Updated on January 21, 2016
Washing Cloth Diapers in HARD Water
This post contains affiliate links.
Does anyone else remember that ad about hard water that ran on TV during The Price is Right some time in the mid 90s? You know the one. A couple well into retirement are sitting on their couch at home staring at a test strip that the woman is holding. They look shocked and confused. They say something along the lines of “How can that be?” and “At our age?”. You’re supposed to think it’s a pregnancy test, but then an announcer comes on and asks if you know if you have hard water. Remember that? No? Just me? Doesn’t matter. The point is that most people are surprised to learn that they have hard water. Anyone can have hard water. Yes, even you! It doesn’t matter if you are on city water, town water, well water, collected rain water, whatever, you could have hard water and not even know it. I’m going to explain how to find out if you have hard water and what that means for washing your cloth diapers. Yes, you can absolutely still cloth diaper with hard water, but you may need to take an extra step when you wash them to prevent build up. Here’s what you need to know.
If you’re lucky enough to live in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, this post isn’t for you. If you live anywhere else in North America, you’re going to want to pay attention! That’s right, the majority of North America has hard water. What is hard water? Total hardness refers to the quantity of minerals (most often calcium) floating around in your tap water. Day to day this is a complete non issue. It rarely causes problems with your regular laundry, but when it comes to cloth diapers it can be problematic. The reason for this is that your cloth diapers are supposed to be absorbent. Those absorbent layers of material are a prime target for mineral build up. When left untreated, hard water deposits minerals into those absorbent layers. Once minerals are built up in the diapers, they may become less absorbent and there are now particles of minerals trapped that give urine something to get stuck on. When urine gets trapped in the absorbent materials of your diapers you end up with ammonia. Nobody wants ammonia. The good news is, there is something you can do to help prevent mineral build up when you have hard water!
First, you need to test your water. This is no where near as complicated as it sounds. Promise. You can buy a water hardness test kit online, at the hardware store, a pool supply store, even a pet store should carry them. It’s usually a strip (or 10) in a bottle with a colourful chart on the label of the bottle. All you have to do is run that test strip under your tap water, and then wait for the strip to change colour. Super easy, and super quick. Then you just hold the test strip against that colourful chart and voila! Now you know your water hardness. Need to know your water hardness RIGHT NOW and can’t wait to get to the hardware store? You can start by checking your city or town’s water supply information online. You might be able to find the average water hardness for your area there. Water hardness can be affected by the pipes that bring water to your house and even the pipes inside your house, so it’s still important to actually test your water, but checking for the average online is an excellent starting point.
Your water test strip turned into a lovely shade of burgundy, purple, blue, red, whatever the colour of choice for the brand of strip you bought. What does it all mean? The number that is most important to you is the “Total Hardness” measured in ppm (parts per million). If your water tests under 60ppm, you’re in luck! You do not have hard water! Congratulations. If your water tests above 60ppm, your water is somewhere between mildly hard and very hard. The distinction between mild, moderate, and very hard water is important. The next step depends on what detergent you’re using to wash your diapers. If you’re using a plant based or “free and clear” detergent, you’re going to need to add a water softener if your water tests above 60ppm. If you’re using a liquid detergent (even a mainstream liquid detergent), you’re going to need to add a water softener if your water tests above 60ppm. If you’re washing with Tide Original Powder or Persil Power Pearls (that’s their powder), then you don’t need to add a water softener unless your water tests above 180ppm. With most other detergents, you’re going to add a water softener even if your water is only mildly hard.
What’s a water softener and how much should you use? Great question! There are a few water softeners on the market, but the two that I recommend most often are Borax or Calgon. Borax works well up to around 250ppm at which point it’s just not a strong enough water softener. Calgon works well in all hard water, even water that is above 250ppm. It’s also a bit more gentle on the diapers than Borax, but it’s more expensive. If your water hardness is under 250ppm, you will use a 1/4 cup of water softener in the first wash cycle, and a 1/2 cup of water softener in the second wash cycle. If your water hardness is above 250ppm, you will use a 1/2 cup of water softener in both cycles. Your water softener goes right into the drum of the machine.
One other thing to keep in mind if you have hard water, is that additional rinses redeposit minerals back into the diapers. For this reason it is best to avoid any extra rinses. That includes using the “extra rinse” or “2nd rinse” option on your washing machine. Stick to just one rinse that is included as part of the wash cycle. If your the wash cycle you’re using includes a second rinse by default, be sure to turn that extra rinse off before starting the cycle.
What about built in water softeners? Yes, some homes have a built in water softening system that softens all the water going into the house. Those can be effective, but they often aren’t effective enough to soften the water for diaper laundering purposes. This is why it’s so important to test your water’s hardness. The same rules apply for using a water softener when you have an in home built in water softening system. If your water tests above 60ppm, you’re going to need a water softener added for diaper laundry (unless you are using Tide Original Powder or Persil Power Pearls, in which case you don’t need a water softener unless your water tests above 180ppm). If you do have a built in home water softening system, it’s a good idea to test your water hardness every month. Many of those systems work by adding salts to the water. Those salts do run out or wear out over time reducing their softening ability. Test often so you know when to replace those salts.
Don’t fear hard water when it comes to washing your diapers! It’s a really easy thing to adjust for once you know what your actual water hardness is! If you need some tips on setting up a great wash routine for your cloth diapers, check out my post on the fundamentals of washing cloth diapers.
Do you have hard water? What kind of water softener works best for you?