Short Lived Appliances? Hard Water May Be the Culprit

Rapid corrosion, higher utility bills, stained tubs and sinks: These are just some of the reasons hard water must be managed.

Most American homes (as many as 80% according to experts at Angi ) have hard water, meaning it’s full of dissolved, naturally occurring compounds such as magnesium. Can you live with hard water? Yes. But do you really want to?

Most experts say mineral-rich hard water won’t cause serious health effects. It may, however, make your skin dry or resist any kind of good lather when you wash your hair. But the biggest downsides might be financial: the ones that damage your home infrastructure. 

How can you tell, without testing, if your water is “hard?” Are your clothes' colors fading? Do you have trouble removing stains? Do faucets seem to slow or clog frequently? Is your showerhead clotted with greenish lime? Start there. 

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Other signs of hard water, according to Mallory Micetich, a home care expert at Angi, include decreased water pressure, skyrocketing utility bills, white spots on your coffee maker, spotted silverware, scale deposits, film, and soap scum residue, or even a regular cadence of failing appliances.

“Hard water is a common quality of water,” says Kimberly Redden, foundation relations and research manager for the Water Quality Research Foundation . “It contains dissolved compounds of calcium and magnesium and, sometimes, other metallic elements. But hard water is an aesthetic contaminant, not a health contaminant.”

Hard water can be verified with a water analysis or field test. Sometimes it’s reported on consumer water quality reports from your water provider, Redden says. You can also check out a map on the Whirlpool hard water facts site to see what’s common in your region.

"Hard water is caused by a buildup of limestone, calcium carbonate, magnesium and other metal compounds in the pipes," says Micetich. "More compounds in the water means harder water. Soft water has 0 to 60 milligrams per liter of compounds, moderately hard water has 61 to 120 milligrams per liter and very hard water has 121 to 180 milligrams per liter of compounds."

H20 Pain Points

Hard water causes mostly hidden damage all through your home’s plumbing systems. Your appliances can become sluggish and need to work harder, which in turn raises your utility bills. On top of that, you could need to replace your appliances faster if you don't do anything about your hard water situation.

"Hard water decreases water flow and can clog valves, decreasing the efficiency of your appliances and shortening their life spans," says Micetich. "Hard water’s pH level can also cause corrosion in appliances such as your dishwasher, water heater, washing machine and boiler, shortening their life span 30 times faster than appliances running on soft water."

Incidentally, an appliance damaged by hard water may not be covered by your warranty, even an extended warranty. As points out: 

“As a matter of fact, use of hard water may void the warranty of your dishwasher, refrigerator, washing machine, or water heater due to its corrosive nature. A typical water heater warranty, for example, could state that the heater is covered for anywhere between 5-10 years. If you read on, the warranty will usually list circumstances that are not covered, and “scale buildup due to water quality” is typically found on that list. Read the fine print.”

Redden explains that in hot water heaters, for example, scale buildup makes the electric heating element less efficient. It works harder to heat the same amount of water. It can also restrict the flow of water in and out of the tank, and accelerate corrosion around fittings.

“Dissolved calcium and magnesium salts are primarily responsible for most scaling in pipes and water heaters,” Redden says. “Scale buildup can also reduce the flow rate of showerheads and faucets.”

Here’s how you’ll notice the impact of hard water across various appliances, says Micetich:

  • Dishwasher: Hard water will leave residue on your dishes and make it harder for your dishwasher to do its job. White spots on silverware and a film coating on your glassware are both signs of hard water.
  • Hot water heater: Hard water can clog pipes and lower the efficiency of your water heater, requiring more energy to heat water and increasing your energy bill.
  • Washing machine: The minerals in hard water will prevent detergents from lathering and removing soil and stains and can even put holes in your fabrics. Hard water can also cause color fading the more you run clothes or linens through your washing machine.
  • Coffeemaker: White spots on your coffeemaker are signs of calcium buildup that can cause your coffeemaker to take longer to brew or prevent it from brewing at all.
  • Faucets: Scale deposits on your faucet fixtures is a clear sign of hard water. These deposits will impact water pressure and irritate your skin, hair and eyes. Hard water can clog pores, and the minerals in it can lead to itchy or irritated skin. The calcium and magnesium in hard water can burn your eyes, leave a slime coating on your hands and dry out your hair. Hard water can also cause soap scum residue on your bathroom tiles and around your tub.

Softening the Damage From Hard Water

You can try a few temporary fixes to mitigate the effects of hard water in portable appliances, such as running vinegar through your coffeemaker; or you can use a squeegee to religiously clean your shower walls,” says Micetich.

"However, installing a water softener is really the only long-term solution,” she adds. "A water softener will keep your energy bills down, your skin, laundry, and dishware looking great and your appliances running smoothly."

Homeowners have multiple options for water softeners, including some set on timers that automatically kick in at regular intervals, and others that work based on how much water the household typically uses. Some models include filtration to eliminate a wider range of contaminants, and a few have indicators to alert you to water flow problems.

Redden notes research by the Battelle Memorial Institute. “The study compared appliances using hard water to those using water softened with a “cation exchange” water softener, and quantified the differences,” she says. “They found, for example, that showerheads using hard water lost 75% of their flow rate in less than 18 months.”

Some other findings from the study include:

  • Every five grains per gallon (gpg) (1 grain amounts to (64.8 milligrams) of calcium carbonate ) of water hardness caused 0.4 pounds of scale accumulation each year in electric storage tank water heaters.
  • For gas storage tank water heaters, each five grains per gallon of water hardness caused a 4% loss in efficiency and 4% increase in cost of energy, when using 50 gallons of hot water per day. Over a 15-year period, when operated on 26 gpg hard water, the unit’s carbon footprint increased by 18%, compared to the same operation on 0 gpg softened water.
  • With 26 gpg hard water, tankless water heaters completely failed to function due to scale plugging in the downstream plumbing after only 1.6 years of equivalent hot water use. However, these same tankless water natural gas water heaters, even if they're cleaned frequently and delimed of scale, had a carbon footprint increase of 4% when operated on 26 grains per gallon hard water versus 0 grains per gallon softened water over 15 years.

While a water softener may run from $300 to $900, depending on the size and sophistication of the device, the reduction in your carbon footprint, savings on your utility bills, and longer-lasting appliances (not to mention better skin and hair) are likely to be well worth the expense.

Publisher’s Note: This content is made possible by our Today’s Home Buyer Campaign Sponsors: Panasonic, Whirlpool, Rockwool, and Lee Industries. These companies take sustainability seriously, in both their products and their operations. Learn more about building and buying homes that are more affordable and less resource-intensive on Today's Home Buyer.