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Hard vs. Soft Water Explained

Last Updated on: June 21, 2022

Pouring a glass of water

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between hard vs. soft water or thought about why you might choose one over the other?

Are your drinking glasses cloudy and faucets plagued with a hard, white crust that takes extra scouring or chemicals to remove? Have you ever seen a residue in your cup after drinking a beverage with homemade ice cubes? Perhaps you’ve experienced a ring in your bathtub that seems to build and build. If any of these things are familiar, you may already be aware that you have hard water. And you’re in good company: in the U.S., about 85% of the water, mainly stretching from the West Coast to the Midwest, qualifies as hard. (1)

The remaining 15% of the water supply, enjoyed by those living in the Pacific Northwest, parts of the Southeast, the Gulf States, and New England, is naturally occurring soft water. (1) If your soaps and shampoos have a generous lather that is hard to wash away but your clothes are free of mineral stains and a dull appearance, you probably have soft water. (2)

Either way, you’re not necessarily stuck with the water you have. But why choose hard water over soft or vice versa? Let’s take a look at hard vs. soft water and explore the benefits and drawbacks of each.

How Does Hard Water Occur?

As naturally soft rainwater falls through the atmosphere, it becomes slightly acidic. Once it reaches the ground, it sinks slowly down into the soil and rocks. Its acidity allows it to dissolve soluble minerals and metals in the rocks. The water absorbs these dissolved substances, thereby increasing its hardness. From there, hard water makes its way into ground and surface water sources and eventually into our homes. (3)

One of the two main components of hard water is calcium carbonate, a large amount of which comes from fossilized animal bones, teeth, and shells. Calcium carbonate is largely responsible for limescale buildup — the hard, chalky deposit found inside kettles, pipes, and boilers. (3, 4)

The other main component of hard water is magnesium, often leached from the mineral dolomite (which is also rich in calcium carbonate). Hard water may contain other dissolved minerals or metals as well, such as aluminum, barium, strontium, iron, zinc, and manganese. (5)

If you’re curious about how hard your water might be, Google “How hard is the water in [your state or town]?” and you should be able to find an answer. Here’s a breakdown of the water hardness scale, as well as where it occurs naturally in the United States (6):

U.S. graphic of hard water
Gpg refers to grains per gallon, milligrams (mg) refers to the amount of dissolved minerals, and liter (L) refers to the amount of water.

Hard Water Benefits

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that hard water can provide 5% to 20% of daily calcium and magnesium needs, though it cautions that these percentages “vary markedly from one supply to another.” Still, because many people fail to get the recommended daily amounts of calcium and magnesium from their diets, drinking hard water can help make up the difference. (7)

Both calcium and magnesium are essential for human health. Calcium keeps bones and teeth healthy, and it’s also an electrolyte. Electrolytes are essential for moving nutrients and waste in and out of cells and maintaining function of the nerves, heart, muscles, and brain. (8) A lack of calcium can lead to increased risks of osteoporosis, kidney stones, colorectal cancer, hypertension and stroke, coronary artery disease, insulin resistance, and obesity. The body flushes out unneeded calcium through healthy kidneys, so it’s important to ingest calcium daily. (7)

Magnesium is involved in over 600 reactions governing a host of bodily processes. These processes include helping convert food into energy, creating and repairing DNA and RNA, helping the muscles contract and relax, and regulating neurotransmitters, which send messages throughout the brain and nervous system. (7, 9)

Hard Water Drawbacks

The calcium in hard water might be good for the insides, but outside the body, it causes some problems. For example, because hard water reacts with detergents to create soap scum, you need more detergent to get things clean. It can also leave an unsightly (but harmless if ingested) powdery residue on dishes. Hard water leaves deposits in water heaters, coffee makers, and pipes, eventually reducing their efficiency. Finally, it can leave your skin, clothes, and hair looking dull. (4)

Hard water, then, tends to be costly. To combat hard water, people generally use more cleaning and personal care products. Some people scrub surfaces with vinegar or run it through their coffee makers, as vinegar dissolves mineral buildup, but this is a temporary fix. Hard water buildup also potentially means money spent on plumbing maintenance and electricity use due to loss of efficiency. Clothes, towels, and linens may also need to be replaced more frequently due to increased wear and mineral stains from hard water.

Hard water affects your wallet in four main areas. By using a water softener, a household can avoid these extra costs over the course of a year:

  • Cleaning and personal care: $450 more with hard water
  • Gas and electric use (heat loss due to scale): $60 more with hard water
  • Washable items (clothes, towels, linens): $200 more with hard water
  • Plumbing and appliances (repair and replacement): $90 more with hard water

Total extra costs per year with hard water: $800

Hard water also has a big impact on your major water-using appliances. If you have hard water, you can expect to lose 30% to 50% of an appliance’s projected lifespan.

To save money in these areas, you may want to consider getting a water softener. (4, 10)

Water slowly coming out of a faucet
Hard water can build up in pipes and slow the flow of water.

What Is Soft Water?

Soft water is simply water that lacks dissolved minerals, technically having less than 17.1 mg per liter. (6) Natural soft water is hard to come by, so if you want soft water, you will likely need to buy a water softener. Water softeners use a simple process of ion exchange. The calcium and magnesium in hard water are positively charged ions. When the hard water is pumped through the system and reaches the filter with negatively charged resin beads, the opposites attract. Calcium and magnesium remain on the filter while the softened water moves on. When the system regenerates itself (that is, it cleans itself), water and positively charged salt flush through the resin beads. The positive charges in the salt, calcium, and magnesium repel each other, causing the calcium and magnesium to detach from the resin beads and be flushed out of the system, along with the salty water. (11)

The amount of salt in softened water depends on how hard the water is to begin with. The harder the water, the more salt is required to remove the calcium and magnesium. However, even with extremely hard water, the total salt is minimal and falls within the Food and Drug Administration’s category of “very low sodium.” This means that the level of sodium should have little or no effect on most healthy adults. (12)

Soft Water Benefits

Soft water is desirable in the home because it doesn’t leave mineral buildup on clothes or fixtures or in pipes, appliances, or water heaters. This leads to hundreds of dollars saved in maintenance costs and electricity bills each year, not to mention the money saved on household cleaners. Unhindered by hard water buildup, tea kettles and coffee makers will last longer. And when you shower, considerably less mineral residue allows your body’s natural oils to do their job — protecting your skin and hair and preserving moisture. (12)

Soft Water Drawbacks

For some, soft water has an unappealing slippery or silky texture in the mouth. There are a number of potential negatives to changing hard water to soft water in your home. First, there’s the cost. As of 2021, the national average for a water softener and its installation is $1,000 to $2,000 for a system that will last about 15 years, plus about $144 yearly in monthly maintenance. (13) Second, the sodium in soft water can cause a number of issues, not the least of which is a slightly salty taste. Though the sodium helps remove buildup-producing minerals from the water, it can be corrosive to plumbing. Another consequence of sodium in the water is increased dietary salt intake, which may be a problem for those wishing to adhere to a low-salt diet. (14)

In soft water, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports dramatically lower levels of dissolved minerals that people need compared to hard water, namely, calcium and magnesium. (7) It will be important to either remineralize the water or find sources of these minerals in food.

Finally, soft water can leave your skin and hair feeling as if your shampoo and body wash didn’t rinse off completely. You might therefore use more water than you ordinarily would in an effort to wash them off. (15)

The Choice Is Yours

So in the hard vs. soft water debate, how do you choose what’s best for you and your family? Perhaps these takeaway points will help you decide:

  • Find out the hardness level of the water in your particular town, as the amount of mineral content varies from place to place. Try the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or United States Geological Survey (USGS) websites.
  • Learn the dietary recommendations for minerals, and from there, try to ascertain whether you’re getting what you need from your diet or a multivitamin, or both. Consult your doctor to make sure.
  • Think about the home maintenance and personal care costs associated with both hard and soft water.
  • Factor in the cost and longevity of a water softener.
  • Consider what water filter(s) you may need and factor in that cost.

Synergy Science™ is committed to helping you have the best water for your needs. We therefore offer a Hard Water Filter that can be directly connected to your in-home water source. This filter decreases excess minerals, among other things, from hard water, helping prolong the life of your clothing, plumbing, and filtration system if you have one. Wherever you stand on the hard vs. soft water issue, if you’re looking for ways to improve your water both for your home and your health, look no further than Synergy Science™.

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