A Hard Look at Water Softener Safety: Is your water softener harming the planet?

Water softener safety is becoming a nationwide concern. Installations of new water softening systems have been banned in an increasing number of states and municipalities. Specifically, ion exchange water softeners.

What are the safety concerns with water softeners?

Basically, the problem with hard water is that it contains an overabundance of minerals, especially calcium and magnesium. These minerals are harmless to human health, but they do cause household problems.

Soap doesn’t lather well in hard water. It can leave dishes spotty, laundry dingy, and hair dull.

Worse, it can cause hard mineral scale to build up in your plumbing system and hot water tank. This can lop years off the life expectancy of your water heater. It also makes it significantly less efficient, which costs you money in wasted fuel and raises your carbon footprint.

Are water softeners safe?

Conventional water softeners address this problem by removing the offending minerals in your water and replacing them with salts (usually sodium chloride) through a process called ion exchange. This protects your water heater and helps you avoid mineral residue on your skin, laundry, and dishes.

Are water softeners bad for the environment?

When it comes to water softener safety, unfortunately, salt-based water softening systems contribute to two environmental problems:

  1. Salt buildup in aquatic environments – Water softeners release chloride salts (such as sodium chloride) into the environment. This can adversely affect rivers, streams and aquifers, especially in areas that are already suffering from high concentrations of salts due to road salt application, agricultural runoff, and other sources.
  2. Overuse of water supplies – The system uses water to flush itself out regularly in a process called regeneration. The EPA estimates that a typical ion exchange softener uses about 25 gallons a day, or up to 10,000 gallons per year!

To combat this problem, the EPA has enacted water quality standards that limit the amount of chloride that water treatment plants are allowed to release into the environment. Many communities are now finding that their facilities are unable to handle the volume of salts coming in – hence the water softener bans.

As a conscious parent, should you be concerned about water softener safety? And, are there any health risks associated with conventionally softened water?

Unless someone in your household has a health condition that requires a restricted sodium diet, there is no evidence that the small amount of extra salt in the water is harmful to ingest (although it may taste unpleasant, especially if you’re not used to it.) However, if you or your kids suffer from skin problems that won’t go away, take note: some people with sensitive skin have reported rashes and itchiness from treated water.

Keep in mind, too, that the USDA has determined that drinking water is a small but significant source of dietary minerals in most areas. Tap water provides on average 6% of the US RDA for calcium and 5% for magnesium (assuming a water intake of 2 liters per day.)

For some people, this could be enough to tip the balance into deficiency if this source is removed without being supplemented with outside sources of these minerals.

For most of us, though, the bigger issue boils down to conscience. How bad is my water softener for the environment, really? And what alternatives do I have?

Your location may be the biggest factor influencing your water softener’s environmental impact. If you are already living in an area where bans are in effect, you know it’s an issue. Even if you aren’t, if you live in an area of concern for drought or salinity issues (such as high levels of road salt and/or agricultural runoff) and have a salt-based water softening system, you could be contributing to the problem.

So, what can you do to soften hard water safely?

“The first step is to ask yourself if you really need softening,” says Professor Paul McGinley, water quality specialist at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point Extension. “How much do you really need so you’re not going overboard?”

You can order home testing strips to see if you have hard water.

McGinley suggests exploring why you feel you need water softening, pointing out that mineral content is only one factor affecting water performance. When it comes to water softener safety, water pH and other factors can make a huge difference in the way your water reacts.

“Don’t assume that just because you have hard water you’ll have problems,” he warns.

If you know hard water issues really are a problem for you, and you don’t want to replace your current water softener, the next step is to determine how little softening you can comfortably live with.

Consider first getting your water tested by an independent lab to be sure you’re not over-softening. Most university extension services will accept water samples for analysis. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control recommends a water hardness of between 50 and 150 mg per liter to avoid problems; if yours naturally falls into that range you many be able to skip softening altogether.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to soften all the water you use.

You may be able to treat just the hot water with a salt-based water softener. Or treat the water going to your sinks, showers and laundry, and bypass toilets and outdoor faucets.

Consider also your total overall water consumption. The less softened water you use, the less salt your household sends into the environment. Implementing basic water conservation best practices like installing low flow fixtures and fixing leaks promptly can cut down dramatically on the amount of salt you end up going through. Water softener salt can be expensive, so reducing your consumption is a sound financial choice as well as better for the environment.

You can add concentrated sea mineral drops to properly balance and remineralize your drinking water.

Alternatives to ion exchange water softeners

If you are looking for a new hard water solution, be aware that there are a number of alternatives on the market. Some of these include:

Anti-scale Magnetic Treatment This type of system works by passing the water through a magnetic field to reduce the effects of hard water. This idea is still controversial, and studies reveal mixed results. However, there have been major advances in magnet technology in the past few decades, including the increased availability of extremely powerful rare earth magnets originating from China. So you may want to check into this technology for yourself, especially if you have limited space.

Electronic Descaler A California company called Aqua Genesis has come up with another interesting technology: a device which wraps around your water pipe and sends electric impulses into the water which, according to the company’s president, Eduardo Jalles, causes hard water minerals to float away through the drain. The technology has apparently been used successfully by households and businesses in many regions of North America.

Salt-free Water Conditioning Systems  These systems don’t actually remove the calcium and magnesium from your water. Instead, it passes the water through a medium which contains catalysts which cause the minerals to precipitate into tiny particles too tiny to notice.

Now they are no longer dissolved, but in suspension, which is chemically very different. As a result, the water behaves as though it’s soft even though the minerals are still present. Eventually they will redissolve but typically not for 2-3 days. As long as you’re using your water regularly the system will prevent the majority of scale build up.

As with any new technology, the jury is out on many water softening alternatives. Eventually one or more may win out and become the conventional technology of the day. Until then, it pays to do your homework before investing. However, one thing does seem clear: we can no longer take the way we treat our water for granted.

What we do matters, and it is up to us to take responsible action towards protecting the best interests of the whole as well as our own needs.

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  1. Hi! I liked your article! But the question I have is regarding the ion exchange with the resin beads ( that are made of polystyrene ). How does that affec my families health? ( I know styrene is part of the prop65).

  2. Dave Marsh says:

    This is a good article and you’ve answered many of my questions about salt water softeners. Specifically I wanted to know how salt impacts the environment and whether I should avoid using a salt water softener.

    We have a home where the water is very hard – 375mg/l – and the only way to effectively solve our problem with hardness (CaCo3) and calcium buildup is to use a softener. I’m wondering if there is an alternative to pumping the salt water backwash into the sewage system? Perhaps diverting it into a small waste pond where the brine can evaporate leaving just the salts and minerals behind to dispose of?