipes, Khiel said, you still have hard water, and the problem could recur.
Options for treating hard water and minimizing its effects include whole-house softening systems or devices that can be attached to sinks or faucets to remove specific minerals. The whole-house units are generally sodium ion exchange systems that trade the calcium and magnesium ions in the water for sodium.
It’s possible to install softeners in homes connected to public water, Bennett said, but hardness is more common in well water. Homeowners should always check local rules and regulations before installing a system.
Before committing to a whole-house system, remember that softer water isn’t always preferable. “Many people actually prefer a little hardness in their water, because minerals give it a taste,” said Bennett, who lives in Austin and has moderately hard water. Many people have few issues with hard water, he added; cities treat their water supplies and take into account mineral content and hardness to create a balance that performs well in homes and is safe and pleasant to drink and cook with.
Conditioners and filtration systems installed in specific spots in the house — typically where water is used for drinking and cooking — are popular purchases at AJ Madison, a high-end appliance store based in New York, said Jessica Petrino, its editorial director. Bennett cautions, though, that although filters remove minerals from water, they won’t affect hardness; to change hardness, you’d need to buy a softener. Several trade groups offer certifications for both products and the technicians who install them.
Prices for whole-house systems vary based on the brand and the size of the home, but they can range from about $1,000 to more than $4,000, plus installation and upkeep; units connected to one faucet generally cost $200 or more.
If hard water is causing problems for you, it may become apparent over time, with appliances and pipes not working as well as they used to. It could also show up suddenly in the form of hard mineral deposits or stains.
Hard water can cause sediment and limescale to build up in water heaters, making them work harder. That can increase utility bills. Sherrill recommends yearly maintenance on your water heater, including draining it and checking that it’s running smoothly. Khiel also suggests replacing or cleaning out a heater’s nodes — the detachable compartments where water is stored — to aid with excess mineral buildup. (For this, Khiel suggests calling an experienced plumber.)
Cloudy glasses or mineral bits stuck to dishes are unsightly, but limescale buildup can also interfere with your dishwasher’s ability to do its job, said Erin McDermott, senior communication manager at Neighborly, a Waco, Tex.-based firm that owns home-service companies. She recommends running loads with Lemi Shine Dish Detergent Booster ($4.99, lemishine.com), which can be used while dishes are inside, or using Glisten’s Dishwasher Magic Machine Cleaner ($4.18, Lowe’s) when it’s empty for a deeper clean. Petrino said some dishwashers come with built-in water softeners, but units that have them generally cost more than $1,000.
Hard water also can complicate laundry day. It can coat the inside of the machine’s tub with deposits and make it harder for detergent to lather. Khiel suggests running a cleaning cycle with two cups of distilled white vinegar once a month to remove deposits and reduce odor. It can also help to use a liquid detergent instead of a powder. Adding a half-cup of Borax to a load of laundry can also help combat hard water.
Stains in sinks and toilet bowls are not as problematic as appliance damage, but they are an eyesore. McDermott says distilled white vinegar is a regular part of the stain-removal arsenal at Molly Maid, Neighborly’s cleaning service. “It’s nontoxic, doesn’t stain and it’s not super corrosive,” she said. She also recommends Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser ($4.49 for a pack of two, Amazon).
And to remove deposits from faucets and other surfaces, Khiel and McDermott suggest pouring enough vinegar to submerge the faucet head in a plastic sandwich bag and securing it with a rubber band. Leave it to soak for 15 minutes to an hour, then wipe the faucet. Use a clean rag or old toothbrush to remove remaining residue. The same trick works for shower heads. Rinse with distilled water to avoid creating more deposits.
For windows and shower doors, McDermott suggests gently buffing the stains with a rag and an oxalic acid cleanser, such as Bar Keepers Friend ($7.85, Amazon). And Rain-X’s Shower Door X-treme Clean ($11.62, Amazon) will help “put some time in between cleanings” by creating a surface where water will slide off, she said.
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