Denise writes: We built a home in rural Oklahoma in 1996. Since we moved in, white sediment and white scale in our well water have forced us to frequently change elements in our electric hot water heater. The water also leaves white stains and sediment build-up on my dark green whirlpool tub and tends to clog the jets. One year we bought an above-ground pool and took a sample of my well water to the pool store. They told me I didn’t have hard water, but I had an extremely high level of alkalinity and that this was destroying my tubs, showers, sinks, hot water heaters, the dozens of coffee pots I went thru even though I cleaned them often with vinegar. Can you recommend some kind of filter or other equipment that can solve this problem?
Steve Bliss, Editor of BuildingAdvisor.com, responds: The problems you are describing are generally associated with very hard water, which has high levels of dissolved minerals – typically calcium from limestone (calcium carbonate) and magnesium from minerals such as dolomite. High alkalinity in drinking water is usually caused by an excess of the same minerals. Depending on the amount and types of dissolved minerals, it’s possible to have hard water that is acidic, or soft water that is alkaline, but these are uncommon. Water with very low levels of calcium and magnesium may be highly acidic, which can cause corrosion of water pipes and fixtures, often indicated by stains in sinks and bathtubs (blue from copper pipes or red from iron pipes).
A high level of particles suspended in water can cause “turbidity”, which is a grayish color to the water. Hard water can leave mineral deposits that can clog drains, stain plumbing fixtures, and leave scale deposits on heating elements in water heaters and boilers, reducing their efficiency. It can also harm plumbing pipes over time and create a health hazard if you have very old lead plumbing. Hard water also prevents soaps from sudsing and makes it hard to rinse soap from your skin or hair and may leave a soap residue. Hard water is not a health hazard, but can be a serious nuisance. Some people believe that alkaline water is good for your health, but there is little scientific evidence supporting this.
Some people use water softening systems to make cleaning easier, but this adds salt to the water which may be unhealthy for people with high blood pressure. The high salt can also be a problem for lawns and plants. One solution for moderately hard water is to add a water softening system only to your hot water. This reduces your cost to install and maintain the system and will leave your drinking water unsalty. However this will not address the issues of scale build-up with extremely hard water like you appear to have. In that case, you could leave one unfiltered line to a drinking water outlet and one to your exterior faucets, if salt is an issue.
Before selecting or installing a system, have your water tested by an independent organization. Your town’s health department may offer free water testing or should be able to recommend where to send a sample for testing.
Once you have determined the cause of your water issues, get proposals from at least three reputable water treatment vendors. Well drillers often offer this service and tend to be very knowledgeable and practical in their approach. They know a lot about local geology and water problems as they deal with this every day. Water treatment specialists such as Culligan (a franchise business) are worth talking to as well.
In addition to installing the system, most companies offer maintenance contracts as well. If you are handy and motivated, you can probably maintain the system yourself, but all whole-house systems need a certain amount of annual maintenance to perform properly. This usually involves adding chemicals and cleaning out the system. These are not install-it-and-forget-it systems.
Based on what you’ve written, I can’t say what specific problem or problems you have with your water. You need a good independent testing agency to determine that and recommend remedial action.