Hard water is not considered harmful to your health, but it can cause ugly stains from scale build up in sinks, tubs, and elsewhere if left unchecked. People notice the stains, but they are generally unaware of the significant hidden costs of scale build up in pipes and fixtures until it is too late.
Scale is formed when minerals (usually calcium) are precipitated out of water. The scaling process accelerates dramatically when the temperature of the water increases or when water travels across the electrically charged plates in a water ionizer.
What is hard water and how is it measured?
Hard water is water with a high mineral content. The primary components of water hardness are the cations (Ca 2+) and Magnesium (Mg 2+), with calcium playing the major role. Calcium usually enters the water as either calcium carbonate (CaCO3,) in the form of limestone and chalk, or calcium sulfate (CaSO4). The predominant source of magnesium is dolomite (CaMg(CO3)2). Less significant contributors to water hardness are other dissolved compounds such as the anions of bicarbonates ( HCO3−) and sulfates (SO2−4).
Water hardness is measured in parts per million (ppm) or grains per gallon (gpg). In the USA, 1 gpg = 17.1 ppm. In Canada, 1 gpg = 14.2 pmp. I prefer parts per million as the measure is consistent in both countries. There is no absolute definition of levels of water hardness. The water softener companies define medium hard water a lot lower that I believe is realistic, but you have to remember that they are trying to sell you there products. I think a more realistic guideline for measuring the hardness (given that I’m not trying to sell you a water softener) of your source water would fall into the following catagories:
- Soft: Below 70 ppm
- Medium: 70 ppm to 140 ppm
- Hard: 140 ppm and up
Once the source water reaches 140 ppm of hardness, it probably makes sense to consider getting a water softener. Of course, the higher the number goes and the more water you use, the greater the need for a water softening solution.
The hidden costs of hard water scaling:
While hard water scale strains are annoying, the more significant problem is the cost associated with scale buildup. Hot water tanks create scale at a rapid rate as the heat facilitates the precipitation of calcium out of the water. The scale forms on the two heating elements in the tank. As the scale builds up, more and more energy is required to heat up the water in the tank. Nobody thinks about the additional cost of heating their hot water because it is out of sight and out of mind. However, the energy wasted can amount to several hundred dollars per year. Additional costs from scaling show up in the form of shortened lifespans of heat producing appliances such as dishwashers, washing machines, kettles, and water ionizers. Additional costs show up in the form or replacing taps and sinks. In older homes that have hard water but don’t use a water softener, sometimes pipes have to be replaced (see the picture above).
Water Hardness and Drinking Water
As I stated earlier, hard water won’t hurt you. In fact, the World Health Organization recommends drinking hard water. Calcium and magnesium (the components of hard water) are essential to good health.
My focus is on drinking clean (no unhealthy contaminants) and healthy (energized water that contains essential minerals) water. Unless you are incredibly fortunate and have daily access to a natural spring that provides both clean and healthy water, you face a decision of drinking tap water or some other form of man made water.
I have a problem with bottled water. It is expensive, is typically not very healthy for you in comparison to alternatives, and I can’t rid myself of the image of massive landfill sites filled with plastic bottles that have a 10,000 year half life.
That leaves us with the alternative of bringing in bottled water, or buying a machine that either cleans (RO systems or filter systems) or healthy water (electric or natural water ionizers) or better still, a combination of the both systems.
Water jugs don’t present any hard water issues because you simply tap the water out of jug that often sits on top of a cooler. The downside is that the water isn’t necessarily clean or healthy, and it is expensive. You really can do better.
Electric water ionizers produce healthy energized water. The downside to electric water ionizers is the high cost of the equipment and the fact that hard water just clobbers the performance of the machines. In order for electric water ionizers to ionize the water, they utilize a process called electrolysis. During electrolysis, calcium precipitates out of the source water and forms a hard scale on the ionizing plates. It doesn’t take long for the scale that forms on the plates to affect the performance of the machine.
The preeminent electric water ionizer company recommends that you descale your water ionizer every week or two depending upon the source water. They will sell you 24 cleaning pouches of citric acid for $34 plus shipping. I don’t know if they sell the cleaning cartridge separately. Here is a link to an 8 minute video of a Kangen owner demonstrating how to descale the machine: www.youtube.com/watch?v=edsrfXczxJU. For those who don’t want to spend the time watching the video, here is a quick summary. Every week or two, you will need to spend about 10 minutes of your time (plus 5 hours of waiting time where you don’t have to be present while the citric acid descales your machine) to keep your machine operating efficiently. That is NUTS! Who in their right mind would do that? Not me!
Here is a link to a much better product (Scale Guard $129) which sequesters (suspends) the calcium and magnesium in the water so that it doesn’t scale up the plates: www.vitev.com/pre-filtration-filters/. The Scale Guard can be installed in one minute to your water ionizer or RO system and no other effort is required until you change the filter ($99) a year or two later. The same technology has been used by tens of thousands of coffee shops around the world for many years to keep their coffee makers from scaling up.
Reducing hard water for an entire house:
The traditional method of reducing water hardness was to use a salt based water softener. To keep the discussion really short and simple, the system captures calcium and magnesium with beads, and then washes out the beads with salt each day. The state of California has banned the sale of salt based water softeners. I expect that we will see the ban extended to other jurisdictions over time because of the high cost to the municipalities of removing the salt from the waste water. Another downside to salt based water softeners is the fact the salt in the water gets absorbed into your skin during showers or baths at levels that often exceed the recommendation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In recent years, we have witnessed growth in salt free water softeners, which are much healthier for your skin. I owned one of these systems in my previous home and found it to be effective and a lot easier to maintain than hauling bags of salt. I don’t have a specific product recommendation but you can Google: salt free water softeners. My only caution is that if you have really hard water (250 ppm or more of hardness) the salt free water softeners don’t work as well as they do when the source water is not so hard.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author based upon his research and experiences working with hard water conditions across the country.