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Hard Water, Water Softeners, Water Conditioners. Making Sense of it

Jun 1st 2018

hard water deposits on faucet

Recently, we had a salesman in our home trying to sell us on a water softening system. I was interested because my son and I have eczema: dry, itchy skin that is sensitive to chemicals, minerals, perfumes, dyes, and even changes in the seasons. But to listen to the sales pitch, this particular sales guy made it sound like soft water would rid the world of kidney stones and ulcers, eradicate all skin diseases, and even cure cancer. So, before I signed on any dotted lines, I decided to do a little research of my own.

First of all, I had to figure out if I really had hard water and whether or not this was a conversation I needed to have. I get my water from a municipal system, so it was easy to access my local water report and see that, yes, I live in a hard water area. If you get your water from a private water supply (such as a well), you can send in a sample of your water to a lab for testing, or purchase testing kits or strips to determine your water's hardness. Here's a regional map for additional help:

map of concentration of hardness as calcium carbonate

Next, I had to find out exactly what "hard" water is and whether it was really bad for me and my family. According to, "the simple definition of water hardness is the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in the water." Well shoot. I used to pay for calcium and magnesium supplements, so can it be bad to drink in my water? The National Academy of Sciences states that hard water does not pose any health risks. In fact, they suggest that "hard drinking water generally contributes a small amount toward total calcium and magnesium human dietary needs" ( So, if hard water isn't going to kill anyone, why would you need it softened?

Well, if you have hard water in your home, you've probably figured out by the spots on your dishes, the dryness of your hands, and even the taste of your tap water. As mentioned before, hard water has higher levels of calcium and magnesium; therefore, those minerals will deposit themselves on your skin, in your home's pipes and water fixtures, and on dishes, glasses, and windows. So, many people will turn to soft water because it doesn't have the minerals that dry skin or block pores, doesn't attach itself to pipes and glasses and leave water stains, and doesn't contain the minerals that causes soaps and detergents to bind to it, making them more effective in smaller doses. So, while it could possibly save you money in soap products, it can also help save money on pipe and appliance repairs, save money on skincare products, and save time spent removing unsightly and annoying water spots and calcium deposits.

Has this convinced you to invest in a water softener yet? Well, before you jump in, there's one more thing you need to know.

When it comes to treating hard water, there are two different systems out there. One "softens" the water and one "conditions" the water. They are different in important ways and it's really helpful for anyone considering a hard water treatment system to know the difference and what results they can expect.

Water softeners actually remove calcium and magnesium from the water through a process called ion exchange. Essentially, the water softener's mineral tank is filled with polystyrene beads that hold a negative charge, which attracts the positively-charged calcium and magnesium ions. Positively charged sodium (salt) ions (or its more expensive counterpart, potassium chloride,) are then flushed through the system, collecting the calcium and magnesium and sending it down the drain. That's what the bags of salt and brine tanks are for. This is what gives soft water its slightly salty taste. Some people who don't prefer the flavor of soft water will install a hard water line for drinking and for watering houseplants. Some will also install a reverse osmosis filtration system that... However, because the minerals are removed, water spots and calcium buildup should disappear, and your soaps and detergents should be more effective.

Water conditioners, on the other hand, don't actually soften the water. So, anyone selling a salt-free water softening system is actually selling a water conditioner, not a softener. Water conditioners do not remove the minerals from your water; they only use citric acid to crystallize the minerals, preventing them from adhering to your pipes or dishes. This method isn't as effective at removing spots or keeping pipes as clear as a water softener, since the minerals are still present in the water. But it does definitely help. Additionally, it doesn't leave your water tasting salty or leave your hair and skin feeling slippery, as soft water has a tendency to do. It also doesn't use all the chemicals and tanks that a water softener requires.

Hopefully you found this information helpful! While it would be more than amazing to have a water treatment solution that could cure cancer, what's more realistic is finding a water treatment solution that helps keep your dishes clean and helps keep your pipes, appliances, and skin healthy. It's up to you to decide which is the best for your needs - or whether you actually need one at all.

Here are some additional home tests you can perform to see if your water is hard: 

Sources Referenced: 

Author: Amber Smith-Johnson
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