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How to Tell If You Have Hard Water (and What to Do About It)

Stacy Sare Cohen
Written by Stacy Sare Cohen
Updated September 30, 2021
A little girl washing her hands in bathroom sink
Catherine Falls Commercial/Moment via Getty Images

Spotted silverware, discolored laundry, failing appliances, and itchy skin can indicate hard water issues—but there’s an easy fix

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If you live in the states of Utah, Kentucky, or Florida, you might find yourself needing to clean your showerhead more often than you’d like to get good water pressure. The culprit: a buildup of limestone in the pipes causing hard water. 

Carbon, magnesium, limestone, and other mineral deposits found in hard water are like plaque buildup blocking the blood flow in your arteries. Hard water can also put a damper on the things you love, like your designer skinny jeans, colorful fabrics, and favorite glassware—not to mention your skin, hair, and appliances. 

Read on to discover how you can tell if you have hard water in your pipes—and how to fix it.

What’s the Difference Between Hard Water and Soft Water?

Before we dive in, let’s take a look at the differences between hard water and soft water. 

When water travels underground through chalk and limestone deposits, it picks up minerals in the soil like calcium, magnesium, limestone, iron, and more, which makes the water hard. Hard water contains a high concentration of these minerals.

Soft water, on the other hand, contains higher concentrations of sodium that break down minerals. In fact, water softening systems use sodium to dissolve minerals.

Hard Water vs. Soft Water

The concentrations below show the differences between hard water and soft water:

  • Soft water: 0 to 60 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of calcium carbonate, magnesium, and other metal compounds

  • Moderately hard water: 61 to 120 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of compounds

  • Very hard water: 121 to 180 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of compounds

Hard water prevents soap and detergents from working up a good lather. Hard water also creates scale deposits that live in your pipes and are the root of hard water problems.

How to Tell if You Have Hard Water in Your Home

A woman putting dished in the dishwasher
gorodenkoff/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

If you live in the U.S., you likely have hard water running through your pipes unless you have a water softener installed. Surprisingly, hard water is present in 80% of American homes

Although you can do a water test to tell if you have hard water, there are visible signs you can see in your home. Here’s how you can tell if you have hard water in your home.

High Utility Bills

A warning sign you have hard water is skyrocketing energy bills. Hard water can clog pipes and lower the efficiency of your water heater. 

When hard water gets heated, magnesium and calcium carbonate scale deposits cause the tank to have to work harder to heat water, using more energy and increasing your utility bill.

White Spots on Your Coffee Maker

Your morning cup of joe is essential to a productive day. But if you have calcium buildup (you’ll notice the white spots), it can make your coffee take longer to brew—or prevent it from brewing at all. 

A quick fix is to run vinegar through your coffee maker. The acidity of the vinegar helps dissolve the mineral particles.

Fabrics Fade in the Wash and Detergent Won’t Remove Stains

Color fading might look good on an old, soft pair of jeans, but it can wreak havoc on colorful bedding! The blame: calcium and magnesium in your water.

These minerals prevent detergents from lathering and removing soil and stains. They can even puncture holes in fabrics. Not the look you want on your body and in your home.

Itchy, Dry, or Irritated Skin

Have a teen with acne? A spouse with eczema or rosacea? Bathing and washing your face and body in hard water can clog pores, make you itch, and irritate your skin, especially if your skin is fair. 

Know that minerals in hard water can exacerbate skin conditions. If you or your family has the itchies and scratchies, it may be time for a water softener.

The calcium and magnesium in hard water can also burn your eyes when they make contact, leave a slime coating on your hands after you wash them, and dry out your hair (even after conditioning!).

Scale Deposits, Film, and Soap Scum Residue

A sure sign you have hard water is white scale deposits, film, and soap scum residue found where water evaporates and dries. 

They appear as:

  • Scale deposits on your kitchen and bathroom faucet fixtures

  • White spots on silverware

  • Film coating your glassware

  • Soap scum residue on your bathroom tiles and around your tub

Household Appliances Don’t Run Properly

Hard water can take a toll on household appliances, including your dishwasher, water heater, washing machine, and boiler (which costs thousands of dollars to replace).

The sediment that accumulates from hard water mineral deposits not only decreases water flow and clogs valves, but the pH level in the water can cause erosion. This can shorten the life of your appliances 30 times faster than appliances that run on soft water.

How to Fix Hard Water in Your Home

While hard water doesn’t present any known health risks if you drink it, it can be hard on your skin, hair, fabrics, appliances—and your budget. 

While temporary fixes exist to remove hard water like putting vinegar through your coffeemaker or using a squeegee on your shower walls, the best way to banish it for good is by having a local water softener company put a water softener in your home.

By installing a water softener, you can put moisture back in your hair and skin, sparkle back in your dishware, color back in your wardrobe and fabrics, and money back in your wallet.

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