We rely on our kitchen appliances to make our lives easier, and the dishwasher is undoubtedly one of the most essential. You load it with dirty dishes after every meal, and a half-hour later, they’re sparkling clean. But if you live in one of the many parts of America with mineral-rich water, you may realize your dishwasher isn’t performing as it should be.

Is Hard Water Bad for Your Dishwasher?

Effects of Hard Water on Your Dishwasher?

Hard water—found in most American households—contains certain minerals that can jeopardize your dishwasher’s performance and longevity. Luckily, protecting your trusty dishwasher from hard water damage is pretty straightforward.

Below, you’ll learn how hard water affects dishwashers and other appliances. We’ll also explain how to tell if your water is hard and how to banish hardness minerals from your water supply for good.

What causes hard water buildup in dishwashers?

Depending on where you live, your water may be “hard,” meaning it contains an abundance of dissolved calcium and magnesium deposits picked up as the water travels through soil and rock. The higher the mineral content, the harder the water.

When this mineral-rich water enters your dishwasher, the minerals cling together (or calcify). Once the water dries, you may notice white or greyish residue on the inside walls and interior components. Over time, this mineral buildup can layer up and cause a host of problems for your dishwasher.

Effects of Hard Water on Dishwashers

You’ll probably first notice signs of hard water in the shower, where you’ll have difficulty getting your soaps and shampoos to lather. But dishwashers, like many other water-using appliances, aren’t immune to the destructive effects of hard water. Continuous exposure over time can cause a range of issues, including the following:

1. Your Dishes Aren’t Getting Cleaned

Usually, the first sign you’re having hard water problems with your dishwasher shows up on the dishes themselves—cloudy glassware, streaky dishes, and caked-on food debris. That’s not exactly what you want to see when you’re about to eat or drink.

As the dishwasher heats the water, the calcium and magnesium ions precipitate and form limescale deposits that stick to whatever is inside the dishwasher. Besides, these mineral ions don’t play well with some dishwashing detergents. These minerals in the water can bond and react with the detergent and create a stubborn white curd that sticks to everything inside the dishwasher—dishes and glassware included, especially those made of delicate materials like china or crystal.

This scum can prevent the detergent from forming proper suds, making the detergent less effective at breaking down grease and food residue and harder to rinse away thoroughly. And the result? Your tableware looks dull, stained, spotted, and not as clean when the cycle ends. You may even have to re-wash or polish them by hand every time you run the dishwasher.

2. You’re Repairing or Replacing Your Dishwasher More Often Than Usual

A standard dishwasher should last about ten years before it needs to be replaced. But hard water may be to blame if you’ve been repairing or replacing yours more often than usual.

When dishwashers are constantly supplied with hard water, it can cause scale to build up on internal dishwasher components, such as spray arms and heating elements. The spray arms, in particular, have small holes that help distribute water evenly inside the dishwasher. However, limescale can clog these holes over time, affecting the spray pattern and leaving some dishes untouched by the cleaning action.

A whitish crust may also form on the dishwasher’s heating element, responsible for regulating water temperature and drying dishes. A faulty heating element will leave your dishes wet, and you’ll have to dry them by hand afterward. Also, if they don’t feel warm coming out of the dishwasher, the water likely wasn’t hot enough to wash and sanitize them properly to remove food particles and bacteria.

These problems can drive the dishwasher to work harder, causing premature wear and tear, reduced lifespan, and costly repairs or replacements.

3. Your Dishes, Glassware, and Silverware Have a Strange Smell

When you pull your dishes from the dishwasher, you expect them to come out smelling as fresh and clean as ever. However, you may notice a harsh metallic scent if your dishwasher has been exposed to hard water for too long. This strange odor is often caused by rust.

Some trace elements in hard water are salts, usually electrolytes (meaning they have a small electrical charge when dissolved in water). Certain types of metals and steel used in dishwashers can start rusting when exposed to water and oxygen, and if electrolytes in hard water get into the mix, the reaction speeds up how quickly the rust forms.

Depending on the amount of rust built up inside the dishwasher, it may cause your dishes to smell metallic after a cleaning cycle.

4. You Notice Rust and Corrosion Inside the Dishwasher

As explained above, hard water can cause certain metals to corrode and rust quickly. This can significantly damage expensive dishwasher metal components, like pumps, heating elements, and spray arms. As hard water eats away at these elements, they may weaken structurally over time and eventually stop working. That means more visits from the repairman.

5. You’re Paying More for Electricity

Scale buildup on your dishwasher’s heating element acts as an insulator, making it harder to heat the water efficiently. This causes the dishwasher to use more energy as it must run longer to reach the desired water temperature. And you know what comes with a higher electricity consumption? Higher electricity bills. The extra strain on the heating element can cause premature wear and potential breakdowns.

Does hard water affect other appliances?

Hard water can be harsh on appliances as long as they use water. Some manufacturers often will void your warranty if you use hard water. Let’s look at a few home appliances known to experience hard water damage.

1. Washing Machines

Hard water can ruin laundry, causing its color to fade and wear out faster. You may also notice a chalky white substance that makes your fabrics stiff and scratchy. Plus, as hard water minerals build up on internal parts, such as the machine’s pump, filter screens, and other moving components, it will need to work harder to clean your clothes. This added effort requires more electricity and could shorten the system’s lifespan by up to three years.

The cost of repairing your washing machine will depend on the extent of the damage, but the price ranges from $50 to $450. And, of course, replacing it will cost much more than that.

2. Water Heaters

Whether your water heater uses gas or electricity, hard water buildup is one of the most common problems it will encounter.

In regular gas water heaters, burners at the bottom of the storage tank heat the water inside the tank. When hard water passes through the radiator, the mineral ions solidify and form limescale, which builds up on the bottom of the tank and creates a layer between the burners and the water inside the tank. This layer insulates the heat exchangers, forcing the heater to run longer than usual and use more energy.

Electric water heaters face the same problem with limescale buildup on the heating element. The heating element must then heat through the buildup before it can heat your water, using more electricity and eventually leading to wear and tear and appliance failure.

3. Coffee Makers

Pouring hard water into your coffee maker’s reservoir is a no-no. Why? Because the minerals don’t evaporate, they accumulate. As the coffee maker heats the water for your morning brew, the mineral ions can precipitate and form limescale deposits on the heating element and other internal components. Like all the other appliances in this article, this buildup insulates the heating element and makes it less efficient.

Is Your Water Hard?

If you think you’re among the 80% of Americans with hard water, we suggest that you:

  • Contact your municipality and ask for their latest water quality report. Once you’ve received it, look up the hardness level of the water in your area. Per the USGS, a reading from 0 to 60 mg/L (milligrams per liter) is classified as soft, and 61 to 120 mg/L as moderately hard. If it reads 121 to 180 mg/L, your water is hard, and more than 180 mg/L is very hard.
  • Conduct a hard water test to determine the exact hardness level of your tap water with a water test kit.
  • Check the USGS map to see the general geographic areas where water hardness occurs.

There may also be visible signs in your home that may indicate you have hard water, namely:

  • Soap scum and residue on your bathroom tiles and around your tub
  • Scale buildup in appliances
  • Spots and streaks on glassware, silverware, and dishware
  • Reduced lathering with soaps and shampoos
  • Clogged plumbing and reduced water flow

However, these signs don’t guarantee your water is hard, so consider conducting a water test to be sure.

Safeguarding Your Dishwasher and Other Appliances from Hard Water Damage

So, you’ve learned you have hard water. Now what? There are a few DIY tricks to clear out visible and unseen soap scum already built up in your dishwasher. These include:

  • Clean the dishwasher’s filter regularly.
  • Run the dishwasher with the classic mineral- and limescale-fighting combo: baking soda and white vinegar.
  • Use a commercial dishwasher cleaner to descale your dishwasher.

However, these are just quick fixes. The problems will continue or worsen if your water is hard. Plus, hard water issues with your dishwasher usually mean other areas in your home are likely affected. If you want to prevent these problems in the first place, installing a water softener is your best bet.

What is a water softener, and why do you need one?

A water softener is a device that removes calcium, magnesium, and other hardness ions in water. It’s a whole-home solution that will protect your dishwasher and all your water-using appliances—washing machine, water heater, ice and coffee makers, etc. It will also make showering more pleasant and prevent unsightly buildup on your dishes, shower walls, tiles, sinks, bathtubs, etc. And if your hair and skin have been looking and feeling dry, itchy, and flaky lately for no apparent reason, a water softener may help restore their sheen, moisture, and radiance.

How does a water softener work, and how much does it cost?

We’ve already explained how water softeners work in a separate post, so check it out to learn about the inner workings of these innovative devices. If you decide to purchase one, expect to spend anywhere from $500 to $2,000 or higher, depending on its type, quality, and several other factors. You’ll also have to cover the installation cost if you hire a professional and purchase salt if you purchase a salt-based softener.

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Translator: Duong Nguyen Hoang Khang 

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