Most Americans have hard water flowing through their plumbing, and it’s taking a silent, but pricey toll on their water-using appliances and pipes.

“If you think you’re not affected, think again: 85 percent of Americans have hard water,” says Angie Hicks, founder of the website dedicated to consumer reviews of contractors and service companies. “Water with a high mineral count is really hard on your appliances and can take years off their useful lives.”  Hicks advises that homeowners watch for the following red flags to see if their water is an issue:

  • Reduction in supply of hot water from a traditional tank water heater
  • Clothes are dingy or unclean after going through the washer
  • Calcium rings or deposits in tubs, sinks and dishwasher
  • Shower head and faucet clogs
  • Spotty or unclean dishes, glasses and flatware after the dishwasher has run
  • Water pipe leakage

Determining if you have hard water is simple and relatively inexpensive to address. Step one is to have your water analyzed, says Hicks. Some utilities and health departments offer this service, but companies that specialize in water conditioning also offer it, often free-of-charge. Because those companies have a vested interest in the outcome of such tests, consumers should consider getting at least one outside opinion.

Consumers have a few options when it comes to removing calcium and magnesium, the troublesome minerals that make water hard. Traditional water softeners use salt to remove those minerals. Devices that do not use salt to accomplish the same thing are often called “water conditioners” or “descalers.”
Here are Angie’s List tips for buying a water softener:

  • Water softeners can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000 depending on size and type. Some companies offer rental equipment for a nominal monthly charge. Installation typically runs $150 to $300.
  • Before you buy a water softener or conditioner, research available products and service companies. Insist on a money-back guarantee.
  • In most states, installation does not require a licensed plumber. At a minimum, use a company with technicians certified by the Water Quality Association.
  • Understand and follow the maintenance required to keep the unit operating properly.