If you live in an area with hard water, it probably seems like common sense to have a water softening system in your home. Nobody wants spotty dishes, bathtub rings, or dull hair! But the ol’ tried-and-true water softener has a few nasty secrets. If you look at the real cost of softened water and the challenges it creates for water management, water conservation, and the environment, you might think a little differently about how you soften your water.
What’s the difference between hard water and softened water?
Water described as “hard” has a higher mineral content - usually calcium and magnesium - than ordinary water. As more and more calcium and magnesium dissolve in the water the harder the water gets. The high mineral content makes soap less effective. Soft water has little or no dissolved minerals, which is why you need less shampoo and soap if you soften your water.
How do you soften water?
Typical home water softeners remove calcium and magnesium from hard water by exchanging their ions for sodium or potassium. Removing the minerals makes chores easier and can make your water appliances (washing machine, dishwasher, etc.) last longer.
What are the potential problems of salt-softened water?
1) Soft water kills your plants
If you use softened water on your house plants and your landscape, over time the salt will build up in the soil and cause your plants to die of thirst. If you live in an area that doesn’t get much rainfall, the salt will not get washed out or percolate deep enough into the soil to be diluted. High concentration of salt in soil decreases oxygen levels, causes the soil to swell and become compacted. When this happens, plants cannot get enough nutrients to their roots and they die.
Two ways to tell if your plants, trees, and grass have salt stress is if they have yellow tips on their leaves or have salt rings where the water sits as it soaks into the soil. Yellow tips will be less obvious on grass because you cut off the tips every time you mow.
2) Soft water poisons soil
Salt is washed into your city’s wastewater through normal activities like showers, using the toilet and washing clothes. So even if you don’t use softened water on your own landscape, your softened water ends up in your city’s water source and is likely used to irrigate parks and agriculture. The longer an area is watered with salt-treated water, the more the soil in that area gets compacted and loses vital nutrients. Over time the high salt concentration will not only kill existing plants but also prevent new plants from growing in the poisoned soil.
3) Soft water harms the environment
In cities where water softeners are allowed, the waste water must be treated for high salt content and there is an issue of where to discharge the salt when it comes out of the water. In places like California sometimes it’s discharged into the ocean which is expensive and can have long term effects on the aquatic environment. In other places, treated waste water is usually added to the local water source which may be a stream or lake and it will have the same detrimental effect on the fish and plants there.
4) Water softeners are water wasters!
Salt-based water softeners have some convenient benefits, sure, but they are sneaky water wasters. Advocates say you’ll save money on detergents and appliance replacements, but you will use more water with a water softener than without. Why?
First of all, because compacted soil does not absorb enough water and will runoff faster than porous soil. You will need to water more often to get the same result. Also, you have to leach the salt out of your soil to avoid killing all of your plants – and that means regularly flooding soil with enough water to push all of the salt down deeper to dilute it or flush it to the surface and away. (Again, it has to go somewhere. Your lawn may be safe but you may be involuntarily poisoning the park down the street.) While this method is effective at washing away the salt, it also washes essential nutrients out of the soil which you will have to replace with soil amendments.
Softened water isn’t recommended for drinking so many people purchase a reverse osmosis unit which wastes at least a gallon of water for every gallon it produces.
So what can you do?
There are some excellent alternatives to using salt to soften water.
First, if you use a salt-based water softener and don’t want to change, I suggest at a minimum you connect the salt water softener to your hot water line only. This way you’ll have soft water for showers and washing clothes, but for all your cold water uses like watering plants and drinking you won’t have to worry about high sodium content. This also dramatically reduces the amount of salt water being washed away down your drains.
Arizona State University completed a study in 2011 and discovered the most promising technology for softening water without salt is the template assisted crystallization process. It tested four types of water softener not using salt: capacitive deionization, electrically induced precipitation, template assisted crystallization, and electromagnetic water treatment. You can read about the study here.
In the Santa Clarita Valley of California an ordinance was passed prohibiting the use of automatic or self regenerating water softeners. But the prohibition doesn’t mean nasty hard water for all their residents. The city offers a large variety of options for softening water without using salt. You can find information here about these alternative products.
Have you experienced a buildup of salt in your soil and wondered what is causing it? Do you know any other solutions that I didn’t mention? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below or send us a message on our Facebook page: Water Bloggers. You can also learn more about water softening hazards and participate in the discussion on Ground Chat today on Twitter at 2pm ET. Just search the hashtag #groundchat to join in!