The Evolution of the Water Conditioning Control Valve
By Gary Battenberg
Consumers today who enjoy the benefit of soft or conditioned water for their homes have the advantage of automatic backwash filters and demand-initiated regeneration (DIR) water softeners. These products are manufactured or assembled by various companies and sold to dealers and distributors who provide the finished products to the consumer. Fundamentally, that is the way products have been marketed; however, the operation of the products was nowhere as simple in the early days as it is in our modern times.
Early 20th century
In 1913, the first synthetic zeolite media was marketed by Pfaudler Permutit, Inc. of New York. They produced manually regenerated water softeners where a cap on the top of the tank was removed and a measured amount of salt was poured in for regenerating the softener. After replacing the cap, a lever was used to divert water flow through the valve, allowing water to slowly flow through the salt and down through the media and out to drain. After the brine/rinse cycle was complete, the lever was repositioned to rinse the media of any sodium traces before being placed back in the service position. This early method of regeneration required several hours to complete.
In 1924, Emmet Culligan and Lynn Lindsay partnered and started the Culligan Water Conditioning Company in Minneapolis, MN, with Lindsay being awarded a patent in1925 for his control valve. By 1940, dealerships were established throughout the country and the softeners were simplified, manually regenerated-type, salt-in-head systems. In mid-1930s, the first high-capacity phenolic cation resin was developed. The new resins yielded much higher capacities than the previous zeolite and greensand media, and softeners were reduced in size again, making them more accessible to the middle-class consumer.
By 1950, more advanced softening resin with even higher softening capacity was used in the manufacture of softeners, but still retained the simplified manual controls. Within a few short years, the first semi-automatic, three-cycle control valve was developed that incorporated a twist timer. The consumer only had to set the timer and walk away. The valve incorporated a Venturi for drawing the brine from a separate brine tank and regenerating the resin, then flushed the resin bed to rinse it for soft-water and automatic return to service.
By the mid-1950s, the electromechanical control valve was introduced to the industry and the consumer only had to make sure the brine tank was replenished regularly to ensure uninterrupted soft water to the service plumbing. In the late 1950s, steel-lined tanks were replaced with fiberglass tanks, which were not susceptible to corrosion. Additionally, designer cabinet-style softeners that provided a more aesthetically pleasing appliance appearance were introduced. They required a much smaller footprint and the control valves were threaded into the top of the tank where the original cap was. This eliminated the side-mount piping, making the in/out piping connections more easily accessible. Serviceability of the control valve was more accessible as well.
In the 1960s, five-cycle control valves were introduced that provided better regeneration because separate backwash, brine/slow rinse, settle rinse and brine refill could be individually set, depending on softener size and capacity. These advanced control valves improved the efficiency rating of softeners and reduced salt consumption, while increasing hardness removal capacities.
Late 20th century
In the 1970s, microprocessor-based electronic control valves were developed, which improved the reliability of the automatic control valve of the previous electromechanical type. Demand initiated regeneration (DIR) was available so the softener would only regenerate when the available capacity was exhausted. This type of control was the preferred type specified by assemblers and manufacturers until the early 1990s, when technology made it possible for dealers to provide diagnostics over telephone lines, eliminating many unnecessary service calls due to consumer error or responsibility oversight.
Early 21st century
By mid-2000s, remote monitoring was more practical because of wireless technology that was available, which allowed the homeowner and dealer to monitor the system and send notification when service was required. Remember the TV commercial where the homeowner answered the door and a service technician was standing there? The homeowner told the technician ,“I didn’t call for service.” The technician said, “I know, your softener did.”
By late 2000s, the communication capability leapfrogged again with the advent of Wi-fi. Now dealers and consumers can access the current status of their softeners, drinking-water filters and reverse osmosis system via their mobile phone with an app. These new products can even be connected to home security systems, to notify homeowners and/or property managers of a problem and shut the water off to the home in the event of a leak or frozen pipe.
Additional technological advancements include salt sensors, which indicate low or no salt in the brine tank and sound an alarm when activated. Some control valves now have reversing motors to allow for chemical draw or air/ozone draw to prepare the filtration media for cleaning. Dry contacts for remote sensors and dosing pumps for RO anti-scalant feed and operation of multiport valves for complex systems are available on most control valves for quick and easy interface by the installer. Micro-switches have been replaced with optical encoders so the valve can precisely stop at each cycle for optimal performance. Magnetic field placement combined with 60-cycle electronics has proven very reliable, which is the same kind of technology used by the space program to control environmental conditions on board the space shuttle.
The evolution of the water conditioning control valve has come a long way in the past 95 years and the advancements in construction materials continues to increase the longevity of the valve body and internal parts. Brass valves are becoming a novelty compared to their dominance as little as 15 years ago. There are some very interesting developments by some of the more advanced manufacturers and within a few short years we will see even more advanced technologies applied to the water conditioning control valve. Water-driven control valves have been available for many years and are still in use today, and will be for the foreseeable future. Using kinetic energy to operate the valve is perhaps the greenest technology available.
With the amazing advancements in control-valve technology, there are manually operated control valves still available for customers who are off-grid, where the water is fed from an elevated cistern, which provides the flow/pressure to the home. Still other customers (such as the Amish, who don’t use electricity) can enjoy the benefits of soft water by having a deep-cycle marine battery placed with a solar cell charger and an inverter to convert DC power to AC power for the drive motor. Many electronic valve motors draw around three watts to position the valve piston in place for the regeneration sequence. With the valve internals being hydraulically balanced, the need for pole and reduction gear motors is not necessary for most residential control valves. Comparing valves from 20 years ago to the tiny motors that interface with the gear assemblies currently used, it makes one wonder what type of drive systems are being evaluated and developed for the future.
Many veteran water treatment specialists can remember the days when separate field control panels were needed to provide remote operation of auxiliary controls, using relays and solenoids for control of complex system operations. With advanced microelectronic control valves, supplementary programming within the controller logic makes it simple for the installer or service technician to interface remote components quickly and easily, saving time and reducing installation costs.
About the author
Gary Battenberg, an industry veteran of 38 years, is Technical Manager Water Treatment Department, at Dan Wood Co. His primary focus is training personnel in water testing, application, installation and startup, service/diagnostics and maintenance for the department. Battenberg will be responsible for water system specification for commercial and problem water applications. Previously, he was a Technical Support and Systems Design Specialist with the Fluid System Connectors Division of Parker Hannifin Corporation. Battenberg’s expertise includes the fields of domestic, commercial, industrial, high-purity/sterile water treatment processes. He has worked in the areas of sales, service, design, installation and manufacturing of water treatment systems and processes utilizing filtration, ion exchange, UV sterilization, reverse osmosis and ozone technologies. Battenberg can be reached by phone at (269) 329-0050 or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the company
Dan Wood Quality Home Services Company of Portage, MI is a state-licensed contractor for plumbing, heating, air conditioning, boiler service and installation, well pump service and installation, and water conditioning dealership. The company was founded in 1908 by Wood’s grandfather in Detroit, MI. Today, the company is in its fourth generation, carrying on the family tradition of quality home services with a service vehicle fleet of 35 trucks. The company maintains an A+ consumer rating and provides 24/7/365 service to the local community.