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I've basically confirmed that my overall plumbing problems are down to hard water buildup. My softener has been out of action for about a month or two (waiting on a part), so I have at least that much buildup to contend with. In case anybody cares, I have concluded this because major blockage issues began around the time the softener died, and because around that time efficiency of my water heater dropped drastically as well..

I'm told that a strong white vinegar solution is the best option, however my sources say that this needs to be followed up with heavy-duty mechanical cleaning, up to and including breaking down the plumbing system and mechanically cleaning the pipes individually. The intermediate plastic system eventually connects to an ancient metal system, so while I can conceivably do this for the plastic there's no way that I'm pulling metal pipes out of a concrete floor.

Is white vinegar really the best option? If not, what is?

Does it really require the mechanical cleaning I described?

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I didn't think that hard water could do that much damage in that short of time. –  Brad Gilbert Oct 28 '11 at 4:53
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I'm wondering if the problem isn't mineral buildup, but rather sediment in the lines. Not sure if this would cause a failure in your softener, or if it could be caused by the softener failing.

The sediment in the pipes would go to various fixtures and get stuck in the filters and aerators. You'd have to remove each one and clean it out. On sinks, this is usually part of the aerator and may unscrew without major tools. On shower heads, this may be where it screws into the elbow pipe. And on toilets, newer ones have a cap at the top of the supply pipe that you push down and give it a quarter turn (turn the water off first, with the cap off and a cup over the top to keep water from going everywhere, run some water to clean it out, and then reassemble).

For the hot water heater, you would need to simply flush it out (which should be done periodically due to natural buildup). Attach a hose to the drain on the bottom, either run it outside or into one of your drains, turn the heater off so you aren't trying to heat water that's being discarded, and open the drain for a bit. If you're observing the outflow, keep going until it runs clear. Otherwise, I'd guess 5 minutes of draining every year should be good, but that's a guess.

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