Hard water is a problem faced by many homes in the UK, in fact over 60% of UK properties reside in hard water areas. Hard water causes limescale deposits to form on and in many appliances and fixtures, especially those that get hot such as kettles and washing machines.
There are a number of ways of dealing with limescale deposits caused by hard water, find out about these solutions and how effective they are below.
What Causes Hard Water?
In the majority of homes in the UK and indeed across the world, mains water that is piped into your home can come from several different sources – either out of a storage reservoir or from deep underground natural wells and springs.
In most cases water collected in a reservoir falls as natural rain (or snow in some cases) and then runs through various rivers and streams and is then eventually collected and stored in the reservoir.
In both cases the water itself travels through a variety of different materials including chalk, gypsum and limestone and along the way picks up many different deposits including the two most common minerals that cause hard water and that are found in high concentrations in these materials – magnesium and calcium.
It is these two minerals that sit in the water and find their way into your home, depositing themselves on various surfaces and appliances.
Temporary Hardness and Permanent Hardness
There are in essence two different categories of hard water, permanent hard water and temporary hard water.
Permanent hard water, also known as “non-carbonate hard water” is relatively safe as it does not cause limescale buildup with in appliances and water systems as the sulphate ions dissolved in the water remain in the water when heated.
However, temporary hard water, also known as “carbonate hard water” is the stuff to watch our for. This is the type that contains the magnesium and calcium carbonates that do the damage.
Essentially hydrogen carbonate ions dissolved in the water form carbonate ions that react with the calcium and magnesium to form calcium and magnesium carbonate, or scale when heated.
What’s the Problem With Hard Water and Limescale?
There are numerous problems caused by hard water in the home, the major one being the damage that it does to household appliances, typically those that use water in order to work such as dishwashers, washing machines, kettles and the similar.
Over time tiny mineral deposits that are dissolved in the water used by these appliances settle on the internal parts of these machines that the water comes into contact with. Heating elements and objects that get hot are most at risk from limescale buildup, however deposits can form on and around pretty much any object that comes into contact with hard water.
Other than domestic appliances your heating system and boiler are also susceptible to damage from hard water and limescale buildup. In order to heat your radiators, water is heated in your boiler or heating source normally using a heating element and then pumped through pipes to the radiators throughout your home.
Not only can the limescale from hard water buildup on the heating element meaning the boiler has to work harder to heat the water as the deposits effectively insulate the element from the water, it can also form within the pipes and radiators restricting water flow.
All of these issues culminate in the fact that your heating system efficiency is massively reduced and also costs a lot more to run! Just a 1mm coating can reduce efficiency by over 7%. That’s huge!
Limescale deposits can also collect and buildup on tap spouts, shower heads and also areas where a water leak is present.
Another annoying byproduct of hard water is the spotty deposits and clouding that appears on glass surfaces, notably shower enclosures and wine glasses cleaned in a dishwasher.
As the hot water produced by both these appliances settles on these surfaces, the temperature causes the water to evaporate leaving the scaly deposits behind.
In a similar vein clothes, particularly towels, washed in washing machines in hard water areas, once dried, can also feel stiff and rather scratchy and look rather lackluster and dull.
One other important issue is the affect that limescale can have on cleaners such as soap, shower gel, shampoo, washing powers and tablets and dish soap.
The calcium and magnesium deposits that form hard water react with the sodium ions commonly found in soaps and cleaners and the resulting “soapy scum” or soap curd as its also known is a totally ineffective cleaner. So not only do you get a buildup of this scummy substance on your skin but it also collects in and around bathing areas such as bath tubs, sinks and showers.
Finally, hard water can also have a detrimental effect on skin and hair in that over time deposits can buildup in your hair causing it to become very frizzy and dry and also look very flat and dull.
Soap scum deposits left on skin can easily block pours causing spots and other blemishes and also suck moisture from your skin out causing it to become dry and itchy. Some experts have even linked it to skin conditions such as dermatitis and eczema.
Is Limescale and Hard Water bad for Your Health?
As we have stated above, hard water and limescale can have a devastating affect on numerous household appliances over time and due to this it has led some to think that the same can be said for it’s affects on the human body.
Although we have stated above that it can cause some irritation to hair and skin, that’s about as far as it goes, it certainly should not be regarded as a hazard to health.
In actuality some experts even consider it to be a slight benefit in respect to the fact that it adds magnesium and calcium into the diets of many and in very hard water areas can contribute to the majority of a persons calcium and magnesium intake.
Where are the Hard Water Areas in the UK?
Many areas within the UK are regarded as being hard water areas due to the geological makeup of the UK, large quantities of chalk and limestone are present in and around the South and particularly the East making these areas particularly hard in terms of their water quality.
On the flip side to this, the North and West of the UK features fairly high concentrations of granite and sandstone making their water fairly soft.
To make things a little clearer, the map image below shows a break down of the entire UK, indicating where soft, medium and hard water areas are located.
How do you Treat Hard Water in the Home?
Although hard water is not harmful to your health the limescale deposits and soap scum it produces are unsightly and lead to a great deal of unnecessary cleaning. If you are looking to do something about this and soften up your water there are a few solutions.
Water Softening and Conditioning Systems
There are two main ways to treat hard water – you can soften it or you can condition it, each has their own relative advantages and disadvantages.
Water softeners work on an ion exchange principle e.g. it removes the calcium and magnesium in the water and substitutes it with sodium chloride or salt as it’s commonly known.
A typical water softener will be connected to the incoming mains water pipe. The untreated incoming water is passed through negatively charged beads. The negative charge attracts and removes the positively charged minerals in the water while at the same time replacing them with sodium ions.
The cleaned water then falls to the bottom of the storage tank that the process takes place in and is then piped off into the rest of the house.
This process permanently softens the water but does have several downsides in terms of the large volumes of both water and salt the are used and also the costs involved in both the initial purchase of the system and actually running it.
Water conditioners work in a slightly different way to water softeners as they do not substitute any elements in the water. Instead they slow the rate at which the mineral deposits in hard water solidify on surfaces. This is achieved through a variety of different techniques including magnetism, electrolytics and using electrical currents.
An example of a water conditioner that uses electrical current is the Eddy water descaler.
We also have a full project page that covers the different types of water softener and conditioner in much more detail that can be found here.
Distilled white vinegar is a very versatile household cleaner and can be used on a variety of different surfaces to remove a range of different types of dirt, grease and other types of buildup, including limescale.
As vinegar is an acid-based substance and limescale is essentially calcium that reacts badly when exposed to acid, vinegar easily dissolves it. Vinegar also works very well on soap scum buildup.
Although it can’t be added to your heating system or used as an additive in your water (unless you really like the taste of vinegar) it’s very effective when used as a cleaning solution, all that’s needed is a bit of elbow grease!
A little known fact is that the temperature of hard water goes a fair way in how rapidly mineral deposits can build up, essentially the hotter the water or object the water is washing over the faster and easier deposits will form.
This is due to a process called “mineral precipitation” and this is where the minerals that are dissolved in the water break free and form deposits otherwise known as limescale.
If you reduce temperatures slightly this slows the process down.
Appliance cleaners and Conditioners
As we have already established, over time hard water calcium deposits in appliances and heating systems buildup and reduce their operating efficiency so to prevent this from happening it is essential that you clean your appliances internals and related pipework on a regular basis.
As we have mentioned above vinegar is a great cleaner of limescale and coupled with some water and baking soda, can be used to clean a variety of appliances including washing machines, dishwashers and many others. There are many great guides on the internet that cover this in full such as this one here.
Additionally in terms of dishwashers as long as you ensure the salt container is kept topped up with salt this will soften the water for you.
One other solution is to use a specific product. One such product for washing machines that is readily available in the UK is Calgon, find out more here.
When it comes to washing machines, many detergents and washing powders are purposely formulated to work in specific areas depending on the levels of lime and mineral deposits found in the water in that area e.g. some work better in hard water areas and some in soft water areas. In most cases this information can be found on packaging so check closely. If not, check the manufacturers website.
Hard water and limescale buildup can cause a lot of damage in and around the home to appliances and heating systems if not kept in check so install a water softener or conditioner and use vinegar or another cleaning solution to reduce any mineral deposits and keep your systems in tip top condition.