The water hardness scale is probably one of those things you never think about. Like the sky being blue or kittens being cute, it just objectively "is", right? Be that as it may, it doesn't change the fact that hard water can actually have some pretty noticeable effects on our everyday lives, including, for example, the way we do laundry.
We know the topic of hard vs. soft water can be a little dry, but seeing as the natural minerals found in hard water influence the effectiveness of laundry detergent and the washing process in general, taking some time to determine the hardness of your water can have long term benefits.
To help you out, the Scrubba Wash Bag team has neatly summarised everything you need to know, from doing laundry with hard water to selecting the right water softening option. With this easy to read guide, we promise you'll get the facts in next to no time so that you can get back to image searching those cute kittens - or perhaps looking up why the sky is blue after all!
What is Hard Water?
Don't worry, we're not going to bore you with a long, scientific explanation that we wouldn't understand ourselves. All you really need to know is that water (yes, that transparent, neutral tasting stuff that's about as outwardly interesting as your mum's "eggshell" coloured wallpaper) actually has diverse characteristics. Just to further belie its bland exterior, water casually supports all life on earth, so, you know, we think that makes it at least a tiny bit worth learning about.
But what exactly is hard water? Before you ask, no, it's not a cool nickname invented by a family of rough amphibians in an attempt to keep trespassing ducks out of their part of the lake - awesome as that would be. Hard water simply refers to the presence of minerals - typically calcium, magnesium, manganese, and iron - in water. The greater the concentrations of these minerals, the harder the water.
If you've always thought of hard water as a concern only for those living in very rural areas and thus promptly stopped thinking about it at all, you may be surprised to learn that approximately 85% of water in the US, for example, is considered hard. This makes it something worth thinking about, no matter where you call home.
Get the Hard Facts: Understanding the Water Hardness Scale
Water hardness is typically represented on a scale that runs from "soft" to "very hard". The scale and the measurements it uses vary from country to country, so it can be helpful to research the system that is utilised in your area. Here in Australia, water hardness is typically measured by mg/L, representing the concentration, in milligrams, of dissolved minerals per litre of water. Water is generally considered soft or only slightly hard if it measures under about 60 mg/L, and is moderately hard above this level. Water is considered hard when it climbs over 120 mg/L, and it is usually advised that levels around or above 200mg/L are treated before drinking.
It's important to note that there are two kinds of water hardness: temporary hardness and permanent hardness. While the former can be treated simply by boiling the water, the latter cannot and may require more vigorous treatment.
How to Know if You Have Hard Water
Step one of doing laundry with hard water is, of course, to determine the hardness of your water. Luckily for us, there are some reasonably clear symptoms of hard water in the home. These include:
- Laundry that feels stiff, looks discoloured, or hasn't come out clean
- Soaps and shampoos that don't lather
- White deposits on taps and drains
- Skin irritation
- Greater instance of fabric tears or weaknesses
If these problems sound all too familiar, you might like to consider testing the hardness of your water and taking further action if necessary.
Conducting a Water Hardness Test
Don't worry, testing for hard water actually isn't hard at all! If you suspect you've been using hard water and you have some time to kill, you can easily try your hand at a DIY water hardness test. This test isn't totally accurate and in no way compensates for official information about your water hardness, but it can help you gauge whether your water is at the hard or soft end of the scale.
To run a simple water hardness test, you need simply fill a clear bottle with water and add about 10 drops of soap (preferably a sort with no added dyes or perfumes, as these can interfere with the results) before shaking the bottle vigorously. If minimal bubbles are produced, there's a chance your water is hard. You can continue adding drops of soap until the water lathers, noting that higher soap quantities indicate harder water.
The Effects of Hard Water on Laundry
Hard water hinders the laundry process by preventing water from mixing with detergent. As a result, soap is unable to lather effectively and soap scum is left behind on your clothes as a streaky, chalky substance - not quite the look that dominated the latest spring collection! Not only does this residue look unsightly, it can also cause clothes to feel stiff and unclean, all while attracting and holding more dirt than before. This same mineral coating can reduce the absorption of bath towels and cause skin irritation in the form of chafing and dryness, especially for those who suffer from sensitive skin or other skin conditions.
Additionally, hard water can cause the premature fading of dark fabrics, leave reddish brown streaks on clothing due to the presence of iron and, in the case of very hard water or mineral build up, even weaken and tear fibre fabrics, leading to costly clothes repairs or replacements. All these factors make it important to deal with hard water before it becomes a problem!
Dealing with Life's Hard Knocks: Doing Laundry With Hard Water
Because most of the ingredients in detergents become attached to the minerals in hard water instead of actually cleaning your clothes, it's necessary to add a lot more detergent and hotter water to effectively wash your clothes in hard water. Unfortunately, this can have negative environmental effects and can push your utility and grocery bills way beyond manageable limit. So what can you do to prevent yourself from being caught between a washing machine and a hard place?
For a start, you should consider using liquid detergents instead of powders, as these are able to better resist water hardness and help prevent soap scum. You can also add a small amount of laundry borax to your washing load to help soften the water and improve the overall process.
Regularly cleaning and de-scaling your washing machine is also important to help prevent chemical residues and mineral build up. You can easily do this by running an empty hot water wash. Once the cycle has finished, set another hot water wash, this time adding baking soda and white vinegar to the drum. Be sure to thoroughly wipe down the drum afterwards to achieve the best results.
If your water is very hard or you suffer from sensitive skin, you might like to consider having a water softener installed in your home. These devices remove or deactivate minerals in water, making them great solutions for anyone who wants to permanently give hard water the boot!
The Bottom Line: Hard Water vs. Soft Water
Although hard water may seem like that distant cousin who's long overstayed his welcome on your couch, we promise you it isn't all that bad. Drinking hard water is totally safe and, provided it falls within accepted range, doesn't present any major health concerns. In fact, by far the most formidable thing about hard water is its rather inhospitable name, and the biggest challenge is often being aware of the differences between hard and soft water and knowing what kind of water you have at home.
Nevertheless, as hard water is much more aggressive than soft water when it comes to household appliances, clothes, and our skin, we should take steps, where necessary, to soften our water or at least adjust the shampoos and detergents we use to ensure we're not wasting mountains of soap with minimal results.
Like the pesky mosquito buzzing just out of sight that leaves you with little option but to accept it and move on with your life, hard water may not be desirable, but at the end of the day it's far from being the worst imaginable housemate.
The most important thing is to not let hard water dampen your style, and thanks to these tips and tricks, you don't have to. So get out there and make the most of your laundry day - no hard feelings!