By Joseph Truini- Home improvement expert who writes about a variety of topics related to carpentry and plumbing. Joe is also the author of numerous DIY books, including the best-selling Building a Shed. He also writes for Home Depot, which carries a wide selection of water softening and filtration products.
When searching for a new home, most prospective buyers are willing to compromise a little—except when it comes to water quality. Safe, healthy drinking water is of utmost importance of course, but today’s savvy homebuyers are also concerned about another extremely common problem: hard water.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, about 85 percent of American households have hard water, including homes with city water and well water. But what exactly is hard water and what can be done about? Glad you asked.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey Caption: Hard water is located in all the regions shown in red, white and light blue. Only the dark blue areas have soft water.
Hard Water Defined
When some people hear the term “hard water,” they might think ice. But for those living with hard water, it’s no joke. Simply put, hard water is household water that contains high concentrations of dissolved minerals, specifically calcium and magnesium. These minerals are safe to drink and don’t make the water smell or taste funny, but they are harmful to many other areas of the household.
The effects of elevated mineral levels range from immediate and annoying to long-term and highly destructive. Hard water causes cloudy water spots on sinks, dishes, silverware, bathtubs and shower enclosures. White, crusty deposits form on teakettles and coffee pots. Hard water also dramatically reduces the lathering and rinse-ability of laundry detergent, body soap and shampoo. As a result, laundered clothes appear gray and faded, and bathing in hard water leaves your skin and hair feeling dry.
Now, the abovementioned effects of hard water are annoying and irritating, but not terribly problematic. That is, until you consider the harmful effect hard water has on plumbing systems, fixtures and appliances.
As water runs through the supply pipes and then out the faucets, showerheads, icemaker, washing machine, water heater, boiler and dishwasher, it’s leaving behind hard, crusty mineral deposits. At first, these small deposits are harmless, but over time they build up and eventually clog pipes, seize up valves and plug aerators and showerheads. In extreme cases, hard water deposits can dramatically restrict the water flow, which puts undue pressure on the whole plumbing system.
The best way to determine if your home has hard water is to bring a sample to a water testing laboratory. For about $50 or so, you’ll receive a full report—and not just about minerals. The detailed analysis will also list the presence of many other substances, including nitrates, chlorine, sodium and dangerous bacteria.
A less expensive—albeit less comprehensive—option is to buy an in-home water test kit for $8 to $10 at a home improvement store. Or, conduct your own rudimentary hard water test: Take a clean 16-ounce water bottle, add half a cup of tap water and 10 drops of liquid dish soap. Tighten the cap and vigorously shake the bottle for 30 seconds. If a thick head of lather forms on top of the water, then your water is probably not hard. If, however, the water turns cloudy with very little lather, then the water likely contains elevated mineral levels.
As you can see, hard water is a common and potentially serious problem. Fortunately, there’s an effective and relatively affordable solution: install a water softener.
Water Softener: How It Works
Whole-house water softeners come in a variety of sizes and styles to accommodate the size of your home and family. The softener is installed in the basement, garage, utility closet or wherever water enters the house.
A typical water softener consists of a tall, narrow water-softener tank and a short, wide brine tank. The softener tank is connected to the home’s water-supply line. A small-diameter fill tube connects the brine tank to the softener tank, and a discharge hose runs from the softener tank to a nearby drainpipe or drywell.
The softener tank is filled with specially formulated resin beads, which are permanently sealed inside the tank. The brine tank has a removable lid so you can fill it with salt or potassium chloride pellets. Here’s a quick explanation of how the system works:
Caption: A standard water softener consists of a narrow softener tank (left) and short brine tank (right).
Water enters the top of the water-softener tank and percolates down through the resin beads. The resin has a negative charge, which attracts the positively charged minerals in the water (a process known as ion exchange). The mineral deposits cling to the resin and the now-softened water exits the softener tank and flows throughout the house. Pretty cool, right?
Sooner or later, however, the beads reach maximum capacity and can’t attract any more mineral ions. At that point, the softener tank must be regenerated, or flushed clean. That’s where the brine tank comes in.
An on-board computer calculates the amount of water that flows through the softener. When it reaches the preprogrammed setting, regeneration automatically begins. (For a three-bedroom house and family of four, regeneration usually occurs every 12,000 gallons.)
During regeneration, salty water from the brine tank flows up the fill tube and into the softener tank. A rinse cycle commences and the salty water washes the mineral deposits off the resin beads. The regenerated water and the mineral deposits are flushed out the discharge hose. The system then reverts back to softening the incoming water.
At some point, you’ll have to add more salt or potassium chloride pellets to the brine tank. How often you’ll need to add pellets depends on how much water you use. An average family of four typically needs to add one 50-pound bag of pellets each month.
Note that water softeners must be installed by professional, licensed contractors. If you can’t find one in your area, check with the local home improvement center. Most have water-softener installation services, which include a free in-home consultation.
Water softener costs vary widely depending on the size and make of the softener, but expect to pay between $2,000 and $2,500 for a typical system, including installation. However, the installation won’t interrupt your water flow for very long.
Don Vandervort of HomeTips.com adds, “Installing a conventional water softener isn’t usually a big job. It normally involves soldering a few copper pipes. Some water softeners include PVC connection kits that make DIY installation easier. A water softener also needs an electrical receptacle and a drain for discharge. Both of these should be taken into account when figuring where to locate the softener.”
Be aware that softened water contains trace amounts of salt. An 8-ounce glass of softened water contains about the same amount of salt as a slice of bread. That’s not very much salt, but for those on a strict sodium-free diet, it might be too much.
If you’d like to eliminate the salt, simply fill the brine tank with potassium chloride pellets instead of salt pellets. The only problem is that potassium chloride is very expensive at $25 to $30 per 50-pound bag. Salt costs $4 to $6 per bag.
Another option is to use salt pellets in the brine tank, but then install a reverse-osmosis water filter at the kitchen sink. The filter will remove salt from the water, which you can use for drinking and cooking. For more water filtration options, consult this guide from Realty Times.
The popularity of water softeners has created a new problem: The salty discharge water is raising sodium levels in municipal water-treatment plants, reservoirs and ground-water tables. New legislation in some regions restricts or prohibits the use of water softeners, so be sure to check with the local building department before proceeding.
Modern water softeners are very reliable and virtually maintenance free. Other than occasionally adding pellets to the brine tank, there’s not much for the homeowner to do. However, it’s recommended that the system be tuned-up and inspected once a year by the contractor who installed it. An annual systems checkup usually runs about $125 or so.