How to Know If You Have Hard Water (and What That Even Means)

updated Jul 17, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

Water is one of those things that’s just sort of… there. As long as the tap turns on, you don’t really think about it. But you may have a problem that shows up in other ways, and hard water is one you should definitely pay attention to. Don Glovan, a franchise consultant with Mr. Rooter Plumbing, a Neighborly company, gave us the rundown on everything you didn’t know you needed to know about hard water.

What is hard water anyway? 

When water picks up soluble minerals like calcium and magnesium carbonates while passing through limestone and chalk deposits underground, it can become “hard,” Glovan explains. 

Is hard water harmful?

The good news is, it’s not dangerous to your health. However, hard water definitely causes some unpleasant side effects elsewhere. You might see mineral deposits and stains on fixtures and glassware, for example. And it can reduce the sudsiness of soaps, “which causes itchy skin and dull, scratchy fabrics,” Glovan says. 

Your home’s plumbing and appliances can experience negative effects over time, too, Glovan says. A shower head can clog when the minerals cause scale buildup in its small openings. Appliances like washing machines, dishwashers, and ice machines can leak when that same mineral scale gathers around their valves and seals. The water flow throughout your home’s plumbing can be reduced when limescale accumulation creates clogs. And your water heater’s life span can decrease significantly when hard water builds up inside it because it has to use more effort to heat water. (It also uses more energy to do the same job.)

How do I know if I have hard water? 

Glovan notes several signs of hard water: “Your laundry is stiff and dull, and the whites appear grayish. Your skin is itchy or susceptible to rashes, and your hair is dry and flat,” he says. “Your appliances and plumbing fixtures have white limescale or calcium buildup. Porcelain is stained. Your water pressure is low. Showers and sinks won’t flow steadily or fully. Your sinks and toilets seem to clog easily and drain slowly. Your dishes are foggy, have water spots, and break more easily.” 

If you check any of these boxes, hard water could be the culprit. You can buy a hard water testing kit from a hardware store to confirm.  

Is there a hard water stain remover? 

Glovan recommends a couple of natural DIY solutions. One is a baking soda and vinegar paste, which creates a gentle foam that can help clean a surface that’s been affected. To try it, Glovan suggests spreading baking soda on the surface and then spraying it using a spray bottle filled with white vinegar. After letting that combo sit for 15 minutes, rinse the surface with warm water. 

Another option is to apply lemon juice to the affected areas. The acid “can melt away the extra minerals,” Glovan says. This method works especially well around faucets and other steel or brass spouts, he adds.

What should I do if I have hard water? 

“The best and most effective long-term solution is installing a water softening system,” Glovan says. 

And what exactly is that? “A water softener is a specialized appliance that removes mineral ions from your home’s tap water,” he explains. Workers install it on the main waterline that enters your house. While it may be tempting to DIY it if you’re handy and have plumbing experience, “it’s best to stick to hiring a professional for this one,” Glovan says. Damage to a waterline can cost big bucks.

There are a few things to consider when it comes to picking a water softener, including “what your home needs in terms of filtering hard water, how hard your local water is, and a unit with the right grain capacity for your needs,” Glovan says. “Grain capacity is how water softeners are rated, and it measures how much water the unit can filter before it needs to be regenerated. The higher the rating, the less you’ll need regeneration—which helps keep your septic system healthy.”

To make the right decision, Glovan suggests reaching out to a pro plumber, who can test and make the best recommendation for your home.