While all water may seem the same, there’s actually quite a bit of variation between what’s coming out of the faucets of houses and businesses throughout Minnesota. You’ve probably heard of hard water and water softeners, but you might not be sure if you have one or need the other. If so, below we explain the basics of water softeners, their pros and cons, and how they affect your plumbing.
Water Softener Basics
What is a water softener?
Water softeners are units that remove some of the “hard” elements out of water, such as calcium, magnesium, and other minerals.
So, what’s wrong with hard water?
Water is considered hard if it contains an abundance of minerals as compared to ordinary water. This is a problem, because things like calcium and magnesium can build up as lime scale on the insides of pipes, water heaters, and even in appliances like ice and coffee makers. Over time, water flow decreases and the lines can become completely clogged.
Another issue with hard water is it makes it difficult for soap to lather. Not only is this frustrating in the shower, it can also prevent clothes and dishwashers from performing optimally and tends to produce more soap scum.
How does a water softener work?
Calcium and magnesium, which are plentiful in hard water, are positively charged ions. These positive ions precipitate out of water (causing scale and buildup) and make it hard for other positively charged ions (like those in soap) to dissolve. Water softeners filter water through a mixture of plastic beads and salt, which swap these highly positive ions out for lower charged ions like sodium. Sodium is preferred, since it doesn’t precipitate into pipes or prevent soap from lathering.
Benefits of a Water Softener
- Extends the life of all water-using appliances (e.g. dishwashers, refrigerators, hot water heaters, clothes washers, shower heads, etc.).
- Reduces soap scum and residue, which keeps sinks, tubs, and washers cleaner.
- Helps keep pipes clear and prevents freezing.
- Hair, skin, and clothes feel cleaner and softer after washing.
- Improves efficiency of hot water heaters by 22 to 29 percent.
Cons of a Water Softener
- Adds a small amount of sodium into the water (still falls well into the “safe” drinking zone, yet may be an issue for some folks).
- Potentially harmful to the environment. (Water softeners periodically go through a regeneration cycle to keep them functioning. When this happens, a load of excess salt, magnesium, and chloride is flushed down the sewer pipes. This results in a high concentration of pollutants entering the water system at one time.)
How do I Know if I Have Hard Water?
If you live in Minnesota, chances are you dohave hard water. According to the US Geological Survey, Nearly half of the state is classified as having hard water, while the other half has extremely hard water. In the Minneapolis area, the water is rated as being moderately hard, which means it has anywhere from 7 to 10 grains of hardness per gallon (gpg). Soft water has less than 1 gpg.
Telltale signs of water hardness are:
- Spotted or stained dishes and clothes.
- Unsightly deposits on rim of faucets.
- Excessive soap scum in showers, sinks, and tubs.
Water Softeners and Your Plumbing
There’s nothing wrong with hard water — it’s perfectly safe to drink and some say the added minerals are good for your health. However, there’s no doubt hard water will eventually take a toll on your plumbing system. The day will come when you’ll have to pay for costly repairs to pipes and appliances that are clogged with lime scale. In comparison to the price of repair bills and their associated headaches, the cost of installing a water softener is a modest investment — especially when you consider that a well-maintained softener can last 10 to 15 years.
If you’re interested in using a water softener to help keep plumbing lines healthy but want to avoid some of the downsides of these units, there are a couple things you can do. For instance, to avoid ingesting extra sodium, you could set up an additional water filter, such as a reverse osmosis system, at the faucet where you get your drinking water. Also, you can “regenerate” or flush out your softening unit more frequently to prevent high concentrations of pollutants entering the environment at one time.
Sometimes water softeners aren’t enough. If you’re seeing brown or yellow stains on your clothes, dishes, sinks, fixtures, or tubs then you might be facing another issue: too much iron in the water. If you suspect having an iron problem, call a plumber to come take a sample and test your water. The plumber can also help you locate the source of the excess iron and offer possible solutions, which will vary depending on whether you use municipal or well water. In minor cases, adding an iron filter to a softener can solve the problem.
To find out more about water softeners or to have your water tested, Minneapolis-area residents can contact Dusty’s Drain Cleaning for assistance.