Water softeners are specifically designed to reduce the hardness of water. They serve homeowners the purpose of removing minerals and metals that cause scale buildup and create all sorts of household havoc.
What is Water Softening?
Are you wondering what does a water softener do to the water coming into your home, and why you should soften your water in the first place?
First of all, let’s review the definition of “hard” and “soft” water. When water contains a significant amount of calcium and magnesium, it is known as hard water,which is the main cause of clogged pipes, clothes wear-and-tear, increased soap usage, and decreased appliance lifespan. As water makes its way through rocks in the ground and into our waterways, it picks up minerals that make water hard, specifically calcium and magnesium. According to a U.S. Geological Survey, over 85 percent of U.S. homes have hard water. This hard water manifests itself by leaving spots on dishes and scale buildup on shower doors.
Soft water, on the other hand, is water that is naturally soft due to low levels of hardness minerals or because it has been “softened” through treatment of a home water softening system.
Water softening is a process that removes the ions that cause the water to be hard, in most cases calcium and magnesium ions.
Water softeners work through a process called ion exchange: when the hard water enters into the mineral tank, it flows through a bed of resin beads. These plastic beads are charged with a sodium ion. The resin beads are anions, meaning they have a negative charge. The calcium and magnesium minerals have a positive charge, making them cations. Since opposite charges attract, the negative charge of the minerals is attracted to the positive charge of the resin beads. As the hard water passes through the resin, the beads grab ahold of the mineral ions and remove them from the water. When the bead seizes the mineral ion, the sodium ion is released. The bed of resin strips all the hardness out of the water as it passes through the mineral tank, and softened water flows out into your home.
Hard water causes a higher risk of limescale deposits in household water systems. Due to this limescale build-up, pipes are blocked and the efficiency of hot boilers and tanks is reduced. This increases the cost of water heating and utility bills. Another negative effect of limescale is that it has damaging effects on household appliances, such as dishwashers and laundry machines.
With softer water, you no longer have to worry about rising energy costs because your appliances are operating inefficiently or expensive repair costs. You will also benefit from longer-lasting clothing, your detergents will work more effectively, and your skin will feel smoother and softer after you take a shower or a bath!
Do Water softeners remove chlorine?
This is where many people tend to have misconceptions, water softeners are not the same as a water purifier. Water Softeners refers to water treatment products that reduce or eliminate hard water conditions in water with high levels of calcium and manganese. These products only remove multivalent mineral or metals from the water. Any microorganisms, chemicals and most sediment present in the raw water will still be present after softening. If you are interested in removing things like chlorine and other chemicals, you would want to look into a whole house carbon filter system.
Does Water Softening Remove Necessary Minerals and Nutrients?
A typical residential ion-exchange water softener softens hard water by exchanging calcium and magnesium for sodium. Calcium and magnesium are essential for proper health. Inadequate consumption of either nutrient can impair health. Specifically, without proper levels of magnesium, you might experience muscle cramps, poor sleep, muscle tics/twitches, and even chronic pain. And calcium is equally important for strong teeth and bones.
There is the worry that removing these minerals from water could be harmful but realistically, food is the primary source of magnesium and calcium. Dairy products are the richest source of calcium—accounting for more than 50 percent of the total calcium in many diets. For example, dietary sources of magnesium include dairy products, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and grains.
Most studies indicate that the calcium and magnesium prevalent in hard water is in an inorganic form that the body cannot digest. Therefore, removing calcium and magnesium from your water to soften it does not decrease the intake of these nutrients. In fact, if you are looking to add more calcium and magnesium to your diet, drinking “hard water” (or water that has not been treated by a water softener) is not the answer. Instead, consult your doctor about possible dietary changes or nutritional supplement.
Is it safe to drink water from a water softener?
Since calcium and magnesium are exchanged for sodium during the softening of water, you may wonder if this will increase the sodium intake to your diet? The simple answer is, “not really”. The amount of sodium in your soft water after going through the softening process will depend on the hardness level of your water to begin with. But here's the truth: there is very little sodium in softened water.
Softened water still contains all the natural minerals that we need. It is only deprived of its calcium and magnesium contents, and some sodium is added during the softening process. That is why in most cases, softened water is perfectly safe to drink as it contains only up to 300mg/L of sodium. It’s important to remember that soft water is not saltwater, it only contains a small amount of sodium due to the ion exchange process. Typically less than eating two ounces of cheddar cheese!
Note: In areas with very high hardness the softened water must not be used for the preparation of baby-milk, due to the high sodium contant after the softening process has been carried out.
During the ion exchange process, the resin beads do release sodium into the water when grabbing ahold of the hardness minerals. But the amount of sodium in softened water isn’t unhealthy, and actually is far less than what is widely imagined. If you have moderately hard water, for example, 5 gpg that’s only adding 37 milligrams of sodium per quart of water. That’s less than 2% of the suggested daily sodium intake! Comparatively, a slice of white bread has around 170 milligrams of sodium, and a slice of pizza has about 640 milligrams.
The amount of sodium added by a water softener is linearly related to the number of hardness minerals being reduced. For every milligram of hardness in the water, the softener releases 2 milligrams of sodium. This only becomes problematic if you live in an area with extremely hard water. If your water has a hardness level of over 400 ppm, you will want to install a reverse osmosis system to treat the water that you drink and cook with. The reverse osmosis system pushes water through a semipermeable membrane capable of eliminating almost all dissolved solids and salts from the water. If your doctor has recommended you reduce your sodium intake due to blood pressure or kidney problems, it is also advisable to install a reverse osmosis system after your softener.
If you’re living with decreased pressure from scale-ridden pipes, dry hair, stiff laundry, and endless appliance repair bills, you need a water softener. Hard water is not a problem that will go away on its own and the costs incurred by hard water will only continue to escalate if not addressed. While it is not a threat to one’s health, it is surely a contributing cause of homeowner's headaches.