Hard Water Scale – Answers and Solutions

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.

7 Responses to Hard Water Scale – Answers and Solutions

  1. Rob:

    Thanks again for all your help. I feel much more informed and better able to make a good decision.

    Take care.

    Gord & Tricia

    • Hi Gord & Tricia:

      Thanks for the kind words. It is my pleasure to help.

      It is rare when I recommend using a reverse osmosis system, but your situation called for it. With all the contaminants in your well water, the best solution was to eliminate the impurites with a RO system and then rebuild the water by adding minerals. Once you have the RO system in place, you can choose the water ionizer that best suits your needs.

      Good luck with everything and let us know how it turns out for you.

  2. Dear Rob, I am following your blog – I also am an Enagic Dist. For those of you who have an Enagic device, – there is a cleaning powder available (citric acid) which deals with the hard water situation. At a cost of less than $1 – you can clean your plates whenever you want. I have friends in Phoenix where they have hard water – initially after a couple months – there was a silt that started coming out of the device and settling on the bottom of the glass. Now after cleaning regularly – no problems. So this is one of the good features of the device. I too dont like the price – would love to know of another device if it is comparable but more reasonable with the same capabilities. I love the 2.5 and 11.5! Would like to know more about this Vollara and DDT.
    Thank you, Pamela
    Thank you! Pamela

    • Hi Pamela:

      Thanks for stopping by and making a comment. I love the great work that the Enagic dealers do in spreading the word. I just wish that Enagic would update their machines and drop their price in half so that their dealers were not at a huge disadvantage.

      I know of several machines that will do what the Enagic machines do and more….for a fraction of the price. I’m wary of the Vollara and would be a bystander for a couple of years until we see how the machine performs over time. My fear for Vollara is that if and when the machine has earned credibility, the cost of the competitive prodcuts will be much lower than $2,000. While there is definitely merit in being first in when it comes to MLM, I just wouldn’t be first in when it comes to an unproven product when there are great alternatives. But that’s just me.

      The citric acid powder is a great cleaner of scale. Many people use vinegar, but I have found the citric acid to be superior. When I was in the business, we used to have to clean machines for customers. We used an aquarium pump and hooked the pump up to the ionizing chamber and continuously ran the water through the ionizing chamber. For those that are not in the business, the easiest way to clean scale out of a machine is to follow the following instructions:

      1) remove the drain line (the outflow line)
      2) place the machine over a sink and blow through the drinking line to force the water out of the ionizing chamber through the drain line
      3) plug up the outflow line
      4) mix one ounce of citric acid with eight ounces of water in solution
      5) turn the drinking line so that it faces the ceiling
      6) pour the mixed solution into the drinking line until it starts backing up out of the drinking line (it is easier if you do this with a syring)
      7) leave the solution in the machine for a couple of hours to work away at removing the scale
      8) remove the plug from the drain line in the bottom of the machine
      9) blow the solution out of the machine by blowing through the drinking line while the machine is in the sink
      10) run the machine with pure water for a few minutes
      11) test the machine with pH drops
      12) repeat if necessary

  3. Rob, the scale problem isn’t just about the scale. It’s also very much about the attention owners give to their water ionizer and the instructions dealers give them. If you see a seller who says their unit ‘never needs cleaning’ they are probably inexperienced.

    Hard water IS a problem with water ionizers and it has 3 aspects:
    1. The filter; no water ionizer filter has any ability to affect hard water levels and
    2. The plates. Even the best of cleanse systems can still accrete minerals.
    3. The internal tubes and spout. if you are ina hard water area and you notice your flow rate reducing chances are it’s not the filter blocking up: it’s very likely that internal tubing is clogging up like an artery. This IS a problem because it needs a tech call or dealer repair to fix it and it WILL happen again. A good vinegar rinse every 2 weeks for people with hard water is essential no matter what your brand.

    • Hi Ian:

      I agree with you 100% about the fact that it is the responsibility of the dealers to educate their customers about their source water and the capabilities and limitations of their machines. I wrote an article about the importance of choosing the right person to purchase a water ionizer from instead of focusing on the difference between the products. A good dealer will help you with your issues and concerns, while the multitude of websites just pump out promotional material to support their products. You can read the article here: http://www.waterfyi.com/water-ionizers/invest-person-not-brand/

      I also agree with your statement that no water ionizer provides a built-in filter that can affect hard water levels. However, a phosphate pre-filter will do an excellent job of dealing with scaling for up to six months. The phosphate from the filter is released into the water supply in very minute amounts just before the water enters your water ionizer. The phosphate destabilizes the calcium in the water so that it will not form a hard scale on the plates. Scale is still formed, but it is soft, and can be flushed away by running acidic water through the machine slowly for one minute each day.

      All plates will get scaled up in the presence of water with a high calcium content. When it comes to scaling, the plates in an ionizer will precipitate the calcium out of the water, just like a hot water tank will cause calcium to precipitate. The use of a phosphate filter and backwashing with the acidic water will help alleviate the situation.

      You are correct that a slowing water flow is usually the sign of scaling. The only other alternative is that the filters are near the end of their useful life, but the machines will warn you when this happens. I have used the vinegar rinse and it is a good suggestion. I have found that a citric acid rinse is more effective than vinegar. Citric acid powder can be purchased very economically online and it can be mixed with water in 8:1 ratio (8 parts water and 1 part citric acid).

      Hard water scaling is a problem for a lot of machines, but if you follow the above suggestions, the problem can be controlled.

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