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Earth Sense: Hard water OK to drink, not for cleaning
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Rain can come down hard at times, and yet a chemist will tell you it’s soft. The difference between “hard water” and “soft water” is an important one.

When water contains very few dissolved minerals, such as calcium or magnesium, it’s considered soft. Rain forms from condensation in the upper atmosphere, where there’s no calcium available.

Decades ago, there was a TV commercial for a water-softening laundry detergent. It showed a housewife holding a dish pan into the air, explaining to the neighbors “I’m collecting soft water for my laundry.” For once, it’s easy to agree with the commercial: Buying the advertised detergent is the smarter way to go.

Why the fuss about water hardness? When laundry is washed in hard water, a residue of calcium attaches itself to the fibers of the clothing. After drying, the laundry feels stiff and scratchy. Repeated washing with unsuitable water will make the colors go dull, and white fabrics can take on an unhealthy-looking yellow tint.

In the kitchen, hard water builds a crust in tea pots and coffee makers. Water faucet filters in the kitchen and bathroom get clogged until only a sorry trickle comes out. Washing the car with calcium-rich water is a challenge also. Unless the vehicle is dried with towels or a yard leaf blower after washing, the remaining drops will turn into white stains on the finish.

The remedy is the opposite of this alkaline lime deposit: acid. If you don’t want to deal with full-strength acetic acid, which dissolves the lime quickly, its diluted stepchild will do as well: vinegar. There’s no need to boil anything. Heat will not increase the cleaning effect.

But soaking items in pure, cheap white vinegar overnight makes a difference. It works on those rust-colored deposits in the toilet bowl as well, and isn’t as harmful to the septic tank as a strong acid might be. For laundry, the aforementioned soap additive is good.

The Hall County region sits on acidic-type bedrock, so we don’t have a problem with hard tap water. It’s different in Lafayette and on toward Chattanooga, where hard water is the norm. On the coast, there’s plenty of limestone as well to make the laundry brittle.

The good news is, though, that hard water isn’t unhealthy to drink at all. It actually supplies good minerals to the body.

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