As a kid I never thought too much about our water. I turned a tap and it came out. I knew there was this noisy blue tank in the basement. This one time a guy in a blue truck came and put it there. I remember Mom and Dad talking about how expensive it was. I also remember thinking that if it was so expensive it couldn’t possibly be necessary. (Yes as a child, if things were expensive I assumed they were not necessary.) I did know softened water tasted gross.
That was the extent of my softened water knowledge until around 2 years ago when we started cloth diapering. B and I had a water softener in the basement that we occasionally threw salt in, but we never really worried about it. When A was around six months old we ran out of salt. Within a few weeks his diapers stunk! I tried everything I knew about at the time, Dawn, vinegar (which made things 100x worse), I washed and washed and washed. Dawn would help for a few days, but they always ended up stinky. Finally it dawned on me that we were out of softener salt and had been for several months. We added salt, stripped with Dawn, and added Calgon and bleach. It was night and day. Those diapers didn’t stink at all. And I felt rather dumb for not figuring it out sooner.
What I learned is that water softeners matter.
What is hard water?
Hard water is measured by the calcium carbonate (CaCO3) content in the water, but it also is characterized by high magnesium, iron, or other mineral contents.
- <60 mg/L is considered soft water
- 60 – 120 mg/L is considered moderately hard
- 120 – 180mg/L is considered hard water
- >180 mg/L is considered very water
This map will help you determine if you have hard water (in the US). However, even if you are shown on the map as having hard water you may have soft and vice versa. The best way to determine hardness is to call your city water department or purchase test strips.
If you do have hard water you will notice scale and scum buildup in your shower, sinks and coffee pot. If you have a water softener system the mineral compounds are broken down into cations and anions in an ion exchange system compromised of a material called zeolite. Cations are positively charged ions, anions are their negatively charged counterparts.
As an example calcium carbonate (CaCO3) breaks down into a cation (Ca+) and an anion (CO3–).
CaCO3 → Ca+ + CO3–
The zeolite is charged with sodium (Na+) cations. The sodium bonds freely with the carbonate anion and the calcium, magnesium, and other minerals are left behind bonded to the zeolite. After a period of time a saline (NaCl) flush is done. The mineral ions are wasted and the zeolite is refreshed with new sodium cations ready to replace incoming minerals. This flush typically is on a timer and occurs overnight on household systems.
Why soft water matters.
Minerals interfere with soap and actually bond with your soap and detergent making it less effective. Minerals don’t rinse the same way that the sodium compounds do and end up bonded to your clothes, washing machine, tub, sink, coffee pot, dishes, etc. This is why soap scum and scale is more prominent if you have hard water.
Hard water and my diapers.
Hard water is notoriously bad on diapers. The easiest thing you can do is soften soften your wash water. There is this beautiful product called Calgon. When we run out of softener salt I start to notice our diapers smelling within a few weeks. But half a capful of Calgon in our diaper wash keeps the stink and build up away. Some people end up using a mainstream detergent for their diapers because the detergents have water softeners in them, and that keeps their diapers cleanest. I am wary to use a mainstream detergent because I really really really hate voiding warranties. (I’ve only ever returned one diaper on a warranty issue, but I’m paranoid.) One thing you will need to do no matter what, is increase the amount of soap you use, the minerals are going to eat up your soap and detergents (If you have hard water you know it is hard to get soap to foam as nicely as it does in soft water.)