Your local water supply could be soft or hard water and each has their ‘good' and ‘bad' points. Hard water has a stronger percentage of minerals such as magnesium, calcium, sulfates, carbonates, etc. While hard water is recommended for drinking or for watering your garden because of the mineral content, it is not so good if you use it for cleaning, washing or bathing. To use hard water for the latter purposes, it is possible to remove or reduce the ‘hardness' factor, and there are several ways of doing this. Typically, you will need to use water softeners of different types, based on your requirements and the type of hard water which you get.
Chemical softeners. Chemical compounds such as borax or washing soda (sodium carbonate) are recommended to soften hard water. Other chemicals which can be used are phosphate compounds. The former mix and form and insoluble white precipitate with the calcium or magnesium ions naturally present in the water. You can then filter and remove such precipitates before using the water. The downside is that the alkaline content of the water is increased when washing soda or borax is used, which can be harmful to the skin or your cleaning surfaces and utensils. On the other hand, phosphates simply neutralize the free ions and do not form any precipitates, and the alkalinity also remains unchanged.
Ion exchange systems. These are mechanical systems which can be connected to your main water supply. These will work on removing the free calcium and magnesium ions found in hard water and make it safe for any kind of use. These are also preferable to using chemical fasteners, since the process is automatic once the system is switched on, though you may need to do some periodic maintenance and replacements to keep the system functioning.
Ion exchange systems work in the following manner:
- Water from your mains supply will pass through a container filled with plastic or resin silver beads which are coated with large amounts of sodium.
- The free calcium and magnesium ions are captured by the beads as the water passes through them and free sodium is released into the water.
- The beads will become saturated with calcium and magnesium over a period of time and will need to be replaced by fresh beads or treated with a strong solution of salt to flush away the calcium and magnesium.
The downside of ion exchange systems is the amount of increased sodium which goes into the water supply and is not recommended for people with cardiovascular or other health problems. Too much sodium is also not good for normal, healthy people. The solution for this could be to have water used for cooking and drinking bypass the ion exchange process.
Adding water filters. Another method to treat hard water is to install water filters, either directly on to taps or to your plumbing system. Different kinds of filters work differently on neutralizing the free calcium and magnesium ions and also help in keeping away bacteria and other toxic materials from your drinking water.
It makes sense to only treat the hard water which you will use for cleaning and washing purposes. Hard water has typically no harmful effects when used in drinking or cooking or even watering your garden. While soft water is great for lathering and cleaning, it is not recommended for drinking or cooking, so having a supply of hard water in your home may not actually be a bad thing.