Water described as "hard" is high in dissolved minerals, specifically calcium and magnesium. Hard water is not a health risk, but a nuisance because of mineral buildup on fixtures and poor soap and/or detergent performance.
Water is a good solvent and picks up impurities easily. Pure water -- tasteless, colorless, and odorless -- is often called the universal solvent. When water is combined with carbon dioxide to form very weak carbonic acid, an even better solvent results.
As water moves through soil and rock, it dissolves very small amounts of minerals and holds them in solution. Calcium and magnesium dissolved in water are the two most common minerals that make water "hard." The degree of hardness becomes greater as the calcium and magnesium content increases.
Rain absorbs carbon dioxide as it falls to earth and percolates through the ground. The resulting acidity of the water causes normally insoluble carbonate limestone to dissolve into a bicarbonate. Thus calcium becomes part of the water chemistry, and cannot be removed by simple filtration.
When subsequently heated, the hard water releases the carbon dioxide reverting the calcium back to its carbonate state by precipitating hard, ionically charged crystals. These are immediately attracted to the closest surface exhibiting an opposite ionic charge, usually the pipe wall, heater element etc. Crystals thus form together to produce scale deposits.
Hard water interferes with almost every cleaning task from laundering and dishwashing to bathing and personal grooming. Clothes laundered in hard water may look dingy and feel harsh and scratchy. Dishes and glasses may be spotted when dry. Hard water may cause a film on glass shower doors, shower walls, bathtubs, sinks, faucets, etc. Hair washed in hard water may feel sticky and look dull. Water flow may be reduced by deposits in pipes.
Dealing with hard water problems in the home can be a nuisance. The amount of hardness minerals in water affects the amount of soap and detergent necessary for cleaning. Soap used in hard water combines with the minerals to form a sticky soap curd. Some synthetic detergents are less effective in hard water because the active ingredient is partially inactivated by hardness, even though it stays dissolved. Bathing with soap in hard water leaves a film of sticky soap curd on the skin. The film may prevent removal of soil and bacteria. Soap curd interferes with the return of skin to its normal, slightly acid condition, and may lead to irritation. Soap curd on hair may make it dull, lifeless and difficult to manage.
When doing laundry in hard water, soap curds lodge in fabric during washing to make fabric stiff and rough. Incomplete soil removal from laundry causes graying of white fabric and the loss of brightness in colors. A sour odor can develop in clothes. Continuous laundering in hard water can shorten the life of clothes. In addition, soap curds can deposit on dishes, bathtubs and showers, and all water fixtures.
Hard water also contributes to inefficient and costly operation of water-using appliances. Heated hard water forms a scale of calcium and magnesium minerals that can contribute to the inefficient operation or failure of water-using appliances. Pipes can become clogged with scale that reduces water flow and ultimately requires pipe replacement.
Mean hardness as calcium carbonate at NASQAN water-monitoring sites during 1975 water year. Colors represent site data representing streamflow from the hydrologic-unit rea. (Map edited by USEPA, 2005)