If you've noticed a white film on your dishes (even after using a rinse agent) or your skin feels rough or taut after a shower, you may have hard water. Created when an aquifer flows through mineral-rich rocks before reaching your pipes, hard water can prematurely age your appliances, your hot water heater—and even your face. Of the many options available for softening your water, which should you choose? Read on to learn about several of the most popular types of water softening systems, from salty to environmentally-friendly.
This is the most common category of water softening systems, and ion-exchange softeners are fairly inexpensive to install and operate. These softeners seize the extra calcium and magnesium ions from the hard water and replace them with sodium ions, which they generate from rock salt. This process allows the water molecules to remain chemically stable while eliminating the majority of mineral atoms from your drinking, cooking, and bathing water. Special beads called "ion exchange resins" facilitate this transaction.
If you have one of these softeners, you'll need to occasionally purchase a bag of rock salt to refill it. The rate at which your softener will process rock salt depends on the size and efficiency of the softener as well as the number of people in your household.
These softeners may not be ideal for those whose doctors have placed them on a low-sodium diet—although the amount of sodium present in softened water is negligible, it may still present a concern for those whose sodium intake must be severely restricted. However, there are certain ion-exchange softeners that use alternative substances that do not add any sodium to the filtered water.
Reverse osmosis softeners
This type of softener operates by forcing water through a permeable membrane to filter out the larger mineral atoms, rather than replacing them with sodium atoms. The hard water atoms remain on the membrane until the filter flushes itself and they are washed into your sewer system. These systems are comparable in cost to ion-exchange systems, and this cost varies widely depending upon the system's capacity.
Like ion exchange softeners, reverse osmosis softeners require some periodic maintenance—the permeable membrane that filters these atoms will need to be replaced. Although the frequency of replacement again depends on the number of people living in the household, a seldom-used membrane may decay on its own.
If your water needs are low and you live in a rainy area, you may be able to avoid the purchase of a commercial water softener by using a rainwater collection method. Because rainwater is naturally mineral-free, no additional processing or maintenance is needed. However, you will need to initially invest in a rainwater collection container, as well as additional piping to route this water through your home's plumbing.
In most cases, those who rely on rainwater collection for soft water still have a backup water source. You may wish to choose another filtration system (such as distillation) for your backup source, or simply use this harder water occasionally.
This method relies on the same science that ensures rainwater is free of calcium and other mineral atoms. When water turns to vapor, the mineral atoms are left behind. Therefore, distilling water—or heating it to the boiling point and collecting the vapor that is formed from steam—creates a miniature "rain cycle" resulting in purified, softened water.
Distilling large quantities of water can be expensive and time-consuming, so this is often not an ideal primary softening method. However, it can be an ideal back-up method for rainwater collection, as it does not require the purchase of salt or filtering membranes. For more information, go to sites that specialize in water softening.