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Most people bypass the softener for drinking water, and for outdoor water taps. See your owner’s manual for instructions on bypassing the softener, or talk to your supplier about setting the bypass up on installation. A professional plumbing service is strongly recommended for this work.
Ion exchange softening has not been found to have any effect on the corrosiveness of water. Water pH, dissolved oxygen content, ammonia, chloride and flow velocity cause corrosion. These factors are unaffected by the softening process.
The purchase of salt for regeneration will be the main operating cost. Salt is sold in large bags and can be obtained from a water equipment dealer, a supermarket or local hardware store. The other cost will be the water and energy required for operation and regeneration. You can read more about salt and the types available on the “How Softeners Work” page.
Traditional water softeners work by ion exchange—they exchange hardness ions (calcium and magnesium) with sodium (salt) ions. When hard water flows through the tank it comes in contact with small resin beads that are covered with sodium ions. As the water flows by the sodium ions they are exchanged with hardness ions. Eventually the beads contain nothing but calcium and magnesium and no sodium.
For a detailed explanation of how water softeners work, and some of the other technologies available, check out the “How Softeners Work” page.
Softened water is not recommended for lawn watering and other outdoor uses. The use of soft water for outdoor activities will lead to more frequent system regeneration and higher costs. Additionally, the high sodium content of softened water can affect the growth of grass, trees and plants.
Most health experts say you should not drink water from a water softener. Softened water will have higher levels of sodium that may meet health regulations, but are still above recommended levels for human consumption—especially for people on low–sodium diets. As with any health concern, you should consult your physician about what is right for you.
Water softeners replace hard minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, with soft minerals, usually sodium. The fact that sodium chloride—a salt—is used to soften water raises concerns about potential health risks for people suffering from hypertension, kidney disease or congestive heart failure.
As the incidence of hypertension increases and the number of individuals on sodium–restricted diets rises, water softener manufacturing companies have begun to promote the use of potassium chloride as a safe alternative to sodium chloride. However, potential health risks are also a concern where potassium chloride (also a salt) is used to soften water. Water containing high levels of sodium or potassium should not be used for drinking, for making coffee, juice or infant formula, or for cooking.
If you are on a medically prescribed diet, or you simply don’t want this additional sodium or potassium in your diet, a separate cold water line and faucet can be installed which bypasses the water softener. This allows for drinking and cooking with unsoftened cold water. You can also choose to have your water softener connected only to the hot water supply.
Also note that a water softener cannot remove microbiological contaminants that cause illness and should only be used to treat drinking water that is microbiologically safe.
For more information, check out Wellington–Dufferin–Guelph Public Health’s “Sodium in drinking water” fact sheet or the Region of Waterloo Public Health’s article on sodium.
It all depends on the hardness of the water coming into the home. The harder the water, the more salt required to soften it. During the Waterloo study, softened water contained 300 parts per million (mg/l) of sodium. People on low sodium diets should consult with their physician before drinking softened water on a regular basis.
Water softeners are associated with increased water use and therefore somewhat higher water bills. The average water softener will need 55 to 400 litres of fresh water each time it regenerates the resin bed. These costs may be offset by reducing the wear and tear from hard water on fixtures and appliances. You can also minimize your increase in water use by choosing a water–efficient model. Check how often the softener backwashes and how much water is used during regeneration. Also ensure that the unit is set to meet your family’s size and needs.
This is a matter of personal choice. By reducing scale build–up, softeners will extend the life of appliances and improve their efficiency. Soft water also makes lathering easier and reduces spotting and films on bathroom fixtures and dishes. Soft water can also be better for people with skin conditions.
While most softeners need little care and will last for many years, problems can occur.
Things to watch for:
The price of water softeners varies according to the size, type and sophistication of the system. Automatic softeners are the most expensive, selling for around $600 and up to as much as $3500. Installation fees are extra, averaging about $250 and up per unit.
While there have been concerns over a water softener’s impact on septic systems—such as killing the bacteria in septic tanks with salt, overflowing tanks with too much backwash flow, and reducing the drainage field’s ability to absorb water—recent scientific studies remain inconclusive.
Salt has been found to have no harmful effects on bacteria and the soil of the drainage field. However, the volume of backwash flow can range from 55 to 400 litres per week, the equivalent of one to two full bathtubs. By recharging the softener just once a week, you can reduce the amount of backwash entering your septic system.
When it comes to discharge, the Water Quality Association (WQA) states that water softener regeneration discharge poses no problems to a septic tank or its related leach field. Studies have shown that discharge (waste) does not interfere with the system drain field soil percolation, and in many cases, can actually improve the percolation especially when fine textured soils are involved.
A water softener removes hardness, mostly calcium, magnesium, lime and iron. By removing these minerals you eliminate scale build–up in pipes, fixtures and appliances, saving energy and costs related to wear and tear.
Water softeners are installed where the water line enters the home. This should be done by a professional. A separate cold line will be required for drinking and cooking if you prefer to not consume softened water. For more information about drinking softened water, see the FAQs about safety and related health impacts.
Water softeners create very little noise. The only sound you will hear is the movement of water through the unit during the backwash.
Water softener installations normally require the services of a trained professional. Once installed however, the homeowner is responsible for adding salt when needed, and for ensuring that the water is being softened properly and that the hardness level is set appropriately.
Health Canada recommends that all products that come into contact with drinking water be certified to the appropriate health–based performance standard developed by NSF International. In the case of water softeners, it is recommended that they be certified as meeting standard NSF/ANSI 44. Components employed in conjunction with the water softener (e.g. filters) should also be certified to meet other applicable NSF/ANSI Standards. These standards have been designed to safeguard drinking water by helping to ensure material safety and performance of water softeners that come into contact with drinking water.
In Canada, CSA International, NSF International, QAI, IAPMO and Underwriters Laboratories have been accredited by the Standards Council of Canada to certify drinking water materials as meeting the above–mentioned standards. These standards are widely accepted in North America as they ensure the removal of specific contaminants, as well as the performance and mechanical integrity of the materials that come into contact with drinking water. Ask your dealer or retailer for a list of the substances that the unit is certified to remove.
Before purchasing your water softener, you should research and review local suppliers and retailers. Asking for recommendations from friends, family, colleagues and neighbours is a great place to start. You can look for online reviews, and you can call suppliers and retailers to ask questions and get a sense for their service and helpfulness. Be sure to ask if they carry water softeners certified to the NSF 44 performance standard, what types of softeners they have available (read our FAQ about the types of softeners available), installation costs including a bypass line, and about both unit and service warranties.
Yes, some alternatives to salt–based (ion exchange) water softeners are available. Rather than removing hardness from the water, these types of units change the properties of particles in the water to prevent scale formation. Read more about alternative technologies on our “How Softeners Work” page.
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