Do You Really Need “Soft” Water?
Water is a necessity. Soft water may not be. Depending on where you live and how you use water, the cost of processing your water may not be worth it.
What is soft water? Depending on who you ask, it may mean different things. Simply put, “soft” water has been processed so that excess levels of dissolved minerals are removed. Specifically, it is “hard” water (containing calcium, magnesium, bicarbonates, and sulfates) that has been put through a water softener. According to Wikipedia, “A water softener, like a fabric softener, works on the principle of cation or ion exchange in which ions of the hardness minerals are exchanged for sodium or potassium ions, effectively reducing the concentration of hardness minerals to tolerable levels and thus making the water softer and gives it a smoother feeling.”
Why is soft water desirable? The number one argument I hear time and again for soft water is the ability to get a rich soap lather. Soft water proponents will tell you how much money you’ll save by using less soap, detergents, and how nice and smooth your skin and hair will feel. For those of you who use the same amount regardless, you might find that it is preferable to the soap scummy shower mess and the build-up that can cause havoc to your pipes and the elements of your hot water heaters.
Really hard water (like the kind I grew up with) can cause other ill effects. As a young girl living on the Missouri River bottom, I remember running a bath and scrambling to wash up before the water turned a horrible blood orange color. This usually happened within minutes, and my hair was a freakish rust color all throughout my elementary years. It was apparent by just looking at me that we had well water and no softener system. Forget the perks of having fluffy towels, I just wanted my hair back.
Today it is rare to run into families with old wells and that level of hardness in their water. Which brings me to wonder if it really is the necessity that everyone claims it is. Like anything else, there are costs associated with having soft water, and for some folks, it may not be worth it.
Why might you NOT want soft water? With the exception of a few higher tech systems, most water softeners require electricity and an avid supply of softener salt. Depending on the amount of soft water you use, your salt needs may differ. I have known families to go through more than a bag a month, and others go several months on the same bag.
In addition to the “hard” costs of having soft water (no pun intended), there are also some undesirable side-effects that may occur, including corrosion of water pipes. There has also been undocumented “speculation” as to the health risks associated with drinking water treated with high levels of iodized salt. (The easy solution is to make sure softened water is not being supplied to drinking faucets or fridge water dispensers.)
You may also not be a fan of the “slippery” feeling that soft water can leave on your skin. The only solution to this is to simply use far less soap, or switch to a synthetic option. (See this link for the chemical explanation.)
How do you decide if you need soft water? Ask an expert. (By expert, however, I don’t mean the guy trolling your neighborhood hoping to sell you a purification system or a softener on high-interest payment plans. He will always tell you that your water is too hard to live with.) By having your water independently tested, you can get a reading into how “hard” your water really is. According to the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, “Hardness levels between 80 and 100 mg/L (as CaCO3) are generally considered to provide an acceptable balance between corrosion and incrustation. Waters with hardness levels in excess of 200 mg/L are considered poor but have been tolerated by consumers. Waters with hardness in excess of 500 mg/L are unacceptable for most domestic purposes.”
If you do decide that you need soft water, there are a few things you can do to cut down on the costs:
- Run soft water only to areas used for washing and cleaning – NOT for cooking and drinking. Not only will this reduce the workload on your softener, it will keep you from ingesting large amounts of softened water (which hasn’t been determined safe or unsafe at this point.)
- Save water and salt by running the minimum number of regenerations necessary to maintain water softness.
- Keep your softener maintained and cleaned regularly. If purchasing a newer model, look for one approved with an Energy-Star rating, or consider a non-electric system.
- Buy your softener outright from a retail outlet, and with cash, if possible. Avoid drawn-out payment plans from water suppliers who make most of their money on the interest from your loan.
Going soft is a decision that every household will need to make on their own. For those in certain areas where hard water is not a problem, it probably doesn’t make sense to pay to have a water softener. In other places, it is a necessity that is impossible to live without. Whichever way you decide to go, just try to be smart and use your resources wisely. Water is precious, regardless of its chemical makeup.