Let me start by saying that I already suspected we had very hard water . Water hardness is a measure of the amount of calcium and magnesium in your water – that's the (usually) white crusties that collect on the side of the pot if you start the pot of water boiling for dinner but get distracted by Thing 1 pinching Thing 2 because Thing 2 looked at Thing 1, “Like this, mom, and it made me feel so mad!”. If this sounds familiar (the white ring around the dishes, not the whiny Things - I can't help you there), you probably have hard water. If you've seen The Great White Crusty in your pans, coffee pot, and on your faucets, you can rest oh-so-much better tonight knowing it's also on/in your diapers. If you're not sure if I'm being sarcastic, here's a hint. The Great White Crusty (mineralization) does not increase the absorbency of your diapers.
I called the city water department and found that while the water hardness in our city “depends on several different factors”, it's roughly 600-800ppm (parts per million). For reference, anything over 200ppm is considered very hard. I was told that if I didn't want to ruin the diapers (I had to admit this was my reason for calling before the man would give me even a ballpark number, because, you know, it “depends on several different factors.” Sigh.) and all of our appliances to boot, the city strongly recommends installing a water softener.
Water softeners are a great idea in areas like ours, as long as the softened water only goes to the major appliances (water heater, AC, dishwasher, washing machine). You don't want it hooked into your drinking water supply, though; it has been shown in multiple studies that people who live in areas with (and drink) hard water have fewer cases of cardiovascular disease. See, there's always a silver lining!
That doesn't help my diapers, though, and not just because they conspicuously lack that little “je ne sais quoi” in the way of a cardiovascular system . Many of us are 1) renting or 2) unable to afford a new water softening system. So what can we do?
I called Kim at Rockin' Green. “600 ppm? Wow.” Here are the tips she passed on to me (along with my liberal interpretation):
- Cold rinse or wash without detergent: The more yuck you get out of diapers with that initial rinse/wash, the less work the detergent needs to do, once you add it. Less detergent = more money for more fluff.
- Fill and soak: It takes 15 minutes for the detergent to complex (bind) with the calcium and magnesium in the water so it can work properly. If your wash cycle is right at 15 minutes or less, you aren't getting the full effect of your detergent.
- Use more than the recommended amount of detergent: Yes, I said more. If you use the lowest recommended amount of detergent, the detergent is going to be spent on complexing/binding the calcium and magnesium, with no oomph left to actually clean your laundry. You MUST use more than the recommended amount of detergent, or use an additional water softener.
- Use Calgon Water Softener: If you don't want to use extra detergent, you can add a full dose of Calgon. Borax and washing soda are cheaper, but they bind with calcium and magnesium to form a solid. In your wash water. When your washer goes through the spin cycle, your diapers are going to filter out these tiny, ashy, solid particles. That's eventually going to “clog up” your diapers and cause them to repel. In contrast, the complexes formed between Calgon and calcium/magnesium will stay in solution (stay dissolved). When you spin your diapers, all of that calcium and magnesium exits, stage left, along with the water, soap, and... well, all that other fun stuff you get in baby diapers.
- Get a custom batch of detergent: How's that for customer service? If I can get enough moms together in my area, Kim is willing to make us a custom batch of Rockin Green. I'm not sure what she'd call it – Industrial Rock, maybe.
- Cold wash (or sometimes just a rinse) diapers using the large load size setting, NO detergent.
- Change the load size to small, add 4 tablespoons of Rockin' Green detergent, and fill with hot water.
- Agitate for about 5-10 minutes.
- Soak overnight.
- In the morning, change the load size back to large, and the temperature to warm. Finish filling the washer (don't add any more detergent) and wash as normal, adding in the automatic extra rinse.
Is it fair that we, already under attack by The Great White Crusty, have to spend a bit more (on extra detergent) to get our diapers clean? Maybe not, but hey, all of those extra minerals in our drinking water means that we (and our babies) will have healthier cardiovascular systems at the end of it all.
Areas of the U.S. with ultra hard water include the borderlands of the Southwest US, from Texas to Los Angeles, as well as parts of Kansas and Florida (particularly areas that draw some or all of their water from local streams – something that is generally done seasonally by municipal water suppliers. Hence, your ultra hard water could be seasonal, adding yet another layer of complexity).
Since the issue of hard water can be a bit more complicated, depending on your area and the type of hardness, I highly recommend taking the guesswork out of your laundry routine. Call your city water department or local extension office for a ballpark water hardness measurement. Then call your local extension office or favorite detergent company for a custom laundry recommendation.
Call today, and tell us how hard YOUR water is! Are you surprised?
Author: Angie S. is the mother of two, Andrew (7), and Kate (8 months). She's passionate about chemistry and cloth diapers.