Thursday, May 8, 2014

Back to Scratch

Our neighbor Betty up the street in Ruidoso just moved here from a little town called Texico, and she told us the first time she washed her eyeglasses in her new sink and put them back on she thought she was going blind. The lenses had frosted over entirely.

It's a common complaint in these parts. In the years before we started spending summers here, I dimly recall hearing references in detergent ads and household conversations to "hard water," but I never knew exactly what they meant and never had any reason to ask.

I know quite a bit more now. The water here in the Sacramento mountains is beyond hard. It is off the charts.

Literally off the charts. In ordinary online discussion of water hardness and even in documentation that accompanies some water softeners, there's no suggestion that water could ever be as hard as what comes to us through our village distribution system.

The U.S. Geological Survey rates water as soft if it contains less than 3.5 grains per gallon of calcium, magnesium and assorted other minerals. Above that, water gets labeled "moderately hard," then "hard," and finally tops out at "very hard" if there are more than 10.5 grains per gallon.

Well, our tap water recently measured 60 grains per gallon, and our plumber Cody told us we were lucky. He routinely sees water in triple digits and some that goes higher than 150. The problem has grown much worse in just the past few years, as drought has lowered the water table and wildfire damage has forced the village to abandon some surface water sources for wells.

Dusty white scale appears on our faucets and drain fixtures. Calcium builds up in the water lines of our appliances. Our skin and hair come out of the shower seeming like strangers, requiring ever larger doses of lotions and unguents to control the whole-body itching and dryness.

The surface of the hot tub gets scratchy and rough. To control it, we add even more toxic chemistry to whatever is already seething in there. That's not working, so we plan to empty the tub and give it an "acid bath". I tell the guy who does this for us that he should wear rubber gloves, but when he's done we climb inside nearly naked.

I have some idea what all this is doing to us from looking at the glassware as it comes out of the dishwasher. It's opaque in a smeared, unwholesome way that makes you wonder if it's safe to drink from.

We haven't been just sitting back and letting this happen. Before we moved into the new cabin in 2012, we ordered a water softener. Our builder said we could save a bundle if we ordered it online. We did, and it seemed to work for a little while, and then it didn't.

When I called the help center in Pennsylvania last year, the guy on the phone asked if I knew how hard our water was. At the time, we were showing 70 gpg, as they say in the trade, so I told him.

"Oh, no," he laughed. "That's impossible. Let's set your softener for 25. That would be really, really hard water, a lot harder than our chart shows for New Mexico."

After a week of fruitless adjustments, it turned out that our machine wasn't designed to handle anything beyond 30 gpg. It's in a dumpster now. Cody said it's useless in Ruidoso, and there's no market for it anywhere else.

Three days ago, we installed a unit that looks almost exactly like the discarded one, but Cody assures me it will handle water up to 150 gpg. "I've got one just like it at my house," he said. "It's great."

Supposedly it takes several days for a new softener to clear the lines and flush out the hot water heater so we begin to notice the difference. It does seem to be starting to work. The skin on my hands has stopped cracking. My scotch glasses are clearing, so happy hour is back.

I hope that's it. If not, we'll have to start buying our Lubriderm by the case.


  1. With all that calcium, Dave, your bones should set a world record for hardness. You could probably skydive without a parachute and probably not break anything.

  2. This is very helpful. There are some people who are not aware of the difference between hard and soft water. Hopefully after reading this article, they'll know how important it is to understand, so they could test out their water and apply the necessary solutions, if needed. Anyway, It's good that you finally found the right water softener unit for your house. Keep it clean and well-maintained all the time, so it'll last for years to come.

    Verna Griffin @ Axeon