Hard water is a problem faced by homeowners throughout the US resulting from the presence of small amounts of dissolved particles such as calcium and magnesium that are picked up as water travels through the environment. A very basic understanding of the best water softener systems is an important step in appreciating the adverse effects that hard water can exert in the home and is critical when shopping for a product that is able to eliminate the negative effects that cause distress and frustration.
Negative Effects of Hard Water
Calcium and magnesium are the two most common ions that cause water hardness in the home, but a number of additional ions such as iron and lead may also be present. There are several negative effects that may be noticed by homeowners including trouble with laundry, dishwashing, bathing, grooming, decreased water flow, and difficulty cleaning bathroom walls and fixtures. Clothing that is washed in hard water may seem scratchy and can become worn at a faster rate than would occur otherwise. Homeowners may also notice graying of white fabrics and color loss. In addition to negatively affecting clothes, hard water can interfere with the effectiveness of soaps and conditioners that are used for bathing. This can result in a sticky feeling on the skin as well as flat hair that lacks body and is difficult to work with. In addition, the presence of soap deposits on the skin can result in failure to remove dirt and bacteria which can cause prolonged irritation.
Choosing a Softening System
Selecting a product from among the best water softener systems available on the market today is an excellent strategy for reducing or eliminating the effects of hard water in the home and will often help prevent any additional damage to major appliances such as hot water heaters, dishwashers, and washing machines. Over time, the presence of soft water should also remove scale buildup that has accumulated in the pipes so that proper water flow and pressure can be restored. The severity of problems encountered in the home is highly variable between different regions of the United States and will be dependent on levels of hardness causing ions in the soil. Most municipal water suppliers and softener installation companies can advise homeowners on ion concentration in their area.
Although many individuals have expressed concern over the potential health effects of hard water, the National Research Council (National Academy of Sciences) has found that the presence of calcium and magnesium may benefit human health by contributing ions that are necessary in the diet. Other studies are being conducted to evaluate the positive correlation that has been found between hard water and the lower rates of cardiovascular disease.
Worldwide studies are being carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO) in order to attempt to evaluate the effects of hard water on the cardiovascular mortality rates. In addition, the sodium and potassium that is added to water as a result of the ion exchange process that occurs in most of the best water softener systems may be contraindicated in cases where the homeowner suffers from certain medical conditions. Those concerned about the potential health effects of the softening process are encouraged to talk with their physician before installing a product in their home.
Testing the Water
Prior to shopping for a softening system, it is a good idea for homeowners to test their water to determine the level of hardness. Homes that receive their water from a municipal supplier can contact the supplier to find out about the hardness levels while those who have a private water source need to either perform their own testing using a retail kit or hire a laboratory or installer to evaluate their water. Laboratories and installers can provide more analysis than can be accomplished using a retail kit.
Water hardness will be reported as grains per gallon (gpg), milligrams per liter (mg/l), or parts per million (ppm). 1 gpg is equivalent to 17.1 mg/l or ppm. Hardness is classified by the US Department of the Interior along with the Water Quality Association (WQA) as any level above 17.1 mg/l or 1 gpg. State recommendations for when softening should be used vary, but are somewhere around 100 – 150 ppm. The American Waterworks Associations has stated that 80 ppm is the ideal level for softening, but homeowners should contact a department of public health in their state to find out what the recommendations are in the region. In general, every 100 ppm of hardness that is removed will result in 46 ppm sodium and 76 ppm potassium ions being added to the water when using one of the ion exchange systems that is found in most lists of the best water softener systems.
Packaged Water Softeners
There are a number of softening products being promoted today that each have their own positives and negatives that must be considered before making a purchasing decision. In general, there are chemical softeners and mechanical units that can be used to reduce or eliminate the negative effects of the hardness causing ions in the home. Chemicals such as washing soda and borax are sometimes used to bind with calcium and magnesium ions so that they cannot precipitate, but this strategy tends to make water cloudy and can be irritating to the skin. Other chemicals are available for use, but they tend to be far less effective and might require a significant amount of treatment before any change can be observed. In most cases, professional installers will recommend a mechanical softening system due to overall effectiveness and the relatively low amount of upkeep required.
Mechanical Water Softening Units
Ion-exchange resin devices are typically considered to be the best water softener systems because they completely remove calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+) by replacing them with sodium (Na+) and potassium ions (K+). These types of systems are often constructed of two tanks that are connected to the plumbing system so that hard water can pass through a resin bed containing sulfonated polystyrene beads before traveling into the main plumbing network. As the water passes through the resin tank, the calcium and magnesium ions attach to the beads while sodium and potassium ions are released into the water. Once the resin bed has become saturated with hardness causing ions, it is washed with a highly concentrated salt solution that removes the ions and transports them into the waste water network. This cycle is known as regeneration and it allows the resin bed to remove calcium and magnesium on a continuous basis. The salt that is used for regeneration is stored in the second tank and is replenished every couple of months.
The downsides of a salt-based system include higher costs, the addition of sodium ions to the treated water, the removal of ions that could be beneficial to human health, and environmental impacts that may occur as a result of high salt concentrations in waste water. Some studies have shown that salt-based softeners may have a negative impact on the environment. Individuals who are concerned about any of the negative aspects of this type of system are encouraged to consider salt free alternatives. Although these systems are rarely included in lists of the best water softener systems, they may be sufficient in cases where the level of hardness is low. In general, the most common types of salt-free systems are those that alter the structure of hardness causing ions through the use of magnetism, electrolysis, or crystallization. While these products have been around for years, they are typically considered fraudulent and are rarely effective at accomplishing the kind of results that the homeowner is looking for.
Most homeowners will find that ion exchange products that utilize salt to completely remove ions from the water are the best water softener systems available and will provide the kind of results that individuals are looking for. While a salt-based system can be a significant financial investment, it tends to pay for itself over the course of several years by reducing detergent and soap consumption along with protecting the major appliances and plumbing from the damaging effects of scale buildup.
In addition, these products will alleviate the frustration that comes from having to deal with the aesthetic problems associated with hard water. Professional installers are an excellent resource that can be used to learn more about water hardness in the area and the types of products that that comply with local building standards. Some of the largest companies in the US that manufacture these types of systems include Fleck, Culligan, Aquasana, Morton, Waterboss, Kinetico, NG Sales, and Braswell.