Softening the Debate

The water softener debate has been ongoing in our industry for many years now; however, it has become a heated discussion as of late. On March 25, California legislatures amended Assembly Bill (AB) 2270. The new legislation includes specific language that will remove current safeguard barriers where legislative action toward water softeners has been in place for several years, according to the Pacific Water Quality Association (PWQA).

The new legislation would allow any local agency with a community sewer system to ban the use of residential water softeners by local ordinance based simply on findings at a public hearing that the control of residential salinity input will contribute to the achievement of water quality objectives, according to the bill. What this essentially means is that softener bans could be set in place with no scientific data to back them up or without conducting any meaningful studies or hearings before the public.

The legislation currently allows for softener bans, but requires municipalities to undertake comprehensive environmental assessments to document the amount of salt that is contributed by residential softeners and other contributors to the waste stream.

At the time this issue of Water Quality Products (WQP) went to print, AB 2270 was scheduled to be discussed at the April 15 hearing of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee in Sacramento, Calif. In the meantime, water dealers and other industry professionals have been urged by trade associations such as the Water Quality Association (WQA) to send letters of opposition to California assembly members. WQP will continue to provide updates on what transpires in the coming months.

The Issue at Hand

Water softeners remove hardness, or dissolved calcium and magnesium, from the water through ion exchange processes. Incoming hard water passes through a tank containing ion exchange resin beads that are supersaturated with sodium. The calcium and magnesium ions in the water attach to the resin beads and replace the sodium, which is released into the water. The softened water is then distributed for use throughout the house.

The resin beads become saturated with calcium and magnesium ions over time, and when this happens the tank has to recharge by flushing with a salt brine solution. The backwash water then exits the tank and is discharged into the wastewater treatment system.

The backwash that is generated from the water softeners can affect wastewater treatment processes and the composition of the infiltration field biomat and underlying soil; however, attempts to predict whether impacts will occur—and to what degree of severity—are difficult. Because of this, much debate and speculation has grown around what effects, if any, water softener brine discharges have on septic systems.

Between a Rock & a Hard Place

While trade associations such as the WQA and the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA) continue to research the issue, and legislation such as AB 2270 becomes more prevalent, the debate will only escalate.

In the meantime, water dealers who are faced with concerned customers and conflicting data will continue to await a scientifically based conclusion. “I have heard a lot of stories and speculation from both customers and water professionals about what softeners will or will not do to septic tanks,” said Sami Kronfli, owner of The Water Store, Ont., Canada. “I sell quite a few water treatment systems, including softeners, in rural applications. In my opinion, and based on my personal experience, I have not seen any negative impact of water softeners on septic systems.”

Many dealers today are facing the same challenge as Kronfli: consumers have a need for and continue to demand water softeners; however, softeners are facing increased opposition from municipalities.

“The problem with customers who ask me this [softener] question is that I cannot back up my opinion with research,” said Kronfli.

The WQA and NOWRA have put forth ongoing research efforts to try to establish a scientifically based conclusion as to what effects water softener discharges have on septic systems. Last July, the associations collaborated with North Carolina State University to perform a septic softener study of 13 homes in a North Carolina subdivision. The results of the study were released at the recent WQA Aquatech USA show; however, they were found to be inconclusive (see page 7). The WQA will continue to work with NOWRA and the Water Quality Research Foundation to research and develop scientific facts that should help drive policy decisions.

“I was disappointed to learn that the research was inconclusive,” said Kronfli. “Although I was waiting for scientific proof to show my customers that water softener discharge does not affect their septic systems, I guess this is a double-edged sword—I will continue to claim, ‘From my experience I do not witness any negative effects of the discharge on the septic system,’ and if a customer says they heard that septic systems are affected, I can say that it has yet to be proven scientifically and that the latest research was inconclusive. Either way I do not foresee any change in sales or resistance to buy softeners.”

Stephanie Harris is managing editor for Water Quality Products. Harris can be reached at 847.391.1007 or by e-mail at sharris@sgcmail.com.

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