Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Water Filters: Hard Water Woes

Laura at CenterDownHome asked if I'd ever looked into water filters, which, given my level of obsession with the water I drink, is a fair question. I have been carrying a Brita pitcher since I was fifteen. Early neurotic adopter, much? I'll have to confess that I have thought long and hard about the quality of our wawa. Filters included. This post? Will focus on filters that might help Laura.

Like the folks here in the nation's capitol, Laura's got hard water. Hard water can be hard, my friend. I so feel your pain. Hard water can make all of your eco-friendly dishwasher and laundry soap efforts seem like trading in your Lexus for a donkey. Spots on your glasses, dingy whites. It's all worth it, obviously, but it can be kind of annoying. Like belonging to the one lawn in your proximity-to-a-golfcourse-astroturf-levels-of-green neighborhood riddled with giant patches of crabgrass and a methodical man wielding a shooter of nontoxic weedkiller and a trowel? That kind of worth it (and exactly that kind of skull-splittingly wrong yet so right).

Hard water can make your soap work against you. Although there are no health risks associated with having high levels of calcium and magnesium in your water (also known as having "hard water") it can make daily chores even less rewarding. In a nutshell, hard water can cause scale (spotting) and soap scum. It can make it harder to wash your dishes and clothes, and make everything dingy. An additional bonus is that removing the soap scum can be hard on your clothes. Yes, your hard-earned dollars will fly out of your hands faster! There are a couple of solutions out there but nothing's perfect (which is why we don't bother to deal with it here at Casa Bird -- aside from our being horribly lazy, that is -- we just use detergents instead of soap when we can, and use vinegar to deal with soap scum in the bathrooms).

Here are some great links (dontcha love the way blogging is like a virtual file cabinet?!):

The Green Guide's categorical explanations of various types of water filters.

NRDC's guide to water filters (their tap water report is worth checking out to see how your water ranks in the first place).

Here's an explanation of how a water softener works.

Here's Virginia Tech's guide to household water treatment.

Here's a site put together by a guy who was frustrated about the lack of info about hard water online.

In searching for info on hard water, I came across a bunch of commercial sites that seem to have solid (heh heh) information about hard water. I can't vouch for them 'cause, well, they are trying to sell filters and softeners, and I'm usually mistrustful of those with a dog in the fight. But there's some good info on a few of the sites so here goes:

LennTech's info about calcium and water and water softener FAQS.

FilterWaterDirect's info about calcium in water.

Laura also wanted to know if I'd heard of these ceramic water filters. I hadn't. But the Green Guide notes that they are usually used with another filtration method. Not sure why?

Ceramic: Ceramic filters, often combined with carbon filters, will remove bacteria, parasites, asbestos and sediments. As water passes through the pores of the ceramic, particles as small as .2 microns are trapped. When the water flow is reduced, the filter requires a light scrub under running water. Ceramic filters are available in both counter-top and under the counter models, and are often combined with another filtration method.

In addition, the Green Guide cautions those with well water (which Laura's got) to do the following:
If your water source is a private well, check with your local health department to find out which contaminants are common where you live. The EPA recommends that you have it tested annually by a state-certified lab for nitrate and coliform bacteria, total dissolved solids and pH levels. Also, test for radon if that's a problem in your area (call 800-SOS-RADON to see if it's an issue) and for pesticides, if you live near a farm where crops are sprayed frequently. National Testing Labs can test for 95 contaminants, including 20 pesticides, by mail (, 800-458-3330). For more information, call the Water Systems Council hotline (, 888-395-1033).

Finally, my personal take on the matter: distillation and reverse osmosis will remove the calcium/soften your water, but reverse osmosis in particular is costly to do whole-house, slow, and creates colossal amounts of waste water. It's energy intensive and basically an eco-nightmare. So, what should Laura do? Perhaps get a water softener and a carbon aka Brita-type filter. If they start accepting their filters for recycling.

In general, if you have hard water and you're not going to get a water softener, vinegar's your antidote. It's great for removing soap scum, and some claim that throwing 3/4 cup into the dishwasher before running it helps with the cleaning action. Either way, don't worry about the health hazards of calcium and magnesium. It's the pharma and the hormones in our water that our legislators need to deal with, since current water treatment regulations don't address their removal.

*Photo by vicbuster at sxc.


Minnesota Matron said...

Okay -- I know bloggers with book deals who don't tell me as much vital info as you do! Thank you, Mama Bird!!!! Terrific info!

Laura/CenterDownHome said...

Wow, Mamabird! I'm taking the kids to skating this morning, and will print your post, so that I can make a list of things we need to do. I've always been wary of the companies who test your water, then sell you a filtration system -- what's their incentive to come back with a report that says, "Hey, you've got great water! See you later!"? Thanks for the water testing lab and water systems council links!

Our whole house filtration system has a calcium filter. The company sells a unit which softens the water, but we haven't looked into that. My main concern was drinking water, and whether the calcium filter removed all pesticdes and bacteria, etc. Yes, we're near farms. Our neighbors' horse pasture sends water run-off into the tiny stream between our properties, and my kids can't play in the stream anymore. (Several years ago, these neighbors took down acres of trees to put in the horse pasture.) One of their horses died and another got sick from eating the grass in the pasture. They weren't specific about what caused this, but I guess it was something they used to fertilize the grass. Yeah, our well is several hundred feet from that pasture.

Thank you so much for all of your work -- I knew that you were the go-to mama for this question! I'll start by checking the sites and sending our water sample in.

Off to take a shower in the questionable water! :D

eco 'burban mom said...

I have a well with terribly hard water filled with mineral deposits. We weighed the pros and cons of all the methods and 5 years ago chose the softener. It takes a few tries to balance out the salt and red out salt combination and you can not EVER let the thing run out of salt or you pay dearly with brown and funky smelling water.

For drinking, tea, lemonade, coffee etc. We use a Brita and I am diligently saving all my filters for Chile. With a family of 6, we fill that think about 4 times a day, but it does make the water seem to taste better.

MamaBird said...

Awwww - I'm blushin', Matron.

eco-burban mom, thanks *so* much for weighing in -- Laura, sounds like she might be your motherlode of firsthand info.

showerob said...

I agree. There are many more benefits of water softeners that are being ignored.

I enjoyed this particular article. May be I am the only one but I actually laughed about the that "hard water can make all of your eco-friendly dishwasher . . . a donkey." What's eco-friendly if it does not last?

My take here is that in spite of the ban on water softeners in some places, environmental benefits of water softeners are being ignored.

The most forceful argument in support of softener’s environmental benefits is detailed in a study published in the February 2007 Water Conditioning & Purification Journal titled Water Softeners Significantly Reduce Green House Gases. The authors utilized the common Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach to compare the consumption of detergent, bottled water and water heater against water treatment devices such as ion exchange, and undersink reverse osmosis filter. As described by EPA, LCA is a “cradle-to-grave approach for assessing industrial systems that evaluates all stages of a product’s life. It provides a comprehensive view of the environmental aspects of the produce or process.” It is an investigation of the environmental impact of a given product or service will cause during its useful life.

It's understandable that some wastewater treatment plants cannot handle the waste, municipalities should study the overall benefits before banning them.

MamaBird said...

Laura - I have used the UNC water testing lab (for lead only, an issue with our municipal water supply) and they are unbiased. I wouldn't say it's cheap, but obviously worth it in your case. I would also note, like NGS, that if you have runoff from farms you definitely want that whole house filter you're researching. I don't know, of course, about your specific contaminants but contact UNC and then work from there. I bet someone from the Green Guide and/or NRDC would help you once you get info on your water. And/or join Burbanmom's yahoogroup -- there are tons of knowledgeable folks on it. Will post info on her listserv soon. Best of luck to you!

Thanks showerob, I was unaware of the ban in some municipalities on water softeners -- looks like it's the saline discharge that's at issue?

De in D.C. said...

Interesting links. We use a below-counter carbon filter from Amway (because my mom used to sell it, heh).

Regarding the ceramic candle filters... A couple years ago I was on an archaeology dig out in the bush in Kenya, and the only available source of water was to pump it from the ground. We'd fill 250 gallon barrels, treat that with a chlorine-based water treatment additive, and then use the ceramic gravity filters. They did an amazing job; especially with particulate matter. It wouldn't be a viable option for treating the whole house, but for just drinking water, it would be easy to leave a unit on the counter at all times. This may be me being biased, but I think it does a better job than Britta filter and you only have to replace the candles once a year (or less).

showerob said...

mamabird, yes it's the saline issue but specifically the chlorides. Most wastewater treatment facilities (WWTF) are not designed to remove chlorides (not chlorine) in there waste streams.

Most of these WWTFs discharge to fresh water. Discharging saline water to fresh water could upset the native organisms.

Water Wise Guy said...

A water softener is the only environmentally friendly way to deal with hard water. Mamabird, treating hard water with vinegar is temporary and smelly and misses the biggest destruction of hard water...mineral build up on your pipes and water heater. Besides who has time clean everything with vinegar? And your recommendation to use distillers, get out the checkbook and pay the power company. Those things only work by heating the water to vapor only to have to cool it again to drink it. And they vaporize the chemicals in the water and redeposit them right back in the water.
Showerrob, I see that California caved to the soap industry to try to restrict water softeners. Water softeners will reduce all the billions of dollars worth of petroleum based detergent we put into the waste stream every year. That's way more of an environmetal hazard than any salt brine coming from a water softener. At least mother nature knows what to do with salt, she just seems to have trouble with petroleum.
-Water Wiseguy

Ana said...

Excellent. This is so timely for me this info because we have a terrible hard water problem.

MamaBird said...

Such interesting (and helpful) comments - since I haven't used a water softener or a whole house filter, I haven't considered all the angles and so very much appreciate people weighing in. Agreed with waterwiseguy that I am not treating the root cause of our hard water by 'dealing' via vinegar. Same for using a Brita filter to remove contaminants, right? I am guessing we all might wish to push for better clean water legislation. re: distillation or reverse osmosis, I think it's an energy intensive water purification method that one would use as a last resort (having runoff from neighboring farms like Laura would qualify for me as something I couldn't ignore). Bottled water isn't regulated well so there's no way to ensure quality, according to NRDC, so shelling out $ in that direction seems futile. re: detergents, not all are petroleum-based, ie 7th Gen and their ilk....

showerob said...

mamabird, here is a news info on California's plant to ban water softener. To me their reason is not environmentally and scientifically convincing. You can read more on

MamaBird said...

Tx showerob, I will check that out - much appreciated!

showerob said...

For anyone still interested, the Water Quality Association has petition page on its website at titled "Don't Let The Politians Take Your Water Softener.

Ron said...

while this information is helpful it is a commercial blog and in reality its a commercial spam. i guess there are benifits to spam:)

your welcome to email me anytime for any questions regarding water filtration in your home. whole house filter systems or R.O's under the sink. Do you have Iron in your water besides being hard?