With more than 30 years’ experience in the residential and commercial water treatment space, Mark Nelson is a Class 1 Drinking-Water Operator and a CBWA (Canadian Bottled Water Association) Certified Plant Operator. As founder and president of Nelson Water in Ottawa, Mark focuses on dealing with challenging water treatment system designs for problem water. He also heads the largest water bottling plant in the city of Ottawa with a delivery network throughout the Valley.

Sometimes you can tell if a surface is dirty with a quick glance, but in many cases, there may be contamination that you cannot see. When it comes to your water, the same is true; many contaminants can’t be seen, tasted, or smelled. In fact, many of the worst contaminants cannot be detected with laboratory testing. When you’re cleaning your home, the last thing you want is to smear more contaminants on the surfaces. The recent Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of cleanliness to minimize health risks in our homes. In this article, we will look at the differences between soft and hard water and how they affect your cleaning.

Cleaning or Disinfection?

Many people believe that cleaning and disinfection are the same things, but in reality, they are two different processes. When we clean with water and soap or detergent, we are removing the surface dirt and some of the microorganisms. Disinfection, on the other hand, will kill most of the microorganisms, but it may not remove all of the dirt. When we disinfect a surface, we typically use a store bought product, such as Lysol, Clorox, bleach, or something similar. These disinfectants are effective, but unless the surface is cleaned first, there will be pockets of dirt where microorganisms can reproduce. Your sanitizer of choice will be less effective if the area is not cleaned thoroughly, so both processes are equally important.

Hard Water Diminishes Cleaning Power

When you use hard water to clean your home, you will notice that it’s harder to get the results that you want. Hard water contains elevated levels of dissolved mineral content, such as calcium, magnesium, and sometimes iron too. Think of these minerals as tiny grains of materials that are floating in the water. The presence of these minerals in sufficient quantities actually inhibits the formation of soap suds. When you clean your home, the soap suds are essential to get the cleaning power you need. Attempting to compensate by using more soap or detergent simply doesn’t work, and it’s a waste of money.

The Formation of Soap Scum

Another aspect of hard water is that the dissolved minerals become sticky when they come into contact with soap or detergent. This forms a material that’s commonly referred to as soap scum. This material sticks to surfaces, and it provides an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. Soap scum is typically found in the shower stall or tub, and every time you try to get clean, you’re exposing yourself to large quantities of bacteria. In many cases, this won’t be a serious threat to your health, but if you have a pre-existing illness or a compromised immune system, it can be a cause for concern.

Cleaning with Softened Water

When water has been softened, the mineral content that inhibits the formation of soap suds is removed. It’s easy to achieve a sudsy lather to make cleaning a simple task, and you will need less soap or detergent to get the job done. This will save money, but it also means that there are not tiny particles of minerals to stick to the soap. Soap scum will no longer be a problem, and you won’t have those stick deposits where bacteria can reproduce. This means that your cleaning efforts followed by a good quality disinfectant will be far more effective. But, when you use soft water to clean, you may not even need to use a disinfectant!

Soft Water and Enhanced Soap Performance

The superior performance of soap when used with soft water may be a significant factor in protection against Covid-19 and other pathogens. A recent article from MarketWatch found that soap can work better than disinfection in certain cases. In that report, professor Palli Thodarson said, “Soap dissolves the fat membrane, and the virus falls apart like a house of cards and dies.” In the case of viruses, this would render the virus inactive because it isn’t really “alive” in the strictest definition. In fact, soap that is used with soft water can perform better than many disinfectants.

Soft Water and Enhanced Disinfectant Performance

As we can see, soft water will help you to get a surface cleaner, and this will help you to deal with viruses. But, is there any evidence that the performance of disinfectants is improved after washing a surface with soft water and soap? The short answer is yes; a study from 2001 in the Journal of Applied Microbiology examined how various materials interfered with the disinfection process. Some direct quotes from this study include “Disinfectants can be seriously affected by the presence of organic matter” and “Hard water also reduces the effectiveness of disinfectants.” The presence of dirt and the mineral content in hard water will have a negative impact on the efficacy of cleaning and disinfection. Making a switch to soft water is a great move if you want to keep your home clean from bacteria, viruses, and pathogens.

The Interaction Between High Iron Water and Bleach

Another consideration when you want to disinfect surfaces is the interaction that takes place between high iron water and bleach. Many people are unaware that bleach is a natural oxidizer and it doesn’t mix well with hard water. If you’ve ever noticed ugly orange stains in sinks, tubs, and the shower stall, this is the likely cause. These rusty colored stains may appear immediately, or they can develop slowly depending on the type of iron in your water supply. If you’re working hard to disinfect surfaces, the last thing you need is iron stains that are hard to clean. Removing the iron from the water is possible with a dedicated iron filtration system. Some water softeners also have iron filters that may suffice in some homes.

If you want to improve the cleaning power of your soap and detergent, it’s a smart move to switch to soft water. Installing a water softener is more affordable than ever, and a professional installation is the best option. Contact your local water treatment specialist and ask about a water softener installation today.