Did you know water can be hard or soft?
No, this isn’t to describe how the water actually feels.
It actually has to do with its mineral content.
Your water is hard or soft, how are you supposed to know as they both look exactly the same?
All water is seemingly the same, they are clear and mostly flavorless.
It can be distilled, filtered, tap, bottled, and if you’re really fancy, there’s water marketed as kosher, organic, or kabbalah.
Water becomes ‘hard’ when it has a higher than normal concentration of minerals, primarily calcium and magnesium.
Water picks up these minerals as it flows through the land to rivers or wells.
Soft water, on the other hand, has a low mineral content, either because it has not yet flowed through rocks or wells – like rainwater – or because the rocks it has come in contact with have little to no soluble minerals.
But that isn’t to say that there is a set amount of hard and soft water on earth.
Because of the hydrologic cycle, our water fluctuates between hard and soft.
For instance, water that lives in oceans or streams tends to be hard, because it has already picked up minerals.
But when this water evaporates and later becomes rain, it leaves these minerals behind and becomes soft.
It’s important to note that water is not just ‘hard’ or ‘soft’.
It’s a spectrum, with water becoming harder as its mineral concentration increases.
The United States Geological Survey classifies soft water as anything with less than 61 mg of calcium carbonate per liter.
Above that is moderately hard water, then hard water, and very hard water.
According to the US Department of Energy, almost 75 percent of US homes have water that is at least moderately hard.
Probably the best place to see the difference between hard and soft water is in the bathtub.
Soap is primarily made of a white solid called sodium stearate, which, with the help of water, carries away dirt and oil.
Normally the components of soap dissolved in water, causing a really good lather, but in hard water, the soap reacts with the minerals, forming insoluble compounds.
It also causes the soap= scum you see on the sides of the tub.
Hard water can also leave behind limescale, which occurs when water is heated or sits for too long, and the minerals solidify as the water evaporates.
As you may have noticed in your own home, limescale looks gross and difficult to get off pots and faucets.
To avoid this, a lot of people choose to ‘soften’ their water.
An easy way to do this is by boiling water, which causes the calcium carbonate to evaporate, leaving the remaining water soft.
Some cities also choose to soften their water, removing some of these minerals at the water treatment plant before it goes out to consumers.
However, there is another type of hardness called ‘permanent hardness’ that cannot be boiled away.
Water becomes permanently hard when it flows through rocks with calcium sulfate, also known as gypsum, which cannot be removed through boiling.
But despite its name, water with permanent hardness can be made soft.
The most common way of doing this is by adding a chemical softener that filters out many of the minerals.
But you may not be compelled to do this.
Because beyond difficulties with bathing and some household chores like laundry and dishes, both hard and soft water are generally thought to be safe to drink, cook with and bathe in especially if the water has gone through a treatment plant, at least in the United States.
However, some cities do choose to soften their water, removing some of these minerals at the water treatment plant before it goes out to consumers.
If you’re curious whether the stuff coming out of your tap is hard or soft, take a swig.
You can usually taste the minerals in hard water, whereas soft water is a bit flatter, and can sometimes taste slightly salty.