If you've ever wondered if your home suffers from hard water, chances are it's a resounding "Yes." According to a U.S. geological survey, hard water is found in more than 85 percent of the country.

In this post we take a closer look at hard water. What is it? Is it safe? What problems does it cause? Are there any solutions when dealing with hard water issues? Does it require a call to a plumber for inspection?

What Is Hard Water?

When it rains the water is "soft" and free of minerals, which it picks up as it passes through rocks, sand, and soil. Hard water contains mineral salts, calcium, and magnesium ions.

You might recognize some of these results of hard water:

  • the white, crusty deposits that you find on faucets, either around the base or clogging the aerator on the spigot,
  • the scum you find on shower doors and tiles, in bathtubs, and on fixtures,
  • the annoying spots on glasses and dishes, even after they've been thoroughly washed in the dishwasher ,
  • skin feels dry and itchy, hair is dull and lifeless,
  • the clothes that come out of the washing machine are clean but may be dingy-looking and gray,
  • how your tap water, coffee, or tea tastes.

As noted in the U.S. geological survey, 85 percent of U.S. homes suffer from slightly to extremely hard water, with Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Tampa the six metro areas known for having the hardest water in the country.

Residents in our area are actually pretty lucky with some of the best water in the country, ranging from only slightly hard to moderately hard (water hardness map). This, however, doesn't mean you don't have hard water issues. If you're unsure, check with the Water Works regarding the quality of the water where you live.

If you use a private well, water information also should be available from your local Water Works.

The Soap Test

A simple test that doesn't involve the water department or calling a plumber is to pay attention to how well your soap works. Watch for the amount of foaming that occurs when using cleaning products like toothpaste, dish soap, laundry detergent, and other household cleaners. If you have to add a lot of soap to the water to work up suds, it's most likely hard water.

Is Hard Water Harmful To Your Health?

No. The World Health Organization says that "there does not appear to be any convincing evidence that water hardness causes adverse health effects in humans."

So Why Worry About Hard Water?

Hard water can impact your home from a plumbing perspective and be an annoyance in daily life. As an example, hard water uses up to 29 percent more energy to heat your water and the lifespan of those appliances decreases by up to 50 percent, meaning you will need to replace more frequently.

What's the Problem?

From a Plumbing Perspective

  • Hard water minerals can clog pipes over time and can reduce water flow. If you have an older home (with aging pipes) and you're experiencing low water flow, you may want to call a plumber for a closer inspection and possibly repair or replacement.
  • Before you do so, check the aerator for deposit build-up that may be restricting water flow. You can fix this yourself.
  • Scale — what these mineral deposits are called — and a dull film will accumulate on bath/kitchen fixtures and tile, which is often unsightly, difficult to keep clean, and annoying for many homeowners and renters.
  • Scale deposits will shorten the life of water heaters, which can be expensive to replace. You, or a local plumber, can drain the water from a hot water heater periodically to get rid of deposits and sediment. If a water heater "goes bad," there are no repairs, just replacement.

Hard Water: From a Daily Life Perspective

  • Hard water leaves glasses and dishes with a white film or spots, even after cleaning in a dishwasher.
  • Hard water reduces sudsing action can leave clothes looking gray and dingy; towels are scratchy and hard.
  • Harsh minerals in hard water reduce the life of clothing, causing them to "wear out" sooner than expected.
  • Hard water can impact the taste of your drinking water, tea, coffee, ice, and other beverages you prepare.
  • Hard water leaves an invisible soapy film on the skin and can leave it feeling dry.
  • Hard water leaves excessive, filmy shampoo residue in your hair and can leave it looking dull and limp.
  • Your utility bills can increase due to accumulated scale in the water heater. Scale is a poor conductor of heat, increasing the energy needed to heat water.

What Can You Do Do

Just because the water is hard, it doesn't mean that you need spend money to add a water softener to your home, town home, or apartment. There are workarounds.

Adapting, Making Small Changes

  • Use a rinsing agent or distilled vinegar in the dishwasher to remove white film and spots. There are many commercially available products to address spotting. Vinegar's acidity can cut through the minerals left behind by hard water. If you want to create your own cleaner, fix a 50-50 solution of distilled water and vinegar to spot-treat shower doors, faucets. Combine vinegar with baking soda for a more powerful scrub for bathtubs and sinks. Lemon juice can be used in place of vinegar.
  • Reducing the temperature of the hot water heater will help. This is also a good way to conserve energy and save money off your monthly electricity or gas bill.
  • Run a pot of strong white vinegar through the coffee machine every few months.
  • Use special soaps and shampoos formulated for hard water. Chelating shampoos are specifically designed to prevent and remove mineral buildup in your hair. A chelating agent (one that contains EDTA) chemically binds to minerals, removing them before you even have a chance to notice their presence. Note: These shampoos will strip your hair, so it should only be used about once a week and followed up with a moisturizing conditioner.
  • A final rinse of one-quarter cup of apple cider vinegar and three-quarter cup of water in the shower can help remove dulling product build-up. Apple cider vinegar acts as a hair clarifier, removing mineral and hair product buildup while maintaining color and shine.
  • Use white vinegar on tiles, glass, and faucets to help remove mineral deposits.
  • Remove calcified build-up on pipes and appliances on a regular basis. There are many commercial "lime away" and calcium-cleaning products available at stores throughout the area for this purpose.
  • Flush the hot water heater occasionally as directed in the owner's manual.
  • Use bottled water for drinking, brewing coffee or tea, and making ice and other beverages.
  • Boil water before drinking it.
  • Use a water pitcher with a filter.
  • Special additives for your laundry. These bind to the hardness minerals and soften the water during the wash cycle. However, these additives are drained away with the wash water, leaving the clothes to be rinsed with hard water, undoing some of the additives' benefits.