Monday, January 3, 2011

Hard Water and Water Softeners

In many parts of the country (including mine) the water contains high levels of dissolved minerals and is commonly referred to as hard. Groundwater very slowly wears away at the rocks and minerals picking up small amounts of calcium and magnesium ions. Before considering treating your water test it to get a full picture of the nature of your water supply. No treatment is without consequences and an inappropriate treatment could create other problems. In addition, the characteristics of the groundwater may change over time. The WaterCheck with Pesticides is an informational test packages targeted to be an affordable option for consumers, thought it costs over $200. The WaterCheck with Pesticide covers 15 heavy metals, 5 inorganic chemicals, 5 physical factors, 4 trihalo methanes, 43 volatile organic chemicals (solvents), and 20 pesticides, herbicides and PCB’s. This relatively “affordable” test will serve as a broad screen of your drinking water and guidance as to what (if any) treatment you might want. After testing my water and considering all the options I determined the best option for me was not to treat.

Water containing approximately 125 milligrams of calcium, magnesium and iron per liter of water can begin to have a noticeable impact and is considered hard. Concentration of magnesium and calcium above 180 milligrams per liter is considered very hard. As the mineral level climbs, bath soap combines with the minerals and forms a pasty scum that accumulates on bathtubs and sinks. You either must use more soap and detergent in washing or use specially formulated hard water soap solutions. These minerals also combine with soap in the laundry, and the residue doesn’t rinse well from fabric, leaving clothes dull. Hard water spots appear on everything that is washed in and around the home from dishes and silverware to the floor tiles and car (though commercial car washes use recycled water and are more environmentally friendly). When heated calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate are removed from the water and form a scale (lime scale) in cookware, hot water pipes, and water heaters. As the scale builds up more energy is required to heat the water and hot water heater and appliances have work harder which will burn them out eventually. Thus, in hard water locations hot water heaters and other appliances have a shorter life.

There are a number of simple things you can do to reduce the effects of hard water in your home, without having to resort to treating your water, so called softening. My water has elevated levels of calcium and magnesium 170 milligrams per liter yet I do not have a whole house water softener. The simple things to do to address hard water are:
Choose a detergent based laundry product. Some laundry detergents/soaps do not produce as many suds in hard water, these are likely to be soap-based products and do not work as well in hard-water as detergent based products. These days, there are laundering powders and liquids available for a wide range of water hardness. Also, manufacturers often recommend using slightly more detergent to compensate for the hard water. Check the package. Occasionally running your washing machine with vinegar and hot water will clear out the buildup of lime scale.

Reduce the temperature of your hot water heater. When water temperature increases, more mineral deposits will appear in your dishwasher, hot water tank and pipes. By reducing the temperature, you will save money and will reduce the amount of mineral build-up in your pipes and tank. Use rinse agents to remove mineral deposits. There are low pH (acidic) products available to remove mineral deposits from pots and pans and dishwasher. Alternatively, you can use plain white vinegar by using the dishwasher dispenser or placing a cup of vinegar on the dishwasher rack. Boil some white vinegar in your kettle to remove hard water deposits. Drain and rinse your hot water heater annually.

In days past, at the first sign of hard water, domestic water supplies were commonly softened by using a commercial water softening system. Water softening is basically an ion exchange system. The water softening system consists of a mineral tank and a brine tank. The water supply pipe is connected to the mineral tank so that water coming into the house must pass through the tank before it can be used. The mineral tank holds small beads of resin that have a negative electrical charge. The calcium and magnesium ions are positively charged and are attracted to the negatively charged beads. This attraction makes the minerals stick to the beads as the hard water passes through the mineral tank. Sodium is often used to charge the resin beads. As the water is softened, the sodium ions are replaced and small quantities of sodium are released into the softened water, thus the taste.

Eventually the surfaces of the beads in the mineral tank become coated with the calcium and magnesium. To clean the beads, a strong salt solution held in the brine tank is flushed through the mineral tank. Sodium is typically use, but potassium can also be used. The salt ions also have a positive electrical charge, just not quite as strong as that of calcium and magnesium, but the high concentration of salt ions overpowers the calcium and magnesium ions and drives them off of the beads and into the solution. The excess sodium solution carrying the calcium and magnesium is flushed to the septic system. Some sodium ions remain in the tank attached to the surfaces of the beads and the resin is now regenerated and ready to continue softening the water.

The amount of sodium in water conditioning systems is a real problem for humans and the environment. All of the salt is released into the septic system and ultimately the leach field and groundwater. In addition softened water should not be used to water house plants, the salt build up will eventually kill them and they will not thrive. Softened water should also not be used in steam irons or evaporators like evaporative coolers. In addition, while some studies have shown that sodium does not interfere with bacterial action in ATU tanks in alternative septic systems, David Pask, Senior Engineering Scientist of the National Small Flows Clearinghouse has seen septic distribution pipes plugged with a “noxious fibrous mass” that was grease and cellulose from toilet paper that only occurred in homes with water softening systems. He felt the brine in the conventional septic tank had interfered with the digestion of the cellulose fibers and might be carried over into the septic systems drain field. Field practitioners reported to the Small Flows Clearinghouse negative impact from water softening regeneration brines.

Personally, I do not care to add all that sodium to my diet while removing calcium carbonate and magnesium (something that is also sold in pill form for stronger bones). If you must soften your water there is another option. Potassium chloride can be used instead of sodium chloride. Potassium chloride works exactly the same way that sodium chloride does in the softening process and the potassium chloride reduces the amount of sodium in drinking water, the potassium in the treated water is a necessary mineral and it eliminates the excess sodium in the septic system, drain field and released into the environment. Potassium chloride costs much more than sodium chloride. A forty pound bag of pellets costs $36 for Potassium chloride and under $8 for sodium chloride. One final note, though magnetic water softening is sold, according to research done at Perdue University in the 1990’s this method of water conditioning was not effective.

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