I’ve been thinking lately about hard water. Some people may think we must have a water softener if we have a water filter, but no, when we purchased the water filter, chlorine removal was on our minds, not hardness. I’ve never really had to think about hard water. Since detergents work so well in both hard and soft water, hard water never really bothered me. Now, with my switch away from almost all detergents (the one notable exception being OxyClean Powder), water hardness is playing a much bigger part in my life. My toilet has to be scrubbed by hand, my bidet seat is going to lose efficiency, my shower head gets hard nubs on the spray nozzles, our laundry gets dingy, our hand-washed dishes are spotty, and our dishwasher works really hard to make things clean. Shouldn’t we make our lives a little easier?
“Hard water” is water which contains a lot of dissolved “hard minerals” like calcium, manganese, and magnesium. Rain water, being essentially distilled, though it does contain particulate matter from the air, is considered soft, but once the water enters the ground and dissolves some of the minerals found underground, it becomes “hard.” One website claims that 85% of American water is hard. The minerals found in hard water generally stay in solution, but over time they deposit and crystallize in pipes, water heaters, toilets, and other water-based appliances, including shower heads (notice how they always develop white crustiness over time?). This reduces their lifespans. As the minerals in hard water react with the saponified oils in soap, hard water also causes soaps to form scum. Without detergents and optical brighteners, laundry becomes dingy. Hard water also leaves “water spots” on dishes and mirrors. Hair and skin can also be affected by hard water, as the minerals settling on the body cause dryness.
There are a few kinds of water softeners on the market, but only one that truly softens water (removes the hard minerals). Typical brine-tank water softeners are the true hero of the water softening world. The unit has two tanks, one containing over a hundred pounds of salt, and the other containing resin. The resin “captures” hard elements from the water by exchanging its charged sodium or potassium ions for the “hard” ones in the water. Either on a regular schedule or as needed, hard elements are flushed from the resin with a new influx of salty brine, and the salt tank slowly depletes. If the unit is properly sized, the salt pellets in the tank must be refilled about once a month. Other “water softeners” are more accurately labelled water conditioners, as they use electric charge or magnetism to cause the hard molecules to crystallize to a state where they are still in the water but unable to deposit so readily on and inside fixtures.
Water softeners vary in efficiency and size. The refresh-on-demand-controlled softeners use less salt because they only refresh when needed, whereas the time-scheduled softeners are less efficient. The softener must be sized to your house’s fixtures and occupants so that salt replacement isn’t required frequently. Size also depends on how hard the water is (ie. what concentration of “hard” elements are dissolved in the water, measured in grains). Homeowners on city water can find this information on their town/city’s regular water reports. This means that if we put a softener in, we probably can’t take it with us when we eventually move, unlike with the chlorine filter.
Water softeners take up a significant amount of space due to their dual-tank design, as well as needing electrical connections and a drain. We already have a furnace condensation line and the water filter drain tied into our laundry sink drain. Do we really want another connection? We put the water filter into the space between the laundry sink and water heater; do we have room for a water softener? Electricity is less of an issue, if the provided cord is long enough.
A water softener is a significant investment, though maybe not quite as big an investment as a chlorine filter. The decision is going to take quite a bit more research and thought. Do you have a water softener? How do you like it? What are the major upsides, downsides, and considerations? Comment below.