Cleaning and Disinfecting Home Surfaces: Soft vs. Hard Water
Most of the time, you can tell if a table, countertop, or any other surface in your home is dirty just by looking at it. But what about the things you can’t see?
In water treatment, we know drinking water with contaminants that are invisible to the naked eye are more likely to be the ones that raise serious concerns. The same goes for what lies unseen on household surfaces. The quality of water you use to clean your home matters.
As concerns about harmful pathogens such as the coronavirus (COVID-19) continue and as we enter the traditional flu season, it’s important for everyone to understand how to avoid health risks. Whether it’s a school, restaurant, or your own kitchen and bathroom, surfaces that are properly cleaned and disinfected are the safest surfaces.
Cleaning vs. Disinfecting Surfaces
The first thing to realize is that there is a difference between cleaning and disinfection. They are actually two distinct processes.
According to the Water Quality & Health Council, cleaning involves using water along with soap or detergent to remove dirt and grime as well as some (but not all) of the germs present on the surface. Disinfection involves eliminating/killing a much higher number of germs while inhibiting the pathogens’ ability to reproduce. This is usually done with household chemicals such as Clorox bleach, Lysol spray, or other similar products.
The next important concept to grasp is that to effectively disinfect a surface you need to clean it first. Simply spraying disinfectant on a surface may eliminate germs, but if that surface is still dirty, that dirt and grime could cause your sanitizer to miss bacteria and viruses sticking to the surface beneath it. Plus, these germs hiding beneath the dirt will feed on the soil and continue to multiply.
Clean first, then disinfect using the right soaps and household chemicals to eliminate COVID-19 and other pathogens. You can remember this by thinking about how the letter “C” comes before “D” in the alphabet.
As you work to clean and disinfect home surfaces, be sure to do so safely. Products used on surfaces should not be used on or in the human body. WaterandHealth.org provides more information on cleaning and disinfecting for coronavirus the right way.
Hard Water vs. Soft Water
Hard water makes it harder to clean your home than it is with soft water. That’s because hard water contains minerals such as calcium and magnesium that not only will leave behind a limescale residue, but also decrease the efficiency of soap. Those minerals are like tiny grains of sand traveling in your water, and when mixed with soap, the grains actually become very sticky and will clump together into globs of coagulated detergernt, also known as “soap scum.”
That soap scum clings to your surfaces and causes germs to stick around, too. Norman Pace, a microbiologist from the University of Colorado, Boulder told the journal Nature he was surprised at the germs he found lurking in soap scum:
“I scraped a little bit of soap scum, put it under the microscope and went: ‘Wooah!'” he says. The sample teemed with bacterial life … Each time you take a shower you are engulfed by an aerosol of bacteria, Pace told the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle. In most cases, that will not be dangerous. But if you have an unprotected cut, or your immune system is suppressed, it could be a different story.
On the other hand, soft water encourages a sudsy, soapy lather and helps wash cleaning products away completely, so you avoid soap scum buildup. It also means you’ll need less soap to get things clean because there are no tiny grains of minerals for it to stick to.
Getting the most out of soap during household cleaning could be an important factor in protecting against pathogens such as COVID-19, as well as influenza and other viruses. In an article on coronavirus for MarketWatch, chemistry professor Palli Thordarson explained that soap has special properties, which make it even better than a disinfectant in some cases:
“Soap dissolves the fat membrane, and the virus falls apart like a house of cards and ‘dies,’ or rather, it becomes inactive as viruses aren’t really alive … Disinfectants, or liquids, wipes, gels, and creams containing alcohol (and soap) have a similar effect but are not as good as regular soap.”
So, having soft water can help soap do its job as you clean. But what about when you use a disinfectant? Does having hard or soft water in your home make a difference? Research shows that it does!
A 2001 study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology examined the effect of different substances and how they interfere with disinfection. The study found:
“Disinfectants can be seriously affected by the presence of organic matter; for example, iodophor and chlorine disinfectants are ‘notoriously sensitive to organic soil’. Hard water also reduces the effectiveness of disinfectants …”
There you have it. Dirt and the minerals in hard water have a negative impact on both the cleaning and disinfection process. Your home needs soft water for the most effective way to fight those surface germs.
Bleach and High-Iron Water
Here’s one more factor to consider when it comes to water quality and disinfecting surfaces in your home. If you are using more bleach lately to help disinfect your home and live out in the country, you actually might be seeing MORE stains around your home. Unfortunately, using bleach could cause aesthetic problems in high-iron water.
There are two types of iron in water – one you can see in the water as a particle, and one you can’t because it is dissolved. Both kinds cause those ugly orange stains on kitchen and bathroom surfaces. But the invisible (or soluble) iron takes much longer to leave a stain because it needs to wait for the water around it to dry, leaving the iron to become oxidized.
As it turns out, bleach is also a natural oxidizer. So, if you have iron in your water and use bleach products to disinfect surfaces in your home, you may start noticing rusty-looking stains a lot faster. However, you can disinfect your home and manage to avoid iron stains with a residential water filtration system designed to remove iron. Rather than constantly scrubbing away stains, filtration is a permanent solution to high-iron water. Using a unique Water-Right water conditioner with our patented Crystal-Right media can even help provide soft water while filtering out iron at the same time.
Get the Right Water for Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Home’s Surfaces
Soft water alone won’t protect you from harmful bacteria and viruses, but it will increase the effectiveness of household cleaning products and disinfectants.
If your home doesn’t have a water softener, or your water treatment system needs an update, now is the right time to make that decision. In addition to providing peace of mind about the cleanliness of your home, soft water also makes life easier. It’s better for laundry and dishes as well as your hair and skin during bathing. Plus, a water softener saves you money in the long run.
Don’t assume you don’t need a water softener in your home. Whether you have city water or a private well, it’s estimated that 80 to 90 percent of all homes in the U.S. have hard water.
Find out if your water quality could be improved when you contact one of our local water treatment experts for an assessment.