Do you find scaly mineral buildup on appliances that use water, or find it hard to get a good lather in the shower? If that's the case, you might have hard water — so it's time to consider the drawbacks and benefits of a water softener in to your home's water system.
Hard Water vs. Soft Water
As the Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR) explains, falling rainwater is naturally weakly acidic, thanks to the reaction of water and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When the rain falls, it passes through layers of rock, and minerals — usually calcium or magnesium compounds — from the rock dissolve into the water.
If the water in your region has low levels of dissolved minerals, it's classified as soft water. When high levels of dissolved minerals are present, you have hard water.
Both the CCMR and PennState Extension point out that drinking hard water isn't necessarily a health concern. In fact, the CCMR points out that dissolved calcium compounds in water may improve its taste, and can even help with the maintenance of your bones and teeth, and reduce heart disease.
However, some people prefer the taste of soft water and feel it's easier on their skin. Soft water also lathers up more easily. And finally, the buildup of limescale (calcium carbonate) deposits left behind by hard water can make the heating element inside a tea or coffee kettle less efficient and, in a worst-case scenario, can even block pipes.
According to the CCMR, there are two methods for softening hard water. The first, adding calcium carbonate or washing soda, is only suitable for use in limited circumstances, such as softening water before you hand-wash clothes.
If you have a commercial water softener installed in your home, it'll use the other method — ion exchange columns. PennState Extension notes that this sort of water softening system must be occasionally "regenerated," replenishing the ions that draw minerals out of the water. Some systems do this automatically, while others might require you to manually run the generation cycle.
Read more: Side Effects of Carbonated Water
Drawbacks/Benefits of Water Softener
When it comes to drinking softened water, the side effects aren't always positive. The two biggest issues to be aware of are higher sodium intake and lower calcium/magnesium intake. As PennState Extension explains, the process of softening water exchanges those dissolved calcium and magnesium compounds for a higher sodium (salt) content, adding 7.5 milligrams of sodium to each quart of water per gpg of hardness removed.
"Gpg," or grains per gallon, is a way of quantifying water hardness.
This "hidden" salt intake can cause problems for anyone on a reduced-sodium diet, and the reduced intake of calcium and magnesium — both essential minerals that many people don't get enough of in their everyday diet — can be a problem as well.
Although there's not much to be said for the benefits of drinking soft water, it can have some real advantages from the perspective of your household appliances. As the Nebraska Extension explains, hard water interferes with almost every cleaning task, from laundry to washing dishes and even bathing.
That's because the minerals in hard water combine with soap to form a sticky soap curd; in the case of some synthetic detergents, the extra minerals partially deactivate the cleansing ingredients.
The results of hard water in your household range from clothes coming out of the wash looking gray and smelling a little sour, to less lather and increased skin irritation when you bathe, or dull, lifeless and hard-to-manage hair. Mineral buildup can also clog heating pipes, dishwashers and any other appliance where the water is heated, while soap curd can clog any plumbing fixture.
One possible solution? Consider installing a household water softener to protect your appliances and your body, but drink either untreated water or bottle water with an appropriate mineral balance.
Read more: What Do Carbon Filters Remove From Water?