Hard Water vs Soft Water: What’s the Difference?

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hard water soft water

Water softeners have become very popular and many people rely on them to provide their homes with all the benefits of softened water. But what is soft water? Is it truly beneficial or is it an unnecessary expense? If you’ve ever experienced water spots on your dishes after washing them or on your shower walls and door, then you’ve seen some of the results of hard water. If your skin ever seems dry and flaky when you step out of the shower, then you’ve likely felt its effects as well.

In the United States, 85% of homes are supplied with hard water, and in some areas, it’s much harder than others. It’s likely you have hard water in your home, and you may be wondering if it’s worth investing in a solution. In this article, we’re going to explore the differences between hard and soft water to determine the benefits of both and see which is the healthier choice. Then, we’ll talk about some solutions to make sure you’re providing your family with the healthiest and most beneficial water possible.

What is Hard Water?

Hard_water_and_drop
Hard Water, Credit: Wikipedia

Hard water has high concentrations of minerals, particularly magnesium and calcium. These minerals can bond together and cause buildup in pipes, on and around fixtures and faucets, on dishes, floors, shower walls, etc. When minerals build up in pipes, it can cause expensive damage and even impede water flow, reducing water pressure. You may even see chunks or crystals floating in your water from pieces of these deposits breaking off into your drinking water.

The white chalky residue left behind when water dries is called scale or hard water spots. This is from the bonded minerals building up and remaining when the water evaporates. They can be very difficult to remove and they’re not appealing to look at. Likewise, this residue can also build up on fixtures like your showerhead or sink faucet. If the buildup gets bad enough it can clog them and stop or hinder the flow of water.

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How to Tell if You Have Hard or Soft Water

The first way to tell if the water in your home is hard is to look for anecdotal signs. Hard water spots leftover on dishes when they dry can be an indication of hard minerals in the water. Similarly, scale on your shower walls, staining in your clothes, or hair and skin that feels dried out can all be signs that your water is hard. Your city should release a water quality report that you can find to see what your water hardness level is. This is general to the area, however, and not specific to your home.

To check your water yourself, you can run a simple test with a pure liquid soap and an empty water bottle. Fill one-third of the bottle with water from your tap. Then add a few drops of the pure liquid soap to the water, close the lid, and shake. Hard water will produce only a few bubbles while the whole bottle should fill with bubbles if the water is soft.

For a more accurate way of determining how hard your water is, you can find a hard water test kit at your local home improvement store. These are easy to use and affordable. Just fill a glass with water from the tap and dip one of the test strips in for about 5 seconds. You can then compare the color on the strip to the chart provided and you’ll be able to see exactly how hard your tap water is.

Soft Water

clear-drinking-glass-with-water
Clean soft drinking water

Softened water has been treated and the hard minerals have been either removed or neutralized. This can provide several key benefits, though there are also some drawbacks associated with softened water. Soft water won’t leave scale or hard water spots. This means your shower will stay free of residue and spots, your dishes will look cleaner, even your vehicle will dry without water spots. Soft water also helps your hair and skin to feel less dry when you shower in it. Soap goes further in soft water so you’ll use less of it. Most importantly, pipes won’t be filling up with hard mineral deposits, which can lead to reduced water pressure and costly repairs.

On the other hand, soft water is devoid of the essential minerals that we usually intake in small amounts through our water. Drinking it for prolonged periods may help cause heart or circulatory problems. You may also find that it’s harder to wash soap off when showering in soft water and you can be left with a slick feeling like it’s still on your skin.

Pros
  • Soap goes further
  • No scale or hard water spots
  • Won’t buildup mineral deposits in pipes
  • Softer hair and skin that doesn’t feel dry
Cons
  • Doesn’t provide essential minerals for drinking
  • Can be difficult to wash soap off
  • May cause heart or circulatory problems

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Hard Water

Hard water has some definite drawbacks, but it’s also got some positive traits that make it desirable. For instance, it’s rich in essential minerals that help maintain good health, making it great for everyday drinking. The minerals are also what provide water with its crisp taste, so hard water tends to taste better.

Of course, there are many reasons to remove those hard minerals from the water. They can build up and leave water spots on dishes, tiles, vehicles, and more. Hard water can also build up mineral deposits in your pipes, which can result in problems later on down the line. Showering in hard water can also cause dry skin and hair that gets flaky and itchy. Hard water even has the potential to stain clothes. If it doesn’t, it’s likely to leave them stiff and uncomfortable.

Pros
  • Has minerals essential for your health
  • Great for drinking
  • Better flavor
Cons
  • Leaves spots on dishes, tiles, vehicles, and more
  • Dries out skin and hair
  • Can stain clothing

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Which is Best for Your Health?

Now that we’ve discussed the positives and drawbacks of hard and soft water, you may be wondering which is better for your health? The truth is, each provides benefits in its own way. When it comes to drinking water, hard water is much better for your health since it includes the essential minerals that you need. Soft water is devoid of these minerals, which means drinking it can cause health issues over time. For skin and hair health, on the other hand, soft water is superior. Hard water will leave your skin and hair dried out, while soft water will leave it feeling moist and rejuvenated.

Solutions to Hard water

If you’re tired of hard water spots, dry skin and hair, and stained clothes, some solutions will remove or neutralize the minerals in your hard water. These are called water softeners and there are several different kinds available. Some are suitable for softening the water for your whole home while others will only soften water from a single faucet or showerhead. Which one you choose depends on what benefits you’re hoping to get from your soft water, and how much you’re willing to spend to get invested.

Types of Water Softeners

Whole House Water Softeners

As the name implies, these devices will supply your whole house with softened water. They are large units that have high levels of water flow and they can be a sizable investment to get started with. Two main types of whole house water softeners are available; salt-based ion-exchange systems, and salt-free systems.

Ion-Exchange

OneFlow Salt-Free

This is the traditional type of water softener that uses salt to soften the water. A resin inside of the softener contains positively charged sodium ions that it exchanges for calcium and magnesium ions that are present in the water. When the resin is full of minerals and devoid of sodium, you can replenish it through a process called regeneration. This flushes the trapped minerals from the resin and adds positively charged sodium ions in their place once again so you can continue to soften more water.

Salt-Free

Unlike traditional salt-based water softeners, salt-free systems don’t actually remove the hard minerals. Instead, they will neutralize the minerals so that they’re unable to bond together. This negates the problems caused by hard water, even though the minerals are still present. Drinking water that’s been conditioned with a salt-free water softener still provides the essential minerals you need. Moreover, these systems require almost no maintenance, but they’re more expensive to get started with.

Small Volume Softeners

In some cases, you won’t need to supply an entire home with soft water. Maybe it’s too great of an investment, or maybe hard water isn’t enough of a problem for you to invest in a whole-home system. On the other hand, you could only have a small RV or similar living space that doesn’t have such large supply needs. In such cases, a small volume water softener can be a great choice that doesn’t carry the same price tag as their bigger brothers.

Shower Head Softeners

Showerhead softeners make it easy and inexpensive to start showering with all the benefits of soft water. They feature cartridge filters that can be replaced when they fill up. This will reduce or eliminate hard water spots in your shower. More importantly, it will help revitalize your hair and skin and keep them feeling moist and healthy all the time.

 

A shower water softener
A shower water softener

Portable Water Softeners

For RVs, travel trailers, and mini-homes, a portable water softener can be the perfect solution to hard water problems. These small units provide water flow of up to five gallons per minute and can last 20-40 days before needing regeneration. You can regenerate them with regular table salt when needed, and they require no tools or electricity to run.

Conclusion

In this article, we’ve discussed the benefits of hard and soft water and when each one is desirable. Hard water contains the essential minerals you need for good health, which makes it the superior choice for drinking water. On the other hand, soft water doesn’t build up mineral deposits in your plumbing, it won’t leave scale and hard water spots, and it’s better for your hair and skin.

We also discussed solutions for hard water that will get you the benefits that soft water can provide. Water softeners can soften the water to your whole house or just a single showerhead. You could choose a salt-based system that removes the minerals or a salt-free system with low maintenance that simply neutralizes them. Hopefully, you now have a good understanding of the differences between hard and soft water and can decide for yourself which one is preferable for your situation.