Hard Water & Lime
Soft Water Is VERY Important!
Water is probably the most neglected part of making coffee: if you don’t like the taste of your water, you won’t like the taste of your coffee. Most tap water is fine—whether it be well water or city water—but we recommend you test your water periodically. In most instances, relatively inexpensive water treatment can make a big improvement in your coffee. For example, if your water has a distinctive chlorine or other taste, there are numerous inexpensive, easily installed, taste & odor filters available.
Ignore hard water at your own peril!
Besides taste, the biggest water concern is its softness; hard water is the enemy of anything that heats water. When an espresso machine boils water, the minerals in that water fall out and accumulate in your boiler—just like your home hot water heater. Once in your boiler, that accumulated lime effectively reduces your boiler capacity, can reduce heating element effectiveness and may cause your boiler to overfill. Water will carry very small pieces of lime throughout the machine where it blocks flow meters, keeps valves from closing and clogs lines. Without any exaggeration, 85-90%+ of our repair business is directly attributed to lime.
Central Indiana sits on top of some of the world’s best limestone, which is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is Indiana limestone is so desirable it was used to build the Empire State Building, the bad news is that same limestone ensures we have extremely hard water. (Click here for a US Geological Survey map which shows central Indiana has some of the hardest water east of the Mississippi)
Any central Indiana water used to make espresso must be softened. Choosing to save a little money today—by not softening your water—will cost you much more money later. Recently, we had to replace the $900 steam boiler on a high-end, double boiler, commercial machine with 1.25″ of lime buildup. If you don’t have a centralized softener, we can quickly install a dedicated, cartridge-type softening system to ensure your machine always has softened water [< 3.5 grains per gallon (gpg)].
Some things to know about water:
- Most municipal water plants do not soften their water
- Central Indiana utilities often use surface water supplies when their reserviors are full, but will use well (aquifer) water when needed. Since surface water generally contains less hardness than well water, water hardness may fluctuate immediately after water sources are changed.
Filtered water is not the same as softened water.
- Filters remove floating minerals, softening removes dissolved minerals.
- Bottled water is often advertised as filtered, but rarely as softened.
- Reverse osmosis water (RO) and distilled water (DW) can be used to make coffee—and you can’t have lime buildup if your water contains no minerals. The downside to RO and DW is those missing minerals change the coffee’s taste (both waters are somewhat acidic and this effects extraction) and may prevent the espresso machine from working properly (minerals enable the machine to determine when the boiler is full).
- Some centralized or whole house softeners are set to regenerate every 24, 48, 72 hours instead of every X gallons. If that hourly setting allows for too much time between regeneration, it is quite possible that in the hours immediately preceding regeneration, the water is not getting softened. Consequently, you may still be feeding hard water to your machine. Ensure your centralized water softener has the correct regeneration settings for your water usage.
Check your water hardness
- An easy way to determine the hardness of your bottled or tap water is by using a swimming pool test strip. Locate the hardness part of your test strip, dip it in the bottled or tap water, read the strip. If the reading is in the lowest two levels your water is sufficiently soft. If it is in the third level or higher, your water is too hard.
- Drip coffee makers do not require soft water; these machines are not pressurized and can easily be cleaned.
- If you need to satisfy your inner chemist, more detailed information can be found at Water for Coffee FAQ
When you decide it’s ok to run an $8,000 espresso machine without a $150 water softener, this is what you get:
(these pictures are from one machine)
It requires about 6-8 hours labor to disassemble a machine, delime the components and then reassemble the machine. The normal bill for deliming a two group machine is over $600, but to make it even worse, your machine may be in our shop for a week or more. You’ll still get a limited amount of lime buildup even when you use a water softener, but the buildup won’t be as fast or as severe. Think of water softening as a low cholesterol diet for your espresso machine; you can’t completely eliminate the risk of a heart attack with a low cholesterol diet, but you can greatly minimize the chances.