Although all water is H2O, there are significant, practical differences in the water found in different parts of the UK. Scotland, the west of Wales and most of the north of England have what is called soft water. This is water with a very low mineral content.
As you go further south, the mineral content of water increases, particularly on the east coast of England and by the time you reach the south of England, the water is very hard almost everywhere (the exception is Devon). While this water is perfectly safe to drink (at least from a tap rather than from an untreated, natural source), it causes a number of inconveniences when running a home.
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Hard water – the science
When it comes to determining water hardness, there are only two minerals which really matter and they are calcium and magnesium. Water companies calculate water hardness with precision using an established scientific formula ([mg/l calcium x (2.497) + mg/l magnesium x (4.188)] x 0.4). For the rest of us, however, the key point is that there are two recognized types of hard water.
Temporary hard water is water with high levels of calcium hydrogen carbonate. Boiling water separates the water and its mineral content, the latter being commonly known as limescale. Permanent hard water is water with high levels of calcium sulfate. This stays in the water when it is boiled.
Hard water – the practicality
At the most basic level, hard water makes it harder to get anything clean. Soaps and detergents are less effective in hard water areas. This means that you need to use more of them, which means that there is more cleanser to be rinsed away after cleaning.
Unfortunately, hard water is less effective than soft water when it comes to rinsing off cleaning products, hence there is typically a residue which needs to be removed some other way, if possible. When it comes to cleaning dishes and glassware, this is essentially a cosmetic issue. Glassware often looks dull when it is washed in hard water, but it is safe to use. In other areas of the home, however, hard water can actually cause a hygiene issue.
Before we move onto the bathroom and the effects there, I’ll try to give you a full understanding of the issue – The first of these is laundry. Water and laundry detergent work as a team to get clothes clean. Water carries the detergent where it needs to go.
The detergent breaks down certain types of dirt, particularly oily substances, pulling them off the fabric and basically corralling them together for the water to carry it away, while the action of the water hitting against the fabric and passing through it helps to release even more dirt.
In hard water areas, however, neither the detergent nor the water work as effectively as they do in soft water areas. In a best-case scenario, this means that clothes neither look nor feel as good as they would if they had been washed in soft water.
In a worst-case scenario, it can lead to actual irritation when the clothes are on the skin. Laundry softener may disguise the rough feel of clothes enough for adults to wear them comfortably (at least for outer garments), but it can be a different story for children and particularly babies.
Then there is the issue of personal hygiene. The human body also needs to be washed and hot water is a key part of the washing process. In hard water areas, the water is not only less effective at cleaning the body but also less effective at lathering products such as shampoo and less effective at rinsing them away after washing.
This means that people can actually end a shower or bath covered in a scummy residue. To make matters worse, this can cause irritation as the skin and hair dries (and the residue dries with it). It can even give hair the appearance of having mild dandruff.
Added to all of this, the dreaded limescale is the bane of anyone who manages a home in a hard-water area. At best it is unsightly, at worst, it can severely impact on the operation of any item which is used to contain water, from kettles and coffee makers to dishwashers, showers, taps and washing machines.
There are two basic ways to get rid of limescale. One is old-fashioned elbow grease, which comes with two drawbacks (apart from the effort involved).
The first is that scrubbing hard enough to remove the limescale may damage the surface underneath (limescale is essentially calcium, which is what bones and teeth are made of, hence it is very strong) and the second is that limescale can accumulate in places which are very difficult to reach (at least safely).
The second way to get rid of limescale is to use some sort of acid to dissolve the calcium. Lemon juice is a favourite here, due to its pleasant smell, but strong vinegar can be necessary to deal with really stubborn deposits. The difficulty here is making sure that the acid stays in contact with the limescale long enough to dissolve it.
Cleaning limescale rings in accessible places such as sinks, showers and baths is reasonably straightforward. Washing machines and dishwashers can be cleaned effectively, if expensively, by running a cycle in an empty machine using vinegar in place of detergent.
For dishwashers, this is best put into the base of the machine rather than in the usual detergent holder. The real problem is with awkward areas such as taps, where all sorts of creative solutions have been found by desperate householders, such as soaking cotton wool balls in vinegar and attaching them to the tap with duct tape.
The other major problem is limescale in piping and realistically the only practical solution in many cases is to have the pipes professionally cleaned.
Softening hard water – Prevention
Given all the problems hard water can cause, it’s hardly surprising that many homeowners are becoming increasingly interested in dealing with them all at once by using water softeners.
There are many different types of water softeners on the market and like anything there are many limitations to the real thing. One thing you should look for when buying a softener is some kind of guarantee your water will improve and further a guarantee the device will last. For a device so important it makes no sense to pay pennies and go for an unknown and simple hope for the best
The water softeners we have at Poshh are time test and proven from leading manufacturers to deliver the best results
There are a few ‘old wives’ tricks to deal with hard water such as adding baking soda into the wash though these can have some benefit, it will work out quicker, simpler and more economical (as well as more environmentally friendly) to install a mechanical water softener in your house.
This offers the double benefit of reducing the number of cleaning products you need and prolonging the life of both your clothes and other household fabrics and appliances which are used to contain water, both of which are good for your pocket and for the planet.
If you are looking to purchase a steam shower which uses a steam generator and you knowingly live in a hard water area, it may invalidate your warranty as the chemicals and limescale here will in time almost certainly damage the steam generator and cause it to block and cease up. In all cases where you have hard water, you MUST fit a water softener.
Not only will a water softener keep your taps, kettle and brassware that comes into contact with water clean. A water softener will protect yours and your family’s healthRead Our Guide To The Best Kettles For Hard Water HERE