Why water softening? What’s hard about hard water? It’s hard to get the spots off your glassware. It’s hard to scrub the soap scum from your tub. It’s hard to get a good lather from your shampoo and laundry detergent. And over time, it’s really hard on your pipes, appliances, and your pocket book. Thankfully, though, it’s not hard to understand or to remedy.
Simply put, hard water is water that is high in dissolved minerals – especially calcium and magnesium. It’s not a health concern like bacteria or nitrates in water, but it is a nuisance contaminant. And one that is extremely common across North America to varying degrees. Even “city” water can be hard, as some municipal water treatment plants only reduce hardness to a certain level and then leave it the homeowner to address. But if you are on well water, there is a very good chance your water is hard enough to warrant treatment. A USGS study of over 2000 private water wells found some degree of hardness in all of them, with a median of about 9 grains per gallon. To understand just how hard your water is, get it tested.
The most common solution for hard water is a water softener. This is a point-of-entry, ion exchange device that will treat the water as it enters your home. It consists of a pressure vessel that houses the ion exchange resin and does the actual water treatment, a brine tank that is used for regenerating that resin, and a master control valve. But in the end, the footprint (or size requirement) isn’t all that much.
The ion exchange process essentially swaps calcium and magnesium ions in your well water for sodium ions. Why? Because, unlike the calcium and magnesium ions, the sodium ions will stay in solution and not precipitate or build up on your pipes and appliances. This is assuming, of course, that you maintain the appropriate level of salt in the system.
So yes, there is some maintenance and ongoing expense in the way of keeping a supply of softener salt. And while it can be inconvenient to lug these heavy bags about, it is also possible to get a home delivery service. A special note to individuals on a low-sodium diet. Your drinking water now becomes a source of dietary sodium (negligible in some cases), so you will want to understand how much salt will be added and adjust accordingly. Or, alternatively, add a reverse osmosis system to your drinking water tap if you are particularly concerned.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with a water softener is the regeneration process, which back-flushes the resin with brine. While it does mean taking the water softener off-line for a brief time, it can usually be scheduled for low water usage times like through the night. The resulting output water is unfit for drinking and must be discharged to the drain. This may be of concern if you also rely on a septic system. However, the Water Quality Association (WQA) has invested in understanding this issue, and the net conclusion from a third party investigator was that an efficiently run water softener will not have a negative impact on the septic tank performance and may even improve it.
Lastly, water softening is often necessary pre-treatment for some disinfection devices like ultraviolet water treatment systems. In effect, by addressing your hard water concerns, you have also created a good scenario for effectively addressing any potential bacterial contamination too.
A well run water softener can save you money in the long run and eliminate the frustration of water spots on glasses, residue in the kettle and soap scum in the tub. So what’s so hard about that?