How Do You Know If You Have Hard Water in Your Area and What Can You Do About it? Water Softeners vs Water Conditioners— BYHYU 165
If your area has hard water, you’ll usually notice. There will probably be whitish, yellowish, or grayish deposits on shower heads and faucets, and around drains, and sometimes even in toilet bowls. These deposits are called limescale, scale or scaling and are usually deposits of calcium and/or magnesium. This scaling is a tell tale sign of hard water.
It’s said that about 85% of all households in the US have some degree of hard water. Some of the hardest water in the country is found in the midwest. Take look at the map below showing the level of water hardness in different areas of the country.
In this week’s mini lesson, we’ll discuss what hard water is, what problems it can cause and what solutions we can add to our new homes to decrease those hard water problems.
Let’s get into it:
So what exactly is hard water?
Hard water is simply water with high mineral content, usually high calcium and/or magnesium.
The Water Quality Association measures water hardness in grains per gallon (GPG). Water with 7 Grains Per Gallon or more is considered hard water. You’ll see definite signs of hard water at 7 grains per gallon. Soft water is water that is free of minerals to below 1 Grain Per Gallon.
In addition to scaling around plumbing fixtures, hard water can cause:
-Soap scum on shower walls
-Dry skin and dry, dull hair
-Dried water spots on dishes
-Less lathering and fewer suds with soaps and detergents
-Rough, stiff and sometimes dull or dingy-looking laundry
All these signs are a result of calcium and magnesium being deposited on various surfaces and binding to soap molecules, which decreases the soap’s effectiveness.
Over time, hard water scale will also clog your pipes, eventually decreasing water flow and water pressure.
Finally, hard water causes deposits in appliances that use water, decreasing their effectiveness, energy efficiency and decreasing the life of these appliances—appliances like coffee makers, ice makers, dishwashers, washing machines and water heaters. Eliminating hard water scaling can often double the life expectancy of those appliances.
Ok, we know hard water can adversely effect our pipes and appliances, our skin and hair, and our laundry, so you might be wondering if drinking hard water is harmful. Well, the answer is no. Hard water poses no health hazard. In fact, it may actually be beneficial in helping to fulfill your dietary needs of essential minerals.
Now, although hard water is not harmful to our bodies (except for the annoyance of causing dry skin and hair), as I said, hard water can cause frustrations and inefficiencies in our homes. So let’s talk about the 2 main solutions that will improve the negative effects of hard water: a water softener and a water conditioner.
How do water softeners and water conditioners work?
A water softener actually removes the calcium and magnesium from the hard water, changing hard water into soft water.
A water conditioner does not remove the calcium and magnesium. Instead the water conditioner neutralizes, or conditions these minerals so they don’t stick to surfaces. But the calcium and magnesium remain in the water.
For clarification we’ll be talking about water softeners and water conditioners, not water filtration. Water filtration generally refers to any methods or systems that remove contaminants from water to make it safer for drinking. Some of those contaminants include:
Sometimes companies will combine water softening or conditioning with water filtration. But we’ll wait and talk about water filtration in next week’s mini lesson.
Right now, let’s discuss water softeners and water conditioners more in depth, starting with water softeners.
Remember, water softeners soften the water by removing the hard minerals calcium and magnesium. Softeners replace those hard minerals with a softer mineral – usually sodium or potassium.
Softeners give your water a more of the “slick” feeling so when you are in the shower, the water feels slipperier— some people like that slick feeling, some people don’t. And with softened water, you will notice the soap creating more bubbles.
The typical water softener is a mechanical appliance that's plumbed into your home's water supply system.
Quality water softeners generally cost from just under $1,000 to $3,000 installed, depending on the size and features. They typically last about 15 years, but the harder your water, the sooner you’ll have to replace your water softener.
Water softeners are sized based on the number of people in the home and the number of bathrooms. Here’s how several companies recommend sizing: For households with
Water softener system work in one of 3 ways:
1. By Timer
2. By Meter
Most water softeners operate on a timer system. This type of system is set up so the softener will produce a certain amount of soft water at the same time every day. The nice thing about this is that the system always runs at the same time and that time can be changed by the homeowner as needed.
A water softener that's set up for meter operation is activated based on the amount of water used in the home. The meter setup is ideal for those who want to ensure that their systems are as efficient as possible. Because the softener will only produce as much soft water as needed, there's no need to worry about wasted energy or wasted water.
Finally, there are manual regenerated water softeners. These are the least expensive softeners, but they require you to manually indicate when the softener should run. There is no automated timer or meter on the system itself. You’ll have to tell the system each time you want it to run. That’s as old fashioned and inefficient as having a furnace or air-conditioner with no thermostat. My advice is pay extra for the meter or timer systems.
Unlike water conditioners, which we’ll talk about in a second, water softeners require regular maintenance. The most important routine maintenance is adding salt to the system, as needed. This is typically done on a quarterly basis by the homeowner, or by a technician qualified to work on your equipment.
Once a year, you should also consider replacing or clearing out the water softener brine tank. Salt can build up there and if you don’t clean it out, your water softener will eventually stop working and may require costly repairs.
For about $250 a year, many companies offer a maintenance program which includes a technician inspecting the unit and adding salt as needed.
To recap: water softeners actually remove calcium and magnesium to eliminate all of the hard water problems we discussed— including scaling in plumbing and appliances, dry skin and hair, stiff, dingy laundry and poor lathering of soap. Softeners work as manual systems (but you should avoid manual systems), or by timer or meter. The meter system is the most efficient softer system.
Moving on to…
In the past, people often chose water softeners to solve their hard water problems. These days, more and more people are choosing water conditioners. Water conditioners are sometimes incorrectly called salt-free water softeners. But remember, conditioners don’t soften water or remove hard minerals. They don’t eliminate calcium and magnesium from the water.
Instead they change the calcium and magnesium into crystals. Crystals that can’t adhere to surfaces, so you will see a reduction in scale build-up in pipes, and you'll have decreases in limescale build up around faucets, shower heads and drains.
Since minerals are still present when a water conditioner is used, you’ll unfortunately still have some issues with soap being less effective and lathering less, and you may still have some problems with drier skin and hair.
But conditioners are still very popular systems because water conditioners decrease the most harmful hard water problems (problems with scaling in plumbing and appliances), and conditioners are easier to live with when compared to water softeners.
Here are some of the advantages of water conditioners:
1. They’re virtually maintenance free. The main benefit you receive from a salt free water conditioner is the maintenance free aspect—no salt or chemicals are required.
2. Water conditioners typically cost less to install and maintain, as compared to water softeners. Softeners need electricity to work, conditions usually don’t.
3. Water conditioners do not waste water like water softeners can. Softeners use water to wash away accumulated minerals. Conditioners don’t accumulate minerals.
4. Conditioners won’t cause problems for those on a salt restricted diet. Unlike softeners, conditioners put no extra salt in the water. So if you are sensitive to salt, you should choose a water conditioner or look for a softener that uses potassium instead of sodium.
5. Conditioned water does not have the slightly salty taste that softened water can.
6. Unlike water softeners, conditioners don’t require a water softener loop. A water softener loops keeps indoor and outdoor water separate. Once a softener is attached to the loop, all water coming into the home, including to the water heater, will be softened water. The loop ensures that all appliances, faucets and water lines are protected from hardness buildup. It avoids sending treated water to outside faucets where it’s not necessary, since plants, grass, trees, and any of your other outdoor watering do not need softened water. A water conditioner doesn’t require a loop.
As an aside, many new homes built today are already pre-plumbed with a loop. But if you’re building a home and want either a softener or a conditioner, make sure to let your plumber know.
Both water softeners and water conditions will:
1. Prolongs the life of appliances.
2. Allow for glasses, silverware and dishes to look cleaner, without the unsightly etching, film and water spots.
3. Cause less soap scum and limescale build up for easier cleaning
So do you need to test for water hardness in your area? Not necessarily. If you see scaling, you know you have some degree of hard water. But if you want true measurements, there are several things you can do…
1. You can call your local water company to see if they have a report on water hardness in your region or if they can send someone out to do testing. If you have well water, it may have different properties than the city or county water.
2. You can call a water softener or water conditioner company. They will often test your water for free or for a small fee.
3. You can test the water hardness yourself with kits that you an buy from home improvement stores or Amazon. The ones I saw on amazon were $20 or less.
If you decide you want to invest in a water softener or conditioner, get 2-3 quotes. And be sure the quotes are based on exactly the same type of system, including the type of controls, the warranty on both the control valve and the system tank.
It’s usually better to work with an established company that’s been around for many years and that has good reviews. That way, you’re more likely to get a quality product backed by a company will likely remain in business for the foreseeable future.
Finally, look for certification from the NSF or WQA. NSF stands for National Sanitation Foundation and it’s an independent testing organization that tests and certifies water-treatment products. WQA stands for Water Quality Association. It also certifies equipment. Look for the WQA Gold Seal.
Although neither of these certifications guarantees performance, they show that the equipment has successfully passed testing for industry standards and that the manufacturer’s claims have been validated.
A water softener or water conditioner is definitely a new home extra that homeowners on tighter budgets can do without. But if you can afford it, either during construction, or sometime in the future, and you have hard water in your area, you should consider one of these solutions. They are practical additions to your plumbing system that can save you money and decrease your hard water frustrations over time.
Before we go, let’s do a couple of quiz questions to review and test some of what we’ve learned.
1. Which is better for removing calcium and magnesium from hard water and allowing for more soap suds, making detergents and soaps more effective? Is it a water softener or a water conditioner?
The answer is a water softener. A water softener actually removes hard minerals and replaces them with a softer mineral—either sodium or potassium.
A water conditioner doesn’t remove calcium and magnesium, but changes them so they can no longer adhere to surfaces.
Water conditioners don’t alleviate dry skin as well, or make soap and detergents work more effectively, but a salt-free water conditioner does an excellent job at preventing scale in plumbing and appliances. Plus a water conditioner is more energy efficient, wastes much less water and is virtually maintenance free as compared to a softener.
2. True or false: Drinking hard water is safe.
That’s true. Hard water poses no health hazard. In fact, it may actually be beneficial in helping to fulfill your dietary needs of essential minerals. Surprisingly, drinking softened water, with that added salt, might be problematic for people who are on a salt restricted diet. Plus, softened water tastes slightly salty, which some people dislike.
Don’t forget that next week we’ll have a mini lesson on water filtration systems which filter out contaminants and make your water safer for drinking.
That’s all I have for this week. I hope you learned as much as I did. And I hope you come back next week. Thanks for stopping by.
Please remember that the purpose of this podcast is simply to educate and inform. It is not a substitute for professional advice. The information that you hear is based the only on the opinions, research and experiences of my guests and myself. That information might be incomplete and it’s subject to change, so it may not apply to your project. In addition, building codes and requirements vary from region to region, so always consult a professional about specific recommendations for your home.