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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates the quality of tap water and does a fairly decent job doing so. As of today, there are nationwide standards for more than 90 different contaminants.
However, since water hardness does not pose a threat to the public health the federal agency pays no attention to it.
But why then do you keep hearing about water softeners and their supposed benefits? Would a system be a worthy investment for your home? Read on to find out more.
A question we get asked fairly often is, Do I need a water softener?
Simply put, whether to soften or not is a matter of personal preference. There is no requirement for it and yet still, the decision will affect your home.
Also, we want to make clear that we don’t want to talk anyone into buying a water softener. Softening has both advantages and disadvantages – which you will learn about soon.
If you were to ask, Do I have hard water? And you are on a private well, the answer would be probably yes. But even people living in the city can be plagued (softening on a large scale is too cumbersome and costly for suppliers).
A look at the statistic reveals:
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), most American homes receive at least somewhat hard water with many people suffering from very high hardness levels. So, chances are that the water coming into your home could do with some softening.
By the way, the softest water can be found in Hawaii, whereas the Great Lakes region in Alaska and Tennessee have moderately hard water. Texas, Kansas, southern California and Arizona have the hardest water levels.
Mean Hardness as Calcium Carbonate at NASQAN Monitoring Sites (1975)
But how do we even define hardness?
That’s simple: The USGS classifies water as “soft“, “moderately hard“, “hard” or “very hard” depending on how much calcium carbonate it contains. Concentrations are measured in ppm (parts per million) or mg/L. Another common way to specify hardness is in gpg (grains per gallon).
FYI: 1 ppm = 1 mg/L and 17.118 ppm = 17.118 mg/L = 1 gpg
|Soft||0 – 60||0 – 60||0 – 3.5|
|Moderately hard||61 – 120||61 – 120||3.56 – 7.01|
|Hard||121 – 180||121 – 180||7.06 – 10.51|
Being a different organization, the Water Quality Association together with the American Society of Agricultural Engineers has established slightly different standards:
|Slightly hard||17.1-60||17.1-60||1.0 – 3.5|
|Moderately hard||60 – 120||60 – 120||3.5 – 7.0|
|Hard||120 – 180||120 – 180||7.0 – 10.5|
|Very hard||> 180||> 180||> 10.5|
Bottom line: One way for you to find out if your water is soft, hard or very hard is to measure its calcium levels. You can do this yourself using one of the many available hardness test kits, or you can send a sample to a testing laboratory in your area.
Alternatively, you could request a Water Quality Report from your municipal supplier. It’s something that all public suppliers have to provide for free. The only exception are companies operating private wells.
In the end, the hardness level has to be “bad enough” to justify the relatively high costs involved in acquiring and operating a water softener. That is where potential damage to plumbing and appliances coupled with increased energy bills make the investment worthwhile (and necessary) from a financial point of view.
The Minnesota Department of Health recommends households with hardness levels greater than 120 ppm (7 gpg) to consider buying a softener to ensure that appliances run well.
Hardness levels between 80 and 100 ppm (4.7 to 5.9 gpg) are “generally considered to provide an acceptable balance between corrosion and incrustation“. (Source)
Another way of testing for hardness:
Although direct testing is the only way to find out how hard your water really is, there are obvious telltale signs that indicate that a softening unit could make a good addition to your home, such as:
You might have observed some hard water signs in your home. If so, you should check out our reviews to find the best water softener deal.
Whether or not to buy a water softener is also a legal question. Salt-based systems are prohibited by law in some counties in the U.S. There are two main reasons behind the ban:
If you consider buying a water softener for your home, make sure to contact your local water supplier first to find out if your state or municipality has placed any restrictions on what type you are allowed to use.
Softening water is often mistaken as a way of purifying it. The reality is, however, that a water softener only removes hardness minerals (mainly calcium and magnesium) – no more and no less.
The pros and cons associated with softening respectively soft water are:
A water softener prevents scale deposits and thereby extends the life span of water heaters, dishwashers, washing machines, coffee makers, air humidifiers and many more household appliances plus the entire plumbing system in your house by up to 30 percent.
As a result, maintenance and repair costs are likely to decrease.
Improved heat exchange efficiency of your water heater will help you save money on energy bills. How much? Testing has shown that using a gas storage water heater the energy cost savings amount to 24.2% over a life cycle of 15 years.
Pumps and other appliances are also likely to be positively affected.
This is probably the most important benefit for many women: Less or no more stains on dishes, cutlery, glassware, tubs, sinks, windows, etc.
Soft water makes your skin and hair look and feel soft, smooth and naturally healthy.
There is nothing more annoying than trying to work up a lather that refuses to form. You end up using a lot more soap than you would have if your water was not chock-full of hard minerals.
By removing these minerals a softening system will help you do your cleaning faster and more effectively. You will also save on soap, detergent – up to 50% for washing – and other cleaning products.
Say goodbye to faded and scratchy clothes, towels and bed linen.
All in all, you will find that you will use less soft water than you would use if unsoftened.
Salt-based softeners require salt and water for brine production and backwashing and rinsing of their resin bed, both at additional costs (electricity cost is negligible).
What’s more, the wastewater is discharged into the sewer which means that your sewer bill will rise.
While some units waste no more than 20 gallons per regeneration cycle taking place in certain time intervals, others waste 50 or more – the exact amount varies from system to system and also depends on the individual configuration, the hardness level and water consumption.
The same applies to how much salt you will use on a monthly basis. The industry standard for a family of four is one 40-pound salt bag per month (one bag costs anywhere between $6 and $25 USD).
Even some salt-free conditioners rely on softening agents like citric acid (chelation) to function. Price: $50 USD per cartridge required every 3 to 6 months.
For one, the wastewater production can add up to thousands of gallons in a single year in areas with exceptionally hard water. This is bad as freshwater is scarce in many parts of the country.
On top of that, depending on where you live the excess chloride (and salt) ends up in lakes and streams threatening freshwater fish and other aquatic life.
As mentioned above, soft water requires more resources to recycle in a treatment plant compared to unsoftened water.
Drinking softened H2O or using it for cooking will increase your daily sodium/potassium intake to a certain extent. Because both sodium and potassium were found to be a factor in hypertension, high blood pressure and other diseases, softened H2O can pose a health risk for genetically predisposed people under extreme circumstances.
Another minor health factor is the lack of sufficient healthy calcium and magnesium. For both minerals drinking water contributes up to ⅕ of the required total daily intake.
Above that, some people might prefer hard over soft water in terms of taste.
On a side note: Boiling food in mineral-depleted water can lead to substantial loss of essential elements in the food itself.
An easy workaround to all this is to install a separate line providing cold water that does not get softened.
Or you could use a saltless softener a.k.a. water conditioner. Conditioners alter the behavior of dissolved magnesium and calcium ions so that they are less likely to cling to surfaces. Their “softening” effectiveness remains controversial though.
Want to learn more about the different types of water softeners including salt-free conditioners?
Any whole house softening system needs to be plumbed in. This costs time and money and is usually not an option for renters. The only exception are some electronic descalers that simply clip on or wrap around the main water supply.
If you own a septic system the additional wastewater might overload the drainage field (only applies to traditional ion exchange softeners).
Water that is soft and acidic (pH <7.0) tends to be more corrosive. Which in turn can sometimes dissolve enough heavy metals out of pipes, solders and/or plumbing fixtures to create both aesthetic and health-related problems.
Soft water leaves a slippery feel on your skin that requires getting used to.
If you have any questions or thoughts about water softener benefits and disadvantages please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!
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