Ask A Water Adept: What Are The Differences Between Hard vs Soft Water

updated: January 08, 2021

Water, it’s the essence of life and responsible for civilization as we know it. You’ve probably heard of hard or soft water before, but do you know the differences between them? While you may think all water is the same, this just isn’t the case. Not all water is created equal, and there can be vast distinctions between varieties.

Water quality testing laboratory.
There are vast distinctions between types of water.

There are differing degrees of water purity and purposes for them, such as drinking water, laboratory-grade water, and water reserved for industrial usage. However, today we’re going to keep things simple and concise and only focus on the differences between hard vs. soft water.

What Is The Difference Between Hard and Soft Water?

Simply put, hard water is water that contains various minerals, such as magnesium and calcium. When rainwater falls from the sky, it is naturally soft and free of minerals. As the rainwater seeps into the earth and our waterways, it absorbs ground minerals such as lime, chalk, and calcium. According to research conducted by the US Geological Survey, nearly 85% of homes in the United States currently have hard water.

Scale showing difference between hard and soft water.

Water hardness is primarily determined by magnesium and calcium levels, with higher mineral levels making water hard. There are water-softening systems available that can treat the water and reduce the concentration of these minerals. Rather than having more elevated calcium and magnesium levels, treated soft water often has higher concentrations of sodium, leading to a potentially salty taste when used for drinking water.

Minerals such as calcium and magnesium are essential for your health, meaning that drinking hard water has benefits over drinking soft. However, those minerals aren’t the best for cleaning and may ultimately add wear to your plumbing and appliances. In high enough concentrations and without mitigation efforts, mineral buildup can even have detriments.

Why Does It Matter?

You’ll most likely be able to notice the differences between hard and soft water when it comes down to cleaning yourself or your home. The minerals found in hard water can deposit and build up residue. This leads to issues ranging from spots left on your dishes to scale buildup on your faucets, tubs, and sinks. Soap also tends to be less effective due to a reaction with the minerals that prevent a rich lather from forming, leading to soap scum, potentially dull looking hair, and even a slimy feeling on your hands if not adequately rinsed.

A water heater damaged by limescale and a money for its replacement.

Unfortunately, these can quickly go from small cosmetic annoyances to larger detrimental issues if significant and left untreated. These minerals can build up in your pipes over time, leading to a noticeable reduction in water pressure and flow. While modern homes tend to utilize copper piping that is more resistant to build up, this can still be a problem for older homes and appliances that rely on plumbing. Water heaters are a crucial example of this, as scale formation may cause inefficiencies in performance and even damage them over time.

The minerals in hard water can potentially change your skin’s pH balance, lowering its efficacy in fighting harmful bacteria, which can be particularly detrimental to those suffering from skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis. Additionally, washing your hair frequently with hard water can leave your scalp dry and itchy, producing dandruff.

Final Thoughts

Working principle of water softener.

There are notable differences between soft and hard water, with respective pros and cons for each. Soft water is more readily recommended for most cleaning applications, both personal and throughout the home. It is also recommended to soften water fed into water heaters and plumbing to prevent degradation and potential damage.

Hard water tends to be recommended for drinking. This is because of the additional minerals found in it, which may be essential to those who don’t get their minerals through food or supplementation. It should also be noted that soft water may be cautioned against for those with high blood pressure, as the extra sodium content may be risky to their health.

At the end of the day, there is no clear answer for which is better or worse. Each has its own respective uses and place, and there is ultimately no detrimental drawback to using either. If you’re frustrated with spots left on dishes or buildup on your faucets, consider installing a water-softening system to mitigate these issues.

Alfredo Martin joined the Clean Water Fund in 1987, when he began working as a field community organizer. He teaches environmental science at the University of California, Irvine. His passion is improving water quality in communities across the US.
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