People often tend to prefer ‘soft’ water to ‘hard’ water, but there are some water softener disadvantages to be aware of!
The most concerning disadvantage of water softeners is the potential health risk that comes with the sodium levels in the water. It is also expensive and comes with significant maintenance costs that may not be affordable for everyone.
Water softening is not a necessity but many people do choose to soften their water for a number of reasons. While water softening has advantages, it also has disadvantages that we should be aware of when deciding if we want hard or soft water.
Experts we consulted in our research provided us with information on both aspects, and we shall go over these in this article.
What is ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Water?
Water supply is labeled as hard or soft depending on the presence of two elements: calcium and magnesium. Some water will naturally have calcium and magnesium present.
Soft water is where these two elements have been removed from it. The softness and hardness of the water can vary depending on how much of these two elements exist in the water as well. Not all water is ‘completely hard’ or ‘completely soft’, and you may have water supplies with varying levels of hardness.
Most water from streams and lakes is naturally soft, in that it has fewer metal ions, whereas water from underground sources is often hard. Water softeners are used to soften the water by removing the calcium, magnesium and other metal ions from the water.
What is a Water Softener?
As the name suggests, a water softener is used to soften water – that is, remove hardness. Many water softeners either remove the minerals from hard water or simply replace the minerals that make it hard with sodium ions.
There are a number of different types of water softeners. Let’s look at each of these.
The most common type of water softeners uses ion exchange to soften the water. It is also commonly used in domestic situations. In this process, hard water enters into a mineral tank that contains a bed of spherical resin beads.
These are made of polystyrene, which is a kind of plastic, and the beads have been charged using a sodium ion. Sodium is a metal, and metal ions always have a positive charge, so any element or compound it charges will have the opposite charge.
The resin beads, therefore, have a negative charge. Since magnesium and calcium are metals, their ions also have a positive charge, so when the water flows through the tank, these positively charged ions are attracted to the resin beads. The beads, in an attempt to balance the charge on them, will release the sodium ion which becomes dissolved in your water.
The resin beads, therefore, remove any hardness in the water by exchanging calcium and magnesium ions with sodium ones and soften your water before it enters your home.
After some time, the beads within the tank might become oversaturated with mineral content and thus fail to remove the calcium and magnesium in the water. From here, we make use of the control valve within the tank which initiates a ‘regeneration cycle’.
This is what makes water softening units so efficient because the control valve is preprogrammed with the maximum capacity based on the size of your home, how many people there are in it and how hard the water is.
Brine tanks are also used to help with regeneration. These are filled with salt that contains sodium or potassium, and this helps with restoring the positive charge on the beads.
This tank would normally sit adjacent to the main one, and when the capacity of the resin starts to diminish, the brine solution will be flushed through the resin in the mineral tank and restore the resin’s softening capacity.
If the brine tank runs out of salt though, the water will not be softened, and you’ll have to manually refill it with salt pellets.
This is a device that uses a mechanical filter to remove calcium ions from your water. Though it is relatively effective at removing the calcium, it does have shortcomings in that it does not work in water softening if the water has magnesium in it. Since the mechanics are only purposed for calcium removal, the water will remain hard if it has magnesium in it.
Another kind of water softener is one that uses reverse osmosis. With this device, water passes through a semipermeable membrane that has the capacity to remove up to 98% of the impurities contained in the water. Though this process is very expensive and uses a lot of water, it is also very effective and removes a large number of chemical impurities – as well as minerals like magnesium, calcium and other metal ions. This makes the water soft.
Why Do We Use Water Softeners?
There are plenty of reasons people opt for softening their water.
Improving Mineral Content Balance
Water softeners replace the calcium and magnesium ions in the water with sodium ions. Sodium doesn’t just balance the other minerals present in the water, but the addition also results in bringing sodium levels up to the optimal quantity, which is actually recommended! Sodium helps in controlling the fluid balance in the body and improving nerve impulses, so water softening can actually help you get healthier!
By reducing the amount of calcium and magnesium, the concentration is brought down to optimum levels, at which these minerals can benefit your health instead of harming it.
While calcium and magnesium don’t necessarily have any adverse effects on your body when taken in moderation – in fact, they’re very important nutrients! – when the intake becomes more than the recommended amount, they can start becoming harmful.
Sometimes water has toxins in it, such as ferrous iron which is dissolved within the water. While iron on its own is good for you, too much of it can have some serious effects, such as disruption of cell function and even damaging organs.
Though the ferrous iron in your water supply is not going to go that far, it does result in ‘hard water stains’ which are dark spots on your sinks and showers because the iron starts darkening the water itself. This can also sometimes leave stains on your laundry and ruin your clothes.
Hard Water can Ruin Your Pipes and Appliances
Having a lot of minerals in your water can be a problem, especially when these minerals start depositing on the surfaces they come in contact with. This doesn’t just result in ugly looking stains but also starts to clog your pipes and damage your appliances. Having a hard water supply can often result in frequent calls to your repairman and ruin your pipelines, on top of all the stains you have to deal with.
Helps With Clean Laundry, Dishes and Skin
Research shows that hard water can actually cause trouble with cleaning too since it makes soaps and detergents less effective because of the capacity of the water to react with soap falls. This is why it becomes much more difficult for you to do your laundry properly.
Clothes can become brighter and cleaner when washing with soft water, and the fabric itself may also become softer. In fact, soft water contains sodium which also keeps the fabric from bleeding dyes. When washing with hard water, people often end up adding salt to their laundry to keep this from happening.
Soft water will also keep your dishes clean because the effectiveness of detergents will keep your dishes from developing a film of soap around it, which can result in a cloudy appearance.
This also extends to soaps and shampoos and makes it difficult for you to get rid of any buildup in your skin and hair. Hard water also makes your hair brittle and dry.
Disadvantages of Water Softeners
While there are plenty of advantages to water softeners that make people so susceptible to their use, there are also plenty of advantages to keep in mind when deciding whether you want to opt for water softeners or not.
Excess Sodium Intake
One glaring problem with water softeners is the use of sodium ions in the ion exchange process. Sodium is an important mineral that is required on a daily basis, but if the water softening system is not managed well, it can result in too much sodium, which can have adverse health effects.
The recommended daily intake of sodium is about 2,300 mg per day, but with sodium entering your water, this amount can go as high as 3,500 mg if you are not careful.
Excess sodium intake can result in high blood pressure, heart disease and cause calcium loss which results in weakened bones and teeth. Though you’re not likely to reach such extreme problems from water softeners, if your diet already consists of more salt than the recommended amount, the water you drink might end up giving you the final push by adding more.
High amounts of sodium in the water can also cause problems with septic systems which can be costly to fix or replace.
Expensive to Maintain and Install
A major consideration around water softeners is their cost. Installing a water softening system can cost as much as $2,000, and then they also require consistent maintenance to make sure the system stays running.
Since the softening system depends heavily on the ability of the resin beads within the tank to contain sodium ions that can replace the calcium and magnesium ions, you have to make sure the beads always have a decent softening capacity or your system will fail.
Depending on the source of the water, you may also have to make sure that your water gets filtered first to remove any undissolved impurities, as well as disinfect the water to get rid of bacteria before the water ever reaches the softening system.
If your water comes from a source with a lot of salt, the system will need a lot of regular maintenance and a consistent replenishment schedule to maintain the beads’ softening capacity. This can result in very high expenses.
Cleaning will also result in higher expenses since the additional backwashing and regeneration can place a heavy load on your drainage. This is because very large amounts (up to 50 gallons!) of water is needed for the regeneration process. Not only do you have to pay for the water that you ultimately don’t end up using, but this can also result in hydraulic overload and burden the system.
Alternatives Are Expensive
There are plenty of models that can do all the work for you except adding salt and while this seems to work, they are also very expensive. The special features of these models have individual costs, which can get pretty high, and while it is convenient for a while, there is no long-term guarantee that the special features will keep operating smoothly.
On the other hand, the alternative to having salt pellets in the tank is to use potassium chloride pellets (also a kind of salt). These can eliminate the salt problem, but this is also very expensive – in fact, it can be more expensive than salt.
Problems With Plant Growth
When it comes to plant growth, soft water can have negative effects. Since softened water does not contain magnesium or calcium, plants do not get all the minerals they need to grow properly. If you are growing plants at home, they may end up becoming deficient in these minerals which can hinder their growth.
On top of that, the sodium in soft water can result in the development of alkali soils which have a poor structure and can be difficult to grow plants in.
Messing with Dietary Requirements
Some people may require calcium and magnesium in their diet, which is present in hard water but not in soft water. By replacing these elements with sodium, not only can water softeners end up adding too much sodium to your diet, but they may also result in reduced calcium and magnesium.
Problems with Water Supply
While water softeners can do the work of softening the water, they do not necessarily make water safe for consumption. If the water has a lot of bacteria or chlorine, water softeners cannot make the water safe because they do not disinfect it. In fact, while water softeners can remove metal ions from the water, they will not be able to remove heavier metals like lead or mercury.
Most problems associated with taste or smell that come from organic sources do not get removed by softening the water. Sometimes, water softeners also get ruined by the existence of oil within the water, even if it’s a very small amount.
Should You Opt For Water Softening?
Most people will weigh the advantages and disadvantages of water softening before deciding whether you want to opt for it or not. Obviously, if you have any health concerns around your mineral intake, that would be your top priority. If there aren’t, however, you may want to find a balance between water softness and hardness.
Sometimes, unless your water is extremely hard, there may not be the need to soften all your water. For example, water that goes through your sinks or showers or gets used for laundry would ideally be softened. Other water that gets used in toilets or for plants can be bypassed. In some cases, you can choose to soften the hot water only.
What to Look For In Water Softeners
Practically all softeners will use pretty much the same process – which is ion exchange. This is why when selecting a softener, we do not consider how effective they are since the effectiveness is almost all the same.
Rather, when looking for the right softener for you, you look at the convenience features it offers, as well as how easy it is to maintain or how much it costs. It is also important to see whether it operates safely or not.
Different people will have different priorities around what factors to consider when making a purchase. For example, some might prefer low costs while others may opt for better convenience. In either case, the important thing to remember is that if someone tries to sell you water softeners based on ‘outsoftening’ other products, you should be wary of it.
About THE AUTHOR
James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.Read More About James Parker