Water is the world’s eminent solvent, dissolving a little of everything it contacts. Whether passing through the atmosphere, percolating into groundwater supplies or traveling through copper pipes, water will partially take on the attributes of every environment it encounters.
Hardness minerals in water supplies—those minerals that historically made cleaning “hard” or more difficult—are a common and exasperating result of water’s solvent action. Although more efficient than in the past, old-fashioned water softening is still the preferred method for mitigating water hardness problems. Let’s explore some of the benefits attained from removing hardness minerals, primarily calcium and magnesium, as well as one common objection to the softening process.
Hard vs. Soft Water
Hard water minerals precipitate out of solution at ever-increasing rates as water temperature rises, forming scale on water contacting surfaces. This scale forms an insulating barrier that will require additional energy to heat water in a boiler or water heater. Hard water scale can lead to a more than 20% decrease in heating efficiency and decreased flow rates. When operated with soft water, faucets, water heaters and other water-using appliances can last up to 30% longer. Independent, quantifiable studies consistently reach similar conclusions about the extended longevity of appliances operated with soft water. Consider the impact of 30% fewer water-using appliances being sent to landfills.
When hardness minerals combine with most cleaning products, a sticky film called soap curd results. This insoluble substance leaves rings on bathtubs, a film on fixtures and residue on fabrics. Cleaning hard water soap curd requires significantly more physical effort, increasing the time, effort and malaise associated with household chores.
Some studies suggest that cleaning time and effort can be reduced by up to 50% when using soft water. Additional quantities of costly cleaning agents and chemicals are required to do the job as compared to using softened water. These supplementary products increase the contaminant load on water treatment facilities and the environment. Softened water will subdue soap curd while providing many other important advantages.
Using soft water for laundering has multiple proven benefits for both residential and commercial applications. Decreased detergent and chemical requirements will, of course, save money, and again, lighten the burden on the increasingly sensitive environment. Soft water, however, also keeps whites whiter, slows the fading of colors and increases fabric life. Using detergents and other cleaning products specifically designed for use with soft water will further accentuate these advantages.
While “spot-free” water is a title reserved for demineralized or deionized water generally produced by reverse osmosis (RO), distillation or deionization, soft water is well known for being nearly residue free, only occasionally leaving an easy-to-remove film. Often, this soft water film or spotting is the result of using too much soap or an inadequate rinse period.
Hard water spots such as those you may find building up on your vehicle’s windows from habitually parking near sprinklers are difficult to remove, usually requiring additional chemicals and extreme effort just to partially remove. Because soft water is not normally used for irrigation, this is an excellent example of the severity of real-world hard water spotting. Soft water eliminates or significantly reduces spotting while greatly enhancing the appearance of surfaces with considerably less effort and chemical use.
Salt in the human diet is essential to good health. When discussing water softener salt, we in the water conditioning industry like to refer to it as “sodium chloride” to avoid actually using the dreaded four-letter word—salt. The fact is that softeners need salt, or a similar alternative, to regenerate on a regular basis. The highly soluble sodium ions overwhelm and take the place of the undesirable hardness minerals on the resin beads.
The amount of sodium imparted to softened water varies based on the influent hardness, with higher original hardness levels resulting in more sodium in the softened product water. In most cases, the level of sodium added to the human diet as a result of softening is innocuous. Those on sodium-restricted diets should take all sources of sodium into account and may need to avoid drinking softened and even hard water that contains varying levels of natural salt. Most of our dietary sodium is obtained through food, not drinking water.
If the added sodium is still a concern, you can bypass the drinking water line, or even better, install a point-of-use RO drinking system to remove nearly all of the sodium and other minerals. The Water Quality Association has excellent information on the subject of dietary sodium intake from many common sources, including softened water. Salt should not be considered anathema, but rather, you should retain your perspective and realize the vital role sodium plays in our daily lives.
Residential, commercial and industrial soft water use serves a lot of money- and time-saving purposes. Lower energy costs, extended appliance life, lessened strain on landfills, reduced physical cleaning effort, smaller quantities of cleaners/chemicals, improved fabric appearance/durability, reduced water spots/film and decreased strain on precious natural resources are just some of the benefits attained from using softened water. These practical advantages are all beneficial, but the reason why so many consumers love soft water lies elsewhere.
I am generally skeptical of personal testimonies and don’t put much credence in anecdotal evidence, but when it comes to soft water, the overwhelming “cry” from residential users is undeniable. Aesthetically, they love soft water, and many consider it an emergency when their systems cease to operate.
The primary reason why consumers love soft water has to do with the way it enhances personal hygiene, leaving skin and hair feeling healthy and clean. Some describe bathing in soft water as leaving their skin feeling slippery, but I would describe it as not being sticky. The luxurious feel of soft water on our skin has to do with the natural body oils not being restricted or blocked by hard water residue.
For residential applications, soft water is a choice, not a necessity. It is important to be honest with the consumer, and the numerous benefits of soft water will speak for themselves.