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

shower head
Hard water can damage your shower.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the difference between hard water and soft water. Before I became a water expert I always wondered how water could be hard or soft.

I’ve learned about water since thinking (a long time ago). Today, I’m going to share everything that I know about hard water and soft water with you. We’ll cover the differences between the two, how to know the difference, why hard water is bad, and how to “make” soft water.

Hard Water Explained

Simply put, hard water is any water that contains a high amount of minerals (over 60 PPM to be exact). This mineral buildup usually refers to a large amount of calcium and magnesium. Those two minerals enter the water supply when water percolates (passes through) limestone or chalk, which both contain large amounts of the minerals.

Some of those minerals attach themselves to water. The water treatment center doesn’t filter out calcium or magnesium either. In the end, this means you have calcium and magnesium in your water supply straight from the water treatment facility.

You can put the pitchforks down. Calcium and magnesium are actually very important minerals for the human body to function properly and aren’t dangerous. You actually get a decent amount of your calcium and magnesium from tap water.

Hard water can wreak havoc on your water appliances though. We’ll get to that in a later section.

Soft Water Explained

Soft water is the opposite of hard water. Another name for soft water is just water that contains no minerals. The precise amount of “no minerals” is under 60 PPM.

Anyway, some areas just have naturally soft water such as the Pacific Northwest. Those areas with hard water will have to use a process called ion-exchange to produce soft water. This process involves using a water softener to swap out calcium and magnesium for sodium.

This has one negative effect of making the water taste salty. It isn’t like drinking ocean water, but it is a noticeable saltiness. Some people don’t like the taste, or don’t want high blood pressure, and add a filter to remove the salt.

The choice is up to you. Just know that drinking soft water in areas with hard water will lead to an increase in sodium consumption.

Which One Is Better?

This depends on what you’re looking for in a water softener. Most homeowners do not want a large amount of limescale building upon their appliances, so they will opt for soft water.

However, it does increase your salt consumption, so we don’t recommend to those with high blood pressure. You can always use a carbon filter to filter out the salt before you drink it.

Alternatively, you can use a water conditioner if you want to avoid salt in your water. However, a conditioner is not nearly as effective as a softener. It doesn’t actually remove the minerals. Instead, this neutralizes the calcium and magnesium, which makes them not “stick” to your appliances or pipes. Pretty cool stuff.

Do I Have Hard Water Or Soft Water?

Homeowners usually want to know if they have hard water after reading about the negative effects it has on appliances. Fortunately, it’s easy to figure out the hardness of your water.

You don’t even need a fancy test. Just follow the guidelines listed below to find out if you have hard water.

Hard Water Tells

  • Soap does not lather. Instead, it forms a film.

This is the biggest sign that you have hard water. Some people that have hard water don’t even realize that their soap is supposed to lather.

It’s like living in The Matrix or something. I certainly fell into the camp. Soap is just so much easier to use with soft water than hard water.

  • You notice deposits on your sink or bathtub.

Another big sign that you have hard water. If after using soap and water you notice a film of white sediment on your sink, then you have soap scum. Soap scum is caused by hard water mixing with soap.

Again, this is another situation where you are living in The Matrix if you think this is normal. It’s not normal. You have hard water.

Why Hard Water Is a Problem

Hard water is bad mostly because it will clog your appliances and piping. Seriously, this stuff is nasty and can really damage your plumbing. We’ll detail all the reasons that hard water is bad though.

  • Damages Plumbing and Appliances

As mentioned earlier, the calcium and magnesium will build up in pipes and appliances. This has a dramatic effect on the lifespan of appliances that have contact with water. It can reduce the lifespan, and efficiency, of these appliances by up to 25%.

This decreased efficiency and decreased lifespan is most noticeable with a water heater because of the amount of heat in a water heater (duh). Some of the water escapes due to evaporation, which increases the concentration of the minerals in the water.

  • It’s bad for your skin.

Yes. Hard water is bad for your skin. Those minerals don’t just to stick to the side of your sink. They also stick to your skin and hair, which can make your skin itchy and your hair flat. Now, this effect isn’t quite the same as the chlorine found in water.

However, the effect is still noticeable. It is much more readily apparent when you use soap and hard water on your skin.

  • It’s bad for your health.

This isn’t some mumbo-jumbo fake doctor type stuff. No, this claim is backed up by the National Center Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which is part of the US National Health Institute (NIH)… a US federal agency.

Anyway, research conducted by Dr. Pallav Sengupta involved examining five decades of studies. Sengupta determined that there is a relationship between hard water and cardiovascular disease, stunted growth, reproductive issues, and other health concerns including cancer (source: Potential Health Impacts of Hard Water).

Another study, conducted in Italy, determined that hard water can increase the risk of calcium kidney stones. It is recommended that those suffering from chronic calcium stones reduce their intake of hard water (Source: Effects of water hardness on urinary risk factors for kidney stones in patients with idiopathic nephrolithiasis)

Making Hard Water Soft Again

It’s alluded to a few times in this post, but we’ll cut right to the chase. Making your hard water soft is not that difficult.

You really have one option to make your water soft. That is by purchasing an ion exchange water softener. Don’t worry, these systems are not as expensive as you might think. Just remember, these systems will make your water salty.

We wrote an excellent guide that covers the best water softeners available on the market. We picked the top four and wrote in-depth reviews on all of them and included the best softener for different situations.

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