Are you wondering what the difference is between hard water and soft water? Here’s where you’ll find all the facts regarding hard water vs soft water. What is hard and soft water? How can you tell if water is hard or soft? What should you do about hard water? Time to find some answers.
If you’re seeing white residue around your faucets, or experiencing low water pressure, there’s a good chance that your water is hard. There are actually a lot of effects associated with hard water. This will all be revealed in the article. I’m going to be looking at the science behind hard and soft water, in an effort to gain a better understanding of the implications involved and how to deal with the situation. To fully understand hard water vs soft water, we need to first understand how and why water is classified as being either hard or soft.
What is Hard Water?
The quick definition of hard water is the presence of hard minerals in a sample of water. The most common of these are calcium and magnesium. Though any compound with a negative ionic charge will have the effect of hardening water. Hard water is alkaline, meaning that the water has a high PH. I discuss the alkaline and acidity of hard water vs soft water in more detail later.
What is Soft Water?
Essentially, soft water is the direct opposite of hard water. This means water that contains little or no hard minerals and has a neutral or acidic PH.
How to Determine if Water is Hard or Soft?
The most accurate assessment of hardness or softness in water through scientific analysis. A laboratory will test what minerals are present in parts per million (PPM). The most common test will be for the presence of calcium carbonate. If the water has less than 20 PPM calcium, it is soft. A water sample containing 50 – 100 PPM calcium is considered moderately hard. Anything exceeding 100 PPM calcium is hard water.
Apart from scientific testing, there are many common signs of hard water, that can be observed around the home. Signs of hard water:
Any of these effects may indicate that the water in your home is hard. Though there may be other causes, especially when considering water pressure and the performance of water heaters. If you are experiencing a combination of these factors, your water is probably hard.
If you notice a scale buildup and need more certainty as to whether your water is hard or soft, a simple PH test may help. You can use a common swimming pool test kit. Hard water can be identified by a high PH, alkaline water. While there can be other factors affecting water PH, the combination of limescale on your faucets and in your appliances, in conjunction with a high PH, is an almost definite sign the water in your home is hard.
The Effects of Hard Water vs Soft Water
Hard minerals in water will cling to the walls of your pipes. This restricts waterflow, reducing water pressure. Over time, deposits of these minerals can block pipes. Unsightly residue on plumbing fixtures, like faucets and bathtubs are common. The alkaline nature of hard water can cause irritation to the skin and eyes. You may also notice that skin is dry and flaky. Certain skin conditions, like eczema, can be aggravated by hard water. Small particles of calcium and magnesium will collect in the fibers of your clothes during washing.
This will affect the color of the fabric and make it feel hard or stiff. Deposits of these minerals in water heaters may also cause them to be less efficient.
By removing these elements from the water, it becomes soft. So the benefits of soft water can be listed as follows.
Soft Water Benefits
Acid and Alkaline: Hard Water vs Soft Water
The difference between an acid and alkaline is determined by the concentration of hydrogen ions. Water, in it’s natural state is essentially neutral. It contains 2 hydrogen atoms for every oxygen atom. Hydrogen is ionic 1- and oxygen 2+, cancelling the ionic charge.
When negative ions bond with water it becomes more acidic, therefore softer. Positive ions will increase alkalinity, making the water hard. Hydrogen ions are measured using the PH formula. A high PH indicates alkaline (hard water) and low PH would be soft water which is either neutral or acidic.
The best PH for water is 7. This is the normal PH for the skin and eyes. Ideally, you want your water to have a PH of around 7. If it is much lower, as with hard water, your skin will become dry and you may experience itching. Your eyes will also experience irritation. High acidity can cause a burning sensation, though it is not easy to achieve this in water, unless a strong acid is added.
Essentially, hard (alkaline) water is a naturally occurring problem, whereas acidic water requires intervention. A swimming pool, for example, may become excessively acidic when you add too much acid to the water.
How Does Water Become Hard?
Rainwater is generally neutral. It is almost pure H₂0 which will have a PH close to 7. When rain falls onto the ground, it makes contact with other minerals contained in the soil. Calcium, magnesium, and iron are common metals that will bond with the water. As the water seeps through the earth into the ground water supply, it will become hard as it comes into contact with calcium, magnesium, and other hard elements.
While hard water is commonly associated with well water, many municipalities may use water sources with an abundance of hard metals.
Which Areas are Affected by Hard Water?
Hard water will be most prevalent in low-rainfall areas. This is because there is less water in relation to hard minerals, thereby increasing the amount of hardeners compared to the volume of water.
Though there can also be geological reasons. Here’s an interesting fact: Most of the USA was once an ancient seabed. This means that most of continent has high concentrations of limestone, leading to vast areas being affected by hard to extremely hard water. It is estimated that around 85% of Americans have hard water in their homes. There are only a few eastern states and parts of the Northwest that experience soft to moderately hard water.
Top Cities in the USA for Hard Water:
How Do You Treat Hard Water?
The best way to control hard waters is to install a whole house water softener. This will protect the plumbing in your home and prevent other negative effects, like staining of your clothing and skin irritations. Not to mention, improve the efficiency of appliances like water heaters, and unpleasant stains on your sinks, bathtubs, and showers.
There are basically two types of water softeners. Salt-based whole house water softeners are the most common. These are actually the only true water softeners. Salt-free water softeners are more accurately described as water conditioners. This is because salt-free water softeners don’t actually remove the hard minerals. They simply alter the mineral structure, making them soluble in water. Salt-free water conditioners are also called descalers, as they prevent the buildup of limescale in your pipes and plumbing fixtures, as opposed to actually removing hard minerals. There two basic types of salt-free water conditioners, or descalers: Salt-free media descalers, and electronic descalers. Portable salt-free water conditioners are also available.
Salt-Based Water Softeners
Salt-based water softeners use the basic scientific principle of ionic exchange. The principle involves using positively charged sodium to attract negatively charged metals. Sodium Chloride (NaCl) is the salt we use for our food. It can take the form of table salt or larger crystals, known as rock salt. It is the sodium in salt that is essential to salt-based water softeners.
These water softeners have two tanks, a mineral tank and a brine tank. The mineral tank is filled with resin beads. The brine tank contains a solution of salt and water. When this brine flows into the mineral tank, the sodium clings to the resin beads.
The main water supply to your home passes through the mineral tank. As water flows over the ionized resin, negatively charged water hardeners are attracted to the positively charged sodium coating these beads. Minerals, like magnesium, calcium, and small amounts of iron adhere to beads and remain in the mineral tank. The water exiting the mineral tank is then free of water hardeners.
In order to remain ionized, the mineral tank needs to undergo a regeneration process. This is usually done on a 24-hour cycle, at a time when water is not required in the home, usually around midnight. Mineral tank regeneration involves flushing the tank with a salt solution from the brine tank. The hard minerals are rinsed from the beads and discarded down the drain. Fresh sodium is introduced by the brine and the beads are, once again, ionized and able to continue removing hard minerals from the water.
To avoid a shutdown of the water system during regeneration, a two tank system can be used. The second tank will continue to supply soft water while the other is being regenerated. Most salt-based water systems use a programmable timer so that the user can chose the best time for regeneration. Some monitor the water usage in your home and are only regenerated as needed, according to how much water has been used.
The regeneration process can continue almost indefinitely. Salt based water softeners typically last 10 – 15 years, during which time only new salt needs to be added periodically. Though these systems can last for more than 20-years, depending on the quality and how much water it is used in the home.
Salt-Free Water Softeners (Water Conditioners)
Salt-free water softeners are more correctly called soft water conditioners, or descalers. This is because the hard minerals remain in the water. The chemical structure of the minerals is altered, preventing them from accumulating in your pipes. It is also easy to clean away residue on your plumbing fixtures and appliances.
The most common salt-free water softeners use a chemical media that crystalizes the hard minerals. In this crystal form, the minerals are unable to cling to surfaces, like the inside of your pipes. The media is contained in a tank. Water, from the main supply, enters the tank and grains cause a change in the structure of the metals in the water. The water leaving the tank contains soluble hard minerals in a crystal structure.
In the same way that a chemical media is used to alter the hard metals, electronically generated waveforms will agitate the metals, causing them to crystalize. Electronic descalers (or water conditioners) plug into the mains power and two antennae are wrapped around the water supply pipe. This causes an electromagnetic wave that changes the structure of the hard minerals.
Portable Water Softeners
Small, lightweight salt-free water softeners, using a chemical media, are ideal for camping and homes where a permanent installation is unpractical, like rented homes. These work in the same way as whole house water conditioners. The difference being a smaller tank with less capacity, and easy to install fittings. Portable water conditioners fit onto a regular faucet and need no tools to install. They are easily removed and usually have handles to aid in portability.