Checking Water softeners could save money… and our rivers!
Water softeners are an essential piece of equipment in many Scott County households. In areas with hard water—or, water that contains minerals like calcium and magnesium—water softeners work to decrease those minerals. This “hard water” comes from the groundwater in Scott County, where most rural homeowners receive their utility and drinking water. If you’ve ever tasted water that had an iron-like, or metallic taste, the water was probably “hard”.
Hard water is not dangerous to human health, but softened water reduces the formation of hard water scale which encrusts water heaters, hot water pipes, shower heads, and water-using appliances. This scale can cause premature maintenance and failure. It also increases effectiveness of soaps, detergents, and cleaners, meaning you can use less…another plus for the environment.
The reasons why we soften water is clear, but when was the last time you checked the status of your softener? Like any appliance, softeners benefit from checkups to ensure they’re functioning efficiently. With softeners, that efficiency pertains to multiple factors, both economically and environmentally. Economically, checking your softener can save you materials and money; the environmental benefits are enormous.
Environmental benefits to checking water softeners
Water softeners primarily use salt to soften water. One of salt’s main chemical component is chloride, a chemical that attaches itself to the minerals found in hard water and removes them from your system. The salt then passes through your system, through kitchen sinks, shower drains, toilets, etc., and into a treatment facility. Most contaminants and chemicals are cleaned out through the wastewater treatment process. Chloride is different, however.
Chloride does not get taken out of water from regular wastewater treatment; it’s too heavily bonded to the water molecules. Therefore, when the water from a treatment facility is discharged to surface waters like lakes, rivers, and streams, the salt goes with it. While chloride in our surface waters doesn’t pose human health hazards, chloride is becoming an increasing pollutant to aquatic life.
Fish and other aquatic life in freshwater systems are extremely sensitive to changes in pH, like the changes that increased chloride can cause. When fish and other aquatic life are exposed to too much salt, it becomes harder for them to properly balance their body’s fluids and overtime community structure, diversity, and productivity is diminished. The same is true for aquatic plants. The worst part—salt is a permanent pollutant. Once it enters a water system, it does not sink into soil or get drawn up through the water cycle like many other chemicals and minerals. It stays in waterbodies and keeps accumulating year after year. One teaspoon of salt is enough to permanently pollute five gallons of water above the recommended water quality limit. It’s important to keep this pollutant under control however possible.
What can I do to help?
Change up your water softener. Consider upgrading your softener to a demand-initiated mechanism instead of a timer-based system. Timers are set to distribute salt at designated times, regardless of whether or not the system needs it. Newer softener systems with a demand-initiated mechanism distribute salt based on the amount of water used. This ensures you are not accidently over-softening your water and wasting salt. There are lots of different models, including those that are salt free, to choose from.
For tips and guides, visit the University of Minnesota’s webpage on water softening. https://www.wrc.umn.edu/watersoftening
Conduct regular maintenance on your system. Review your softener manual and check your settings. In possible, have your system optimized by a professional. Professionals can also help you make sure you’re only softening the water you want to. They can direct softening to the necessary appliances and skip over the water that’s going to your garden hose.
Conserve water. Practice water conservation to reduce salt use in water softeners. This will not only help decrease chloride pollution, but will save your household money, and help improve the quality of our local groundwater and surface waters.