Have you been noticing chalky deposits on your glass dishes and cookware? Does soap scum tend to show up in your sinks and bathtubs? These issues may be caused by your home's water quality. Water that contains an excess amount of minerals is called hard water, and it can pose issues ranging from cosmetic blemishes to physical water system damage. Buildup of mineral deposits in pipes can lead to reduced efficiency of water heaters and other appliances that use water, leading to a shorter lifespan for these items, according to Consumer Reports. While a home inspection may be able to detect a serious water hardness issue, it can easily go undetected. If you think you may have a water hardness problem, there are a few steps you can take to determine the extent of the issue and how to fix it.

How hard is too hard?

According to Oregon State University researchers, about 85 percent of all U.S. households likely have hard water. The condition stems from the presence of two minerals, calcium and magnesium. While these minerals are not hazardous to anyone's health in the amounts present in hard water, their detrimental effects on pipes stem from their chemistry. Calcium and magnesium manifest in natural spring water as positively charged ions. The presence of enough of these ions in your water supply has a few effects. For one, soap will not work as well. Calcium and magnesium ions reduce the ability of most soaps and detergents to dissolve oils, thereby rendering them less effective. Dissolving most soaps in hard water will form a white soap scum around the edges of the container, which can be a nuisance but, again, is not a health hazard.

Calcium and magnesium can also build up inside water pipes and restrict the flow of water. This is the main issue that needs to be remedied in homes with significant hard water exposure. To know if your water supply is excessively hard, you can ask your water provider to send a water quality report. Water with more than seven grains of calcium or magnesium per gallon is considered hard water. For those who are not connected to a municipal water system, Consumer Reports recommended purchasing a testing kit, which usually cost $10 to $25.

Do you need a water softener?

Homeowners do have the option of purchasing a water softener to fix their hard water issues. These appliances run the water through a mixture of salts to remove the calcium and magnesium ions. However, these devices can be costly, running as much as $4,000 according to Consumer Reports. And with most synthetic detergents able to soften water on their own, they may not be completely necessary for the average consumer. They may be more useful for prolonging the life of water heaters, as they can prevent the buildup of these chalky deposits.

There are three main types of water softeners, according to a guide from Oregon State researchers. The first and most expensive is an automatic softener, which will operate on a timer to continuously soften the water and purge minerals. The second is known as a demand initiated regeneration softener, which will regenerate the softening component only when it has run out, making this more efficient and requiring less water waste. The third is a portable system, which can be leased and may have a lower cost over a short amount of time, but will gradually add up. Talk with representatives as well as friends and neighbors to determine which system is the best for you.