What Is Hard Water and How Is it Different From Salt Water?

What is hard water?

People can throw around terms such as hard water, soft water, and salt water, but what are the main differences between these words?

What is hard water, and how does it differ from soft water and salt water? Although it may seem a little confusing, the answers are really much simpler to understand than you think, especially once you learn a few basics.

Hard Versus Soft Water

If you start to clean your hands with soap and it’s difficult to get lather, you likely have hard water in your home.

Hard water is essentially water filled with too many dissolved minerals, especially calcium and magnesium, while soft water has very few minerals in it.

There are different ways water can get hard, and they can temporarily make the water hard or make it hard permanently. These are the basic differences between the two:

  • Temporary hardness occurs when the water has dissolved bicarbonate minerals, such as calcium bicarbonate and magnesium bicarbonate in it. It is called “temporary” because you can make the water soft again by either boiling it or adding lime to it, which is called lime softening.
  • Permanent hardness means the water won’t get better or softer just by boiling it. It is usually caused by different types of calcium and magnesium than those found in temporarily hard water; specifically, calcium sulfate/calcium chloride or magnesium sulfate/magnesium chloride.

The good news is, water that is permanently hard can be softened with a water-softening system that usually involves adding sodium or potassium to it so the water can become softer.

Of course, if you ever decide to get rid of the softening system, the water’s hardness is felt once again because after all, the water is permanently hard.

Ions cause water to be permanently hard, but water-softening systems remove the ions so that the water is much softer. You can also use an ion exchange system to soften the water.

Why Is Hard Water So Dangerous?

In some instances, hard water can be a good thing. It tends to clean things faster than soft water, and because there is so much calcium and magnesium in it, you’ll be able to get your supplements of these minerals every day.

Hard water has also been linked to reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, although other studies have proven this isn’t so.

But even if you suffer no serious health effects from hard water, there are still some disadvantages to having this type of water in your home.

These include:

  • Appliances that constantly have to be replaced
  • Clothes that aren’t as clean as they should be
  • Pipes that are constantly clogged
  • Soap scum that never seems to go away
  • Stains that appear on toilets, sinks, and so on
  • Those living in the home have skin that is dry or irritated
  • Water that smells or tastes funny

Indeed, these are the main reasons why people choose to have a water-softening system installed in their home.

These easy-to-use, low-maintenance systems work to remove the excess minerals from your water so your water can be soft, and these systems are very efficient.


Is Softened Water and Soft Water the Same Thing as Salt Water?

Asking yourself, what is hard water, will provide you with answers to this question, and a lot of people assume that hard water is the same thing as salt water. But is it?

The answer is, although they share some similarities, they are not the same thing.

Some people think they’re the same thing because water softeners add salt (or potassium) to their softening system to remove calcium and magnesium from the water and thus make it soft.

This means that for all practical purposes, water that goes through a water softener has some salt in it. However, it is not the same thing as hard water.

Another consideration is this: while hard water has high levels of calcium and magnesium, as well as other minerals, soft water tends to have high levels of sodium, or salt in it.

For this reason, people sometimes call soft water “salt water,” although this isn’t an entirely accurate description.

Hard water has several dissolved minerals, and even though calcium and magnesium are found in large amounts in hard water, it can have other minerals as well.

So in essence, salt water is the water to which salt is added to remove minerals from hard water, while hard water has too many dissolved minerals in it, particularly calcium and magnesium.

In addition, soft water is water with a lot of sodium in it, but it is completely different from hard water. Make sense?

Back to Hard Water

Once again, hard water is water with too many minerals in it, and it gets this way when it is percolated through the deposits of certain minerals – namely, gypsum, limestone, and chalk.

Since these minerals are made up mostly of calcium and magnesium carbonates, sulfates, and bicarbonates, much of the calcium and magnesium remain in the water, thus making it hard.

Some of the other minerals found in hard water include manganese, iron, and aluminum.

Just how is water measured? For starters, nearly every country has its own way of measuring the hardness of water. This includes:

  • Degrees of general hardness (dGH)
  • German degrees (°dH)
  • Parts per million (ppm, mg/L, or American degrees)
  • Grains per gallon (gpg)
  • English degrees (°e, e, or °Clark)
  • French degrees (°fH, °f, or °HF; lower-case f is used to avoid confusion with the word Fahrenheit)

The total hardness number is the sum of the molar concentrations of calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+) in either mol/L or mmol/L units.

Other minerals can also be measured, and the appearance of rust-colored buildup usually means there is too much iron in the water.

Fortunately, there is a universal conversion scale that anyone from any country can use, so if someone wants to compare the hardness of the water in their own country with the hardness of the water in another country, they have an effective way of doing so.

In the United States, the U.S. Geological Survey has its own scale that identifies water as soft, moderately hard, hard, and very hard, with the following numbers corresponding to each:

  • Soft: 0-60 ppm (parts per million)
  • Moderately hard: 61-120 ppm
  • Hard: 121-180 ppm
  • Very hard: 181+

This is a good way to tell if your water is hard or soft, and since many companies – including companies that sell water-softening systems and water purifiers – will come out and test your water for free, you can easily find out what type of water you have in your home.

Can You Tell If You Have Hard Water?

You certainly cannot tell just by looking at the water if it’s hard or soft, or the level of softness or hardness found in the water.

If you’ve been paying attention to your water, however, you likely have had some signs that something is not quite right with it. If you’ve noticed any of the following situations, you might have hard water:

  • After washing your hands, you feel like there’s a “film” on your skin.
  • You find mineral stains on clothing, towels, and so on.
  • The water pressure in your home is lower than you think it should be.

On the other hand, here are some signs that your water is likely soft:

  • You have a good amount of water pressure.
  • Your clothes never come out with stains of unknown origin.
  • You enjoy a good lather when washing your hands, clothes, and so on.
  • You may notice a very slight sodium taste when drinking the water.

Once again, both hard and soft water can be acceptable, but the bottom line is, water that is too hard can wreak havoc on your home in many ways, so purchasing a good water-softening system is generally recommended in these cases.

Hard Water Versus Soft Water: The Good and the Bad

Instead of asking, what is hard water, you may instead want to ask yourself, what are the pros and cons of each type of water?

Since both hard and soft water each have advantages and disadvantages, another way to decide if you want to soften your hard water with a softening system is to learn these pros and cons, which include:

What Are the Benefits of Hard Water?

  • Improves your daily intake of certain minerals
  • Some say hard water tastes better

What Are the Negative Effects of Hard Water?

  • Itchy scalp and skin
  • Stiff feeling in clothes, towels, and so on
  • Causes appliances to give out sooner

What Are the Disadvantages of Having Soft Water?

  • Makes a nice lather
  • Easier on your appliances

What Are the Disadvantages of Having Soft Water

  • Sometimes has a salty taste
  • Sometimes you feel like it’s difficult to rinse something off thoroughly
  • Can have too much salt, which isn’t good for people with high blood pressure

If the only thing you’re really concerned about is the taste of your water, you might be better off getting yourself a water-purification system, which is usually either attached to a faucet or involves a pitcher with some type of filter in it.

These systems filter the water and remove certain ingredients to make the water healthier for you.

But if you simply dislike having hard water in your home and are more concerned about your appliances and your clothes than you are the taste of your water, it might behoove you to purchase a water-softening system.

True, these systems may indeed result in better-tasting water, but their main purpose is to soften the water to reduce the negative effects hard water has on many things.


The Impact of Hard Water

If you’re still curious about whether you should be concerned about the hard water in your home, consider some of the other effects it can have on various areas of your life.


Hard water can leave a film in your bathtub, leave soap residue on your skin, and can even make your hair lifeless and dull.


Hard water can leave milky residues on the dishes and cause the parts inside your dishwasher to rust and need replacement.


Hard water can make stains more difficult to remove, shorten the lifespan of clothes, and make clothes look dingy.


Hard water can form limescale deposits, make your utility bill go up, and reduce the efficiency of appliances such as boilers.

Solar Heating Systems

Hard water can ruin the components of your system and cause you to see less savings on your utility bill.

As mentioned earlier, hard water is not necessarily a health risk, but it can certainly make other parts of your life more challenging and a lot more stressful and inconvenient.

What Are Your Options When You Have Hard Water?

So, now that you’ve answered the question, what is hard water, you’ll be happy to learn that the solutions to this dilemma are, for the most part, easy to utilize and inexpensive to boot.

If you choose a good water-softening system, you’ll learn there are many different types. Most of them work with salt or potassium because this is what best softens the water, but there are salt-free systems as well.

When shopping for these systems, you should look at two main aspects: the size of the system and the features it has.

Regarding size, it is best to go with the largest one you can afford – provided you have the space for it – because it will be able to soften more water in a shorter period of time.

When it comes to features, you can get everything from a very basic system to a system with all of the bells and whistles.

Some of the features provided by many systems include a timer, which automatically recharges your water based on the average daily use for your home; and softener demand-initiated regeneration, or DIR, which is more sophisticated than the timers and only regenerates when it is absolutely needed.

Because of this, softener DIR features make your system much more efficient and less costly in the long run. There are other features available as well, and any basic Internet search will allow you to find out what they are.

Jon Agarwal

Jon Agarwal works as an environmental consultant focused on water resources, and he volunteers his time for non-profit organizations. He lives in the heart of Melbourne with his beautiful wife, two sons, and three Persian cats. He particularly enjoys working part-time as it leaves him the time to work on his own writing and share his knowledge. Visit our About page to learn about the contributors of Healthy Buddys.

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