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Hard Water - what is it, why don't we love it, and what are some natural coping strategies?

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Location: Left Coast Canada
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Let's talk about hard water.
Do you have it?  What does it do?  What do you do to make things better?

Getting into the subject of Hard Water seems to be murky waters because there are several different ideas on what it is and the cause.  However, the definition I found most helpful is that Hard Water is water that contains Lime Salts.  These salts decompose the soap and reforms to create "Lime Soap" which does not dissolve in water.  This means that the laundry, dishes, whatever don't get the cleaning power of soap, which means that people use more soap to compensate.  Sounds wasteful.  Eventually, the soap uses up the lime in the water and can get to work, but because the "lime soap" isn't doing anything, it just floats around in the water and as things drain it grabs hold of cloth, sides of the sink, plumbing... which makes things unpleasant.  

I'm blessed with relatively soft water, so I don't have to deal with this.  What I'm wondering is: is it as terrible as it sounds?  

I've seen lots of recipes for softening water, but many of them involve some strong chemicals.  What are some natural, or even better, food-safe alternatives?
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In a word. no.
We have hard water, our water comes from chalk aquifers almost as hard as it comes, I have also lived in areas with soft water and on a practical point you notice a few things are different,

1 the kettle needs cleaning every month or so on the inside, or you'll get bits in your tea
2 the shower head needs a vinegar bath every few months for the same reason.
3 you will see a bit of a film on tea
4 the extra soap needed is not noticeable.
5 You will kill your lime sensitive houseplants if you forget and use tap water too much

It doesn't magically stop the plumbing working or cause the washing machine to die, it is in my opinion a made up problem to make people buy water-softeners.
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Location: USDA Zone 8a
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We have hard water.  I assume it is because our water is filtered through layers of limestone rock.

Where I used to live the toilet had streaks caused by calcium buildup until I found a product that would clean it.

The coffeemaker and the ice maker have to be cleaned with something to remove calcium buildup. We use lemon juice or vinegar.  We installed an osmosis water filter system because we were tired of buying a new ice maker every year.  Unfortunately the way our house is designed we could not install a whole house unit.

From research that I have done a filter will not remove the calcium so most water filter systems will not work.  That is the reason for the osmosis unit.

And from the research that I have done it is not good for my health.
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Location: West Tennessee
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Here's my basic understanding of hard water. It's water with excessive minerals dissolved or in suspension in water, and I think excessive depends on who is being asked. I have been living in a house for nearly ten years with municipal water that is considered hard water. Like Skandi mentioned, mineral scale build-up accumulates on things like shower heads, around faucet screens/aerators, and inside my tea kettle (used to but not anymore. More on that in a sec). My wife and I are moving to a new farm, and it has well water, and this ground water is considered hard water. I had a water analysis done, and the testing lab considered it hard water with the amounts of calcium, magnesium and a few others minerals that are in suspension in this ground water. I imagine that I will have to do simple regular maintenance to remove the scale build-up at the new house.

What it means for me is regular scale build-up removal. Sometimes this is easy, like a shower head, as it's right there and easy to remove. Sometimes it can be more difficult, like in a water heater, all enclosed and I can't stick my mitts inside one. On the old house that we've lived in for ten years, we had a traditional tank water heater which was 16 years old and I replaced since it was leaking, and a new water heater is the sort of thing that new home buyers like since we're putting the house on the market beginning of January. Who knows how much scale was on the inside of that tank, reducing the efficiency of heating that water (scale buildup reduces heat transfer, not really what's desirable when trying to heat water). In our new house, we chose a tankless style water heater. Neat thing with this is there are by-pass valves where the cold water comes in and hot water goes out, so I can close off the supply and service line, and then pump a white vinegar solution thru the water heater to remove scale. Neato.

Regarding soap, I don't notice a need for extra soap, I just use whatever I need to either bathe or clean a sauce pan or something. A difference I do notice in hard vs soft water is its ability to rinse soap suds away. My brother has a water softener in his house, and I notice the difference right away when I'm over there. The water in his house has an interesting "texture", it feels silky almost. When I go to wash my hands, it takes what seems to me a long time to not only make soap suds, but then get the suds off my hands, and with this "silky" feeling of the water my hands still feel like there is soap residue on them after being rinsed. When I use the hard water that I'm used to, soaps lather up rapidly, and the suds wash away fast too.

Back to my tea kettle, I installed a reverse osmosis (RO) filter at my kitchen sink with its own little faucet to remove all the crap in this municipal water than I don't want to ingest. This RO filter has a remineralizer, putting some calcium (and maybe another mineral or two, unsure at the moment) back into the water. Since installing this filter, I have had zero scale build-up inside my tea kettle. It's stainless steel, and is still as shiny inside as it was the day I cleaned it when I bought the RO filter some three or four years ago.
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Location: Central Texas zone 8a
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I vote it is terrible. Mine is very alkali. It likes to eat things.

A galv cow trough springs a leak in under a year. The spot welds get dissolved by it over time.

White deposits on faucets and shower head. Any metal to metal connections (water hoses, hose bibbs) get stuck. Once had to bust out my brick and replace a hose bib.

Dishwasher trays (the part that slides out) are not functional more than a year.

Rainwater ftw!
Posts: 1233
Location: Chicago/San Francisco
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Sounds like ... It depends.

I have heard that soft water is "hungry" and attacks materials much faster than hard water. Hard water already has its capacity for chemicals more or less satisfied so it doesn't corrode stuff near as much as soft water. In fact it tends to shed chemicals on stuff it contacts. I grew up in Evanston, north of Chicago; I distinguish because Evanston "makes" its own water so it's probably a little different than Chicago's. The galvanized pipes in this house which were installed at least 65+ years ago and might have been installed much further back (100 yr-old house, was moved about 1950; I've done the only work on it since).  I've cut into the galvanized plumbing three or four places and found almost no corrosion...! It has to be because of the quality of the old galvanizing and the semi-hard water the city provides. That's the only two variables I know of.

I personally don't like the taste of soft water. I _really_ don't like having to rinse and scrub 10 minutes to get the soap off after showering. No matter how stingy I get with the soap, I'm slimy forever unless I rinse 10 times.

We had relatives just south of Milwaukee. They had sulpher water and _that_ I cannot recommend to anybody. Though the adults (I was small at the time) always insisted it was good for us. Echk! Typical BS'g adults! <g>

Most tank-type water heater mftrs recommend flushing regularly - maybe once a year. The way to do this most effectively, especially if you have good municipal pressure, is to open the drain cock and flush withOUT shutting off the heater's supply. Pressure flush until it comes out clear. The faster moving water (compared with simply draining) stirs up and dislodges the most sediment the quickest and gets it out of the WH. If you have an electric heater, it's probably worth taking time to care for it because _potentially_ the tank can last a very long time provided the fittings are installed so they don't leak; that includes the heating elements. Gas tank-type WH's die every 8-15 years, depending on type of usage, local water and phases of the moon.

Happy New Year, Everyone!
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