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Soft water’s environmental benefits

Posted: August 13, 2010 4:44 p.m.
Updated: August 14, 2010 4:55 a.m.

When you think of soft water, the first thing that probably comes to mind is lustrous, easy-to-manage hair. Another benefit is washing clothes in soft water leaves them softer and saves a significant amount of detergent. Best of all, when cleaning, you don’t get that ugly bathtub ring.

By eliminating hard water minerals, you can see health and cosmetic benefits, as well as reduce the maintenance costs associated with scale buildup in home plumbing.

The water softening process is actually quite simple. Hard water is passed through a bed of negatively charged ion exchange resin beads which absorb and bind positively charged hardness ions. The beads initially contain sodium ions, which swap over with the hard calcium and magnesium ions. The “harder” the water, the more sodium ions are required to soften it. As the resin beads become loaded with hardness ions, they lose their effectiveness and must be regenerated - a process that is accomplished by passing a sodium chloride solution through them so that they return to their original state.  Modern water softeners have control devices to minimize the amount of waste water during regeneration.

Regeneration waste water has come under environmental criticism even though it has not been proven to be a problem under most conditions. In response to these concerns, the Water Quality Association contracted the prestigious Battelle Institute to look at whether ion exchange water softening is an eco-friendly technology able to provide a reduced carbon footprint in homes by significantly increasing the efficiency of home heating technologies.

Scientific testing focused on the impact of soft water on the life and energy use of appliances commonly used in U.S. homes, including all types of water heaters, washing machines and dishwashers as well as plumbing fixtures such as showerheads and faucets.

The results of the studies showed that with softened water, all water heaters maintained 100 percent efficiency over a simulated 15-year lifetime, but with hard water, the gas and electric heater efficiency dropped by 25 percent - an incredible loss in energy utilization. In the case of the new instant tankless water heaters, on hard water they completely failed to function because of plugged-up scale, or mineral build-up associated with hard water, after only 1.6 years of simulated use - about a tenth the normal life of the appliance. In addition, soft water saved between 40 to 57 percent of energy costs compared to tankless heaters running on hard water.


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