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.
What is hard water?
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’s extremely common, to varying degrees, across North America. 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 more than 2000 private water wells found some degree of hardness in all of them, with a median of about 9 grains per gallon. Generally speaking, anything less than 3.5 grains is considered soft water. To understand just how hard your water is, get it tested.
What can be done?
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 water for sodium ions. Why? Because, unlike the calcium and magnesium ions, the sodium ions will stay in dissolved in your water and not 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, it’s 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 your diet accordingly. Or, if you are particularly concerned, you could add a reverse osmosis system to your drinking water tap to remove the trace sodium from the water.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with a water softener is the regeneration process, which back-flushes the resin with brine. While it does mean the water softener is taken off-line for a brief time, it can usually be scheduled for low water usage times, like overnight (but really, it only takes a couple of hours). However, the resulting output water is undrinkable and needs to be discarded via the drain. If your home is also on a septic system, this discarded water will drain to your septic. But don’t be concerned. The Water Quality Association (WQA) has invested in understanding this issue, and the 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.
How does a water softener impact disinfection?
Water softening is often necessary pre-treatment for an ultraviolet (UV) disinfection system. Just like hardness minerals will leave a residue on your glassware, they will also leave a residue on the quartz sleeve that surrounds the UV lamp. As a result, some of the UV light is blocked from reaching the water, reducing disinfection performance. This fouling, as it is called, will be more pronounced during periods of low-flow, when the water in the UV chamber sits and heats up. Periodic cleaning of the sleeve is necessary to remove this scale, but having a water softener before the UV system will certainly reduce how often cleaning is required. By addressing your hard water concerns, you have also created the best scenario for achieving optimal disinfection.
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, while helping to ensure complete disinfection of your water. So what’s so hard about that?