While municipal drinking water is treated before it is pumped into your home for consumption the minerals in this water are not removed. Water with higher concentrations of these minerals is referred to as “hard” water. Minerals are not harmful for humans to consume however they can build up over time in your home plumbing and appliances shortening the useful life of these systems. Many people purchase water softeners to eliminate hard water from their homes.
What is Hard Water?
Two of the most prominent minerals in water are calcium and magnesium. These minerals will adhere to fixtures and pipes when the water they are contained in settles on a surface. You may see a yellowish crust forming on faucets, pipe joints, inside your dishwasher or in your coffee maker. A great DIY solution for this build up is pure white vinegar. It will take care of the build up temporarily but over time it will recur.
The minerals combine with your soap and leave a scummy build up on shower curtains, in your tub and on your glassware in the dishwasher. When this happens the soap is unable to perform as intended and you will see less lather and will have to use more soap to get the job done successfully.
How to Measure Water Hardness
A reading of 7 mineral grains per gallon (or 121 parts per million) is considered “hard” water, though even with lower concentrations, you may still see symptoms such as crust forming in the dishwasher or coffee maker and soap scum buildup in the shower.If you have city supplied water the municipality should have information about the hardness of the water being delivered to your community. Call them or check their website. If you have well water there are kits you can purchase to check your water. These kits will often test for several factors such as the pH balance of your water and bacteria present in your water supply.
How Water Softeners Work
Elements can have positive or negative charges and based on those attractions molecules are formed. For example, water molecules are formed with the positive charge of hydrogen and the negative charge of oxygen.
The two main components of hard water, calcium and magnesium, are both positively charged. Water softeners use a negative chemical attraction to pull these elements out of your water.
Usually, this is accomplished by the use of negatively-charged plastic balls through which the water passes. The balls are coated with sodium ions that have a single positive charge, so they are easily displaced by the calcium and magnesium ions that each has two positive charges. The calcium and magnesium ions cling to the balls, exchanging places with the sodium ions that are carried off by the water.
Eventually, the balls have no more sodium to exchange and the softening process stops working. This is why water softeners must recharge or regenerate regularly. Brine from the salt tank washes over the balls. The mineral deposits are washed down the drain, and the balls are resupplied with sodium ions.
Alternatives to Salt
In most cases the amount of salt that is put into the water via the softening process is not a health issue to healthy people. However, if you or someone in your household needs to have sodium completely removed from their diet you still have some alternatives for combating hard water. Ultimately, you should consult your doctor before making a final decision on how to proceed.
One option would be to install separate piping to your kitchen sink thereby leaving the sink out of the water softening process. You could also use bottled water for consumption instead of tap water. You can also use potassium chloride instead of sodium.
Using Potassium Chloride instead of Salt
If you want to switch to potassium chloride pellets instead of salt pellets for your water softer, you can do this easily. The water softener will run the same using either product. Just replace the potassium pellets for the salt when you refill the unit.
This will eliminate the sodium in your water, however, be aware that there is a significant cost difference in this method. The potassium pellets for water softeners will cost on average three times what salt will cost.