Solved! How to Tell If You Have Hard Water
Find out why your laundry, glassware, and even your skin won’t get clean with a hard water test—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. Is there a way to tell for sure? 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 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.
RELATED: 15 Problems Hard Water Can Cause
Mineral buildup around faucets is a sign of hard water.
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 (available from Amazon).
If you’re frequently scrubbing soap scum from your shower, hard water could be the cause.
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 of 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 Daily Eucalyptus Shower Spray (available from Amazon). This type of cleaner helps break down and dissolve soap and shampoo residue so it goes down the drain.
Water high in minerals can leave skin feeling dry and itchy.
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, making it 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 (discussed below).
Hard water can leave cloudy spots or film on your glasses.
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 (available from Amazon) 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.
Hard water takes a toll on appliances.
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.
Slow-running faucets may indicate hard water.
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. While installing a water softener will prevent further mineral buildup in the lines, the only way to restore full water pressure is to replace the lines, which is a major plumbing project.
A hard water test kit will provide the most definitive answer on your water’s hardness.
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 (available from Amazon). 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 to be 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.
Depending on what the hard water test reveals, you may wish to install a water softener to alleviate problems throughout the home.
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.
A plumber may be needed to install a 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, a plumber is needed to cut the existing lines and install new connections for a water softener.