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Hard Water and How to Treat It

A very large percentage of homes in Canada and the United States have hard water. It is a widespread problem and yet many are not aware of what it really is and how it can be treated.

What is hard water?

Simply stated, hard water is water with a high concentration of dissolved minerals, most commonly calcium and magnesium.

    
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  • What is Hard Water?

  • How do I know if I have hard water?

  • What are the risks associated with hard water?

  • How do I treat hard water?

  • How do I know if I have hard water?

    Hard water can be a terrible nuisance in household applications. The colors of your garments will fade, and clothing fibres will be damaged, decreasing wearing life. Hard water can leave unsightly coatings on your dishes, shower doors, walls, bathtubs, sinks and fixtures. If you have a hard water problem it can interfere with almost every cleaning task - from washing yourself and your hair to washing clothes and dishes. Soaps and detergents will not lather and will often not be effective.

    While there are plenty of signs that your water might be hard, the best way to know for sure is to have it tested. Water testing labs are found in most regions and you can find out more about them through your local municipal water authority. Once you have had your water tested, you can use the following chart to determine the degree of your hardness problem.

      Classification Mg/L or PPM (parts-per-million) Grains/Gallon or GPG
         
      Soft 0 - 17 0 - 1
      Slightly Hard 17 - 60 1 - 3.5
      Moderately Hard 61 - 120 3.5 - 7.0
      Hard 121 - 180 7.0 - 10.5
      Very Hard 180 + 10.5 +

    Water that has a hardness reading of 3.5 GPG or 61 PPM (moderately hard) or higher would benefit from treatment.

     

    What are the risks associated with hard water?

    There are no real health risks associated with hard water, in fact the minerals in the water may be of some benefit to those who are deficient. That said, treating water with a hardness level of 3.5 or greater can result in greater convenience and significant cost savings.

     

    Problems Associated with Hard Water

    • You will have to use twice as much soap and shampoo, etc. for washing clothes, dishes and yourself as hard water reduces soap's ability to lather and does not rinse well.
    • "Soap scum" builds up on bathtubs, sinks, dishes and your skin and hair
    • Hardness or lime scale builds up on faucets, inside pipes and water heaters, reducing their efficiency and operating life, and in extreme cases even blocking them completely.
    • Minerals associated with hard water build up on clothing fibres, weakening them and dulling colors
    • Lime scale builds up on dishes causing unsightly white coating or spots
    • Minerals build up on hair and skin, causing dryness and sometimes irritation

     

    How do I treat hard water?

    There are a few options available to those wishing to treat hard water:

    Ion Exchange Water Softener :
    Ion exchange is a fancy name for using other minerals (usually sodium) to perform a chemical reaction with the minerals in the water and alter them enough that they will not precipitate out onto clothing, fixtures, possessions and bodies. Ion exchange units are the typical, tried-and-true water softeners that you will see used in most applications.

    Ion exchange units use a sodium ion to replace calcium and magnesium ions in the water. Sodium ions are held on special beads, and as the water flows over the beads the exchange is completed. Once all of the sodium ions have been taken from the beads and they are saturated with calcium and magnesium ions, they need to be regenerated.

    Beads are regenerated through brining, or being soaked in a solution of water and sodium chloride (salt). While the beads are soaking in the brine, the calcium and magnesium ions are stripped from them and replaced with sodium ions, and the whole process can begin again.

    Traditional water softeners will have a large holding or "brine" tank, which must be kept full of salt. This reservoir is where the mechanism draws the brine for the regular flushing of the ion exchange beads. Most softeners will have either a manual mechanism to initiate a flushing cycle, or an electronic timer or sensor-type system that will do the same thing.

    Ion exchange is the most common technology used in household applications. While maintenance, ongoing operating costs and increased sodium in the water (which can be an issue for those who must observe a reduced sodium diet) are drawbacks, ion exchange is a simple, effective and safe solution to hard water woes.

    If you are considering the purchase of an ion exchange water softener, you can use this calculation to determine the size of the unit you will require. Before trying to make the calculation, you will need to have your water supply tested for harness, iron and manganese levels.

    Polyphosphate:
    Generally, polyphosphate feeders are effective in low volume, cold water applications. The polyphosphate dissolves into the water and coats the iron, calcium and magnesium in it, making it impossible for these agents to precipitate out of the water and create the problems associated with hard water.

    Polyphosphate crystals are placed within a housing and as water flows through it, the crystals dissolve.

    Polyphosphate is also available in a more traditional filter. These filters are effective for relatively small quantities of water, and are commonly used in low volume applications such as refrigerator ice makers, etc.

    Unfortunately, polyphosphate-type systems are only effective in cold water, low volume applications. It should also be noted that phosphates are a preferred "food" for bacteria - so if bacterial contamination is a concern (in private, non-chlorinated water supplies, for example) you may want to reconsider using a polyphosphate system.

    Magnetic and Electronic Water Conditioners:
    These products are very controversial in the water softening marketplace. While supporters remind us that these systems have been working in large-scale applications in Europe for decades, skeptics point out a lack of scientific evidence that they actually work.

    The concept is fairly simple. An energy field is created and the water is allowed to flow through it. As the water flows through the field, the structures of the hardness agents are altered so that they are not able to precipitate into the limescale that is associated with hard water. Because they cannot precipitate and attach to fixtures, bodies or possessions, they pass harmlessly down the drain.

    In a study conducted by Bath University in England, an electronic conditioning device was shown to be effective in cutting down limescale buildup in household copper pipe.


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