People who have never had any experience with “hard” water may find the concept of “softening” water weird. Those who live in Texas where hard water is common will nod their heads and start comparing notes about the best way to do it. Water is said to be hard when it contains metal ions such as calcium and magnesium, and the degree of hardness depends on the proportion of metal ions that occur in water. While this does not affect the safety of drinking water, it does have a distinct smell and taste that can be off-putting for some.
The real problem with hard water is what it leaves behind. About 80% of all households in the US have some degree of hardness in their water, but laundry in Omaha, Nebraska where the water is “softer” is apt to be better than in Austin, Texas. This is because the presence of metal ions affects how the water interacts with soaps and detergents. Instead of producing lather, it produces a sticky precipitate that we typically refer to as soap scum. It clings to most surfaces including clothes, drinking glasses and bathroom surfaces, and this residue is difficult to remove. It is unattractive and frustrating for any householder.
Aside from esthetics, hard water also seriously affects the energy efficiency of water heaters and any pipe or fixture where water passes through because the metal ions adhere to the surfaces, causing lime scale buildup. This can clog the pipes and openings, reducing water flow and causing appliances to eventually fail. In most cases, it is next to impossible to clean the lime scale out, so the homeowner is forced to replace the affected items. In areas such as Austin where the effects of hard water can go to the extreme, water softeners are necessary. Water softeners are machines that are designed to remove or neutralize these metal ions so that they will not wreak havoc in the home. There are many different methods for doing this but one of the safer and more energy efficient way is through ion exchange. There are two- and three-tank systems, but the three-tank systems are self-cleaning, which reduces the costs of maintenance. There are systems that make use of a mechanical turbine instead of electricity to pump water from one tank to another, making it environmentally and pocket friendly as well.