Hard Water and Why Your Plumbing Doesn’t Like It

Hard water might be one of those terms you’ve come across before; maybe you’ve heard it on TV or the radio, read it online or seen it in an advertisement.

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But though you may have come across it, you might still not know anything about it. So let’s look at hard water in further detail; what it is, how it forms, the positive and negative effects of hard water, and whether or not it can actually be softened.

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So… What *is* Hard Water?

Hard water is basically water that is overabundant in the minerals magnesium and calcium. There are various degrees of water hardness, with the mineral content levels being measured in milligrams per litre (mg/L). The Australian Government-backed Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRCCARE) classes anything below 60 mg/L as ‘soft’ water. Mineral content between 61-120 mg/L results in moderately hard water. Between 121-180 mg/L your water is hard, while anything over the 180 mg/L count is very hard water.

Across Australia, water hardness varies greatly between the states and territories, with Tasmania and Victoria boasting the softest water and South Australia, Queensland and much of Northern Territory claiming the hardest water.

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How Does Hard Water Form?

Rainwater, which is regarded as soft water, falls from the sky and soaks into the ground. No surprises there. As it makes its way through the earth, it permeates limestone rocks and chalk deposits in the ground. The water dissolves some of the mineral content in each and accumulates those minerals, making it hard. Areas with a higher concentration of chalk and limestone (and even gypsum) will typically have harder water than areas that are less concentrated.

Is Hard Water Safe To Drink?

This is a question that deserves more than just a black or white, yes or no answer. Basically there are advantages and disadvantages, so it’s up to you whether or not you think drinking hard water is worthwhile to you.

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The biggest upside to consuming calcium and magnesium-rich hard water is simply that you’re getting an intake of calcium and magnesium. It may not fulfil your Recommended Daily Intake requirements, but both are essential nutrients for the human body. Calcium is vital for healthy bones and teeth and is also instrumental in aiding blood clotting, muscle contraction, heart rhythm regulation and nerve function management. Magnesium is equally as crucial. Health Direct outlines magnesium as being an important factor in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, healthy muscles, nerves and bones, and minimising the risk of developing high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and other health concerns.

All are valid and worthy ticks on the plus side of drinking hard water. On the other side of the argument though, the minerals in hard water have been linked to the development of kidney stones, and can dry out skin and hair.

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Other Positive and Negative Effects of Hard Water

Aside from the potential health benefits described above, there are few if any additional advantages to consuming or using hard water in your home. If anything, it’s more likely that hard water will do no favours for your plumbing or your home in general. Let’s take a look at a few of the negative effects:

1.  Build-up of limescale in essential plumbing fixtures

Boiling up hard water can result in the formation of limescale, a combination of calcium and carbonate ions. It’s a process that is called ‘scaling’, and it can occur in everything from your kitchen kettle to your bathroom shower head to your home’s entire hot water heating system. As the limescale builds up, it covers any surface it touches. This can lead to unsightly deposits on and around taps and other fixtures. These deposits not only age your plumbing fixtures, but if the limescale is forming in your pipes and is left to build up, it can affect the water pressure. With your hot water system, limescale deposits can reduce its performance too, requiring you to use more energy for better heating and thus drive up your energy bills. In short, limescale, caused by hard water, is the enemy of plumbing.

2.  Hard water is harder to lather

Whether you’re washing the dishes or washing yourself, you’ll find that hard water doesn’t lather up quite as well as soft water. This is because of a chemical reaction that occurs between the minerals in the water and the ingredients in soap that effectively neutralises its lathering properties. To improve washing ability, you’ll either need to use more dishwashing liquid in the kitchen sink or soap / body wash in the shower than what you would with softer water coming from the kitchen tap or shower head.

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3.  Items around the house left with white spots

With hard water, you’ll often find that items around the house that come into regular contact with water, items such as glassware, shower screens, kettles and even car windows, will be left with white spots on them even after being properly cleaned and rinsed. This is because once the water has naturally evaporated, the traces of calcium and magnesium still remain.

4.  Sinks and bathtubs are left with stains

You might clean your kitchen sink, shower screen or bathtub until your knuckles are bleeding and the surfaces are sparkling, but if you’re washing with hard water, the return of unwanted surface stains is an almost sure-fire guarantee. Frustrating, isn’t it? Like the previous example, the minerals in the hard water stay behind once the water itself evaporates, leading to the unsightly stains.

Generally, most of these are relatively easy to combat. For example, you can use natural remedies such as a combination of water and lemon juice or lemon and household vinegar to clean up limescale in your kitchen kettle. For bathtub and toilet stains, create a paste using baking soda and white vinegar. Apply that to any surface needing cleaning, then wipe it off about 30 minutes later with a dry cloth (microfibre works best). If natural products don’t work, then you may need to consider a chemical cleaner.

How to Soften Hard Water

If you live in an area that might have water on the harder end of the spectrum, you’ve read some of these negative effects of hard water and can relate to them, your next question might be “well what can I do about it?” Thankfully, there are ways to soften hard water for household use, whether it’s small amounts for intended use at a certain time, or permanently for continued running soft water.

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1.  Ion exchange

The oldest and arguably the most common way to soften hard water is a process called ‘ion exchange’. This involves trading two sodium ions for one of each calcium and magnesium ion using a brine (i.e. salt water) solution. This scientific exchange effectively releases the magnesium and calcium ions from the water, rendering it soft. You can purchase a water softener for your home that carries out the ion exchange process so you can enjoy softer running water throughout your home. Installing a water softener is relatively easy, but of course you can contact a plumber to do it for you.

2.  Reverse osmosis

Highly effective in both softening water and purifying it, this muti-stage process isolates existing calcium and magnesium ions from the water by using pressure set to about 35psi to push water molecules through a semi-pervious membrane. Any useable soft water is either kept for storage or directed to its intended immediate use, while any excess, unwanted water – and the impurities the reverse osmosis process collects – are redirected to the drainage system.

3.  Distillation

A method that is best used only for producing smaller quantities of soft water, the process of distillation involves heating water in a container and allowing it to vaporise. The water vapours are directed towards a separate container through a cooling tube. Condensation occurs, changing the vapours back to its liquefied state. It returns to water in a soft form, free of any unwanted minerals and impurities.

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All In All…

Though mineral-rich hard water does boast some health benefits, almost any experienced plumber will tell you it’s unlikely to do your home any favours. If your plumbing has been negatively affected by hard water, whether it’s limescale build up causing pipe blockages, or deposits impacting the life of your hot water heater, a call to a plumber might be your best course of action. They can assess the current state of your plumbing and determine whether a repair, replacement or just a simple clean up will extend the lifespan of your plumbing. 


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