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Get It Straight: Hard Truths About Soft Water

If you’ve ever turned to the internet for information about hard water or water softening systems, you’ve likely noticed the glut of contradictory information floating about: some websites champion soft water and water softeners, usually because they sell them, while others denounce soft water as a blight on human and environmental health. Any smart consumer can see that most of the “soft water facts” out there are heavily biased, either to sell a product or further a cause.

As such, we at Clean Water Systems wanted to offer an unbiased look at soft water, water softeners, and salt-free water conditioners, in the interest of educating you, the consumer, and helping to stop the propagation of unfounded myths and other so-called “facts.”

One popular misconception that we hear often is that ion exchange is not the only way of softening water. In fact, water softening as it is commonly thought of is only possible via the exchange of calcium/magnesium ions for sodium ions. Other systems purport to soften water without salt, but these systems are water conditioners, not water softeners. These systems do not remove hardness minerals, but rather trap them and form them into insoluble crystal particles that cannot adhere to pipes or fixtures, and thus cannot build up the scale deposits that are hard water’s trademark symptom.   There are some new technologies on the horizon such as capacitive deionization but they have some drawbacks as well, so for real water softening where the hardness is removed, a water softener is still the best approach.

Some sources suggest using a reverse osmosis system for softening water. This is technically possible, though impractical as any water softened through an RO system must first be pre-treated with an anti-scalant to prevent buildup on the RO membrane. Further, using an RO system to remove hardness minerals is much more wasteful than simply using a water softener, as RO systems create about a gallon of wastewater for every purified gallon of water.

 

Water Softener and Brine Tank
Water Softener and Brine Tank

One argument against water softening is that water softeners add sodium to water and are thus responsible for deleterious health effects in humans. This argument is not completely unfounded: as mentioned, water softeners function by replacing calcium/magnesium ions with sodium ions, so water softened with a softener is bound to contain more sodium than it did before treatment. However, the amount of salt added to all but the hardest water supplies is small, well below the dietary recommendations.

Note, however, that this extra sodium that ends up in your water gets washed out with your water to streams and lakes and oceans, and this sodium, which may be harmless to you in small amounts, can add up and eventually take some toll on wildlife creatures and habitats. In some areas where municipal water is re-used for agricultural and recreational uses, water softeners have even been banned due to the belief that they are responsible for increased chloride levels in the reclaimed water.

And what of the taste differences? Some people feel that softened water tastes better, while others swear by hard water, and even suggest that drinking softened water, which lacks the minerals found in hard water, can deprive one’s body of essential minerals. As noted above, the amount of minerals found in drinking water in most places in the United States is so small as to be negligible in the context of a daily nutritional requirement. At the end of the day, the choice to drink either hard or soft water is not likely to have any effect on your health, and is generally decided more on personal or aesthetic preference than on health concerns.

shutterstock_17157862Such aesthetic preferences are usually the primary factor in the decision to soften hard water for bathing purposes, though in this instance, soft water can actually offer some concrete advantages due to its chemical composition. Soft water, without calcium and magnesium ions, causes soap to lather more easily, and to stick to skin rather than precipitate soap scum out into the water. With soft water, you can cut back on harsh detergents and bleach by 50% of more.

Soft water extends the life of clothes, as hard water will wear down fibers, which is on reason all commercial laundries use soft water.  Soft water saves energy by eliminating scale build-up in water heaters, and dramatically extends the life of fixtures and appliances, saving thousands of dollars over the cost of the softener.

So is soft water better than hard water?  The answer almost entirely depends on how your water is.

Hardness 1  – 100 ppm (calcium carbonate)

If your water is in the range of 1 to 100 ppm of hardness, it is considered relatively ‘soft’ water.  Water hardness refers to the amount of calcium and magnesium (usually from limestone rock from ground water sources) that is in your water. Natural waters may range from close to zero hardness to many hundreds of parts per million. In our experience, water over 100 to 150 ppm (which also can be expressed as approximately 8 – 10 grains/gallon) is hard enough to warrant water softening, so water softening is likely not needed for this type of water.

Hardness  100  – 200 ppm  (calcium carbonate)

Water is in the range of 100 to 200 ppm of hardness is considered moderately ‘hard’ water.  Natural waters may range from close to zero hardness to many hundreds of parts per million. In our experience, water over 100 to 150 ppm (which also can be expressed as approximately 8 – 10 grains/gallon) is hard enough to warrant water softening, so water softening is recommended for your water.

At levels of 100 to 200 ppm (or approximately 6 to 12 grains per gallon of hardness) water softening or a no-salt water conditioner is an excellent money-saving home improvement, reducing white spotting on fixtures and surfaces, extending the life of plumbing and appliances and making clothes, hair and skin softer.  Commercial facilities such as commercial launders, hospitals and hotels use water softening to reduce costs and extend the life of equipment and laundered items. Most soaps and detergents on the market today are loaded with chemicals and salts designed to break down this soap scum and allow the soap to work in hard water, and softening hard water eliminates the use of these harsh chemicals and detergents.  By softening your water, you can reduce up to 80% the amount of soap and detergents you use, your clothes will come out cleaner and whiter, and your hair and skin will be softer without the use of conditioners or lotions.

Total hardness is defined as the sum of the concentration of the calcium and magnesium ions, expressed as calcium carbonate. Hardness can be expressed as calcium carbonate in either parts per million (the same as milligrams per liter) or grains per gallon. Since automatic water softeners are rated in grains of hardness removal, this is the more common measurement used by U.S. consumers. One grain of hardness equals approximately 17.1 ppm of calcium carbonate hardness.    So 10 grains of hardness can also be expressed as 171 ppm of calcium carbonate.

The term “hardness” originally referred to the ability of water to precipitate soap and form soap scum. Soap is precipitated (or brought to the “surface”) by water containing high levels of calcium and magnesium. The “harder” the water, the less natural soap will dissolve in the water.

Hardness  200 – 700 ppm  (calcium carbonate)

Water is in the range of 200 to 700 ppm of hardness is considered very ‘hard’ water.  Natural waters may range from close to zero hardness to many hundreds of parts per million. In our experience, water from 200 to 700 ppm (which also can be expressed as approximately 12 – 40 grains/gallon) is hard enough to warrant water softening, so water softening is recommended for your water.

Water softening is an excellent money-saving home improvement, reducing white spotting on fixtures and surfaces, extending the life of plumbing and appliances and making clothes, hair and skin softer.  Commercial facilities such as commercial launders, hospitals and hotels use water softening to reduce costs and extend the life of equipment and laundered items. Most soaps and detergents on the market today are loaded with chemicals and salts designed to break down this soap scum and allow the soap to work in hard water, and softening hard water eliminates the use of these harsh chemicals and detergents.  By softening your water, you can reduce up to 80% the amount of soap and detergents you use, your clothes will come out cleaner and whiter, and your hair and skin will be softer without the use of conditioners or lotions.

Generally we do not recommend no-salt water conditioners for this type of hard water.

Hardness  Over 700 ppm  (calcium carbonate)

Water that contains over 700 ppm of hardness is considered extremely ‘hard’ water.  Natural waters may range from close to zero hardness to many hundreds of parts per million. In our experience, water over 700 ppm is extremely hard and will definitely have a serious effect on your household fixtures, piping and appliances.  Water softening is recommended for your water.  Water of this hardness requires a special type of heavy-duty water softening system, see our recommendations below.

Water softening is an excellent money-saving home improvement, reducing white spotting on fixtures and surfaces, extending the life of plumbing and appliances and making clothes, hair and skin softer.  Commercial facilities such as commercial launderers, hospitals and hotels use water softening to reduce costs and extend the life of equipment and laundered items. Most soaps and detergents on the market today are loaded with chemicals and salts designed to break down this soap scum and allow the soap to work in hard water, and softening hard water eliminates the use of these harsh chemicals and detergents.  By softening your water, you can reduce up to 80% the amount of soap and detergents you use, your clothes will come out cleaner and whiter, and your hair and skin will be softer without the use of conditioners or lotions.

We do not recommend no-salt water conditioners for this type of hard water.

 

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  • Clean Water Systems & Stores, Inc., Water Treatment Equipment,Service & Supplies, Santa Cruz, CA
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