Solved! How to Tell if You Have Hard Water
Find out why your laundry, glassware, and even your skin won’t get clean—and how to remedy the situation.
Q: I thought the washing machine at our new house was on the fritz because the laundry still came out with dirt and stains. A neighbor told me it’s probably due to the hard water in this area. How do you tell for sure if you have hard water? And what can I do to get truly clean clothes?
A: Your neighbor may be right. “Hard” water refers to water with a high mineral content—typically calcium, magnesium, and lime. These minerals can keep detergent from fully dissolving and lifting away dirt and stains. Using extra laundry detergent may not solve the problem; your laundry could still come out looking dingy and smelling soiled.
Hard water can be found in many regions, but according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), it’s predominant in southwestern states and throughout the Midwest. Hard water can affect more than your laundry, hampering the functionality of other aspects of your home. Ahead, learn which signs point to hard water, when you should take a hard water test, and what steps you can take to alleviate the problem.
Common Signs of Hard Water
Identifying whether the problem is hard water or merely a faulty dishwasher, washing machine or failing water supply line can be tricky. Luckily, hard water leaves telltale signs throughout your kitchen and bathrooms that are easy to identify. By looking for hard water buildup on faucets, drinking glasses, and the bathtub, you can determine whether hard water is the culprit or if the problem lies elsewhere. Ahead, learn how to tell if you have hard water and how to test water hardness.
RELATED: 15 Problems Hard Water Can Cause
There’s mineral buildup around your faucets.
The most common place for lime deposits to form is where water dries in place, such as around faucets and drains. As the water dries, it leaves crusty, whitish mineral deposits that can be difficult to scrub away, and over time, heavy deposits can form. To help prevent buildup, dry the sink with a towel after use, paying special attention to the area around faucets and drains. To remove existing buildup, use a cleaner made to dissolve hard water deposits, such as Calcium, Lime, and Rust Remover.
You’re frequently scrubbing soap scum from your shower.
Hard water has a hard time dissolving shampoo and soap as well as laundry detergent, so these bathing basics tend to stick to tile and porcelain surfaces rather than rinse away. The result is a scummy residue inside the shower that dulls the walls and coats the door with a thick film.
To make cleanup easier, spritz the inside of your shower immediately after use with a daily shower cleaner, such as Method’s Eucalyptus Mint Daily Shower Spray. This type of cleaner helps break down and dissolve soap and shampoo residue so it goes down the drain.
Your skin feels dry and itchy and your hair lacks luster.
Not only does hard water leave your shower walls coated in soap scum, but it also leaves the same residue on your body. This can result in your skin feeling dry and, if you have sensitive skin, itchy and irritated. Hard water can also leave residue in hair, leaving it dull and lifeless. While switching to hypoallergenic body wash and shampoo may reduce some itchiness and irritation, the best solution is a water softener.
Your glasses are stained with cloudy spots or film.
Hard water droplets dry to an opaque finish that can leave spots or a cloudy film on glassware. If you use a dishwasher, adding a rinse agent such as Finish Jet-Dry Rinse Aid can help water droplets run off the glasses, but it’s not a cure-all. For clean, clear glasses, wash them by hand and dry with a dishtowel.
Your appliances aren’t working as well as they used to.
Any appliance that uses water—washing machine, dishwasher, or water heater—won’t last as long as it should in a house with hard water. Over time, mineral deposits can accumulate and block water supply lines and drain lines and can develop on internal components, such as the arms that spin in a dishwasher.
You notice slow-running faucets in your home.
While weak water pressure can be due to a number of factors, such as a water meter shut-off value that’s not completely open, slow-running water in conjunction with other problems listed here could mean mineral deposits in the water supply lines are blocking the water flow.
Installing a water softener will prevent further mineral buildup in the lines. The only way to restore full water pressure, however, is to replace the lines, which is a major plumbing project.
When You Should Conduct a Hard Water Test
The only definitive way to determine if your home has hard water is to purchase a hard water test kit. If you’re experiencing the following issues with your water, it’s time to invest in one.
- You have noticeable residue building up on showers, baths, and sinks.
- You and other members of your family are complaining of dry skin and hair.
- Your neighbors are also experiencing hard water problems.
- When you bathe, the shampoo and soap don’t suds up.
- Your glasses and dishes have noticeable spots and water marks after going through the dishwasher.
- The aerator in your faucets easily clog.
- You notice a lack of water pressure in several faucets in your home.
- Your dishwasher and clothes washer aren’t doing their jobs very well.
Water hardness is measured in either grains per gallon (GPG) or parts per million (PPM), but you don’t have to do complex mathematics to know if your water is hard. The simplest way to confirm your suspicion is with hard water test strips such as the JNW Direct Total Hardness Test Strip Kit. This specific kit comes with 150 strips, and testing is as easy as dipping the tip of the strip in the water and then comparing the color of the strip to the color chart on the side of the bottle. Anything over three GPM or 50 PPM is considered hard water. The test strips can be used to test regular tap water, filtered water, or water that’s being treated by a water softening system.
What to Do if Your Home Has Hard Water
Just because your hard water test came back positive doesn’t mean you have to suffer through itchy skin, lifeless hair, hazy glassware, and poor water pressure. Though you’ll need to invest some money in a fix for this issue, there are affordable solutions to your home’s hard water problems, some of which you can even install yourself.
Consider installing a water softener to address your hard water issue.
Water softeners, such as the AFWFilters 5600SXT Water Softener (available from Amazon), install on the main water supply line that enters the house. Water softeners work by removing mineral ions and replacing them with sodium ions.
The sodium helps soap dissolve completely so it rinses away with ease; laundry gets cleaner and tubs and showers don’t require as much scrubbing. Softer water also helps prolong the life of appliances, pipes, and drains because it doesn’t result in mineral buildup or deposits.
Decide whether you should hire a plumber to install your water softener.
If the house has an old water softener that stopped working, a handy homeowner can often replace it with a new one—using the same connections. If the home has never had a water softener, however, you’ll need to hire a plumber to cut the existing lines and install new connections for a water softener.
The first step to fixing hard water is to first confirm it’s the problem. Luckily, this doesn’t involve calling in an expensive professional. By examining how your home’s water is impacting your dishware, bathtubs, and faucets, and observing signs of hard water on hair and skin, you can determine if hard water is the culprit.
Simple and inexpensive soap sud or hardness test strip kits are also handy for assessing the condition of your home’s water. Once you know how to tell if you have hard water, you can then take measures to soften it.
FAQs About Hard Water
If you’re wondering how hard water affects your health or how a hard water test kit works, then read on for answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about this issue.
Q: Is hard water bad for your health?
There are no serious health hazards caused by drinking hard water, which is why cities often won’t invest in softening water. That said, hard water can cause dry skin and hair.
Q: Does hard water taste bad?
Hard water sometimes has a chemical taste, which is the result of a high level of dissolved minerals residing in what is considered hard water.
Q: Does vinegar soften water?
Vinegar contains small amounts of potassium and chloride, two chemicals that soften hard water by dissolving minerals.
Q: Are there any benefits of hard water?
Yes. Minerals such as calcium and magnesium, which make water hard, are essential minerals that help to fulfill your body’s daily dietary needs. In fact, hard water has actually been linked to lowering the risk for heart disease.
Q: How do I check water hardness in my area?
Those wondering “how hard is water in my area” can check with their neighbors to see if they’re experiencing hard water issues. If you’re on city water, you might also call the city water department, which can tell you if the area has hard water. City water treatment plants typically don’t soften water to optimal levels due to the expense of treating so much water.