Jim Gruenke is water treatment manager for Traut Companies. Gruenke can be reached at [email protected].
For a number of years now, attention has been paid to water softeners for the discharge and wastewater they produce, with concerns regarding the content of that discharge and how it impacts the environment. Indeed, opponents of water softeners have put forth claims holding softeners responsible for elevated chloride levels in lakes and streams. This has resulted in restrictions to the softening industry and even outright bans of their use in certain parts of the country.
What Causes Elevated Levels of Chloride in Waterways?
Here in my home state of Minnesota, recent studies have also indicated elevated levels of chloride in local waters. As is common, major blame was quickly placed on the operation of water softeners. A close look at the facts, however, reveals that the single largest source of this chloride (estimated at 42% of the total) is actually from the use of salt on roads, streets and sidewalks in order to keep them free of ice during Minnesota’s long winters. The next biggest source has been shown to be agricultural practices, including the use of certain blends of fertilizers (23%), followed closely by municipal wastewater treatment plants (22%). Of this municipal plant total, 65% of that number is attributed to water softener discharge.
The reaction to this has included the implementation of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Smart Salting program. With this program, the MPCA’s goal is to provide the tools for reduction of salt use and they have initiated reduced-salting training programs and certifications for the applicators of road salt. Currently, a “Smart Salting Assessment” tool is also being developed to address the softening portion of the overall chloride issue. Along with a few other individuals from the softening industry, I am serving as a volunteer technical advisor on the MPCA panel developing this Smart Salting Assessment tool.
My goal in serving on this panel is to provide input and education that leads to the development of tools and solutions that benefit all, to help protect the water quality industry from misguided attempts at addressing the chloride issue and to provide consumers a way in which they can continue to realize the necessary benefits of softened water in the least costly and most efficient ways. If softeners are a part of the conversation, we want a seat at that table.
Proposed Solutions to Reduce Chloride From Water Softeners
Proposed solutions to reducing chloride output from softeners have included central treatment at the municipal level in order to eliminate the need for individual residential softeners. On an individual basis, “saltless softening” has also been proposed as an alternative to a salt-operated system and, as discussed earlier in this article, out-right elimination of water softener use has been discussed. I believe that these proposed solutions, however, each have their own major flaws:
Central treatment. This method of addressing the issue comes at a significant cost. In Minnesota, a plant was recently built for this purpose for a municipality that according to recent census figures has 2,083 households. The reported cost of constructing this facility was $18-million or an average cost of more than $8,600 per household — several times the cost of many brands of individual residential softening units. In another Minnesota city of roughly 640 households, a plan was developed to spend $2.8-million on a treatment plant, still a cost of nearly $4,400 per household. Moreover, with the most common method of central treatment — lime softening — the output water will still have approximately 5 grains of hardness remaining. This would result in an individual residence still needing to operate its softener (granted, with less salt consumption) to achieve the desired benefits of fully-softened water.
“Saltless softeners.” While many of these saltless options do indeed affect water in some way, most do not actually remove hardness from the water. In fact, many of the saltless devices being marketed will actually state in their “fine print” that hardness will remain in the water after treatment. They purport to leave the “good minerals” in the water but by doing so, these units deny the consumer most standard benefits of truly softened water. Current, established science only supports traditional ion-exchange technology for actual hardness removal and this involves some type of mineral salt.
Eliminating softeners. In areas where this has been tried, chloride reduction has proven to be minimal. After all, as above statistics indicate, softener discharge is only a small-percentage contributor to the overall chloride issue. As consumers would deal with the now hard water, we could expect to then see increased levels of other types of water pollution from the additional soaps, solvents, detergents and other cleaning agents that will be used in an attempt to achieve the benefits otherwise provided by softened water. Additionally, the hardness minerals in non-softened water will shorten the life of much industrial equipment and many household appliances, thereby accelerating and increasing their entry into the waste stream. Elimination of softeners represents little, if any environmental benefit.
Other Potential Solutions to Reduce Chloride Output From Water Softeners
So, what can be done? In my observation, there are some significant steps that can be taken to reduce salt use by, and chloride output from, water softeners while still allowing consumers to enjoy the benefits of softened water:
Eliminate “time-clock” softeners. With the availability of metered/demand units that track water usage and self-adjust recharge schedules in response to that usage, softeners that use time-clock initiated regeneration are a thing of the past. Tremendous progress in this area has already been achieved with time-clock softeners representing a smaller and smaller percentage of operating units all of the time. We still do see a number of these in use, however. When we see them, we encourage their replacement with metered equipment. By doing so, we often reduce softener salt needs for that consumer to half or even one-third of what the time clock unit required.
Replace aged equipment. Softening resin does have a finite lifespan and over time breaks down to where a softener’s resin bed has significantly reduced capacity. This results in the consumer recharging the unit more frequently (and thereby using more salt) to compensate for that lost capacity. While I do see softeners that are still operating after several decades, the reduced efficiency of these units after about 20 years or so most often warrants up-grading to newer, more efficient equipment.
Assure proper settings/operation. Even with new equipment, we often see settings on a softener to be at many times what they need to be when considering the actual hardness level of the water, again resulting in a lot of wasted salt. The operation of a softener is a mystery to many consumers and they need to be educated about proper operation and the right settings for their equipment in order to achieve desired results efficiently.
How Water Quality Professionals Can Be Proactive Regarding Water Softener Regulations
For the benefit of our industry, I believe it is important to be proactive regarding this issue rather than downplay it if softeners are indeed at least a part of this picture, which they are.
What can you do?
Talk to your elected officials
A friend of mine repeatedly says, “The world is run by those who show up.” We’ve shown up at legislative events and in front of elected officials to let them know our position on this issue and offer our solutions. In February of 2020, I was at our state capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota, to lobby for our positions. We actually achieved a bill that had bi-partisan sponsorship to provide incentive funding for consumers to upgrade out of their aged or time-clock operated softeners. Unfortunately, about two weeks afterward COVID-19 hit and these bills, like many others, got put on the back burner and never made it past committee.
Make use of local media
Educate yourself and then do not be shy to share your knowledge with local media. This can be done through some type of press release or by media contacts you may have socially. These folks love a story and will often be quite willing to talk to you. Furthermore, you will now have provided them with a source that they can go to if they ever run across this on their own. Your chance to input against the likely negative information they see may prove to be valuable to your business and to the industry as a whole.
Demonstrate that you are willing to do the right thing. Reach out to your customers. Show them that you care that their equipment is set and operating properly. Provide incentives to those that are due an upgrade. After stories about elevated chloride levels in Minnesota hit our local media, we initiated a dealer-sponsored rebate program as incentive to our prospects and customers that still had the old time-clock units or had equipment that exceeded 20 years old. We had a number of consumers take advantage of this so it turned into a good marketing opportunity as well.
Environmental questions regarding the operation of water softeners have been around for some time and are not going to go away any time soon. While they have the potential to be damaging to the water quality industry, they do not have to be. Be proactive. Get involved. Turn this challenge to our industry into an opportunity.