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If you live in the United States, you’re pretty lucky as far as water goes. While some areas (think Flint, Michigan) have encountered serious water quality issues of late, the country as a whole has fairly safe, clean drinking water. Over 90 contaminants are currently regulated by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), which keeps the standard of our tap water high. On city water, it’s unlikely you’ll need to worry about parasites, bacteria, or mercury poisoning… phew!
The EPA doesn’t bother regulating one factor, however: water hardness. The hardness of water indicates the level of dissolved minerals, particularly magnesium and calcium. The higher the concentration, the harder the water. Water hardness has little effect on health, so why bother with a water softener at all? There are plenty of reasons to consider installing one, so keep reading to find out if it’s a good fit for your home.
Do I Need a Water Softener? – How to Decide If a Water Softener Is Right for You
Since a water softener isn’t strictly necessary, lots of people question whether or not it’s a useful investment. The answer is a mixed bag; water softeners are great at what they do, but they’re not for everyone.
The first question to ask is whether or not you have hard water in the first place. Private wells are particularly prone to hard water issues, but they’re not the only culprit. City water can also be extremely hard depending on where you live, with the water in some areas nicknamed “liquid rock”. Since it’s too costly to soften the water of entire cities, homeowners are left to deal with the issue themselves. The U.S. Geological Survey has done studies showing that moderately hard water is common in the US, and extremely hard water isn’t too unusual, either.
How Hardness Is Classified
Water hardness is measured by calcium carbonate content in parts per million, mg/L or grains per gallon. The standard ranges vary slightly from publication to publication but generally speaking, soft water is 60 ppm or under, moderately hard water is between 61 and 120, hard water is between 121 and 180, and very hard water is over 180.
|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|
The only way to know where your water stands is to test it. You can have a professional come straight to your home, send a water sample to a lab, or order an affordable test kit online. If you’re on city water, you can also contact your local supplier to request a water quality report. Sometimes, this information is available online as well.
How Hard Is Too Hard?
Water softeners are an investment to purchase, install, and maintain, so if your water is only moderately hard, it might not be worth it. While there’s no hard and fast rule (pun intended!), most experts recommend that homeowners dealing with hard water of 120 ppm and over strongly consider installing a water softener.
Levels above this start to cause significant wear and tear on your plumbing system and appliances, potentially leading to costly repairs and replacements. Higher energy bills due to an incrusted water heater are another factor. Luckily, hard water isn’t a totally invisible appliance killer. The signs are usually there long before your dishwasher is destroyed.
Indicators of hard water problems are
- Soap scum
- Spotted glasses and cutlery
- Soft clothes that quickly become rough and worn out after just a few washes
- Hard water is also harder on skin, resulting in dry skin and more bad hair days than usual.
The most pressing issue caused by hard water, however, is scale. As the minerals in hard and very hard water flow throw pipes and appliances, they slowly build up. This results in scale, eventually lowering flow rates to the point of total clogs, burst pipes, and inconvenient appliance leaks. Scale automatically lowers the lifespan of all your appliances, even ones that appear to be fine from the outside. To spot signs of scale, check around your bathtub drain or inside your favorite teapot.
If you see signs like this or a water test shows you have hard water, it’s probably time to pick up a water softener. Ideally, water hardness should hover somewhere between 80 and 100 ppm to prevent scale and corrosion, extending the life of your pipes and appliances.
Before You Buy…
Don’t head to the store yet! Check the rules and regulations in your area first. A few counties have banned salt-based water softeners because of how much water they waste, and because of the extra cost required to recycle softened water. If this is the case in your area, you’re not completely out of luck. There are many saltless water conditioners on the market that are reasonably effective. Salt-based systems are usually preferable, but salt-free systems are far better than nothing!
You might also be interested in these articles on water softeners:
Advantages of Using a Water Softener… Plus a Few Drawbacks
Water softeners have several legitimate benefits, but there are also a few misconceptions about what it is they do. If you’re expecting a water softener to purify your water, for example, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Water softeners do one thing and one thing only: remove hardness minerals. Doing so comes with a few pluses and minuses.
Pros: Why Use a Water Softener
1. Fewer Repair Bills
By far the biggest benefit of a water softener is the reduction and prevention of scale. All that crusty buildup you might notice in your sink and around your bathtub drain is just a hint at what can happen under the surface. Inside your home’s plumbing system where you’re unable to scrub away grime, scale builds up even more. Over time, this can cause major plumbing problems, plus premature failure of everything from the washing machine to your favorite coffee maker. Installing a water softener will reduce existing scale and prevent more from accumulating, reducing the cost of appliance repairs and avoiding the need to replace them early.
2. Say Goodbye to Water Spots!
While it’s not a health concern, no one loves undoing the dishwasher to find that all of the glasses are covered in white spots. Instead of praying that a miraculous new brand of detergent or rinse agent will fix the problem, just get a water softener. That’s the only solution that will guarantee your dishes will come out of the dishwasher sparkling clean, every time!
3. More Good Hair Days
Admittedly, a water softener can’t promise instantly frizz-free hair, but it CAN help your hair and skin to retain moisture, leaving it softer and silkier without having to resort to heavy products.
4. Clothes that Stay Looking New for Longer
Hard water takes a toll on your clothes when you wash them. Towels and sheets are even more at risk because of how frequently they need to be cleaned. With a whole house water softener, you can keep your favorite sweater and fluffiest towels feeling soft and looking vibrant much longer.
5. More Efficient Cleaning
Hard water minerals prevent the formation of the satisfying foam that usually forms when you wash your hair or clean the dishes. Naturally, most people resort to using more soap and detergent when less lather is formed.
Softer water will help to create that rich lather you know and love without using an excess of soap. Many users find that installing a water softener cuts their soap usage in half! It may not seem like much during a single dish washing session, but over time it really adds up!
6. Reduced Water Usage
Since most water softeners waste water as part of the regeneration process, one would think the impact on your water bill would be negative. Because people generally use less soft water to carry out the same tasks as they would with hard water, many homeowners find their water bill actually goes down slightly when they install a water softener. If you have very hard water, however, you’ll probably find the opposite is true.
7. Reduced Energy Bills
Softened water substantially improves the efficiency of the heat exchange element inside your water heater. Faster heating means reduced energy consumption over time, which will be reflected on your gas or electricity bill! The effect on most other appliances, like pumps, will be positive, too.
Cons: Water Softener Disadvantages
1. Maintenance Expenses
The initial investment of buying a water softener isn’t the only thing to consider. Traditional, salt-based water softeners waste water when regenerating, which can increase your water bill depending on your typical usage. It also depends on how efficient of a water softener you purchase. Some only use 20 gallons of water during each regeneration cycle, but others over twice as much. This also highly depends on how hard your water is and how much water your household uses.
As it says in the name, salt-based water softeners also rely on salt to produce brine used during the backwashing and rinsing process. Generally, an average-sized family can expect to use 40-pounds of salt each month, which can ring in at up to $25. If you go for a salt-free conditioner, the maintenance is likely less frequent, but more expensive each time. A typical softening agent cartridge is around $50 and lasts between 3 and 6 months.
Sorry, guys. This is one DIY project we don’t recommend for everyone. The vast majority of water softening systems requires prior plumbing experience for proper installation. So unless you have some serious know-how, you’ll need to budget for a plumber’s time and service charge. Because of how softeners are installed, if you’re renting your home or apartment, softeners are probably off-limits. Electronic descalers are the next best thing, and a good choice for those who can’t spring for a plumber.
3. Septic System Limitations
Those on well water have a whole different concern to consider. Because salt-based water softeners create large quantities of waste water, septic systems can potentially become overloaded. Drainage fields usually come with alarms to let you know if there’s a problem, but if it becomes an ongoing issue, you may have to uninstall the system.
Your goal is likely to fix water problems, not cause more of them! Water that’s very soft with a pH below 7.0 can cause corrosion! Corrosion has the potential to break down pipes and plumbing materials more rapidly. Depending on the age of the materials used, heavy metals like lead can leach out into your water supply. No thanks! To avoid this issue, test your water periodically to make sure the pH isn’t excessively low.
5. Environmental Impact
In areas with extremely hard water, water softeners are great for hair but not so great for the environment. Because of the heavy mineral load, a system will need to regenerate more frequently, wasting thousands of gallons of water over time. The extra salt found in softened water can also find its way to freshwater bodies, posing a threat to sensitive wildlife.
6. Soft Water Makes Recycling More Expensive
For those running on city water, the water that goes down your drains eventually ends up in a treatment plant. When it arrives, it’s more challenging and costly to recycle softened water because of the added salt.
7. Not Ideal for People Sensitive to Salt
All salt-based water softeners will result in elevated sodium or potassium intake if the softened water is used for cooking or drinking. For most people, this isn’t a problem. However, if you or someone in your household is at risk for developing hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, the added salt can elevate your risk level or worsen an existing health issue. If this applies to you, be sure to ask your doctor before installing a salt-based water softener.
Because soft water lacks calcium and magnesium, it might also be recommended to supplement to ensure you’re getting enough of these two important minerals. Cooking in water that’s very low in minerals can also draw minerals out of the food, so consider steaming vegetables instead to retain their nutritional potency. Adding a second water line to the kitchen sink that bypasses the water softener is another option, albeit a more expensive one.
8. The Flavor Isn’t for Everyone
The taste of softened water doesn’t bother most people, but it’s an acquired taste that not everyone likes.
9. Slippery Feel
Some people love how soft water feels in the shower. It’s, well, really soft! The slippery feeling is strange at first if you’ve lived with rock hard water for years, so be prepared for an adjustment period.
Have a question about water softeners that we didn’t cover? Reach out below and we’ll be happy to help!