There are so many benefits to cloth diapering—they’re less expensive, more eco-friendly, can help in the speed and ease of potty training—but how do you keep them clean and stink free when using hard water?
Simply put, water hardness refers to the mineral content in your water and the harder the water the high the PH (alkalinity).
Normally, minerally rich water isn't harmful but it can become a disaster on your laundry, especially on your cloth diapers. Hard water can affect the way your detergent works. Every time you wash something in hard water, some of the minerals are left behind and trapped in the fabric. For regular laundry (clothes, towels, etc.) this causes them to look dull and dingy over time. But for cloth diapers, this means that you’ll experience repelling of liquids, the dreaded leaks, and ammonia build-up (“stink!”).
The first step is finding out if your water is indeed hard and what exactly what level of hardness it is (slightly hard- extremely hard). Not everyone has hard water (thank goodness!) but more people do then they may realize. If it takes a lot of soap to get a lather, your clothing or cloth diapers are stinky or you have mineral deposits on your sinks, toilets, dinnerware or glasses you probably have hard water. You can find out just how hard your water is by testing it. Here is a hard water map for North America to give you a general idea of what we’re dealing with.
Click here to view a map of hard water levels cross the US.
As you begin cloth diapering it’s always a good idea for the sake of your new stash of diapers to test your water. This isn’t nearly as tedious as it sounds since most pet stores will test your water for free!
Another easy way to test your water is by buying test strips, just like the ones pet stores use so you could find them there. Most local hardware stores also carry them. Before testing your water, make sure your sample is from a source as close to the washing machine (if you can’t get it directly from the machine) as possible. This is to ensure you are getting the right results since some homes have water softeners in specific areas of the house (fridges, showers, kitchen sinks).
Water softening is the removal of calcium, magnesium, and certain other metal cations in hard water. There are different ways to soften water but one of the easiest is to add a water conditioner to your laundry routine. Two of the more popular conditioners out there are Calgon and Borax.
For water that is even a little hard, a water softener needs to be added to both the pre and main washes. The amount will be dependent on the softener you use and the level of hardness. By the numbers, you’ll most likely need a water softener if you have a hardness of 180-250ppm. Usually a water softener such as ¼ cup of Calgon or Borax per load should work. If your water hardness is above 250ppm, you will need to increase the amount to ½ cup of softener per load.
In the past, powdered phosphate detergents were recommended for laundering in hard water because phosphate builders tied up hard water minerals minerals and held them in solution until they could be rinsed away. When The Clean Detergent Act was launched in 1987, manufacturers were required to eliminate the phosphorus used in detergents.
Today’s commercial detergents (such as Tide & Gain) do not contain phosphates, but they do have a high concentration of surfactants (surface active agents) which contribute to their cleaning power and are less sensitive to water hardness.
Commercial detergents usually also contain softening agents, which can bind to the hard water minerals, allowing the actual cleaning components of the detergent to focus on fighting dirt and stains. To learn more about a cloth diaper safe washing routine continue reading to Washing 101.
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