Being smart about water softening can lessen the amount of salt entering local rivers and streams. While most efforts to reduce chlorides in waterways are focused on better winter deicing techniques, salt-efficient water softeners can make a difference too.
How Water Softening Works
Most groundwater in northeastern Illinois is very hard. This means there is a high concentration of minerals, like calcium and magnesium, in the water. Hard water can cause lime scale build-up, damage water heaters, and dry out hair and skin. Therefore, many people turn to water softening to deal with hard water.
Water softeners work through ion exchange. Basically, it swaps sodium ions for the calcium and magnesium that make the water hard. In more detail, the hard water passes through resin beads charged with sodium ions. Calcium and magnesium are exchanged for sodium as the water filters through.
Once the resin beads are saturated with calcium and magnesium, the system must be reset or “regenerated.” At this point, a brine solution (sodium chloride) is flushed through the tank. Sodium ions replace calcium and magnesium ions—and so the system is back to where it was at the start. Finally, chloride, calcium, and magnesium are discarded down the drain and sent to the wastewater treatment plant or septic system.
Environmental Impacts of Water Softeners
Because our wastewater treatment plants do not remove chlorides from the water, whatever water softening product that is added to the tank ultimately ends up in the rivers and streams where the plants discharge treated wastewater. For those on septic systems, the salt ends up in the soil and can pass into groundwater.
Local rivers, streams, and lakes are getting saltier each year. The biggest source of salt entering waterways is from winter deicing products, typically made with sodium chloride or another chloride compound. Yet, water softeners are also a significant source of chlorides throughout the year and contribute to the amount of chlorides coming from wastewater treatment plant discharges.
Saltier water affects aquatic animals and vegetation that are adapted to delicate freshwater ecosystems. Also, for communities that source their water from waterways or groundwater, drinking water is at risk of becoming unpleasantly salty. Because it is very difficult and expensive to remove chloride from water, our best bet is to reduce the amount of chlorides entering rivers and groundwater in the first place.
Alternatives to Brine-Dependent Water Softening
Fortunately, there are options that can decrease the amount of salt coming from water softeners. If you are on a municipal water source, before investing in a new water softening system, check to see if your water provider already softens the water.
Higher Salt-Efficiency Systems
Salt-efficient water softeners use less salt to soften the same amount of water as systems with lower efficiency. Some softeners can be optimized for your household’s needs. Often this means narrowing in when regeneration, the brine wash phase, is needed. Optimizing regeneration will reduce the amount of sodium and chloride that is washed down the drain.
Saltless Water Conditioners
Saltless water conditioners do not use sodium chloride at all. Instead of removing minerals from hard water, they alter the charge of minerals to prevent build-up on plumbing and water heaters. Typically, they use an electric charge to accomplish this. Because these systems don’t remove calcium and magnesium, there is no need to use brine to regenerate the system. If damage to your plumbing is your biggest concern, a saltless water conditioner may suit your needs.
Freshwater is a Precious Resource
Remember that freshwater is a limited and precious resource. We must do what we can to prevent pollutants like chlorides from reaching our local rivers and streams—especially since we currently do not have a process for removing chloride from water in our local wastewater treatment plants.
Thanks for looking at a few options for dealing with Illinois’s hard water. Hopefully, there is an option that fits your household’s needs and lessens the impact on our local waterways.