Is Hard Water Bad for Your Pipes?

Hard Water Can Cause Many Problems, But the Most Serious May Be the Hardest to See

Does it seem to take forever to rinse off in your shower? Do your dishes and glasses come out of the dishwasher with whitish spots? Is soap scum a constant battle in your tub?

You may have hard water. And it could be damaging your pipes.

Hard water is simply water with a higher than average concentration of dissolved minerals, mostly calcium and magnesium. It's not unhealthy for you. In fact, modest amounts of calcium and magnesium in your drinking water are beneficial to good health. Some people even prefer the taste of hard water

But hard water can cause some obvious annoyances and some less obvious but potentially serious problems. Some obvious annoyances include:

  • Soap and detergents may not clean as effectively in your shower, dishwasher, clothes washer, and sinks.

  • Shampoo and soap may not rinse off as well, leaving your skin feeling dry and hair coated with a dull residue.

  • Cloudy or chalky deposits may accumulate on your tiles, showerheads, and faucets.

  • Soap scum may build up quickly in your showers and tubs, and can even clog your drain.

  • Glasses and dishes may come out of your dishwasher with spots.

  • Laundry may become stiff with residue and bath towels less absorbent.

Hidden Dangers of Hard Water

The more serious potential problems of hard water are more difficult to see.

Hard water can leave deposits of calcium carbonate and other mineral salts. In places where hard water is regularly heated or evaporates, these deposits can accumulate as a hard, flaky buildup commonly known as limescale (sometimes shortened to "scale").

If your home has hard water, limescale is likely to build up around the heating elements of a traditional storage water heater, and potentially in the heat exchanger of a tankless water heater. This can reduce the efficiency of your water heater, increasing your hot water energy bills by as much as 33%.

Limescale can also build up inside the pipes and valves of water-using appliances. In an automatic coffee maker, this can be remedied with a little diluted white vinegar. But in appliances that are harder to clean, limescale can clog up and shorten the life of your appliances.

Hard Water in Your Pipes

That same limescale that builds up in your water heater and appliances can also accumulate inside your pipes. This can lead to a whole host of problems, including:

  • Decreased water pressure as the supply flow is restricted.
  • Leaks as water pressure builds up behind blockages.
  • Clogged, corroded, cracked, or burst pipes.

These problems are much more common with galvanized pipe than with copper, PVC, or PEX pipe. If your home was built after 1975, it probably has copper, PVC, or PEX pipes. These modern materials are more resistant to hard water corrosion and scaling, so you're less likely to have issues with limescale causing low water pressure, leaks, clogs, or burst pipes. You might still want to address your home's hard water to protect your major appliances and speed up your showers. But unless your water is extremely hard, it likely isn't hurting your pipes.

If your home was built prior to the mid-1970s and hasn't been completely repiped, you probably have galvanized pipes. These pipes are made of steel, galvanized (coated with a thick layer of zinc) to prevent corrosion. High quality, well coated galvanized pipes can last for many decades. But many lower quality galvanized pipe was used in the post-World War II housing boom. The thinner zinc coating may wear off more quickly, particularly in hard water conditions. And once the underlying steel is exposed, hard water can corrode it quickly... then build up limescale on the pitted surfaces.

It may take years for limescale buildup to cause noticeable problems, but, if you have hard water and galvanized pipe, it may have been accumulating for many years, even decades. Maybe you've already noticed a slight decrease in your water pressure. Maybe there's already a slow leak hidden behind a wall.

If You Suspect, It's Time to Inspect

If you notice some of the obvious signs of hard water in your home, the best thing to do is get more information.

Start with a do-it-yourself water hardness test kit, available at most home improvement stores. A qualified plumber can give you a more accurate reading of your home's water hardness and conduct a whole house plumbing inspection. They will:

  • Test the hardness of your water

  • Inspect your water heater for scaling, and flush out any accumulated sediment.

  • Inspect your other major water-using appliances for buildup.

  • Inspect your pipes for signs of limescale obstruction, corrosion, and leaks.

Remedies

If your whole house plumbing inspection reveals hard water and limescale buildup in your pipes, there are a variety of remedies you can consider. As part of the inspection, your plumber can advise you on the best solution for your home.

If your water is only moderately hard and your pipes don't have too much buildup, you may be able to manage the issue with a few simple adjustments:

  • Flush your water heater more often - or have your plumber do so - to keep the heating element free of sediment and limescale.

  • Use soaps and detergents specially formulated for hard water.

  • Keep your dishwasher, clothes washer, and coffee maker clear of buildup by running an occasional empty cycle with diluted white vinegar, followed by a rinse cycle with clean water.

  • Have your plumbing system inspected regularly, including monitoring buildup in your pipes, as part of a regular maintenance program.

But if your water is very hard or if you have a lot of buildup in your pipes (especially if they are galvanized pipes) your home may benefit from a more comprehensive solution:

  • A whole house water softener, water conditioner, or reverse osmosis filtration system can remove minerals from your water or prevent them from forming limescale. This will prevent further buildup in your pipes and may help reduce existing limescale accumulations.

  • If recommended by your plumber, have your pipes descaled and flushed to remove existing limescale. Descaling is not possible or advisable in all situations, but it's sometimes useful to restore water pressure and prevent future problems.

  • If your home still has galvanized piping, consider upgrading to copper or PEX piping.

If your home has hard water, it's important to ensure your pipes are protected. Simple preventative and maintenance measures today could save you more serious plumbing problems down the road.

We're Here to Help with Hard Water

Do you suspect hard water is causing damage to your pipes? Ragsdale is here for you and ready to help. Contact us for a whole house plumbing inspection today and to explore the best solutions for your Atlanta area home.

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