Geologically, 85% of the United States’s water supply contains elevated amounts of calcium and magnesium. While essential to our physical health, the overabundance of these minerals can have inconvenient side effects. These can include restricted water flow, dry, dull skin and hair, and dirty residue on clothes and dishes.
There is a treatment process that can change the water’s mineral composition to help alleviate these drawbacks. This process calls for equipment that “softens” the water and reduces the mineral residue. There are benefits and drawbacks to using water softeners.
It’s worth noting that while some water softeners have filtration functions, some change how calcifying particles chemically react. These systems treat the water for general use but do not prep water for drinking. As a result, water softeners and water filters are not necessarily the same thing.
Table of Contents
- What Is Hard Water?
- What Is a Water Softener?
- Things to Consider When Choosing a Water Softener
- Reasons to Need a Water Softener
- Pros of Using a Water Softener
- Cons of Using a Water Softener
- Related Questions
- What We Have Learned
What Is Hard Water?
Hard water is classified as water with a high mineral content, specifically lots of calcium and magnesium. High concentrations of those minerals produce a water supply that has a harsh effect on personal water usage over time. Untreated water has to work harder cleaning clothes and dishes, washing skin and hair, and leaves mineral deposits in pipes.
Water hardness ranks on a scale ranging from soft to very hard. The hardness is based on the calcium and magnesium present.
While these minerals are safe to consume, they can collect and harden on surfaces when you heat water. It can be hard to remove these mineral deposits once they build up, even with vigorous scrubbing.
What Is a Water Softener?
Water softening is actually a water treatment process called ion exchange. The process exchanges softer sodium or potassium molecules with hard calcium and magnesium molecules. This exchange happens before the water flows through the pipes. This treated water feels slicker and lets soap produce more foam and clean better than in hard water.
Also included in the water softening process is a process called regeneration. As the “hard” minerals are neutralized, the softener resin fills up and loses its potency. Regeneration calls for rinsing the extracted minerals from the resin so it can continue to treat the hard water.
The ion exchange/regeneration cycle provides water that reacts differently when heated than its more metallicized counterpart. Hard water shows a noticeable difference in how mineral deposits collect within pipes and on fixtures. Softened water runs through the pipes and is less inclined to clump together. Therefore, it tends to cause fewer flow blockages.
Things to Consider When Choosing a Water Softener
The water supply, in general, is drinkable as-is. It’s largely safe to consume even at higher mineral levels. People living in the Midwest, Northwest, and Mideastern U.S. have higher concentrations than the rest of the country. Some can live with hard water, while others find it challenging to use for hygiene and cleaning purposes.
While a soft water supply may not be a vital need, many benefit from the treated water. A water softener may be a convenience that ranks low on your list of priorities. It is a personal decision whether or not installing a water softening system is worth the cost.
Reasons to Need a Water Softener
The need to install a water softener system is standard with homeowners who use well water. Likewise, it’s common for anyone who has an issue with metal buildup.
While water with high calcium and magnesium content is still usable, it can hamper pipes and drains more quickly. In areas prone to higher metal concentrations, a water softener helps keep the pipes clear. This results in an indirect boost to energy efficiency.
Pros of Using a Water Softener
The positive outcomes of using a water softener are notable, from appliance operation to personal hygiene. Here are a few of the benefits you can expect from installing a water softener.
Healthier Hair and Skin
Water softener users can see one noticeable benefit in their physical health and appearance. Soaps and shampoo can react negatively to hard water particles. This means you use more soap, yet feel less clean. In soft water, soap rinses more thoroughly. Therefore, you end up with healthier, shinier, and softer hair and skin.
Cleaner Clothes and Dishes
In the same manner, dishwashing and laundry detergents work more effectively in soft water. Dishes come out of the dishwasher with fewer spots, and hand-washed dishes get clean with less elbow grease. Laundry items are noticeably brighter and softer and can last longer due to less wear and tear.
An extra plus is that because detergents are more efficient in soft water, you need less to get things clean. Using less product for each wash load means fewer grocery trips. This can result in additional savings all around.
Smooth-Running Plumbing and Appliances
Neutralizing the hard water particles reduces the amount of calcifying agents. The lack of these agents means a lower likelihood of settling in the pipes. Therefore, it prevents slow water flow and clogs.
The maintained water pressure and flow rate have a far-reaching, whole-house effect. Heated hard water activates the metallic particles for clogging. Conversely, this is less likely to occur with soft water. Hence, less scale buildup leads to clear pipes and plumbing connections.
Clear pipes result in clear water heaters, too. This is because soft water flowing through the heater won’t cause stoppages. With the water flowing freely, the water heater is less likely to clog and collect debris buildup.
Mineral buildup is also less likely in dishwashers, washing machines, and other water moving appliances, boosting their efficiency.
The End of Soap Scum
It’s a pretty fair statement that cleaning the bathroom is no one’s favorite pastime. Hard water and soap react negatively to each other, and soap residue can morph into soap scum. Soap scum is next to impossible to clean from tub and shower surfaces without a great deal of scrubbing.
Using a water softener reduces the elements that cause a lot of soap scum. This makes tile and porcelain surfaces easier to clean.
The absence of hard water also decreases the occurrence of buildup, if not completely eliminating it. By extension, you use less cleaner, saving on the product, time, and money.
Cons of Using a Water Softener
For all of the health and efficiency benefits water softeners provide, there are some downsides to using them. The composition of soft water can present its own set of issues on equipment function and personal health.
Water Consistency and Potability
One drawback of soft water is its consistency after the ion exchange process. Soft water has a slick feel to it that makes users either love it or hate it. In addition, the potability of the processed water is questionable if you’re not using a filtration system.
You also need to consider soft water’s effect on your body when you consume it. The softening process exchanges metallic ions with sodium ions to condition the water for use. This increases the amount of sodium present in the water as it decreases mineral content.
The raised sodium levels can pose health risks to people following a low sodium diet. Also, calcium and magnesium are still essential elements. Therefore, their removal greatly decreases how much you ingest as part of your daily diet.
Plus, these minerals give water its “refreshing” taste. Consequently, their absence can leave a slick taste and consistency some find distasteful.
Water softener models run the gamut from bare basic functions to deluxe varieties with all the bells and whistles. The more complex the machinery, the bigger the price tag for the homeowner. Should the top dollar feature malfunction and need repair, the financial burden could be even greater.
Your water source could also pose a problem in how your system will work. Depending on where you live, the water quality could require filtration or disinfecting before it even reaches the softener. An additional filtration system, while beneficial, could be an unplanned and problematic expense.
Water softeners can have a particularly adverse effect on septic systems. The water backwashing and regeneration process adds an additional load on drainage. An estimated extra 50 gallons of water for the softening cycle could potentially cause hydraulic overload.
Legality of Using Equipment
Depending on where you live, using a water softener may actually be against the law. Certain kinds of water softeners process the ion exchange through a salt-based system. This system then discharges the regenerated water into the municipal sewer system.
The problem with this process is that many sewage treatment plants are not equipped to process this runoff. Consequently, the overly salinated water mixed with the general wastewater supply renders it unusable for agricultural use. Several communities and states have banned using these water softeners because they are ill-equipped to process softened water.
What’s the difference between water softeners and water filters?
Water softeners treat only the mineral content in hard water, while water filters clear other impurities as well. Water softeners can include filtration systems but don’t need to have them present to function as softeners. Conversely, even though water filtration systems remove some metallic content, they don’t fully work in a water softening capacity.
What is the average life expectancy of a water softener?
Depending on the operating system, an average of 10 to 20 years is a decent lifespan for a home water softener. This is a reasonable estimate if you pay careful attention to filter life and salt, brine, and regenerant levels.
What We Have Learned
There are a great many benefits to adding water softener systems to your home’s plumbing and water system. For all the convenience the water quality provides, there are potential hazards to environmental and physical well-being. However, water softeners can be of great help to homeowners, especially when working in tandem with a water filtration system.