Water Softeners: The Good, the Bad and the Salty
by Peter Speckner, Communications Coordinator
In our last post, we talked about all the other items in your home that use water including water softeners.
Today, we’re going to explore the world of water softeners and salt-free alternatives, looking at the different types, how they work, and their effect on your wallet and the environment. In our next post, we’ll look at whether your softener is wasting water.
So, let’s jump in!
Most common method for softening water
Salt-Based Ion Exchange
This type is found in the majority of Waterloo Region homes.
- Resin beads exchange hardness ions (calcium and magnesium) with salt ions (sodium-chloride).
- This takes place in the resin tank, with the salt in the brine tank used to recharge the beads.
- This recharge is called regeneration and can use 300L-600L each time it happens.
- When it’s completed, excess minerals and salt are rinsed out the wastewater drain – the salt is not good for the environment though.
- Soft water benefits include improved bathing experience; less soap needed, no scale in pipes and appliances, and improved texture of the water.
There is a salt substitute available called potassium-chloride. It works the same way, but does not leave any salt in the water after softening. Better for the environment, but is it is also more expensive.
Here’s a visual aid explaining how this type of softener works.
A more efficient salt-based system that has two tanks, where one is in use while the other is recharging.
- They provide continuous soft water with no interruptions, but still use lots of water during regenerations.
- More efficient due to less water being used per regeneration.
They also use smaller tanks, but need more room for installation due to the two tanks.
To achieve the most savings and best efficiency
The following steps will ensure you get the best results:
- Calculate the right size of water softener for your household’s needs.
- Choose a softener that is certified to the NSF 44 performance standard.
- Set your water softener to its most efficient setting.
- Use the right salt.
For more information on getting the best and most-efficient salt-based softener for your needs, the Region of Waterloo created this helpful site.
Salt-free alternatives for controlling scale
Template Assisted Crystallization (Physical Water Conditioning)
Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) is a newer technology that works by changing the hardness ions (calcium and magnesium) into a crystalline form that will not scale and is rinsed away with the normal flow of water. It is the only alternative that has been scientifically proven to control scale.
- Requires no salt, chemicals or energy to operate, so less work is required to maintain it.
- There is no backwashing or brine discharge so no drains are needed, also making it much better for the environment.
- The hardness-removing media needs to be replaced only every 5-6 years, making this system cost neutral when compared to salt-based.
- They can have issues preventing scale where water settles, like the inside a water heater.
- TAC softeners will remove existing scale from pipes and appliances, and prevent new scale from appearing.
- This process provides the same benefits as softened water.
TAC systems cost as much as the most efficient salt-based systems, and are well worth considering because they offer ongoing savings with less waste. Check out this visual aid to see how it works and compares to other methods. Also, the Region of Waterloo conducted a multi-year study (TES-WAS-15-29, Water Softener Alternatives Testing) on the effectiveness of salt-free alternatives, including TAC systems.
Magnetic or Electronic (Descaler)
This system clips onto the incoming water pipe and creates a magnetic field that changes the properties of the hard minerals so they are repelled by the pipes and each other.
- Their effectiveness is unproven although some people swear by them.
- Buyer beware!
Here is a review citing both the positives and the negatives of this product.
Next time, we’ll concentrate on salt-based systems, looking at how regenerations are initiated, and how to limit wasted water.
- The Region of Waterloo conducted a study (PDF) in 2011 comparing various water softeners and their efficiency. It is detailed but worth reading when considering your water softening options.
- Learn how the REEP House for Sustainable Living softens its water.