If you don't have a water softener installed in your house or apartment, you're likely noticing the effects of hard water, especially at this time of year. The calcium and magnesium in the water can reduce the effectiveness of detergents, build up on your clothes and inside the washing machine, leave a film on your glassware and dishes, and leave your skin rough and dry.
During the months of January and February, the water hardness level in Calgary and Southern Alberta is typically the highest compared to other months, with calcium carbonate levels reaching 195 CaCO3 mg/L in north Calgary, and as high as 253 CaCO3 mg/L in south Calgary. This level falls under the hardness rating of 'hard' on the City of Calgary website, or under 'very hard' in the book Laundry: The Home Comforts, Book of Caring for Clothes & Linens by Cheryl Mendelson.
What can you do to combat hard water?
The most basic thing you can do is simply increase the amount of detergent you use, but this can result in detergent overuse and lead to detergent buildup on your clothes and in your washing machine. During the summer and fall months when the water hardness is only moderate, you will probably need to do nothing more than use the regular recommended amount of a good, environmentally responsible laundry detergent that contains sodium carbonate, which is a precipitating water softener.
A few years ago Canadians still had the option of using Calgon, a non-precipitating water softener containing polyphosphates. Although Calgon is no longer sold in Canada for reasons I have not been able to determine, keeping phosphates out of our water is definitely a good thing.
Borax, or sodium borate, at under $10 a box, is a budget-friendly precipitating water softener plus laundry deodorizer, and is a naturally occurring salt. But just because it's 'natural' doesn't mean it's harmless. It kills ants, after all. Be careful not to use too much. Do measure the amount you put into the washing machine; don't just shake it out of the box. The instructions on the box recommend adding 1/2 cup to every load of laundry. My personal suggestion would be to try adding 1/4 cup, especially if you're not washing a full load. Be especially careful if you're washing a smaller load of laundry in a front-loading machine, as it can cause the wash water to form more suds. If you're happy with the results when using less, why add more?
Another tool to combat hard water issues is using a magnetic water conditioning device or anti-limescale device which can be placed directly in the washing machine drum along with the laundry or placed in a dishwasher rack. Magnetizing the water does not change hard water into soft water; rather it changes the structure of the water in such a way that it becomes 'wetter'. More information about magnetized water can be found here. The cost for these types of devices varies. I use them in my washing machine, dishwasher, and had them installed on every one of my taps when the plumber replaced our taps during renovations. Our taps and appliances have virtually no limescale buildup on them, even though our water is technically considered to be 'hard water'.
A regenerating water softener replaces the calcium and magnesium minerals with sodium. This option will run upwards of $700 or more, plus the upkeep and regeneration salt. After regeneration, the salt and water solution is flushed into the sewer and into the environment.
If your towels have hard water buildup, you can easily refresh them in two steps: First, wash them with hot water and a cup of vinegar on a regular cycle. For step two, wash them again with hot water and a half cup of baking soda. Don't use any laundry detergent in either of the two cycles.
Lastly, resist the temptation to do a second rinse cycle. This can redeposit the hard water minerals right back onto your clean laundry! Plus it's really not necessary if you use the correct amount of a residue-free detergent.