Water softening is a curiosity for many homeowners. They know the harmful effects of hard water, and can see (and feel) the difference when they install a water softener system. But exactly how hard water becomes soft is a mystery for many. Some of the biggest questions about water softening concern the use of salt – why it is needed, and whether adding sodium to your drinking water is a good thing.
Why is Salt Needed for Water Softening?
Conventional water softeners need salt to fuel a process called ion exchange. Hard water contains high levels of dissolved minerals like calcium and magnesium. These minerals are actually good for you to drink, but in high enough levels, they can be bad for plumbing and appliances. The ion exchange process used by conventional water softeners takes out these hard water minerals and replaces them with sodium, which is worse for your body but much better for your house.
The reason we use the term conventional water softeners is because there are a lot of alternative systems that don’t use salt. These no salt water softeners use a variety of other processes to treat your water, but they don’t actually remove calcium or magnesium (or add sodium).
How Much Sodium Does a Water Softener Add to my Water?
You’ll find conflicting opinions about whether it’s a good idea to drink softened water. Most people agree that the amount of sodium added by a conventional softener is extremely small. At the same time, few people are willing to state with certainty that drinking softened water has no health implications. The amount of nutrition you lose can easily be recouped through your diet. However, the amount of sodium added may be significant in the long run, or even in the short run for people on low salt diets.
Regardless, there’s an easy solution to this problem – don’t drink softened water. If you have very hard water that requires a lot of salt to soften, you probably won’t like the taste of your tap water anyway. Use bottled or filtered water instead, or have your softener bypass the kitchen tap.
Yet another option is to use potassium chloride pellets in your water softener. This still adds a small amount of sodium to your water, but the amount is much reduced – and you get the health benefits of potassium-fortified drinking water.
Water Softening and the Environment
So, on balance, water softening is a very good thing for homes with hard water, and the health implications for people are probably minimal. However, there is one other factor you might want to add to the equation – water softening is bad for the environment. Conventional water softeners tend to waste a lot of water, and the water they flush out when regenerating contains contaminants that can be harmful to plants and animals if they find their way into the environment.
The harmful waste from water softeners can be treated, but doing so is an extra burden on waste water facilities. That’s why many cities and even some states have moved to ban ion exchange water softeners. If you live in one of these places, then true water softening is not an option for you. Instead, consider a saltless conditioner for your hard water problem.