Can Hard Water Ruin Your Appliances?

Nick P. Cellucci
Written by Nick P. Cellucci
Updated November 2, 2015
A woman preparing the clothes for the washing machine
Photo: Rawpixel.com / Adobe Stock

Highlights

  • Hard water contains dissolved minerals that can leave behind residue.

  • Buildup from these minerals can damage your plumbing and appliances.

  • Water heaters, washing machines, and dishwashers are at risk of hard water damage.

  • You can prevent hard water damage by installing a whole-home water softener.

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If you’re pulling cloudy dishes out of your dishwasher, finding white residue on dark, clean laundry, or noticing a slimy feeling on your skin after washing your hands, mineral buildup in your water could be impacting your appliances. Household appliances can be expensive to replace, and hard water can cause them to degrade more quickly.

Understanding the facts about hard water can help save you money and prevent damage to your belongings. In this guide, we’ll lay out a list of appliances commonly impacted by hard water, how to identify hard water damage, and what to do about it.

What is Hard Water?

Water hardness refers to the amount of dissolved calcium or magnesium in your water. Hardness is a spectrum, with a higher mineral content per gallon indicating harder water.

The calcium in hard water reacts with most soaps to form soap scum. This reaction is what causes glassware to become cloudy or spotty in the dishwasher. It’s not dangerous for your health, but it is an unsightly sign of potential problems for the future of your appliances.

How Does Hard Water Cause Plumbing Problems?

Hard water is a relatively common occurrence in the United States. Households in many parts of the country are impacted by hard water to varying degrees, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. As water moves through soil and rock, it dissolves trace amounts of natural minerals and carries them into groundwater systems.

As hard water moves through plumbing, it can result in a buildup that clogs pipes and lowers water pressure.

Which Appliances are Damaged by Hard Water Buildup?

A woman loading the dishwasher
Photo: Drobot Dean / Adobe Stock

Any appliance in your home that uses water can be negatively affected by hard water. Appliance manufacturers will void your home warranty in many cases if you use hard water.

Water Heaters

One of the most expensive examples of hard water damage occurs in water heaters. Whether you have a gas or electric hot water heater, hard water can reduce its efficiency for a negative environmental impact that wastes water, electricity, and money.

When hard water is heated, the calcium and magnesium content forms a rock-like buildup called hard water scale near the bottom of the tank or the heating element’s location. The heating element must then heat through the buildup before it can heat your water, using more energy and eventually leading to appliance failure.

Washing Machines

Hard water can be rough on clothes, causing them to fade in color and wear out faster. You may notice a chalky white substance left behind after washing that makes fabrics feel stiff and rough. As hard water minerals build up on your machine’s pump, filter screens, and other moving parts, it will need to work harder to get your clothes clean, shortening its lifespan by up to three years.

Washing machine repair costs $50 to $450, and replacement is even more expensive than that. However, a broken machine or plumbing problem can lead to even more costly water damage.

Dishwashers

Hard water can stain utensils and permanently etch glassware in your dishwasher. Some detergents promise to combat this hard water scaling, but they tend to be more expensive and won’t prevent the need for early replacement of your dishwasher in the long term.

Other Kitchen Appliances

Ice machines and coffee makers also require water flow to operate. Mineral buildup can cause both of these common kitchen tools to depreciate. 

How to Protect Your Appliances from Hard Water Damage

Start by finding out if you have hard water. You can call your municipality for information about the local water supply, or examine your appliances. For example, if the metal filter screen in your washing machine (located where the hot and cold water lines connect at the back of your machine) contains a buildup of mineral deposits, you likely have hard water.

The best way to prevent hard water damage in your home is to install a water softener. This whole-home solution will protect all of the appliances in your home by transforming the hard water into soft water. Water softeners tend to cost anywhere between $500 and $6,000, depending on the size and type. Call a local water treatment expert to find out if your home is a good candidate for this solution.

While you wait to have a water softener installed, there are short-term solutions you can use. Raise your washing temperature and spend a little extra money on higher-quality detergents for your washing machine and dishwasher. Look for a low pH that can help dissolve the minerals in hard water. Many people opt to run vinegar through their coffee pots, which has the same effect.

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