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What is Soft Water?

Soft water is highly touted for its beneficial properties, yet most of us don’t have a firm idea of what is meant by soft water. You’ve probably also heard of soft water’s alter ego: hard water. The differences between the two are significant and therefore important to understand in terms of how each can affect your life.

If you find yourself wondering, “what makes water soft?”, you’ve come to the right place. We are going to examine what soft water is, what its main properties are and how hard water compares to soft water. Depending on where you live, you may have used soft water your entire life and never known it, or you may have only had limited exposure to it. In the course of this article, we’ll break down why this might be the case, and also explore methods through which you can get soft water – such as a whole home water softener – even if you live in an area that has very hard water.

By the end of this article, you should have a clear sense of what the benefits of soft water are and conversely what the drawbacks of hard water tend to be. This information will allow you to make an informed decision regarding whether you need a home water softener system in your home or business.

What is Water Hardness?

The easiest way to figure out what is meant by soft water is to understand the concept of water hardness. The idea of a liquid being soft or hard can be confusing, but take a moment and let go of the idea that your water is either physically hard or soft to the touch. Rather, water hardness refers to something that is either present or absent from water.

Specifically, the hardness of water is determined by the amount of calcium and magnesium that has been dissolved in a water sample. Water that is considered hard may also have other minerals present, such as manganese and iron. Conversely, soft water has very low amounts of these minerals.

The mineral composition of the water gives it unique properties. These properties are the core reason that so many people are concerned about how hard their water is. Many properties of hard water tend to be detrimental to specific equipment that we rely on in our modern world due to the presence of these minerals.
How Does Water Hardness Occur?
The development of hard water occurs naturally during the movement of water through the water cycle. Precipitation, or rainwater, does not contain a substantial amount of minerals and is thus considered soft. The mineral content the water contains will rise as the water moves through the soil.

There are a couple of points to unpack here about how water becomes harder. Let’s take a look at each of these three in turn.

  • Groundwater

  • Location

  • Water as a Solvent

Groundwater
Water hardness is really only something that occurs in groundwater. Water starts as soft in its natural form as rainwater, but becomes hard as it moves through the soil and picks up minerals.

Location
There is a strong geographical correlation to whether water is hard or soft. For water to be hard, it must pass through soil that is rich in minerals. This is especially true for calcium and magnesium, which water readily dissolves as it moves through it. If the soil near your water supply has an abundance of chalk and limestone, chances are it will be hard.

Water as a Solvent
You might be wondering how water can dissolve minerals that are found in the soil and crust of the earth. For example, calcium carbonate comprises roughly 4% of the Earth’s crust and is the primary way through which water hardness is measured. Water is able to dissolve this and other minerals because it is a solvent. It has been dubbed the “universal solvent” because of its effectiveness in dissolving minerals. This is due to the polarity of water atoms themselves. Water has both a negative and positive charge on each side, allowing it to attract and dissolve minerals as it passes through the ground.

What is the Threshold for Soft Water?

By now, you should have a good idea of what makes water soft or hard, but this does little to shed light on the soft water definition. Rather than simply assessing the effect water has or what it feels like – both of which are properties that change depending on hardness – there are simple thresholds that are used to determine whether water is hard.

The thresholds that determine the hardness of water are a measurement of the amount of Grains Per Gallon (GPG) found in a sample of water. These measurements help answer the question, “what is soft water?”

These are the thresholds that define the hardness of water:

  • <1 GPG of hardness – Soft
  • 1-7 GPG of hardness – Moderately Hard
  • 7-10 GPG of hardness – Hard
  • >10 GPG – Very Hard

What are Some Advantages of Soft Water?

If you live in an area where groundwater is naturally hard, you will have to invest in a water softening system in order to have soft water. Let’s take a look at some of the key advantages that soft water has over mineral-laden hard water.

Less Mineral Buildup in Pipes and Equipment
When water that is high in minerals travels through the pipes in your house, it leaves behind deposits of the minerals it is carrying. This buildup is called limescale. Some types of pipes, such as copper or PVC, are more resilient against limescale buildup. Even so, the continuous flow of water through these pipes will eventually reduce the ease of flow. If you’ve ever seen a picture of how cholesterol slowly constricts the flow of blood in the arteries of the human body, you will have a good sense of how limescale can affect the flow of water through pipes over time.

Pipes aren’t the only thing in your house that will slowly degrade from hard water. Mineral deposits from hard water will result in a buildup that will affect the operation of your showerhead, dishwasher, and importantly, your water heater. Water heaters in areas with hard water will operate less efficiently over time as limescale continues to buildup in them. Similarly, nozzles of showerheads can also become clogged by limescale with continued use.

No Spotted Dishes
If you have hard water, then you know that it’s next to impossible to get your dishes looking as good as new. The source of the film and spots on your dishes, glassware, and silverware are the minerals contained in the water. Those spots aren’t dangerous, but they are unsightly. One of the advantages of having soft water is that your dishes come out consistently clean, bright, and shiny.

Clothes Last Longer
With soft water, your favorite clothes will last longer. If you have hard water, your clothes will appear dull and less vibrant due to the buildup of calcium and magnesium in the clothing through repeated washes. Stains might be more difficult to remove in the washing machine, and you might even see white streaking on certain dark fabrics. Over time, the mineral buildup will weaken the fibers of clothes, making them less resilient to tearing.

Soap Scum
You may not realize it, but that soap scum you’ve battled over the years is due to the minerals in your water. The calcium carbonate in hard water reacts with soap to create soap scum. Soap scum is frustrating at best, and even after a thorough cleaning, it can quickly reappear. By switching to soft water, soap scum will be eliminated, making cleaning your shower or sinks a breeze.

Eliminating soap scum isn’t the only advantage of soft water. Soft water also makes the soap more effective in general. With hard water, soap doesn’t lather as effectively and is generally harder to wash off. Once you finish washing your hands with hard water, you are often left with a dry feeling and may feel like you need lotion. With soft water, soap produces a more luxurious lather, washes off cleanly the first time and makes your hands feel softer instantly.

Vibrant Hair
You probably wouldn’t think that the mineral content of your water would have an impact on how your hair looks. As surprising as it is, the minerals in hard water can, over time, leave hair more dull in appearance. The minerals in the water coat the hair, causing it to appear duller while also reducing the effectiveness of moisturizers from penetrating the hair follicle. In contrast, washing your hair with soft water will leave it with more vibrancy, shine, and body.

How to Get Soft Water

If you don’t live in an area that already provides soft water, then you’ll have to treat the water that is coming into your house. Water is softened through an ion exchange process.

Essentially, this process involves running the hard water through a tank that contains sodium or potassium ions. These ions attract the mineral ions in your hard water. Occasionally the tank may need to be flushed with a saline rinse. This recharges the system and allows it to continue attracting mineral ions. The end result of a water softening system is soft water on demand in your house.

Water softeners reverse the process through which water becomes hard when it travels through the water cycle. The polarity of the water molecule allows it to pick up mineral ions as it travels through the soil. A water softener reverses this process by attracting those same mineral ions back out of your water, allowing them to be eliminated separately.

Closing Thoughts

Soft water is water with a very low mineral content, typically defined as less than 1 GPG. Water above this threshold is considered hard, owing to the fact that it has a higher mineral content.

Water becomes hard after it falls from the ground as precipitation and seeps into the soil. While the water that eventually reaches our tap moves through the soil and sediment that makes up the Earth’s crust, it picks up mineral ions. The majority of these minerals are calcium carbonate and magnesium, but hard water can also contain iron, manganese, and a variety of other minerals.

There are some very tangible benefits associated with soft water, including shinier hair and more moisturized skin. Soft water also leaves behind fewer mineral deposits on your faucets and fixtures, which is important for your appliances. With soft water, your water heater will work more efficiently over a longer period of time, and you won’t experience obstruction of the nozzles in your dishwasher or shower head. Soft water also eliminates soap scum and ensures that your dishes won’t have any spots or film.

Transitioning your entire house to soft water isn’t as difficult as you might think. Water softeners remove the minerals in water as it comes into your house, ensuring that every faucet, shower head, and appliance has clean, soft water. To learn more about the process for transitioning to a water softening system or even just a home water filtration system for potable drinking water, please contact Rayne Water today.

Sources
1. https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/hardness-water?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects
2. https://www.thespruce.com/solving-hard-water-laundry-problems-2146651
3. https://www.skincarebyalana.com/blog/whats-better-skin-hard-soft-water/