What is Hard Water?
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, roughly 85% of all homes in America have a problem with hard water.
The telltale signs of hard water are usually spots on your dishes, however there are other things that are often overlooked such as tub stains, skin breakouts and issues with washing clothing.
While none of these things are a serious hazard to your health, they do cause a visible nuisance, as well as potential damage and expensive repairs to your plumbing system from years of build-up.
What Causes Hard Water?
Ground water is classified on a range from hard to soft based on the mineral content in 1 gallon.
Water that is stored underground slowly collects various minerals from the natural rock walls. Minerals such as calcium, manganese and magnesium dissolve into the water and form the basis of what is considered hard water.
What is Considered Hard Water?
The water hardness is measured in various ways, either by grains per gallon or by parts per million of any given mineral.
If you are looking at various commercial water softeners or testing kits, some may be rated differently. For purposes of determining the actual hardness based on either scale, remember, 1 Grain per Gallon (GPG) = 17.1 Parts per Million (PPM).
The US Geological Survey considers any water that contains more than 1 GPG or mineral content to be hard. With this rating, most homes in the United States fall into the category of hard water.
Any home with a rating of 10.5 GPG is considered to be extreme and should be addressed. Most homes in the USA fall somewhere between this range and the only way to know is to purchase a test kit, or have a professional evaluate your city or well water.
Effects of Hard Water
You may not notice that you have an issue. Many detergents are available that remove the mineral spots on dishes cleaned in the dishwasher. And unless you have a classic steel or porcelain claw foot bathtub, you may not have any stains left from draining.
Hard-water minerals such as calcium and magnesium react harshly with a lot of soaps and shampoos, however, you never realize it. Typically they would interfere with their ability to lather causing you to use more and more.
If you have tile walls in your bathroom or a completely tiled shower, you probably have noticed soap scum and build-up on the walls and floors.
Another obvious effect of hard water may be the taste of your tap water. Hard minerals like iron and manganese often give it a bad smell and taste.
However, you should not rely on these visible clues because most of the effects of hard water are hidden and are not brought to the surface until a water heater, washing machine or dish washer begins to have issues.
For instance, when heaters heat water for use in the home, the minerals that are contained within the liquid recrystallize and settle at the bottom, eventually clogging the system at various points. Not only does this block flow in the plumbing system of your home, but it leads to higher energy bills because the water heater is working harder.
And it does not have to be in the water heater. It can even occur in various types of shower heads. I have to deal with this particular issue often in my apartment in Rio. I have a simple metal shower head with openings that begin clogging within weeks. It is a rain fall type shower head, but after the hard water crystals begin to form and clog the openings, it will actually shoot out at an angle, which is very annoying.
The only solution is to unscrew the shower head and soak it in a solution like CLR.
You can also see the effects of hard water in your coffee maker. The best remedy for that is to run vinegar through it every week or so.
How does a Water Softener Work?
To determine the size of the water softener you may need in your home, multiply the number of people that live in your home by 75.
That is the average number of gallons of water each person uses each day. That will give you an estimate of the total amount of water your household uses daily.
Take that number and multiply it by the GPG rating of hardness in your water. Again, you will need to have your water tested to determine the water hardness.
Once multiplied, that number will give you the size of the water softener that you need to accommodate your household.
Softeners need time to recharge so you should purchase one with at least 3 days worth fo functionality before the need for recharging.
If this will be an issue due to a lot of use in your home, you may want to consider a dual tank water softener. These have an additional tank that is used while the other is regenerating.
Tips for Buying a Water Softener
The regeneration cycle is the most important consideration for any softener you may rent or buy. Be sure you know how long it takes each regeneration cycle to complete. Also, you will need to add salt to the system, so verify how much and when before installing a unit. Some are more automated than others and require less maintenance.
Regeneration cycles are controlled either by electronic timers or demand-initiated regeneration (DIR) which means that it will only regenerate if the reservoir is low, saving energy and salt needed.
Lease or Buy?
It depends on whether you are looking for a long-term or short-term solution. Leasing a unit is the cheapest option of course, with less upfront costs.
A lease of a softener will cost between $20 to $50 a month, depending on a lot of factors. Also, there may be an installation fee from the company.
Buying a unit will cost between $500 to $3000 depending on the bells and whistles. You will also need to pay for the unit supplies which can run as much as $150 a year.
In either case, get multiple estimates and quotes and make sure you understand the warranty.
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(price as of Feb 10, 2015)