Apr 29, 2011

Soft Water: Research Supports Environmental Benefits

The role of water softeners in environmental efforts

Information published in March and released by the Water Quality Assn. (WQA) at WQA Aquatech USA 2011 defined environmentalism related to the water treatment industry and discussed new research related to the benefits of softened water. “Environmentalism and Water Treatment,” published in the March 2011 issue of Water Quality Products, explained that water treatment technologies offer multiple ways to provide cleaner water with processes that are sustainable, reduce pollution and conserve water and energy.

Furthermore, the Softened Water Benefits Study discussed at the WQA Aquatech tradeshow described the results from new research supporting further benefits of water softeners. The combination of this information demonstrates how the new reports specific to water softeners join environmentalism efforts through three key areas:

  • Sustainablity: a process capable of being continued with minimal long-term effects on the environment;
  • Pollution reduction: also known as the “green” movement, it is the removal of contaminants that would otherwise be consumed or released into the environment and adversely affect living organisms; and
  • Conservation: the protection, preservation, management or restoration of living organisms and natural resources.


Sustainable processes have minimal negative impact on the environment. In general, water softeners are not considered sustainable technology because they discharge chlorides, which may cause environmental issues in some areas with high salinity due to road salt, natural sources, agricultural and storm runoff, or other sources.

Regardless, water softeners make other processes more sustainable by removing hardness and increasing the lifespan of appliances. This was supported by the Energy Savings Study conducted by Battelle in 2009 and funded by the Water Quality Research Foundation (WQRF). The study evaluated increased energy savings and reduced carbon footprint of household appliances and fixtures through water softening and quantified carbon footprint savings in measurable and significant levels for the different appliances. The study demonstrated that for gas storage tank water heaters, up to 24% efficiency can be lost with hard water usage due to scale build-up. This significant reduction in efficiency would cause the consumer to dispose of the appliance prematurely compared to an appliance operated with softened water. Sustainable processes need to optimize the lifespan of appliances and water softeners provide the means to accomplish that.

Pollution Reduction

Water softeners are mainly known for the reduction of hardness, which is an aesthetic claim rather than a health-related claim. One reason for placing water softeners in a pollution reduction category is their ability to remove health contaminants such as barium and radium. The maximum contaminant level for barium is 2 parts per million (ppm) and for radium is 5 to 15 pCi/L, depending on the isotope. Softeners actually perform better at reducing barium and radium than hardness removal, leading to reduction in pollution and aiding environmentalism efforts. Furthermore, even though it is generally not claimed by softener manufacturers, softeners do remove most, if not all, heavy metals from water, including lead, which is often present in water due to leaching from service pipes leading to homes.

Moreover, the new detergent savings research completed by Scientific Services and funded by the WQRF demonstrates that washing clothes or dishes in softened water allows a reduction in detergent by 50% or more. This significantly reduces the waste stream pollution from detergents, which was a vast enough problem that bans of phosphate compounds in detergents were nationally instituted.


For those familiar with the Energy Savings Study conducted by Battelle in 2009, the implications related to energy conservation are apparent. As mentioned previously, the Energy Savings Study reports significant energy savings for household appliances fed with softened water rather than hard water. Water heaters and dishwashers are just two examples of appliances that are more efficient and use less energy with reduced hardness and subsequent scale buildup. If extrapolated across other industries, the impact is immense.

To add to the results from the Energy Savings Study, the Detergent Study demonstrated that clothes washed in softened water can achieve equivalent or improved stain removal in cold water compared to washing in hot water with any level of hardness. Moreover, for dishwashers the improvement in soil removal using softened water remains when air drying rather than heated drying. In both cases, the energy savings for the reduction in temperature has not been quantified. However, the potential savings may be as substantial as the results from the Energy Savings Study conducted by Battelle.

The three studies encompassed by the Softened Water Benefits Study have provided new research to ponder regarding the benefits of water softeners. These studies provide ample data to support positive environmental impacts related to sustainability, pollution reduction and conservation. To get more detailed information about the Battelle Study, the Laundry Study and the Dishwasher Study, you can access the executive summaries, full reports and other resources by visiting the WQA website at www.wqa.org. Note that some information may be restricted to WQA members only. The website also has valuable information about water contaminants, how contaminants can be addressed and listings of manufacturers of certified water treatment products. You can also learn how to support research projects through WQRF, become a member of WQA and find contact information for local water professionals who are members of WQA.

About the author

Pauli Undesser, CWS-VI, is WQA’s director of regulatory and technical affairs and toxicology manager for WQA’s Gold Seal Certification Program. Undesser can be reached at [email protected] or 630.929.2514.