What is "Hard Water" and should we drink it?

I remember, as a child, hearing my mother complain about the water being too hard. I don't remember which town we were in at the time, but the "hard water" meant we needed to use more laundry soap, more dish detergent, and my mother spent more time cleaning calcium deposits off the tub and taps. I wasn't terribly concerned about "hard water" - after all, we could still drink it, wash in it, and swim in it, so I wondered why there was a problem.

Then, we moved to another town in a different province, and were introduced to "soft water". The water tasted a bit odd, but that wasn't the biggest problem. It seemed no matter how much we drank, we were still thirsty - even if we drank 'til our stomachs felt bloated. It took a while for our systems to acclimate, but our mother was thrilled at how little laundry soap, dish detergent, and shampoo we used.

Hard water "scale" on tap
Hard water "scale" on tap | Source

What is "hard" water?

So what exactly is hard water? What makes water hard or soft?

Hard water is said to be hard because of a high concentration of minerals in the water, most commonly dissolved compounds of calcium and magnesium, either as carbonates or sulphates. Water hardness is measured by how many parts per million (ppm) of the minerals are dissolved in the water.

Though there is no single international standard by which hardness is measured, water hardness classifications set out by the U.S. Geological Surveys are generally accepted.

Soft water has a high sodium content. It's wonderful for doing dishes, laundry and bathing, but though your iron and dishwasher may thank you, your body won't. Even in low concentrations, sodium makes it hard to quench your thirst as you are drinking, in effect, "salty" water. In fact, the salt (sodium) in the water will increase your thirst the more you drink.

Water Hardness Classifications

Classification
Parts Per Million or Milligrams Per Liter
Soft Water
Less than 17.1
Slightly Hard
17.1 - 60
Moderately Hard
60 - 120
Hard
120 - 180
Very Hard
Over 180

What causes "hard" water?

Hard water can be either temporary or permanent.

Temporary hardness in water is often caused by the presence of dissolved carbonate minerals (calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate) leaching into the aquifer (water bearing strata).

This “temporary” hardness can be reduced either by boiling the water, or by the addition of lime (calcium hydroxide). Boiling hard water precipitates the calcium carbonate out of solution, leaving water that is softer when it cools.

Permanent hardness is usually caused by the presence of calcium and magnesium sulphates and/or chlorides in the water. These become more soluble as the temperature increases, and cannot be removed by boiling. Despite its name though, permanent hardness can be removed.

Both kinds of hardness, temporary and permanent, can be removed by installing a water softener, which will usually filter out most of the minerals suspended in the water.

Does "hard" water cause problems?

In domestic applications - in your own home - hard water can be a nuisance, but is generally not a serious problem. Hard water can cause water scale in your sinks and bath tubs, and unsightly rings in your plant saucers. Very hard water can also clog your pipes and prevent your dishwasher from operating at full efficiency.

If your water is very hard, you will notice, as did my mother, that you need to use more laundry soap, detergent, and shampoo. That is because the minerals in the water inhibit the soap from foaming or creating lather - the higher the mineral content, the harder the water, and the more soap you will need to use to make soap suds.

Sometimes, hard well water contains iron bacteria, which causes rust-colored staining along with the hard water scale. The bacteria can be removed by "shocking" the well with bleach, and is best done by a professional, or by adding an iron filter to your water softener. If you have iron bacteria in your water, I highly recommend using an iron filter, because the staining is made worse by hot water, and will permanently stain your clothes and linens, to say nothing of the mess it will make in your dishwasher.

In commercial applications, hard water can present a real problem. Hard water deposits (off-white scale) can clog plumbing. It can be deposited on the surfaces of pipes and heat exchangers, restricting the flow of water and compromising the efficiency of the heat exchanger, and in some cases, causing corrosion. Mineral deposits can also cause metal boiler components to overheat, and can cause the boiler to fail.

Installing and maintaining a water softener as part of industrial water treatment strategies will usually alleviate the problem, though in extreme cases, soft or distilled water may have to be piped in or trucked to the site.

Is hard water safe to drink?

Most towns and cities in North America and Europe have water treatment plants. As long as your water comes from a treatment plant, it should be safe to drink. Ground water from a well or cistern should be regularly tested, but unless the mineral content exceeds safety standards, and there are no other contaminants, your water is safe for drinking.

I can personally vouch for the safety of hard drinking water - in fact I prefer hard water over soft for drinking. I also prefer soft water for laundry, and bathing. This can be problematic, as most households only have access to one water supply - from the local town or city, from their well or cistern, or, in some parts of Northern Alberta, from a dugout (a man-made, open air cistern).

In fact, hard water is better for drinking than soft water, as soft water has a tendency to leach impurities from your pipes and faucets. It is possible to have the best of both worlds though. You can install a water softener and leave one dedicated cold water line for drinking water.

Water Treatment Worldwide

Water Treatment World Map
Water Treatment World Map | Source

Water Hardness in France

Source

How do I know what kind of water I have?

Many states, provinces, counties, and municipalities have a web site, or a town office where you can access information about ground water or other water sources in your area..

Maps such as the one on the right, are often available for your location, showing what kind of water you have in your area.

You can also choose to have your water tested by a professional.

Water Softener vs Water Purifiers

Should I treat or "soften" my hard water?

We are fortunate to have a plentiful supply of clean, safe water in North America, and in most parts of the world nowadays, and though the water in my town is certainly safe, we do filter our water for drinking and cooking.

We use a Britta water filter that simply screws onto our existing kitchen faucet. It cuts down on hard water scale in the glasses, the coffee maker and in our cooking pots. As well, we add about a cup of vinegar to the dishwasher's final rinse to combat water spots and scale build-up.

If you have a private well or dugout, you might consider a whole-home water treatment systems, which can run to thousands of dollars, and requires professional installation. These systems most often include a pressure tank, various filter tanks, and a water ion exchanger (softener), and require careful and ongoing maintenance. Purchasing water may actually be more economical.

If you do decide that treatment is your best option, get recommendations from friends and neighbors wherever possible, especially if they have the same type of water as you. Do your homework - research your options carefully before deciding on a method or a company.

Common Water Treatment Systems & Costs

Type of Filter
How it works
Level of Filtration
Cost
Tap-mounted Filter
Water is diverted through a filter on your tap
Removes most odors (chlorine) and some impurities (such as sediment)
Britta: $19.99 - Pur: $15.99
Pour-through Filter
Water is poured in a vessel (pitcher) and sinks through a filter (usually activated charcoal)
Removes most odors, tastes, and some impurities (such as chlorine and calcium)
Britta: $19.99 - Pur: 29.97
Plumbed-in
Often installed under sink. Water from taps is diverted through the filter system before dispensing
Removes most odors and impurities, as well as filtering out some contaminents.
Aquasana AQ-4600: $186.99 - Cuno Aquapure AP DWS1000: $548.92

© 2012 RedElf

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32 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

I think it's amazing that I am sixty-three years old and never knew what hard water was. Thank you for shedding light on this and for educating an old man. Great hub!


CWanamaker profile image

CWanamaker 4 years ago from Arizona

In Arizona we have very hard water. Anyone living out here that uses an evaporative cooler to cool their home knows that they pretty much have to replace the whole unit each year due to the amount of mineral deposits that accumulate in it. Luckily the home that I have now is relatively new. So hopefully I don't have to worry about corrosion and mineral deposits for a while (aside from regular maintenance). Our water does taste a bit funky, but it is safe to drink. Great hub!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

Happy to have added to your store of knowledge, BP.

billybuc, you, too, are most welcome - I doubt there's much else about which I could educate you :D:D:D


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks, CWanamaker. We have very hard water here, too, which is why we filter our kitchen tap. The mineral deposits burned out a coffee pot every year - which is still a lot less expensive than an evaporative cooler. :D:D:D


sadie423 profile image

sadie423 4 years ago from North Carolina

I never had to deal with hard water, as we had city water. But we have recently moved and now have spring water, and while I don't mind it for most things, clothes washing, particularly cloth diapers is a pain with hard water.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

My mother nearly went crazy over her laundry - I have been fairly lucky, but yes, hard water makes stain removal such a pain!


kj force profile image

kj force 4 years ago from Florida

Thank you for the educational hub great research, very informative. I have always had well water,even as a child, and have always had good spring water...but now we also use a filteration system...nothing like an ice cold water !!!!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

Most welcome, kj force. I agree about ice water, too. It's my favorite drink, even before coffee :D


drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

I know that hard water and soft water exist, RedElf, but I never really knew exactly what that meant. Now thanks to your erudite explanation, I shall consider myself an expert. Well, maybe not a genuine expert, but certainly far more knowledgeable than before. Thanks to you, m'dear.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

...and that's what we "everyday experts" are all about. :D Thanks so much drbj!


vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

This hub caught my eye because water is a real problem here in Peru. I appreciate your explanation of the difference between hard and soft water. Since our water isn't drinkable, we distill for drinking and use filtered water for cooking. But since we use hard tap water for bathing, we're often left with dry skin and hair. Softening water isn't an option here, but at least we have water! Thank you for such an informative hub.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

You are very welcome, vespawoolf. I think we are very spoiled... Our water is drinkable, but we filter it for drinking. On place I lived had a well, which was safe but hard. We had a water softening/iron removal system, and we distilled our drinking water because it was too salty after it ran through the softener.


acaetnna profile image

acaetnna 4 years ago from Guildford

A captivating hub. I often wonder what I am REALLY drinking - goodness knows what they do to our water these days! I am a total advocate of filtered water, but even then I am not really sure just how pure it is!


vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

Yeah, I know what you mean about softened water. It is salty. I think the best drinking water we had was in the Andes mountains, where the water is naturally soft. Of course, we still had to filter it because of the bacterial problems but nothing's perfect!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

acaetnna, better safe than sorry, I say. I've been very lucky over my travels to have always had good water. Thanks for stopping by to read!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

There's always a trade-off, it seems, vespawoolf. Best water ever was when we lived on the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii).


billips profile image

billips 4 years ago from Central Texas

Interesting article - I drink a lot of water and have been a drinker of both hard and soft water for many years - I even drank untreated well water for five years with no ill affect - found out later that my well water was absolutely pure, a rarity on the little island of Gabriola - good hub with useful information for all of us - B.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks for stopping by, billips. Gabriola is certainly not noted for its water. My folks were going to retire there until they investigated the water issues there.


sgbrown profile image

sgbrown 4 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

I am really glad I found this hub! We have very hard water from our well. It is the only water we can get as we live in the country. All ouf our friend all say that we have the best tasting water, but it can be a pain. I am so glad to find the tip about the vinegar for the diswasher. I get really embarrased by my glass looking so cloudy and spotty. Great hub, thank you for sharing with us! Voted up, useful and socially sharing!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks so much sgbrown. We had beautiful hard well water in one house we lived in - it was the best tasting, but our mother hated it in the wash.


moonlake profile image

moonlake 4 years ago from America

We have hard water full of iron it smells and taste bad. We have a sofner on it. The softner really helps but I still won't drink it and it still leaves some rust stains on items. Today I had to clean my shower curtain liner because the bottom of it had rust stains. We get our drinking water from an artesian well near town. Voted Up on your hub.


nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

I have incredibly hard water here in Leipzig, possibly made worse by very old pipes. Having grown up with softer water, I find the taste quite nasty, especially in green and herbal teas.

Boiling water, as you mentioned, does help somewhat. I find that adding a tiny pinch of bicarbonate of soda to the kettle helps remove the nasty taste, although it increases the scale at the bottom of the kettle (never pour out the last bit of water into your tea cup, ergh!)


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

moonlake, we had a special iron filter on our system, and that took care of a lot of the problem, but aside from "shocking" the well to kill the iron bacteria, the iron filter was the best we could do - that, and avoid using bleach, which reacted badly with the water to create even worse orange stains. when I lived there, we used a purifying still for our drinking water.

nifwlseriff, you are so right - hard water makes terrible tea. I found out just how hard the water is here when I added some bicarbonate of soda to boiling water in a pot on the stove. I was trying out an old remedy to clean a burnt pot. I was fascinated by the thick layer of scale that formed almost immediately, but eventually had to just scrub the pot.


Trinity M profile image

Trinity M 4 years ago

Very interesting hub. We have hard water where I live and the scales on my taps and in my kettle can drive me crazy sometimes, however, for drinking it is really the best. When we go somewhere and have to drink soft water it never tastes “right” and we cannot wait to get back home. Voted up and interesting.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

Trinity M, thanks so much. I hate the constant scrubbing, but I prefer the taste of hard water any day.


unknown spy profile image

unknown spy 4 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

Very informative hub. Glad to know more of this subject. thanks for sharing


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks so much, unknown spy. Thanks for stopping by to read and comment!


Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

I knew that professional water soferners that are built into the incoming pipe use sodium that has to constantly be replenished. But I never knew why. Now after reading your hub I know and I understand what the difference is between hard and soft water.

This is very useful information that many people don't realize and take for granted. I can see why it's important to not drink soft water. Especially people with high blood pressure since the sodium can make it worse.

Your hub is very useful, since you explain very well about the positives and negatives with both hard and soft water.


Archa Ghodge profile image

Archa Ghodge 4 years ago from India

Thanks for sharing the hub on hard water.. :)


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

You are most welcome, Glenn Stok - we're all stuck with whatever water is available, but there are ways we can mitigate it. Thanks for the insightful comment.

Archa Ghodge, you are welcome. Thanks for stopping by to comment.


amazmerizing profile image

amazmerizing 15 months ago from PACIFIC NORTHWEST, USA

Great hub; Ive switched back and forth many times... read that as MANY and I would much prefer my water as lower end of hard... it still has that crisp fresh taste and not too many issues with the machines and buildup. Soft water just is so unmanageble, in my opinion. Thanks for sharing :)


RedElf profile image

RedElf 15 months ago from Canada Author

Thanks for stopping by to comment :)

I agree - soft water is nice for hair, not so nice for drinking.

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