You have probably come across the concept of hard and soft water before, even if you don’t realize it. But what exactly do these terms mean? And what does the presence of either type of water mean for homeowners?
What is Heavy Water?
These are common questions that deserve answers, especially given that some of the claims made about the potential consequences of having hard or soft water and how they can affect health and property. When water contains high levels of calcium and magnesium, we describe it as being hard. You might recognize that both magnesium and calcium are minerals we need in our diets and which play a vital role in our healthy functioning.
The presence of calcium and magnesium is not a problem in and of itself. However, its presence can change the characteristics of the water. They can change the way that pipes and plumbing in your home react to it. Some of the problems caused by hard water are not noticeable until it is too late, at which point expensive repairs might be needed. Of particular concern is the potential for hard water to cause pipes to become clogged. Hard water inhibits the dissolving of soaps and detergents within the water. This leads to water spots when washing up.
Furthermore, when these substances are not able to dissolve properly they will cause a buildup of limescale within your pipes. This is one of those issues that can be difficult to detect until it has already caused extensive damage.
When limescale builds up in the pipes and water appliances in your home, it reduces the efficiency of water heating. This means that more energy is used whenever you use the hot water and, therefore, you will be paying more than is necessary on your energy bills.
In hard water, soap reacts with calcium and magnesium to form an organic salt of either element. This process reduces the effectiveness with which the soap will work. Many people find that washing in hard water leads to dry and irritated skin. This may be due to a reaction between minerals in the water and any soaps or shampoos the person is using. Similarly, many people find that hard water leaves their hair looking dull and lifeless.
Different people might experience different effects from similar, or even the same, water sources. This is because there are a number of factors that all influence the effect that hard water will have on your home. For example, different quality and age of pipework will react differently to the same water. Some people are fortunate to live in an area where the water is naturally soft and free of minerals. However, for those who live in areas with particularly hard water, there is a clear need for a way of treating the water and at least reducing the mineral content as it enters users’ homes. A water softener is a device which aims to achieve this.
How Does a Water Softener Work?
Given the prominent role that water plays in our everyday lives and survival, you would think that we would have a better grasp of the various infrastructure and appliances that allow us to have it on tap (literally!). The way that a water softener works is an excellent demonstration of relatively simple scientific principles.
There have been chemical treatments around for a while. These involve the addition of chemicals, which react with the calcium and the magnesium in order to render them inert. These can cause their own set of problems – although they are preferable to hard water in many cases – and so mechanical solutions have become the firm favorite.
By using a process called ion exchange, a water softener is able to exchange ions of calcium and magnesium in water for something that will be gentler on our plumbing, most often sodium. In the center of the water softener sits a mineral tank. This mineral tank is full of small polystyrene beads, which are called resin or zeolite, and which carry a negative electric charge.
The calcium and magnesium ions in the water are positively charged. These opposite electric charges create an attraction between the ions. As the water is run through the softener, the positively charged beads pull the negatively charged ions out of the water. By running a very strong brine solution through a tank that has already been saturated with magnesium and calcium, it is possible to displace the magnesium and calcium from the beads through the sheer volume of sodium in the solution. Water softeners contain a separate brine tank, which makes use of common salt to create a brine solution for cleaning the polystyrene beads.
While the water softener is in operation, hard water flows into the mineral tank where the calcium and ion magnesium ions are swapped for sodium. Once the polystyrene beads have been saturated, the unit then begins a cleaning and regeneration cycle.
First, a backwash phase uses water to flush out any loose dirt. After this, a sodium-rich brine solution is carried from the brine tank to the mineral tank. Here, the sheer volume of sodium ions is able to effectively displace the calcium and magnesium that have saturated the polystyrene beads. The sodium replaces the calcium and magnesium on the beads, ready to do the same when heavy water is run through the tank. The solution containing calcium and magnesium is then flushed away and the tank is ready to be used again.
Running the water in your home through a water softener might not seem like it will make much of a difference. However, anyone who has experienced both and has gone from having hard water to soft water will be able to attest to how much of a difference it can make in a number of ways. First of all, there are the practical considerations.
Hard water causes a build up of limescale in your pipes and water appliances. Over time, this will increasingly reduce the effectiveness of these appliances. Reductions in the flow of water and the rate of the heating mean that more energy is needed to heat water and to make use of it. This will translate into increased energy bills; the longer the situation goes on, the worse it will get.
Hard water leads to the formation and accumulation of a substance called curd, which is formed by soaps and other products reacting with the minerals in hard water. This means that you will end up using more soap, as the soap you use will be less effective, and you have to spend more time cleaning your sinks and other appliances.
There are also a couple of ways in which softer water might be beneficial to health. Many people find that hard water is much harder on the skin. This might be due to sensitivity to the minerals within, but it could also be caused by the ways that hard water reacts to many soaps, shampoos, and other cosmetic products. In some cases, this can be more than just a minor inconvenience. Those who are especially sensitive might find it difficult to wash with hard water. Softer water is much kinder on the skin; even those who do not experience discomfort from hard water will find that softer water leaves their skin softer and their hair smoother.
For people with especially sensitive skin, the effect that hard water has on clothes can cause irritation. Much like with your skin, hard water will leave clothes feeling more abrasive than softer water would. Fabrics last longer when they are washed in soft water because there are no hard minerals trapped in the fibers. Many clothes will also retain their color and saturation longer in softer water. They will, therefore, not need replacing as often if they are washed in soft water.
Testing for Hard Water
You may well now be wondering whether you have hard water in your home or not. Fortunately, this is something that you can find out for yourself easily enough. The quickest way is to take a clear bottle or container and fill it with water from your tap. Then, add a dozen or so drops of liquid soap to the water. Some soaps will react with the hard water, but not all will. This test is, therefore, not conclusive. In order to test your water accurately, you will need to invest in a hardness titration kit.
A water softener is an excellent investment for any household that receives hard water. By preserving home appliances and plumbing, as well as extending the lifetime of your clothes and reducing the amount of soap you need to use, a water softener can end up saving you money in the long run. We would all like a way to bring down our monthly energy bills, a water softener can help you to achieve it by ensuring that water is heated evenly and efficiently throughout your home.